The following is a chapter from Trumpism and its Discontents. Click to download a PDF of the book here.
By john a. powell
The problem with contemplative reflection on this current American political and societal moment is regarding it as exactly such—as a moment. Too often, Donald Trump’s rise to the office of president of the United States is boiled down to a single point—a momentary lapse of judgment or the culmination of a period confined to rising tensions independent of long-standing patterns and trends with through lines to the country’s past. When the accepted premise is that the journey toward justice is an inexorable and linear progression, power and dominance—and individual autonomy to either sustain or resist structures of power and dominance—are obscured. Moments of cultural reckoning then end up being rendered anomalous, ruptured from a history, described and understood as a temporal singularity. Any analysis that lands at this conclusion is thus a misinterpretation of the troubles and times in which we now live. Donald Trump did not come out of nowhere. He is the product—whether or not he is the culmination is up to us—of a long fomenting and incubating project. He and the politics he represents are a part of a time-weathered struggle for power—for the right to dominate—over identity, over who belongs.
Trump’s politics, strategy, and rhetoric can be traced to President Nixon’s Southern strategy and to George Wallace’s demagoguery which dates back to the Civil War, Reconstruction and Redemption. Even as Wallace staked out his platform on defending the South’s right to defend its formalized, racially hierarchical society, his battle cries brought him significant support throughout the industrial Midwest (even reaching the level of a Michigan primary victory in his 1972 bid for the presidency). This region is a prominent seat of Trump’s political base, and his and Wallace’s rhetoric bear striking resemblances. Wallace capitalized on the political backlash against civil rights gains for Black Americans and other people of color, promising to shore up the cachet of white identity for a group of people feeling a sense of economic and social loss. Wallace’s insulting and disparaging language targeting Black people, his calls for violence, and his sympathy for a forgotten people are mirrored in Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, his strongman calls for increased police use of force, and his demagogic anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican slander and policies. During his 1968 presidential run, Wallace lamented, “It’s a sad day in this country when you can’t talk about law and order unless they want to call you a racist,” words Trump echoed decades later by proclaiming himself the “law and order candidate.” Couched in terms that imply standing up for and protecting the white working class, calls for law and order actually represent a violence toward and repression of intruding people of color for the purposes of drawing hard lines of division, giving shape to the “other” and the “we,” and generating a value in whiteness for a group eluded by material gains. Contained in these words are not only a promise of violence but also a reassurance that bolstering white identity through the dehumanization of others is a legitimate and reasonable political proclivity.
This context needs to be understood in order to democratize power, to do away with dominance, to reinterpret the self, and to expand the circle of human concern to all including the earth and non-humans. If the rise of Donald Trump is not grappled with critically, we will not release ourselves from the social corrosion we are all acutely experiencing. The work will be difficult—for many reasons, the least of which is not that it demands a look inward. We must reconsider who we are and who we think we are, and think more carefully about how we have tried to answer those questions through the creation and exploitation of othered beings instead of by searching for ourselves in relationship with those believed to be the “other.” If we are to together forge a society in which a Trump phenomenon would not be possible, the conversation must be contextualized on these terms. This interrogation is not just about Trump but about America from our very beginning. This is the groundwork on which to build effective solutions and courses of action. The essays in this volume are urgently needed to advance this effort.
