by Tom Sullivan
Humans' capacity for self-delusion is so boundless it is a shame it cannot be harnessed as a power source. Adam Serwer provided a short course on it this week at The Atlantic. Or rather, a tour de force in deconstructing the economic anxiety explanation for last November's election and our current crisis of nongovernance.
It's not that economic anxiety does not exist, but as a one-dimensional explanation for Trumpism, it is sciolistic, lazy and, Serwer would argue, a dodge. Money is fundamentally about power, as is politics. It's about who has it and who doesn't, about who is up and who is down, and, since we feel the need to, about how we measure ourselves against others. Even if we have no money to count.
At 10,000 words, "The Nationalist's Delusion" is not a quick read, but an important one that highlights a flicker of promise in the long fight against racism in the body politic. Most people, even many racists, do not want to think of themselves as racists. Public opprobrium and the vestigial capacity for shame still has at least that much heft.
During the final few weeks of the campaign, I asked dozens of Trump supporters about their candidate’s remarks regarding Muslims and people of color. I wanted to understand how these average Republicans—those who would never read the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer or go to a Klan rally at a Confederate statue—had nevertheless embraced someone who demonized religious and ethnic minorities. What I found was that Trump embodied his supporters’ most profound beliefs—combining an insistence that discriminatory policies were necessary with vehement denials that his policies would discriminate and absolute outrage that the question would even be asked.In fact, supporters of candidate Trump thought themselves antiracist, "as people who held no hostility toward religious and ethnic minorities whatsoever—a sentiment they projected onto their candidate."
“North and South agreed that laborers must produce profit; the poor white and the Negro wanted to get the profit arising from the laborers’ toil and not to divide it with the employers and landowners,” Du Bois wrote. “When Northern and Southern employers agreed that profit was most important and the method of getting it second, the path to understanding was clear. When white laborers were convinced that the degradation of Negro labor was more fundamental than the uplift of white labor, the end was in sight.” In exchange, white laborers, “while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.” For centuries, capital’s most potent wedge against labor in America has been the belief that it is better to be poor than to be equal to niggers.This is perhaps the heart of Serwer's essay. The argument that conservative voters are "voting against their best interests" is one I have condemned time and again. Besides suggesting they are stupid while asking for their votes (who is stupid?), it presumes maximizing their financial well-being is the primary driver behind their political allegiance. It is not. Power is. And if it is not power in the form of money, they will settle for what Du Bois called a "psychological wage."
If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.Candidate Trump gave white voters from across the wealth spectrum a rogues' gallery of Others he promised would lose. Thus, would America become great again.
Trumpism emerged from a haze of delusion, denial, pride, and cruelty—not as a historical anomaly, but as a profoundly American phenomenon. This explains both how tens of millions of white Americans could pull the lever for a candidate running on a racist platform and justify doing so, and why a predominantly white political class would search so desperately for an alternative explanation for what it had just seen. To acknowledge the centrality of racial inequality to American democracy is to question its legitimacy—so it must be denied.If there is one thing at which America is exceptional, it is denial.