On Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, OBI Director john a. powell and law professor Ian Haney Lopez joined us for a livestream Q&A to discuss the chaos in Washington D.C. that week when Trump supports stormed the Capitol Building demanding Congress halt the certification of the presidential election results. The speakers reflected on what led to Wednesday's dangerous events, their significance in terms of the stability of our country and democratic institutions, the race and class politics behind these actions, and what needs to happen for the country to move forward.
This livestream is part of our Institute's #AskOBI video series, where the public has an opportunity to ask our researchers and affiliated faculty questions on the most consequential events unfolding before us. Audience members were encouraged to submit questions in the chatbox for the speakers.
About the speakers
john a. powell is the director of the Othering & Belonging Institute, and a professor of Law and African American studies at UC Berkeley. He authored the foreword to our new volume on Trumpism, called Trumpism and Its Discontents, available for free download here.
Ian Haney Lopez is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at UC Berkeley, and an affiliated faculty member of the Othering & Belonging Institute. He is the author of Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America (2019) and Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (2014).
Emnet Almedom (moderator) is a research and policy analyst with the Othering and Belonging Institute.
Emnet Almedom: Hello, good afternoon everyone. Welcome. Happy New Year, thank you for being here. I am Emnet Almedom, I am an analyst with the Othering & Belonging Institute, a think-and-do-thank here at UC Berkeley, where scholars, researchers, communicators and our community partners work together where all people belong. You are joining us today on this Friday afternoon for our online series that we call #AskOBI where we answer your burning questions and help make sense of the issues facing our world today. We are thankful to have everyone here, joining us on YouTube, Facebook, and wherever you are across the country, or the globe, to process some really remarkable moments we have gone through in the first couple of days of our new year.
I am joined by our director, UC Berkeley professor john a. powell, an internationally-recognized expert in the areas of civil rights, civil liberties, structural racism, poverty, and democracy. Also joining us is Ian Haney López, professor of public law and affiliated faculty member of the Othering & Belonging Institute and an expert on how race and class are used to divide and conquer in the political system.
As we get into the discussion and we get a chance to hear your questions, you’re also going to hear about two books that have come out and we will give you details on these. Trumpism and its Discontents, which includes many contributions from brilliant scholars reflecting on the era we are in. And also, Professor Ian Haney López’ book, Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America. So this work and what they’ve both researched and led us through will be coming into the discussion.
So I’ll say some words to ground us and what we have seen in the past couple of days and, of course, the culmination of honestly what has been going on for years, of course. And so like all of you, we've had, I am sure, late nights, very distracted days trying to get back into work while we experience and process some historic high moments and historic low moments already this year.
So in Georgia where I am actually from and based currently, we did what some thought was completely unimaginable. We had visionaries like Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, Nsé Ufot that led us to organize within our own communities and work with coalitions all across the state and outside with others to fight for governing power that has long been held — especially in Georgia but across the country — in the hands of a select few. We gathered as best as possible in the conditions of this pandemic and the unfortunate economic circumstances that many of us are under. We had car rallies, we had food drives to get food in the hands and on the tables of those who are struggling and who are trying to cry out to our political leaders to listen. And it was really an incredible feat in the face of rampant voter suppression that we have been able to talk about and uncover, especially over the past couple years about Georgia and, of course, while we are in this continued and heightening once-in-a-century pandemic. And that work paid off on Tuesday. As a Georgian, I was beaming for a couple hours that we got to actually have that celebration.
And, of course, though, that joy did get quickly disrupted — although I still maintain and I am proud of my state — but of course that different movement that has steadily been gaining ground reared its ugly head. On Wednesday, Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building in D.C., demanding that Congress halt the certification of the presidential election results. While it was abrupt and disorienting, the storming of the Capitol was born from a steady escalation, as we know, of Trump's rhetoric over the years, including blatantly false claims of electoral fraud, calls for state and citizen violence and years of online disinformation and radicalization. And it’s all in service of a white supremacist agenda that can be traced — right, there's a through line — through decades of American history, both within our constructed borders and beyond them. But despite knowing all of this, I really can't get the images of this week out of my head: a confederate flag carried through the Capitol building, a noose hanging from a wooden beam, the massive crowd unmasked and furious. And of course, we also saw the shocking level of casualness from law enforcement who, in contrast, have brought out armored tanks at Moms 4 Housing’s action in Oakland, tear gas and rubber bullets for protesters in Minneapolis, and in Atlanta just this week a mass arrest of protesters who were protesting in solidarity with Jacob Blake, while white militia who actually stormed the state Capitol Building went untouched. And there was so much that was maybe not seen in the images from Wednesday, think of the resourcing and the history and the role of political elites that might not have physically been present. I know the speakers will dive into the complexities of what happened and what was at play this week.
So I’ve laid out two events for us: the historic wins of communities in Georgia and a shocking insurrection by white supremacists in the Capitol that offered two paths for our country. Trump unsurprisingly has positioned himself squarely at the center of the historic moment even with just two weeks remaining in presidency. So our speakers are going to help make sense of this moment. Of course, at front of mind for many of us is what is to be done about Trump, but also as we referenced in the title, thinking broader: what is Trumpism, what is the lasting effect of what's happened, what does Wednesday's attack mean about this country's institutions, and our yet fresh project of multi‑racial democracy?