Much of the dialogue attempting to describe and diagnose the current political environment advances the idea that the divisions plaguing society are tribal in nature. This line of argumentation suggests that the United States is composed of equally situated and equally influential adversarial factions at odds with one another. Another version of this same argument focuses its attention on the polarization between the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States Congress and extrapolates their incapacitating antagonism toward each other to the entire country. There are a number of issues with this reasoning. The first is that the political divide in Congress—the so-called conflict between the red and blue tribes—is not a form of tribalism at all but rather a symptom of a gridlocked political system increasingly incapable of meeting the responsibilities of governance necessary to manage today’s global economy. Calling the broken nature of Congress tribalism masks the strategic and intentional capture of the government by and for corporate interests. The global economy demands the weakening of labor and environmental protection laws and the constriction of the social safety net to feed its insatiable and rapacious craving for ever-greater profit. National corporate tax rates are dodged and avoided with the use of tax havens. Countries are left with very few policy options to reclaim the fleeing revenue to reinvest in their populations. From the perspective of the global corporate elite, there is no home nation. A sense of allegiance does not exist. The only commitment is to profit and self-enrichment. Communality, a devotion to the people, the institutions, and the infrastructure of the country that multinational corporations call “home,” is scoffed at and dismissed. The elites have transcended the nation-state, and having limited use for it, have sought to disentangle themselves from it and diminish its influence except to protect its interest. Consider the government’s fight over intellectual property on behalf of the elites. Multinational corporations that depend on unaccountability and the ability to dictate—as opposed to obey—the internal policies of nations do not want a competent government system. Adherents to the doctrine of neoliberalism do not want government competing with the market for control over the public sphere. Domestically in the United States, the polarization of Congress has less to do with a form of tribalism than it does with elected officials placing fealty to their corporate donors over their responsibility to legislate.
However, corporate capture of the country’s legislative apparatus is not the only force at play driving partisan recalcitrance. The politics and politicking of the last half century have created conditions for extreme partisan divides in Congress. Prior to the Great Society reforms and the passage of civil rights legislation during the Johnson administration, both the Republican and the Democratic parties had liberals and conservatives within their tents. This ideological diversity within each party allowed for cross-party coalitions and compromise. Bipartisan legislation was possible because there was greater ideological overlap straddling the party labels.
Following what was seen as unacceptable encroachment into social and material status reserved exclusively for whites through the legislative advances of the 1960s, conservative Democrats bent on preserving white racial hierarchy allied with the wing of the Republican party representing corporate interests. This coalition pushed a narrative linking regulation of economic excesses and the provision of previously denied rights to people of color under the header of the government’s overreach into arenas of life in which it had no business interfering. Stemming from this realignment was the ideological consolidation of the two parties. Since the Civil War, the United States had three parties; Democrats, Republicans, and the South.
The South’s major issue was racial dominance of Blacks. The South aligned with the Democrats for many years under the banner of “Dixiecrats.” After the civil rights movement’s success in passing a number of laws and challenging formal Jim Crow, Dixiecrats moved to align with the Republicans. This created tension between moderate Republicans and the Dixiecrats. Eventually the Dixiecrats being the anti-Black and anti-immigrant wing of the Republican party were able to consolidate under an anti-Black pro-white nationalist and pro-corporate banner. They became the conservative white people’s party. This coincided with the rise of the Tea Party, but this became more robust under Trump.
As gerrymandering techniques have become more sophisticated, polarization has intensified as districts are now drawn with ever-greater precision around ideological, homogenous voting blocs. Very few incumbents are now challenged from the other side or from the middle. Elected officials are now more vulnerable to facing an opponent from the extreme wing of their party, what’s known as being “primaried.” These factors have led to an environment in which politicians and their parties are more polarized than the population is. The tribalism analysis is also inaccurate in its definition of tribalism as equally situated antagonistic factions. This framework decontextualizes the relational positionality through which society’s tensions are occurring.
The problem being misidentified as a politics of tribalism is actually a politics of breaking. Breaking is used here to describe the dynamic process of constructing the stories and practices that mark certain people as being outside of the “we”—that is, outside of the group of people who see themselves as one. Those within the “we” receive and regard themselves as deserving of the resources and spoils of society and concoct stories that justify their belief that those outside the “we” are different, undeserving and possibly a threat. These rationales, which not only explain the logic in denying the “other” but also simultaneously create the “other,” are the practices that constitute breaking. Breaking is often used to constitute a small exclusive “we.” And this has become a central strategy of Trump that takes the country beyond the bounds of neoliberalism. The formation of a demarcated group defined as being outside of and irreconcilable with the “we” is the process of othering. It is the making of a group whose identifiable characteristics are imbued with social meaning that firmly separates its members from the “we.”
