May 7, 2020
I liked your Trump voters piece (Part Two)1 very much and agree with much of it, especially the relevance of the Arendt and Harry Frankfurt lines and the idea that many Trump voters cling to Trump in a kind of defiant shame, half-knowing they made a mistake but compelled to dig down in order to save face. But it’s exactly that point I would cite to argue that they’re not the monolith you fear they are. The Trump constituencies seem more fractured to me: the rich people who vote Republican for financial reasons, evangelicals who reject the current Democratic absolutism about abortion, opioid-devastated communities who got the correct impression that while Hillary could spend a solid half hour talking about Black Lives Matter in a debate (giving the impression she was walking on eggshells the whole time), she wouldn’t say a word about the opioid epidemic ever.
Plus Trump ran as a moderate, anti-Iraq War Republican who was supposed to give everyone health care. Surely some voters were attracted to these positions. I thought your Part One article was brilliant, with invocations of charisma, ressentiment and the lure of white supremacy—but I do think many of his fans are more mixed and less fanatical than that. Did they fear immigrants because they were fervent white supremacists or because they were afraid their jobs might disappear?
You’re absolutely right of course that right wing media traffics in blatant lies much more than the liberal mainstream, which hardly ever lies blatantly. But the liberal mainstream does it differently, by not talking about issues that actually are issues. Remember that a big majority of Americans of all political stripes and all races say that political correctness is a problem—that’s a significant poll result. Most (by far) late term abortions are not the result of detecting severe birth defects, but women who are traumatized by alcohol or drug or sexual abuse, their own or others’. That might be a good reason for the procedure, or it might be a bad one, but why cover it up unless you fear the discussion? The cover up is a form of elitist information control that I do think is widely resented. Leading Democratic Senators, Warren e.g., ARE in favor of decriminalizing border crossing to the US. Some instances of affirmative action DO create injustice. The Obama Biden Title IX regime destroyed students’ lives without any semblance of due process. On this last one, the mainstream has finally shifted so that DeVos’s recent reform was presented fairly in the Times. But in general there is an awful lot of censorship about what liberal social policies actually involve. Remember Obama’s great early speech on race, where he said that he supported affirmative action, but he realized that some whites suffer as a result? (He could have added Asians, of course.) That’s the kind of honesty that people aren’t getting from the mainstream media, and as a result—I think as a result, though you will probably disagree—the right wing extremists take over. The alternative view is that there is simply something white supremacist at the core of the US and we can always go back to that as the central motive behind any opposition to policies endorsed by the liberal establishment (of which I count myself a small part, by the way). I’m not so sure we can really trust that POV as a mode of social analysis, or as a way of understanding the Other…
June 6, 2020
I see that it was May 6 when you wrote me, exactly a month ago. Seems like a century, doesn’t it? How time flies when you’re having one bloody crisis after another. But I’m grateful for your attention, and now that I’ve finished a draft, at least, of my memoir, will try to respond in like spirit.
First of all, I did not mean to say that all Trump voters share the same mentality. Of course there were several different streams of them. But “many” Trump voters, as you say, have doubled down in the time-dishonored spirit of cognitive dissonance—what I called the core of roughly 40% who stick with him through thick and threadbare, through lies and sneers and viciousness and more lies and sneers and viciousness, for which there is never any intellectual excuse, however one might approve of some of Trump’s views, or criticize HRC’s blind spots (of which there were many). I suppose some of his voters might have been so ignorant and credulous as to expect that he was going to give everyone health care, though.
If Hillary never said a word about the opioid epidemic, that would have been shameful of her (and stupid politics to boot), although a Google search discloses, among other items, this: https://www.vox.com/2016/9/21/12973740/trump-clinton-opioid-heroin-epidemic/ Of course putting the opioid crisis on her long website issue-list was by no means adequate. But I doubt she ever sneered at its victims the way Trump sneered, and worse, at his legions of enemies. I suppose if one were inclined to believe that Trump’s views on the Iraq war in 2016 were what he falsely said they had been, and looked no further, one might be said to be innocent to a fault—but still, I would limit the excuses I extend to Trump voters who took seriously, sometimes with press collusion, that he could be trusted as a reliable narrator of his own history.
About opposition to immigration, I’m no expert but am sure the motives are many and often mixed. Polls are tricky to interpret, to be sure, but in these poll results from the fall of 2018, for example, I note that “a strong majority of respondents (70 percent) said that the idea of being welcoming of people from different cultures was “very important,” while of the same sample, “53 percent” said they thought immigrants “made America better”—so there’s quite a discrepancy right there. (So more than 20% of the welcomers didn’t think “immigrants make America better”?!) “Just 14 percent said they thought immigrants made America worse in the long run”—but again, if you think immigrants damage your job prospects, or your income, you might be less than willing to declare that motive for opposition to a pollster. There’s quite a range of opinion available between fervent white supremacy and fear of losing jobs.