Professor powell and Professor Ian Haney López, welcome again. Thank you so much for joining us for the discussion. I am going to be turning it to the two of you for opening remarks for five to ten minutes each and then we will hear from the audience in a Q&A session. So a question to kick us off: Can you explain what Trumpism is, as you reflect on what we have seen this week, and how do race, class, and white supremacy function through Trumpism?
I will turn it first to Professor powell.
john a. powell: Thank you for the question, and for being here and a chance to be here with good friend and colleague’s — Ian’s — company again. And first of all, these are really shocking times and, as Emnet actually mentioned, I am part of the book that was done by colleagues at Berkeley and beyond, edited by Osagie, Trumpism and Its Discontents. It is a couple hundred pages of defining Trumpism and trying to look at its implications; I will refer the listeners to that book. You can get it online for free from the Othering & Belonging Institute.
Trumpism really reflects a whole number of things coming together and being amplified by Trump himself. As you know, the country from its very founding has been founded on contradictions that it’s been tussling with. So when some people try to figure out how did Trump happen, when did it happen, where to did it go back to, we can go back even back to pre‑Declaration of Independence. The country, in terms of the economic system built on, frankly, stolen land and slave labor. And then — I’m sure Ian will talk about this —an effort to separate what would become the white working-class from people of color in service of the elites. That’s taken on different forms, it’s not just an idea.
I’m writing an article and thinking about this now, about the ontological foundation of our discontent. There's an article called “Ontological threat [ed: security],” and the author makes the argument that we actually confuse physical threats and ontological threats — they are not the same. And so one of the things associated with whiteness a certain expression of whiteness is that it gives ontological grounding — even beyond just material ground — to certain populations. And the author argues that when people sometimes do things irrationally, or look at things irrationally, for example when people say white people are voting against their self-interests, and often times correct that.
This article I mentioned, but also W. E. B. DuBois was very clear there's a psychological pay-off in this country for being white. So you might not get a house or healthcare, but you get something. And a good friend of mine, David Roediger wrote a book following up on W.E.B. DuBois called Wages of Whiteness. And he basically talks about: what do you get — not necessarily materially although it may be that — but what do you get in terms of trading in your humanity in a sense, your shared destiny, for whiteness? And in a sense you could say that payoff... and I’ve said this to David, you need to write a new book called “The Declining Wages of Whiteness.” The things associated with whiteness — and I don't mean white people, I want to be very clear, I’m not talking about white people — often times we talk about structural racism and racialization but practice it almost exclusively through interpersonal relationships. They are not the same. So you can literally have people of color who embrace the ideology of white supremacy, white dominance, and people who are phenotypically white not [embrace this ideology]. So we really need to look at both the structure and not just the people.
But what is happening in a sense is what was associated with that construction of white dominance and supremacy is actually being challenged — and it should be challenged, not just for people of color, but for all people. And one of the questions that people are often asked is why would a white person give up their privilege? What do they get in return? The reality is, if we do it right, they get a lot, starting with their humanity. But they also might get healthcare, they might get decent housing, they also might get a response to COVID, they might get an economic system that works.
So it is not that, even though you have something in terms of the ideology of whiteness — especially in relationship to people of color and especially in relationship to Blacks — you didn't get that much in terms of what you needed to really flourish as a human being, nor in terms of elites. Whites were not the elites. The elites were, often times white, but that is not what whiteness is. So I think, as that diminishing of whiteness started to take on more and more expression, partially expressed through just the change in demographics, or the changing position of the United States and the world, in a sense it took a hard turn in terms of racial politics, the racial Other and the immigrant Other became a serious threat. So it’s almost funny, it’s almost like as whites started losing economic status, it was translated into racial hostility. President Obama talks about that some in his new book.
I’ll give two expressions and then I will wind up and turn it over to Ian.
We all now know about the Southern Strategy reflected by [Barry] Goldwater of actually saying part of white dominance was the right to be over and dominate people of color, especially Blacks. So it’s like, you may not have much, but you have more than them. You are not them. Part of your sense of you are — not just what you have — is the right to be over Blacks. In the 1930s, many jobs basically said, even if they were terrible jobs, they would say that a supervisor could not be Black, because you couldn't have a Black over a white. The supervisor's job may not be a good job either, but at least he — and it usually was a he — had it over Blacks, and maybe over women. So when that started changing, then that sense of psychological benefit to whiteness started to go away.
And a couple of things we could have done and we should do, and that is: what is the alternative, what are you getting, what are whites getting and what are people of color getting?
What Goldwater ran on [was the] white resentment as a result of the early civil rights movement, making the civil rights movement — despite King's effort to say otherwise — making it a zero-sum game. If people of color win, it means whites have to lose. Goldwater didn’t do very well, but the Republican Party turned into an art form — Reagan and others. So the Republican Party became really a party of white resentment, and it sort of nurtured that. So that resentment by itself is like diffuse water; you need a hose, you need to channel it to make it powerful and the Republican Party became that hose.
If the Republican Party was the hose, then Trump became a laser. He really channeled that resentment. People will it’s nothing new; it is something new! He channeled that resentment so much that both the elites and many of the rank-and-file whites, if you will, who organized around identity was willing to actually turn over the country. First we cozied up to Russia, then almost the most important thing became that resentment. In the 1960s and '70s, and even under Reagan, it was unimaginable that we would have a close relationship with Russia in favor of white nationalism.
And so I will just stop by saying the conditions that created that in terms of white resentment, in terms of a sense of loss for the people who organize the identity around white identities, those conditions are not gone.