This explanation of group relationship may sound like tribalism, but it differs from that concept in several important aspects. Put in different terms, othering is “a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities.” The crucial difference between tribalism and othering is evident in an analysis of power’s impact in determining group positionality and relationship. The tribalism perspective relies on a false sense of group symmetry. But the other is constructed for the purpose of establishing an exclusivity around social access and advantages as well as creating an identity of worthiness and superiority for the in-group—the “we.” What we are experiencing in the United States is not equally situated fractured groups but rather the dynamic of breaking centered on the distribution of power. The othering that is occurring is for the purpose of maintaining and sharpening dominance by strengthening the in-group’s sense of identity through the restriction of social capital, access, and benefits for those on the outside. Dominance in the United States takes many forms, including Christian, male, cisgender, and heterosexual dominance. But its central and foundational manifestation is in the form of an ideology of whiteness fueled largely by anti-blackness.
By extending the misreading of political polarization as tribalism to all societal division, the function of power is removed from the understanding of society’s fault lines. The application of the term tribalism allows its purveyors to subsume tensions resulting from racial hierarchy and subordination under the category of disputes based on political ideology. It also understates the role of the elites. This action is a conflation of convenience because it excuses a serious interrogation of white racial hierarchy as well as self-interrogation about one’s location within this arrangement and one’s unearned advantages that may be accruing because of it. This attempt to wrap together racial dynamics and divisions along lines of political ideology is also a product of white identity construction.
Writers like Edmund Morgan, Steve Martinot, Michael Omi, Howard Winant and Theodore Allen explain, through the example of group formation and cohesion in colonial Virginia, that in order to forge a bond that would hold the enslavement-based economy and society together, the landowning elite enlisted the free labor working class of European descent in slave patrol efforts. The slave patrols involved instances of unrelenting violence and terror directed against the enslaved African population, but they also acted as the source of group unity, peace, and stability in the formation of a new group that bonded the elites to the working class, joined under the banner of whiteness. Through the exclusion of enslaved Africans from the colonial polity, working-class whites accepted their materially disadvantaged socioeconomic position to be a part of the body politic built around white identity. Whiteness gave them a reason to accept this arrangement. Therefore, it can be argued—as W. E. B. Dubois and Martinot do—that whiteness and the formation of a white class structure depend on the exclusion, on the othering, of Black people and other people of color.
This understanding of the formation of not only white identity but also the white socioeconomic class structure is what is lacking in the tribalism analysis. Even though it is assumed that when issues of class are being invoked people of color are fully included and represented in such a deliberation, in order to maintain the white in-group’s implicit understanding of class arrangement and its commitment to the current economic order, people of color must be to an extent constituted outside of that vision. The concept of working class came to be seen as an ideological stand in for white. So class in the United States was racialized from its inception as described by David Roediger‘s work, Wages of Whiteness, the title playing off a central frame developed by Dubois.
Here, at this location, lies the problem with conflating the racial grievances of people of color with the political ideology battles that are labeled as tribalism. Disagreements about left versus right and the role of government in wealth redistribution are mostly differences in opinion about class relationships. Demands by people of color to be fully accepted as members of society are likely to be interpreted— whether unconsciously or not—as threats to the class structure itself. (This threat is why many whites have abandoned their opinions on wealth distribution to avoid the prospect of sharing resources with nonwhites.) The framework of tribalism seeks to include people of color within the ideological spectrum of the polity, whereas the construction of the polity around the identity of whiteness necessitates that people of color remain outside of it. This result leads people of color and their demands to appear to be at the extreme end of or a distortion of the spectrum and not grievances external to the spectrum. People who espouse the tribalism explanation thus perceive a deep polarization in situations in which there are actually calls for greater belonging being met by refusals to hear them as such.