About political correctness, I don’t doubt that Americans at large dislike it. They don’t always dislike the same thing, but I don’t want to niggle. I have strong feelings of my own about the habits of cant and dogma, and much sympathy with Bob Boyers’s account in his recent book. For myself, I wrote a whole book (The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars, 1995) on what was valid and what was not in the charge of PC—and took plenty of incoming from the left for saying (as I once put it in a review of D’Souza’s Illiberal Education in the LA Times) that sometimes things are true even if Dinesh D’Souza says so. (Cf. Don Marquis of Archy & Mehitabel fame : “An idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe in it.”)
The mainstream press is surely biased pro-choice—if memory serves, Eric Alterman convincingly established as much in his book What Liberal Media? Some straight reporting on reasons (stated and unstated) for late-term abortion would be welcome. (Whether the right-wing press has been more accurate on this score, I doubt, but confess I don’t read much of it.) Surely the mainstream press looked favorably upon same-sex marriage and transgender rights rather early—though whether earlier or later than their educated readership and viewership, I don’t know. Surely a general sort of class tilt is recognizable on the part of the mainstream. Whether, on the other hand, Warren’s or others’ declarations that they favored decriminalizing border crossing characterizes the views of journalists, I doubt. And I seem to remember lots of good, fair reporting on abuses of Title IX throughout the mainstream for a good number of years now. (Here, I detect a significant generation gap, with my vintage of folks, including pioneer feminists, criticizing the trampling of due process while some of my strongly feminist students in a class a few years ago couldn’t care less.) As for affirmative action, I don’t know what to think a priori, and would have to look at research on how it (and its abuses) have been treated in the mainstream. That there have been abuses, I don’t doubt (and wrote about some, in fact, in my 1995 book).
As for what is probably the nub of the matter, whether “there is simply something white supremacist at the core of the US,” I think there is—as there are also countervailing forces present for centuries during America’s tortured history. (A history that, I should add, is not necessarily more tortured than that of any other nation. As Gary Younge was just yesterday writing in the New York Review, smug Europe exported its victims to the colonial lands, while they were forced to make their home in America long before it was actually America.) We can agree that to find some indiscriminate, unvarying white supremacy across the board to be “the central motive behind any opposition to policies endorsed by the liberal establishment” is intellectual bad faith. You have to ignore huge swaths of American history to ignore the conviction of racial equality that threads throughout.
I must say that the huge white as well as African-American turnout in the “I Can’t Breathe” marches of recent days makes me all the more (though still guardedly) optimistic that the torturous American past can be made far more past than it was a year or a decade ago.
Looking forward to your reply.
All the best,
June 12, 2020
We live in interesting times, no, even though we barely leave the house! I’ve delayed replying to your letter until now because I was so eager to see what would happen next, as I observed the heartening mass protest movement that seems to have taken over the country in the wake of the George Floyd murder. What you said to the New York Times reporter Thomas Edsall strikes me as just right: this is a very promising moment. The protestors are demanding some real, attainable reforms, like the banning of chokeholds by police, an end to no-knock warrants, and the repeal of 50a in New York, which shields police officers with disciplinary infractions from public scrutiny. I’d like to say that weakening the power of police unions is an achievable goal, but I’m not so sure.
Police have a veto power: if they start doing their jobs half-heartedly and refuse to protect the public, local governments may cave in and give them the budget they want. I hope I’m wrong on this.
I haven’t yet read your 1995 book, Todd, but I will now. I have the hunch I would agree with much of it. For me the problem with political correctness is that it alienates people who would otherwise be sympathetic to just causes like, to stick with the subject of the moment, police reform. In the last few weeks we’ve heard many calls to defund or abolish the police. (Defund seems a deliberately ambiguous word, designed to confuse us.) There’s been much naïve reporting on the issue from mainstream journalists. People in Minneapolis armed themselves, we are told, for defensive purposes when the police abandoned their precinct and protestors set it on fire. They did perfectly well for days without a police force. Hahrie Han’s op-ed on Minneapolis contains this key sentence, suggesting that armed bands of vigilantes will do much better than any police force: “Some groups organizing to protect local businesses had to arm themselves, but their focus was on defense.”