Trump may leave the White House relatively peaceful after his failed coup, but the conditions that created that are still present and we have to address that. We have to actually create a country where there's a greater benefit for being part of something, there’s a greater benefit to being in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-national coalition where there are real resources, than to hold on to the declining white resentment and white dominance.
Emnet Almedom: Thank you Professor powell. Professor Haney López, can you hear us? It sounds like you have been having audio issues. I think we’re going to have to work on that if you can’t hear us yet. Maybe, while we are trying to sort that out on the back end —
john a. powell: Ian, can you hear us?
Ian Haney López: Let me know if my mic works, I am having problems with audio. So it looks like you can hear me, but I can't hear you. This is basically the way that professors love to run their course [laughter] so I will just go with this. So hopefully my audio will return, otherwise, people will have to text me questions.
But I am going to respond to this conversation about, you know, the sort of juxtaposition of the rioters storming the Capitol and also the incredible victory of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia.
Let me start with the rioters and with this idea of Trumpism. I think Trumpism is a potent name for something that really has been fifty years in the making immediately, but then as john suggested, something that is deeply connected to the formation of our society with roots that go all the way back to colonialism and the relationship between colonialism as an economic system and colonialism as dependent upon a racist ideology to justify the expropriation of land for some and the enslavement for others. But really I want to focus on the last fifty years and say, look: starting in the 1960s, in response to the success of the New Deal — I’ll get to the civil rights movement in a second — in response to the success of the New Deal, what we saw was a country through the New Deal, through the long New Deal, came to the understanding that government and the economy should work for the vast majority of Americans. And this is a radical understanding, a break, a departure, from the idea that government and the economy should work for the very rich, where the very rich were themselves a racialized group and a gendered group — whites and men as the ones who are propertied, who are authorized culturally to operate in the marketplace, and authorized politically and culturally to engage in self-rule. The New Deal really challenged that, especially in terms of a much broader conception of the middle-class. But the fundamental idea there, government should work for most people, the New Deal from the 1930s understood that ‘most people’ had to include African‑Americans and there was over those three decades — through the 1960s — slow, steady progress towards a greater and greater inclusion of African‑Americans and other people of color within this broader mobilization, and this broad multi-racial coalition.
The Republican Party, the political elites, one faction of the Republican Party comes to understand that if the country is to return to a system at which government primarily works for the rich, it will not do so based upon direct appeals to class dynamics. That is, it was simply that there was no way in which the Republican Party or somebody like Barry Goldwater could stand up and say, “You know, the rich are really different, they’re better, they deserve to rule, we should support the rich, we should support programs that are good for the very rich, and we just better know what society should be like.” We should understand that that had been a common intellectual, ideological framework for decades, for centuries. We still see remnants of it now — anybody who reads Ayn Rand, for example. Ayn Rand is not just about individualism, it is about the rich being special individuals who should rule society and all the rest of us being leeches and moochers. So that ideology is out there, but there’s no a way to win power if you’re naked about that sense the rich are a better class or people and deserve to structure society for their own interest.
So instead what happens in the 1960s is the rich say, “We are with the people,” but it is a racialized sense of ‘the people.’ It’s a sense of we are going to stand with whites against African‑Americans, against others who are promoting racial equality and racial integration. There was a sense by Barry Goldwater that would work — it would be a Southern Strategy and it would only work in the South. But then Ronald Reagan used it to win election in 1966 in California, Nixon tried it in '68 and really leans into it in '72, and people realize this is national, this is going to work across the country. And incrementally, slowly, you see this transmogrification of the Republican Party in which each generation is more aggressive in terms of relying on racial demagoguery and, at the same time, constantly under threat to being primaried and replaced by yet even more extreme figures. So you can go from the moderate Richard Nixon […] and his sort of hard hats, and then you go to the Reagan Democrats and the [Newt] Gingrich revolution, then you get to the Tea Party and then you get to Trumpism. And now even Trumpism it turns out is too moderate. You look at people like Brian Kemp who was a Trumpist when he was elected — too moderate — being challenged by Trump himself but also voters that are supporting QAnon candidates.
That is Republican Party has promoted a lie for fifty years that says “whites are under threat of being replaced in this country by people of color, stand with white folks.” And it is not just the Republican Party. They have been backed by the billionaire class who have in addition funded a propaganda machinery — whether it is Breitbart or Fox News or frankly a lot of the thinktanks like American Enterprise [Institute] or Heritage [Foundation] — that also promote a combination of racial resentment and economic policies that favor rule by the rich. This is the sort of informational, cultural milieu that Trump has weaponized and that stormed the Capitol and that’s on view.
And I want to say just one thing about policing because this is really important. A lot of people are saying, “Well look at the disparity in the policing, the way that police respond to Black Lives Matter versus the way that police respond to white nationalist, Trumpist supporter.” That is not a function simply of cultural racism or within the police forces themselves. Instead, that reflects the way in which policing has been constructed for the last fifty years by politicians who are promoting a racist rhetoric that says, “Fear dangerous people of color, control them, protect civilized society (read: white folks) from dangerous, menacing people of color” — and it can be African‑Americans as ‘thugs,’ it can be Latinos as ‘illegal aliens,’ it can be Muslims as ‘terrorists.’ but that rhetoric of “We need the police to protect the civilized against the savage,” that is who the police have been asked to become by our political leaders! So that’s what they become.