A similar misrepresentation is also at the center of the discussion of identity politics. Following Trump’s election, as the Right was doubling down on stoking racial resentment and the fear of others, some voices on the Left began calling for a return to what they deemed universal political issues. According to this line of reasoning, the election had been lost because the fringe issues of minority groups had received too much attention and had caused regular working-class voters to disengage.
What these conclusions seemed to miss is that the extent to which an issue can be perceived as universal depends on one’s situatedness, or relationship based on social location, to the issue. However, these conclusions also require an ignorance of other groups’ situatedness. An issue can only be called “universal” if due time and attention have been given to understanding whether other groups have had the same experiences and relationship to the issue. Climate change can scarcely be called a universal problem when pollution plants have a higher likelihood of being zoned in poor neighborhoods or communities of color than in other areas. Health care can hardly be thought of as a universal issue when there is a categorical assault on women’s health and reproductive rights or when Black women’s level of fatal interactions with the health-care system is higher than that of any other demographic group. Also lost is the fact that a call to abandon identity politics is actually a participation in breaking. Most of the demands made by groups labeled as toiling in identity politics—women of color calling for a disaggregated look at the gender wage gap to capture the intersectional effects of sexism and racism, transgender rights groups fighting against their deliberate exclusion from public spaces executed through restrictive restroom policies—could more accurately be described as othered people demanding full human dignity.
To say these issues do not matter, to support pivoting away from them because they have been deemed mere distractions, is to endorse a posture of breaking and to accept the continued constitution of the in-group’s identity upon the exclusion and diminishment of marginalized people.
It is through these considerations that it begins to become evident that what is thought of as the universal is generally a description of an issue seen from the situatedness of the white male identity and that the “regular working class” is implicitly understood to be the white working class. This view elucidates the false choice between identity politics and the universal and reveals that what is thought of as the universal is in fact white identity politics.
When pollsters and politicos encourage a return to the issues important to the white working class, what are they really calling for? When the claim is made that this group has been ignored, what does that assertion mean without an understanding of the construction of whiteness and the cohesive properties binding the working class to elites as a white in-group? As mentioned in the earlier discussion on the colonial era’s construction of whiteness, people of European descent accepted their contemporary economic arrangement in exchange for the psychological payoff of white identity. This payoff is commonly referred to as “the wages of whiteness.” To mitigate the loss and diminishment of monetary income or material benefits, payment in the form of white group membership was accepted in lieu of them. And these “wages” were happily paid by the elites, who continued to accumulate a greater concentration of wealth in their own hands. Throughout the history of the country, following times of lower levels of economic inequality—the New Deal and Great Society eras—were periods characterized by an abandonment of policies that promoted shared prosperity in the name of a return to the wages of whiteness. This strategy is chronicled by Ian Haney Lopez in Dog Whistle Politics. Part of these “backlashes,” the term itself grounded in racial origins, was fueled by the perceived inclusion of Black and Brown people and the corresponding improvement in social mobility for these groups. The relative progress of Black people and other people of color was read as a threat to the identity of the white in-group. Perception of this threat was enough for the project of broad prosperity to be discarded.
For elites, the arrangement was always to deprive the white working class of material gain in exchange for their receipt of the psychological benefits of whiteness. Now that the deprivation has grown so egregious, proclamations that the white working class is being ignored and neglected have increased. But absent the context of white identity construction, what do calls to return to addressing the needs of the white working class mean? Do they mean meeting the working class’s material needs, or do they mean meeting these people’s identity needs? Will their identity needs be catered to on the basis of an exclusionary white identity, or will an inclusive identity of broad belonging be forged and advanced? How do members of the white working class perceive their needs? Just as people of color contend that their situatedness needs to be understood before “universal” issues can be addressed (with situatedness being labeled as “identity politics”), whites make the same request. This situation is part of the reason why Trump won every category of white voter. The question is often raised as to why working-class whites have voted against their own self-interest. But they have not. They have voted for tending to their identity first before tending to their material interests (what have been described as “universal” interests) takes place.