Groups of people arming themselves? Include me out on this one. Radically scaling down the role of the police might have potential drawbacks. Underpolicing African American neighborhoods in Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death has led to a large increase in Black-on-Black crime (an issue that seems unmentionable these days, as if to mention it would prove one a racist—see John McWhorter on this). https://www.thedailybeast.com/antiracism-our-flawed-new-religion
The protests have extended beyond the issue of equal justice and an end to racist policing. They are protests against racism. Anti-racism is, as John McWhorter wrote five years ago, the new American religion. Since anti-racism spurred protests against police brutality in more than 400 American cities, I’m all for it, in that respect. But anti-racism as it’s practiced by the campus left and the media and K-12 education these days is also often (not always) a species of magical thinking. Ritual gestures, involving the mention of certain facts and not others, are taken as self-sufficient warrants for progressivism. “If everyone only knew this…!” But everyone does know. The ones who don’t know don’t want to know, and they never will. (Should I call them the Incorrigibles?)
We are reminded over and over that Black families have vastly less inherited wealth than white families, and that a history of redlining has hurt Black net wealth. Actually, the overwhelming share of the household wealth gap can be traced to the difference between the top 10% of Black and the top 10% of white households; the bottom 50% of US households show only a 3% difference between Black and white wealth. (https://www.peoplespolicyproject.org/2020/06/29/the-racial-wealth-gap-is-about-the-upper-classes) (Full disclosure: I am a white person who inherited no property when his parents died, but instead a total of about $15,000.) The rate of Asian American poverty is higher in New York than African American or Latino poverty. There is an unasked question here about how to connect rates of poverty with success or failure in society.
We have seen the alarming statistic that a Black male from the top 1% of the American wealth spread is more likely to wind up in jail than a white male from the bottom 30%. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2018/03/19/race-class-debate/ This is such a shocking fact that it feels like people are explaining it away, rather than accounting for it, when they once again ritually repeat the one-word nostrum “racism.” One wants to learn much more about those African American youth from the 1%: certainly they have to be called privileged, even though they may suffer from everyday racist slights. Correcting the effects of racism can’t be done simply by calling it out, decrying it. One has to study those effects.
Magical thinking implies that all one needs is a raised anti-racist consciousness, and since all that stands in the way of progress is racist structures, consciousness will cause them to wither away. All academic institutions have to do is hire minorities in sufficient numbers, we’re told, but they haven’t done so because of institutional racism. But colleges and universities have for many years tried mightily to hire minority faculty. I don’t know of any colleges or schools where this goal is not at the very top of the list. There are simply not enough minority job candidates. Since minority faculty are a top priority everywhere, and since demand far exceeds supply, we have an obvious problem: not the institutions, but the marketplace. But this problem largely goes unmentioned. Instead, we are meant to think that changing people’s consciousness via anti-racism will solve such inequities. I’ll leave it to you, Todd, our best historian of the Sixties, to say whether a comparison with levitating the Pentagon is in order.
Yes, it can’t be denied that white supremacy is at the core of American history. Here, though, the exact formulation matters a lot. “At the core of American history” is not the same as “at the core of America”: the latter phrase, to me at least, implies that we are still and always ineradicably racist. And so we are asked to recognize that fact, to achieve, if not absolution, at least some spiritual uplift (McWhorter’s point).
The dark forces are out there, busily being stirred by our malicious charlatan of a president. A sizeable chunk of white America responds to such resentments. But the hardcore racists are not enough by themselves. Trump won the election because he was able to put together a coalition of Evangelicals, who were interested in court appointments, along with the anti-immigrant and racist sections of the white middle class and working class, plus the wealthy, who were counting on another Republican tax cut (which they got, of course). These are very different constituencies, and at the moment it doesn’t look like Trump is holding them together.
What makes an effective authoritarian, which Trump is not, is the ability to win over different parts of society, including people who have misgivings about the leader, and bring them together. A temporary coalition of the willing, of the kind that brought Trump into office, is not the same thing as a united movement.
Peter Fritzsche’s new book Hitler’s First Hundred Days is very good on why people reconciled themselves to the early days of Nazi rule. How is Trump unlike Hitler?: let us count the ways. Hitler was able to convince people who had reservations about him to approve of his regime anyway. Many Germans who disliked Nazism and Hitler also liked the Third Reich, at least before the wars started. These people may have balked at sending Communists and Socialists to concentration camps, clamping down on press freedom, or (less commonly) they may not have cared for Hitler’s constant stream of Jew hatred. But they did like the law and order, the social programs, the sense of togetherness and communal purpose. They were being released from chaos, endless street battles and rampant crime. Life had really been transformed, many old Socialists and Communists grudgingly admitted. Hitler appealed to different strata of society: workers, wealthy capitalists, the middle class.
A pandemic featuring massive unemployment and radical uncertainty about the future should be an ideal for a wannabe authoritarian. This is Trump’s Weimar Republic! But, and we have to be grateful for this, Trump simply cannot bring himself to unite people and provide order.
In the face of pandemic and protests, Trump seems to be hoping for more chaos, because he thinks that chaos provides the best opportunity to blame other people and cast himself as the leader who would have solved these problems, if only governors and mayors and other officials had done what he wanted. The American people would then look to Trump as the strong leader who could rescue them. But since he hasn’t done that up to now, it’s a rather weak case.