If there's a demonstration to protest the brutal killing of a Black person, the police understand that their role is to treat Black people and to treat people protesting for racial equality as a threat to civilization. Whereas when there's a protest to say “we want to protest democratic victories, we want to protest threats to white dominance,” the police understand that they have been asked to take a hands‑off approach to white nationalism, to white resentment, to white rage. It is not just a cultural thing, it is: who is the leadership, who are these public safety unions, and who is their main client? The main clients are politicians like Donald Trump, politicians who promote stories of racial fear and racial threat.
Where then is the hope? There is a tremendous amount of hope that we should take from the work of Stacey Abrams and the election of Ossoff and Warnock, not just because Democrats won in Georgia but because of how they won.
For the last fifty years, as Republicans have been mobilizing race as a class weapon, Democrats have been largely stymied. Democrats have largely concluded they need to back away from civil rights and they needed to back away from the labor movement, that their main constituency was going to be white suburbs, white moderates, Wall Street, and coastal elites. A lot of the Democratic Party is still there, and for that Democratic Party, the route to power in a place like Georgia would have been to run a white moderate, sensitive to Southern racial sensibilities and tepid in terms of economic policies.
But Stacey Abrams' insight was different. Stacey Abrams’ insight6 was: you can mobilize a great swath of Georgians — starting with but not limited to communities of color — people who haven't seen a future for themselves in terms of political participation but who can come to understand that participating politically in a multi‑racial coalition is the way to win power for all Georgians, white, Black, and Brown. That was Stacey Abrams’ vision.
And I think that, in a way, Warnock and Ossoff because they are progressive but also — and this is really important — because they linked their fates, they ran together, they didn't run separate campaigns, but ran often literally hand-in-hand, they embodied the idea — and it’s an idea that john mentioned — that all of us, including whites, are better off rejecting racial fear as a way of organizing our lives and instead embracing cross-racial solidarity to make sure we have a government that works for most people rather than for the one-percent.
Emnet Almedom: Thank you. I hope you can hear us now. That was incredible to hear both of you go through the history, historically what led us up to this moment, and in particular these comments of how race has been mobilized across different political factions and this new beginning that we are moving towards.
I think now we are actually going to move on to some questions from the audience. I think this one we’re about to pop up on really transitions well from what you were talking about. There’s more than just the individuals who are actually on the ground conducting the riots, insurrection, whatever we want to call it. There is definitely a discussion that needs to be had around who those people are and how they are going to be personified by the media and by everyone. In particular this question is great because it’s helping us to think about what was at the background and who inspired what happened.
This is from Efua Andoh, thank you so much for your question: How do we restore the faith in our process of holding not just those who rioted accountable but also those who incited and fomented this violence? On a similar vein, there's a question from Nina Cestaro: Is Trump liable for inciting a riot on Capitol Hill and how can the police force that were on duty be accountable for this act of terrorism? So feel free for either of you to take that question, but we’re thinking about what are the pathways for accountability and also, I think in this last question, it’s raising a debate that I’ve definitely seen around what do we call what happened — thinking about the language of terrorism or insurrection. I’ll turn it over to whoever wants to answer.
Ian Haney López: So let me start [by saying], I think that it is very important that we clearly identify the culprits here in terms of Donald Trump, in terms of the Republican Party, frankly, in terms of the propaganda machinery that stands behind Trump and behind the Republican Party. Look, in some ways, it is a mistake to blame the Republican Party because they are trapped too. They have unleashed a monster they can’t control. Every one of the Republican political officials is liable to be primaried the next time they are up for election by somebody who is even more willing than they are to pander to racist demagoguery of the sort that is being promoted 24/7 by Breitbart, by Fox News, by Sean Hannity, by Rush Limbaugh, by Laura Ingram, by QAnon. The Republican Party has very little institutional strength compared to the power of the billionaires who fund them and fund the right-wing thinktanks. They are trapped too, those folks.
I don't say that to excuse them. Somebody like Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley, they know exactly what they are doing and they have made the decision that in exchange for power for themselves, they are willing to be racist demagogues who shatter the democracy. They should be condemned as such. But that doesn't mean they have the power themselves to stop this. The locus of power here is more with the billionaires, the thinktanks, and the right-wing propaganda machinery, with the Republicans being a mouthpiece that are themselves enmeshed and entrapped by the system.
I say all of this because I want to convey the sense that the rioters — yes, arrest and prosecute — but don't mistake the rioters as the core of the problem and don’t condemn Trump supporters in blanket terms.
I traveled across the Southwest. The rural Southwest from California on — when I say the rural Southwest, I mean once I left the Bay Area — it’s nothing but Trump signs out there. The culture is a culture of Fox News, it’s a culture of the Republican Party, it’s a culture of white evangelical churches. There’s this complete propaganda envelope in which people are operating that constantly reinforces the idea of racial threat, racial conflict, of a looming race war. Some people are able to reject that, some people are able to see through it. Most are not.
Yes, prosecute the rioters, but let's be very clear: the main responsibility for this is the Republican Party, the cynical leaders like Donald Trump himself — a deeply, deeply cynical, manipulative, power-hungry individual enabled by other deeply cynical, power-hungry, elected officials Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, those folks — but operating within an milieu of a propaganda system funded and promoted by billionaires and ultimately beholden to the billionaires, doing the work of those billionaires, massive tax cuts, deregulation, stripping of the environmental protections, keeping open the economy even though this is a tremendous threat to the lives and well-being of workers, ensuring that corporations will not be liable for exposing their workers to COVID. That's the government we have now. That's where the main blame lies.
Sorry, let me just try and make this more pithy.
