Ian Boyne | Charlottesville and Donald Trump's America
The events of Charlottesville last weekend and the reactions to them dramatise the paradox of America: The violence of the white supremacists shows the stubbornness of racism, but, most decisively also, how much public opinion has swung against it.
What was surprising was not so much that white supremacists had come out in the day without hoods and black clothing - especially after Donald Trump had given them legitimacy - but that the revulsion to them and their hate forced even the unapologetic nativist American president to back-pedal from his refusal to name the haters originally, bowing under pressure to do so. Not even the incalculably narcissistic Donald Trump could resist the firestorm of criticism against his objectionable "both sides" statement of last weekend.
Of course, the leopard could not change his spots for long, and by Thursday he was true to form, tweeting that the attempts to remove Confederate statues and monuments was "foolish", saying: "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments." These symbols of hate and oppression; monuments of shame and savagery Trump treasures as "beautiful statues and monuments".
To him, as a xenophobe and white nationalist, Confederate generals like Robert Lee, whose monument is at the heart of the Charlottesville white uprising, are heroes. For Trump, as he tweeted, "the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never to be comparably replaced!"
But a CBS poll found that 55 per cent of Americans disapprove of Trump's weekend response to Charlottesville. Only 34 per cent approve. But among Republicans, 67 per cent approve. His base is happy, emboldened. Leading Republicans might be opposed to him, as well as leading business leaders, but grass-roots Republicans feel happy that they can take back their country from the multiculturalists and Jewish interlopers who control the media and Hollywood.
You have to understand white working-class rage in light of what they perceive as increasing marginalisation. They feel threatened. They like Trump for his political incorrectness, his unwillingness to engage in dog-whistling, and his explicit defence of white America. It is not just a matter of hate. It is a reassertion of white power; a reclaiming of white privilege, a reaffirmation of white culture.
Those who see it as simply hate and senseless rage are missing a big point and have not been reading the scholarly literature over the last few years that have depicted the growing disillusionment of the white working class and white rural folk. They feel disenfranchised. One of America's finest foreign-policy scholars, Walter Russell Mead, in the March-April essay in Foreign Affairs ('The Jacksonian Revolt'), writes: "Identity and culture have historically played a major role in American politics, and 2016 was no exception. Jacksonian America felt itself to be under siege with its values under attack and its future under threat. Trump ... seemed the only candidate willing to help fight for its survival."
Mead explains that these modern-day Jacksonians - named after former American President Andrew Jackson who had an 'America First' outlook - feel they are being "attacked by internal enemies such as an elite cabal or immigrants". White supremacists and nativists want to be able to celebrate white culture with pride - just as they say blacks and other ethnic groups are free to celebrate their history and culture. They feel it is unfair that they have to be in race denial and political correctness while Black Lives Matter advocates and black nationalists, feminists and gay people can celebrate their identities.
They play the victim card and are now rising up for their rights, too. Enough is enough, they are saying. They have elected a president to advance their interests and they are now coming out of the shadows. "Many white Americans find themselves in a society that talks constantly about the importance of identity, that values ethnic authenticity ... for everybody but them."
If you want an excellent history of racism in American politics, I recommend Harvard-educated professor, Ian Henry Lopez's book, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. An excellent work exposing racism in American society and a stirring critique of colour blindness - which was also promoted by Obama, too. The myth of a post-racial America and the virtue of colour blindness was exploded last Saturday in Charlottesville.
Obama, an advocate of this narrative, once said, "I can't pass laws that say I'm just helping black folks. I'm the President of the United States. What I can do is to make sure that I am passing laws that help all people ... ." Lopez shows brilliantly in his book how this liberal post-racial narrative ends up harming black people and jeopardising their interests while refusing to reverse historical harms.
Well, Obama might have been diffident about helping his own peoples, but his successor is not about advancing his people's interests. Charles Bethea, in an article on the New Yorker's website titled 'What a White Supremacist Told Me After Donald Trump was Elected', quotes the white supremacist as saying, "I think now we have a president with some of the same ideals. Now that the Jews own the majority of the media stations, they're showing things that are against God's law, like race-mixing and homosexuality. We are for family and for God. We advocate for living separately in America. We are a benevolent, fraternal, Christian, white civil-rights organisation. We see our race and our heritage going away and being harmed by intermixing with these mongrel races. It has to stop."
And hence Trump's victory. He is the protector of those "beautiful" monuments to slavery and black genocide. The white supremacist points to another sad truth in this tale of American racism: the connection between Christianity and racial oppression. That's not just historical. Racial identity politics and anti-black feelings are still shared more among white Evangelicals (mainly baby boomers) than by others. Incidentally, there is a connection between the millennials' disaffection from Christianity and their more open, progressive views on race.
In fact, let's look at this historical figure of Robert Lee, who is at the centre of the Charlottesville white uprising. Who was he? A very Christian gentleman. He wrote: "The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa and morally socially and physically. The painful discipline they are enduring is necessary for their instruction as a race and I hope will prepare them for ester things." Hear this: "How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influence of Christianity than the storm and tempests of fiery Controversy."
In an article on the Atlantic magazine website of June 4, Adam Serwer quotes Lee as saying in a New York Herald interview that "unless some humane course is adopted, based on wisdom and Christian principles, you do a gross wrong and injustice to the whole Negro race in setting them free. And it is only this consideration that has led the wisdom, intelligence and Christianity of the South to support and defend the institution up to this time".
This is the man whose "beautiful" monument is being supported by President Trump. Serwer quotes correspondence from General Lee as stating that, "You will never prosper with blacks and it is abhorrent to a reflecting mind to be supporting and cherishing those who are plotting and working for your injury ... our material, social and political interests are naturally with the whites". Lee's monument is a symbol of this white defiance and white nationalism. The people who were out in Charlottesville last weekend were, indeed, walking in his spirit.
Trump bears full responsibility for exhuming the ghost of Lee. In a strident editorial on Trump, the respected Economist magazine says in its August 19th issue: "Far from being the saviour of the republic, their president is politically inept, morally barren and temperamentally unfit for office." Ouch! "Mr Trump has neither skill nor self-knowledge and this week showed he does not have the character to change." God save America!