Trump’s strategy is transparent, and it smacks of desperation. Anything could happen, and prophecy is a mug’s game, but I have the hunch that he will be the underdog through the summer and—fingers crossed—in November.
All best, David
June 16, 2020
A sociologist I’ve known since high school, a specialist on race, immigration, and related demographics, congratulated me when I published The Twilight of Common Dreams in 1995 for turning the tide against the hard forms of “identity politics” on campus. (All by myself?!) Even at the time I thought this claim of victory was decidedly premature. For reasons mounting with every passing day, many of which were cited in Bob Boyers’s brave and disturbing The Tyranny of Virtue, the censorious, puritanical streak not only on campus but throughout the culture—in particular, newspapers, journals, museums, and, as you say, K-12 education—has gathered force. And this is all the more tragic at a time when popular sentiment in favor of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo has won the support of huge majorities.
I wrote recently about the grievous psychology of sectarianism—its lust for martyrdom, indeed for the righteousness of defeat. Here we go again. All the more apropos in the light of the recent gathering of Twitter mobs to punish the thought crime of circulating research that somebody doesn’t approve. (I won’t go into detail here because I’m quite sure that by the time we go into print there’ll be plenty of later incidents to note and deplore.) To choose an example from 2017, it’s a matter of principle to permit Charles Murray to speak on campus; he is not Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos, he makes arguments; I vividly recall the awful moment when, on my way to hear what Murray had to say at Columbia, not long after he (and the political scientist who’d invited him to speak at Middlebury) were quite literally mobbed, I saw somebody holding a sign on Broadway: “NO FREE SPEECH.” Swear to God, I thought: Now I’ve seen everything.
So for me the problem with what I’ll agree to call political correctness (recognizing that the Trumpers like to lump condemnation of Nazis into that category) is twofold: principle and strategy. You write: “For me the problem with political correctness is that it alienates people who would otherwise be sympathetic to just causes like, to stick with the subject of the moment, police reform.” I go with John McWhorter too, but would distinguish between sectarian forms of religion (e. g. the moral panic at work on the left) and the more general and defensible forms of devotional feeling that deserve respect. I think it’s bad that racism becomes a loose, omnibus charge—magical thinking, as you say—but desirable that claims of racial superiority are tainted; also good that it’s no longer possible to honestly deny that race-based policies have privileged whites. In particular, the promotion of drastic inequities in wealth through housing discrimination policies can no longer fly through by default, unexamined. (The text that deserves to be canonical on this is Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, on how racial segregation has been enshrined in law and policy for decades; and by the way it’s a delight to see it on the Times bestseller list this week.)
I’m not much of a policy person so I can’t comment on proposals by, among others, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden for erasing the race-based disadvantages that were inscribed in granite long ago without convincing the white majority that doing so constitutes yet another unfairness. In-deed, magical thinking cannot erase systematic distortions in institutional policies, let alone, as you rightly insist, a warped marketplace. This is where much damage has been done by the unexamined assumption that “racism” is just a synonym for “prejudice.” In a brief fit of optimism I’ll commit to thinking that such sloppy thinking has been dealt a huge blow by the recent police killings, in particular that of George Floyd, and we’ll see how irreversible this collective learning will prove to be. Conceivably we’ve turned a collective corner to recognize that white supremacy is at the core of American history—which is not to say that there’s nothing else to America, God knows. Frederick Douglass would never have said anything so ignorant.
Back to the malevolent forces out there, “stirred by our malicious charlatan of a president,” who will not go quietly. I agree that “the hardcore racists are not enough by themselves. Trump won election because he was able to put together a coalition of Evangelicals, who were interested in court appointments, along with the anti-immigrant and racist sections of the white middle class and working class, plus the wealthy, who were counting on another Republican tax cut (which they got, of course).” If in fact the coalition is coming apart, thanks to the multiple whammy of the pandemic, the consequent recession, and Trump’s grotesque ineptitude and contempt for knowledge, we’ll see whether the Republican Party can survive a landslide defeat intact. I can see arguments for both yes and no. But even the 35-to-40 percent chunk of the population that would rather lose with Trump than win with some hypothetically moderate successor to Trump will continue to contaminate our politics for the foreseeable future. They can win states, divert attention from urgent social needs, and use lots of tricks to secure their victories with vote suppression, gerrymandering, and other varieties of fraud. Fortunately, there’s no Hindenburg here to cement Trump’s consolidation of endless victory. The recent revolt of the generals is another hugely welcome sign that Trump’s government is a WWE version of the Third Reich. Not a paper tiger but a spent force.
My hunch is yours—that this grotesque caricature of the worst in America is headed for defeat and deserved humiliation. But eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.