We should condemn racism, not primarily in terms of a problem of white people, but primarily as a weapon of the rich against all the rest of us that promotes white racism as a strategy to achieve rule by the rich. Condemn white racism, identifying the main problem as the strategy of the rich to foment racism, rather than suggesting that the main problem is somehow white people in general.
Emnet Almedom: Thank you for that, Professor Haney López. We will pass it to you, Professor powell, as well. The same though here: what does accountability look like? How are you thinking through that question?
john a. powell: Well, I agree with what Ian said. First of all, we are still in the middle of this. We are still processing it. But to just add some context: we just had an election, Trump got the second largest number of popular votes in U.S. history, somewhere around seventy-two million. Now the good news is Biden got the largest number, somewhere around eighty‑plus million. That's a lot of people. So part of the way to understand this is the country is deeply, deeply divided — you could call it almost a tie. That division is not going to go away quickly. That division is actually curated and nurtured and shaped. It is not just people coming to those decisions; some people are working to try to amp up resentment, hatred, fear, as Ian said, for political strategies. But you also have to remember, we have eighty-two million who have rejected that. Let’s not forget that.
And as you sort of talked about, Emnet, we have Georgia. Georgia is huge. It’s the old South. First of all, hats off to some of my colleagues at the Othering & Belonging Institute that worked tirelessly both in the general election but also in this election in terms of education, in terms of getting out the vote, working with most of the major groups in Georgia, in an environment where people said “It can’t happen, you are not going to win one, let alone two Senate seats.” It is a long shot. I have been saying to people when people say to me, “It is a long shot,” [I say] “Yeah, but we have Steph Curry on our team and Stacey Abrams on our team. We make long shots.” Hats off to them, hats off to the people in Georgia, hats off to the majority of Americans who stood up.
There’s a complexity that I wanted to tease out a little bit. Ian made the point that the Democratic [Party] apparatus, the official apparatus was slow to the game in terms of investing in Black organizing and Black voters. That was Stacey's genius of [pushing back] and saying the majority of democratic voters in Georgia are Black — the majority! I have talked to some Democratic folks that said, “They are not reliable, we can’t count on them.” So who will we count on, Trump voters? Stacey, without denigrating white voters, said “We have got to activate this group.” And she did that. She registered them, she changed laws, she was out there. The Democrats eventually came online, it was a whole lot of money coming in.
So part of this is making sure that everybody participate, everybody has a stake in the game.
What do we call what just happened in Washington? One of the people on my staff, Josh [Clark], actually sent something out this morning to see what Europe is calling it, the European intelligence community is calling it. What they are calling it is a coup — not a demonstration, not a riot. This was an attempted coup. The evidence is still coming in. I’d like to be somewhat measured and not hyperbolic, but this looks like a coup.
The way to understand it is not through people storming the door, but by the police response. Why were they absent? Not simply, why didn’t they beat up the rioters, the mob, the way they did when people were demonstrating for racial equality. I don’t want to suggest that police should not be beating people more; they should be beating people less. But they weren’t there. There were a number of offers from the National Guard, the Pentagon, “do you want help?” “No. We don't need help. We got this.”
And so the intelligence community who says, “Look, we trained with Americans. We know what American's police community is like. We are not looking at this from a distance. There is protocol. None of that protocol was followed.” That decision is not made by the people on the ground. That decision is made fairly high up. And so whether it was explicit or tacit, there was an agreement not to defend, not to protect. It is amazing. This is the halls of our government. You can understand them, given our history, [the police] not protecting Black people and not protecting gays — but this is not protecting the Vice President, not protecting Congress, not protecting the Senate. Who has enough power to say, “We're not going to protect a huge power source in our democracy?” Someone very high up.
So this should be understood, I think, there’s a good reason to believe this was an attempted coup and Trump played a very significant role in it. This was the first time since 1814 that the Capitol has been breached. Since 1814! The last group that did it was the British in the War of 1812.
The police apparatus could have stopped that. There was an offer to stop it, the offer was denied. Why? So there is something going on. This is deeper than just angry white people on the street coming to a rally. There is something more to this, especially when you add to the point that this was not a secret. Everybody knew. It was broadcast online. “We're going to go to the Capitol and get wild.” “I am carrying my guns.” It wasn’t a secret. You didn't need spies to figure out what they were going to do, and yet we didn't respond.
When I say we are still in the middle of this — I have mixed minds about should Trump be impeached. One thing that is interesting, the impeachment process once it starts does not necessarily stop on January 20th, it can go on afterwards. That is a whole 'nother question. But I do worry because we keep thinking that Trump will hit rock bottom, there is nothing else he can do, and then he does something else. He knows no bounds. So will he start to attack Iraq, Iran? I think we have to worry about that as a country in order for us to go forward, look forward, and particularly for Biden. We need to get Trump, at least capping him in, or getting him out of there. With less than two weeks left, [inaudible], in two weeks Trump can do so much damage and we know that many of the seventy-two million people will continue to support him.
The country is — and I think this is partially what Ian was suggesting — the country is actually teetering and possibly breaking at a structural level. It is not just stopping people from being racist, it is not just implicit bias training. There is something more fundamentally wrong and the opportunity is more fundamentally progressive. So Georgia represents a possible future; the coup represents a discredited past. So both of those questions are on the table at the same time, and the country is split down the middle. So the question is: how do we actually animate that future and reject that past? That's the challenge before us. We can’t do it by focusing on a narrow concept of bad acting by racist Trump supporters. It is more insidious than that.
Emnet Almedom: That was wonderful to hear both of your takes on this, thinking about what does accountability actually look like, what is the continuation go to look like. At the beginning of this or at the title we were saying, “Is this the end of Trumpism?” You are both alluding to and making clear that we should expect and understand the continuation of what we're seeing. Even [with Trump] finally having conceded yesterday, this is only the beginning and I think that ties strongly to what you both are saying. We are teetering. There's a divide between us and there is there's something calling people on to this other side. We need to understand what it is that is calling them to that side.
And so one of the questions that has come up, we’ll have it on the screen in a second, I think is a great transition to think about what else is there to offer? What is the alternative that can be offered up? And how do we make that more appealing, the more inclusive, and the more genuine option? Thinking about what people are really going through and what are the options on the table. We are talking right now in a binary because that is how the system is set up. But there are other options, there’s people who are looking at even a move away from electoral politics and what are the different options within the communities — not to vouch for either. To think about the fact we cannot continue on this way, that’s the big take-away for me: there has to be a change, but in what direction and in what way?
The user name ryoknits — I’m not sure if I’m saying that right — says it very plain so I’m going to read it out: Given that the Democratic Party has leaned on being the “less crappy” party for decades, what do you think will happen if they don’t make bold progressive moves in the next few years?
I think that ties really well to what you both were talking about, that it’s not just about the candidate, it’s about the political apparatus and the infrastructure that those like Stacey Abrams and others devoted time to building out and is specifically thinking about the work of Reverend Warnock and the fact he came from the pulpit of MLK's church. This is deep, deep work and connections to people and to our experiences.
So I will turn it to you all. What do they need to do? How do they make something of this moment?
Ian Haney López: So let me start by saying: I am not sure this was a coup, but it is in some ways it might be more dangerous than a coup. Coups often involve some element of the police or the security state, and I think there was a failure on the part of the security state here. But I think the failure on the part of the security state is one that is longstanding. The police, the FBI, the intelligence community have been ordered by political leaders to disregard threats of white nationalist violence. That’s been long standing. There's a political legitimation of violence from the racial right that has been longstanding, and I think that's what happened here too. The Capitol Hill police essentially understood that they were prohibited from viewing Trump supporters as dangerous and threatening even when they were bragging about their lead pipes and their automatic weapons.
So, if it is not quite a coup, what is it? I think it reflects something that is long-term more dangerous, and that is that for fifty years, the wealthy and billionaires have understood that the way that you hijack a democracy is by purposefully breaking social solidarity. And so that is what they have been doing. They have been purposefully stoking racial fear, racial conflict, racial division. And it is not just race. Their culture wars are also about gender, about gender identity, sexual identity, about disability, about religion. But at every turn, you see the billionaires and the ideological machinery, the propaganda machinery they control, stoking social division until we've gotten to a point when a near-majority of Americans feel they would be better off circling the wagons to protect their community — even at the cost of sacrificing democracy! And I think we see that in the immediate response to the riots and in the invasion of the Capitol when you still had a hundred‑plus Republican representatives saying, “we will vote in a way that endorses the idea that the election was stolen.” You see that when almost half of Republicans in a quick poll say they support the invasion of the Capitol.
What that means is nearly half of Americans have been convinced that in order to protect themselves they need to sacrifice democracy. This is the slide away from democracy, this is the slide towards authoritarianism that is in some ways slower and harder to stop than a coup which is “Okay, here is the coup, here are the plotter, here is the military intervention.” Coups often succeed in a day or two. We are in the midst of this deep slide.
And now to flip it around in terms of solutions: focus not on progressive policies, focus on a message of solidarity. That’s the most important thing that can be done. Democrats but also unions and foundations, higher education, K‑12, the Department of Education. We need to recommit to the idea that democracy only works in a context of felt social solidarity. We need to promote that social solidarity. That will require progressive policies because you can’t have social solidarity when people are dying of a pandemic, when people can’t get healthcare, when people can’t get shelter, when they can’t get food. You can’t have solidarity when the organs of government are turned to violence against particular communities, be they immigrant communities or African‑American communities. We need the progressive policies that take care of people, but they have to be explained and they have to be promoted in the context of a proactive effort to create social solidarity.
The right has destroyed social solidarity for fifty years. The only thing that the Democrats can do now that can change the trajectory of the country is to actively promote social solidarity. And I say change the trajectory of the country because — I have to be clear — on the one hand, I’m optimistic that were Democrats to embrace social solidarity in the vein of this incredible transformation in Georgia, that could potentially herald a new day for the country.
But I am worried.
I am worried that at the national level, the Democrats remain committed to a sort of a moderation and incrementalism and collaboration [and] cooperation with the Republicans sort of vision in which they will not promote social solidarity. And if they don't, then we will continue to teeter or we will fall into something that is much closer to civil war as people remain convinced that their safety and security depends on circling the walls and taking up arms against their neighbors.
Emnet Almedom: Professor powell, I will turn it to you to respond to the same question. What are the paths forward and what do the Democrats need to be investing in and thinking of?
john a. powell: Well maybe not surprisingly, I agree with much of what Ian said, although I would disagree on the question of a coup. I think it was or a coup, or a good chance it was a coup. I don't think a coup happens in one day. In fact, when we look at the history of coups, they usually have a long tale and then an event happens; we focus on the event but it’s not just something that happens overnight. And again, I would just turn our attention to people that studied coups around the world and that’s what they are calling this.
This was not just a culmination, from our perspective, of white solidarity against people of color. This was the halls of Congress at the time they were trying to ratify and certify the election, and they are being instigated by the President and his minions, and some of his minions are calling for violence. And, at the same time, it is not just that they [the police] were were quote-unquote “outmanned” — they decided not to be present. Not to be present. This is not just the police apparatus because you have the Department of Defense and the Pentagon saying, “Do you need help? We are willing to help you. This is what we do.” And they say no. This looks extremely unusual.
Anyway, the jury is still out. To your larger point though, I don’t think it is over. It didn't start this week and it is not over this week.
When Trump was running in 2016, the question was put to him, “If you lose, would you accept the other party?” Trump refused to say he would. He has been saying for over four years that, “I will not accept any outcome where I am not the winner.” He has been saying this for a long time. He has been stoking this for his people, “If I lose, it is because someone cheated. The only way I can lose is the system is rigged and somebody cheated and we cannot afford that. How do we know who cheated? One, I lost; and two, too many Black people voted.” Right after he was elected president, the first thing you do, “I want a commission on why so many Black people voted — not why they didn't vote.” And twenty-four states engaged in some kind of voter suppression with no evidence of voter fraud. It’s like, “We have to get Black people, Latinos, young people off the voting roll.”
So I agree with most of what you said, Ian, I think we approach the issue of coups differently.
And I also want to go back to Michael Omi. Some of you have read it, Michael and Howard Winant wrote a book called Racial Formation [in the United States] — it’s a classic now. They assert until the sixties, the United States was what they call “a racial dictatorship.” Not a democracy but a racial dictatorship where one race dictated the lives and circumstances of the other race. And the civil rights movements in a sense [triggered a change] — and maybe it started with the New Deal but the New Deal didn’t go far enough because it left much of that in place — and that the disturbance of that racial dictatorship is what really unleashed the new expression of white resentment. … Think about this: there was no Confederate flag at the Capitol during the Civil War. People are showing up with a Confederate flag, they are showing up with the losing side of the most deadly war in the United States saying, “This is what we stand for.”
Now how to fix it, again, I agree with much of what Ian said, but I want to add two other things.
Georgia is really instructive. There's a good article out about Black people voting Democratic, Black people tend to be the most robust and consistent supporters of Democrats. And the article is written by a guy who is a captain — I think — in the Army [ed: he is a retired naval officer] who is Black. He says, “Why is that? Blacks are not necessarily automatically progressive. We, Blacks, have a range. Biden got it wrong, it’s not just Latinos that are diverse; Blacks are diverse, too. So why do we keep voting Democratic? We didn’t [always], we used to vote Republican.” And what he is saying that because Blacks are voting against a racial dictatorship, once you take it off, then Blacks will be distributed like any other group across the political spectrum.
So I guess I just want to tweak a little bit how we talk about progressives. Emnet, you suggested we talk in binaries; I think we have to stop talking in binaries. Binaries make it hard to have that kind of social solidarity that Ian was talking about. And we see this a lot, not just on the right, but on the left. So if we think about the discussion about policing right now, it’s actually used oftentimes to split not just whites and people of color, it’s used to split the Black community itself. We have to have the space where we don't label someone a progressive or conservative and say, “If you are a conservative, you’re out. I am a progressive.”
And what happened in Georgia, there’s a question: were those two Democratic candidates progressive enough? To some extent, the issue was irrelevant. What they did [is that] they talked in plain language; they talked in ways that people could engage; they talked in terms of social solidarity.
So I want to encourage us to be careful of what we call ‘breaking language’ in which we create our own small ‘We’ and everybody else is on the outside; we exercise no humility because we think we have figured it all out. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have values. I’m saying we have to be willing to listen. We have to be willing to engage with people. We have to be willing to do something we call ‘bridge’ and really hear people’s suffering and pain regardless to who they are. It doesn't mean we have to agree with them. That's the kind of social solidarity that then gets translated into programs and into policies that I think is the way forward.
I will end by saying this: on the left here in the Bay Area, we are very much willing to say, “We need a coalition of people of color” — which I agree with, more than a coalition — but it has to not just be people of color. We need to actually extend ourselves to white people, extend ourselves to Christians, extend ourselves to groups who don't make up our own little community. Not only find common ground — create common ground but also to hold on to each other's humanity. Will we then win, whatever winning means? I don't know. But if we don't do that, we will definitely lose.
Emnet Almedom: Thank you both. I will be wrapping this up in a moment. Everything that you’ve gone through and helping us to see the thread of history throughout all of these questions and things that we are grappling with right now, and thinking specifically around this question of social solidarity and what is takes to achieve. It is still something that I am trying to stew in, of what does that mean in my day‑to‑day life, what does that mean in my interpersonal relationships and also in the type of political or organizing or intellectual work that I participate in. How do I carry that out in my daily life? And I think that's a question that many in the audience may have.
So I will leave us with this last bit to wrap us up in a few minutes, if you could give us one thing, one action, to consider as we think about how do we actually carry that out, that goal towards social solidarity, in our own lives. And it could be, [to] look at some book that you have read, or someone you really admire, or some sort of source of information that you would point us to, or an action. How can you help ground us in our own lives; how do we actually carry that through.
Ian Haney López: For my part, I have written a book Dog Whistle Politics analyzing racism as a weapon of the rich. I wrote a book called Merge Left talking about what solidarity looks like when we really pivot. But what I really want to emphasize is another resource I have put up online, it’s called race-class-academy.com. It is a series of twelve very short videos that try and break down all of these ideas and build them one on top of the other. And what is the core contribution of race-class-academy.com? This is what I really urge people to do, and it requires sitting with it and reflecting on it, mulling it over, trying it out. But it is a paradigm change in how we talk about racism.
What is the paradigm change? Almost everybody now thinks about racism strictly in terms of white supremacy or white over non-white hierarchy. I think we need to understand racism as primarily a weapon of the rich that seeks advantage by fuelling white over non-white hierarchy. That is, don't just stop with the white over non-white hierarchy — look behind it. Who is promoting it? Who is funding it? Who benefits foremost from it?
This is a huge ask, because on the one level, you can get it. On another, it has very dramatic implications for how we create solidarity, and the most dramatic implication is this: we create social solidarity not simply out of values — though those are important — we create social solidarity out of pragmatic necessity. The wealthy few, the greedy rich, the billionaire class are trying to shatter social solidarity. If we want to protect our own family — of whatever race, whatever race we might be — if we want to protect our family, we must pragmatically build social solidarity.
And I think just to bring it back to Georgia and Reverend Warnock. This is Martin Luther King [Jr.] late in the civil rights movement with the Poor People's Campaign where he says we’re not going to have racial justice unless we also fight consumerism, unless we also fight militarism, unless we also fight imperialism, unless we also build a broad multi-racial movement of working families precisely because the systems of oppression and extraction and power are interwoven. We must have a solidarity, and that has to be understood first and foremost as a pragmatic response to the real threat all of us face — and not just all of us — but the real threat our planet faces which is a greedy few running the marketplace, running society, you know, transnational trade in the interest of their pocketbooks and a disregard of the health and welfare and dignity and environmental survivability of the planet.
Emnet Almedom: Thank you. I will turn it over to Professor powell to wrap us up here.
john a. powell: Thank you, thank both of you. This is a wonderful question. It’s been a great hour, it’s gone fast for me at least.
We are called the Othering & Belonging institute; we focus mainly on the United States but we also have a significant foot print in Europe, some little work in Latin America, increasingly looking at Asia. We share the planet with the planet. We are part of the planet, so we all believe that we all belong. So how do we think about a world where not one group dominates another group, not a zero-sum game, but where everybody belongs? What does that mean not just in terms of psychological or emotional space but policy and practice? And I’m not anti-corporate, but I believe you corporations and the economies need to serve people — not the other way around. So at the institute, we do a lot of work — in fact, I would say the majority of our work tries to lean into this question.
And I’ll just throw out one thing that will be a little bit maybe hard to grasp in the few minutes we have.
We shifted from the narrow focus of equity — just looking at the disparities between people — to targeted universalism — to set universal goals for it every group. And the reason that’s important… I was chair of Population Health in southeast Michigan for ten years. One of the goals there and across the country is to close the gap between white men committing suicide and Black men committing suicide. And the good news is that gap has substantially closed — but not because Black men are killing themselves less, but because white men are killing themselves more. And people say, “Well that’s not exactly what we are talking about.”
So what are we talking about? We set our goals only in relationship to a group that was considered the more favored group. I was on a call earlier this morning about closing the racial wealth gap. Well when people say that, they are not talking about closing the gap between Bill Gates and the rest of us. They’re talking about, again, a more favored group — white working-class — and Blacks, Latinos, and Native populations. And that gap is important. But I would say even the white groups don’t have what they need. So when we just focus on scarce resources and pit people against each other, it creates an atmosphere of breaking. And [with] targeted universalism [we] can say, “This is our aspirational goal for all of us.” But we recognize we are not situated the same, so we need different strategies to get there. That becomes a way of talking about bridging.
And then of course there's a moral component. You asked for some of the work we’ve done, but also you can think of people like Reverend [Dr. William] Barber. We are inextricably connected, and as [James] Baldwin says, some of my countrymen find that unfair — “I don’t want to be connected” — but we are connected. We should building bridges and not walls.
One of the questions that came in the chat that I’ll just answer was about the term ‘ubuntu’ which is a South African word — the translation is not simple — but it means “I am because you are.” We are connected. How do I live that in terms of the way we think about taxes, in terms of when we think about the pandemic? We see huge disparities. That is a concern because that’s saying, “Those people don't count.” We say every life, every person counts.
I think that a lot of people are grabbing for that, looking for that. We need leadership. The jury is out, but that to me is our work and that's our goal.
Emnet Almedom: Thank you both so much to help us end on this theme of interconnectedness and the duty and ownership that we have amongst ourselves. I think both of you did a wonderful job also of bringing the earth into this — thinking beyond just as humans who are thinking through our political system, our technology, all real challenges — and yet thinking what is around us, think what is below us, and what is actually keeping us alive. Thinking through an interconnected vision beyond humanity and into our earth. I really appreciate that.
Thank you both for the time today. I thank everyone in the audience for joining us. We’re all still processing so much from this week. We hope this has been a chance to take on some new thoughts and process your own emotions and political thoughts in this moment.
Thank you again, thanks everyone for being here. We've included links throughout to different resources, whether it’s books or some of the different programming that Professor Haney López directed us to. We thank you for joining us and hope to continue doing these. Thank you again to our two speakers for your time and your insights.
john a. powell: Thank you for the beautiful moderation.
Ian Haney López: Thank you so much to both of you.