Since at least the Lochner v. New York era of the early twentieth century, there has been a deliberate conflation on the part of elites of their economic freedom with the ruggedly individualistic freedom of the rest of the white in-group. This tactic has resonated particularly strongly within the public imagination because the idea of individual liberty is so central to the notion of the Western self, a relationship that means individual liberty or more poignantly, organic or sovereign freedom which is predicated on the whiteness and the right to harm the other. Recent attacks on the Green New Deal fueled by Big Agriculture’s fear of diminished profits have sought to link a curtailment of large-scale factory farming to threats to take away livestock from individual farmers and ranchers. The National Rifle Association’s preoccupation with regulations that would reduce the revenue of gun manufacturers is repackaged as an effort to steal individual people’s guns. Environmental regulations are painted as an assault on freedom. The social safety net is reframed to be an assault on self-reliance. By linking these issues to individualism and liberty, the corporate elite have managed to turn these issues of material well-being into issues of identity. What goes unnoticed in the specious identity politics analysis is that the white working class is asking that its members’ identity-based situatedness be addressed before their material needs are put on the table—the same request that critics disparage marginalized people for making. One of the more powerful recent examples is the call opening up the economy in the middle of the pandemic and the right not to have to wear a mask in public. This is framed as freedom. But it is predicated on the right to harm others. The problem is that so much of white identity as it is currently constituted is based on breaking.
Anxiety and Despair
The era of Trumpism has been strongly marked by rage, resentment, anxiety, and despair. Theorists like Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett explain these reactions as the results of inequality. They claim that high levels of economic inequality lead to social competition and division, which in turn create high levels of anxiety, stress, mental illness, and dissatisfaction. But if this situation were the case, if the results of high levels of economic inequality were simply competition and division and the resultant stresses, the question still remains why suicides, drug overdoses, and alcoholism—what Anne Case refers to as deaths of despair— impact whites at a higher rate than they impact others. The answer likely has to do with a combination of factors, including the wages of whiteness and notions of identity. As regulatory and market capture by private actors intensifies, the corporate elite have only become more brazen in their profit-maximizing demands and have shown that they will stop at nothing to squeeze the captive class for all it is worth. Perhaps we have reached a point of such arrogance, power, and unaccountability among the corporate global elite that they feel no obligation to ensure that whiteness retains value for those who depend on it to commit to the social order. Monopsony power – when a single firm can exercise buying power – has depressed wage growth. Monopoly power causes consumers to face unaffordable prices for needed goods, ubiquitous and exorbitant fees add an additional layer of exploitation, and the erosion of the social safety net leaves people with nothing to fall back on. It may not be that the wages of whiteness are no longer being paid so much as it is that the exchange rate has rendered the wages nearly worthless. This situation has in turn fueled the rage and resentment.
With the decline of the value of the wages of whiteness, the value has to be produced somewhere else. And where else to turn besides to the well that has always enhanced white identity—the violence and terror exacted upon people of color to harden and sharpen the delineation between the white in-group and all others and to mark those outside as inferior. This process of attempting to strengthen the meaning and value of white identity is responsible for the rise in hate crimes against Black people, rampant Islamophobia, and rabid enthusiasm for repressive border security. Donald Trump provides the higher returns, so desperately pleaded for, to white identity, even as he hands over ever-greater monetary and material returns to the global corporate class. Any proposal that fails to account for these dynamics of identity and their influence on political outcomes will fail to pave a way forward that is not at risk of reproducing the conditions that have led to Trumpism.
The Way Forward
A world free of Trumpism will require that identities built not on dominance and exclusion but on belonging are advanced. Just as breaking is the dynamic fuel of othering, bridging is the dynamic fuel of belonging. New stories and narratives can be created that celebrate human difference and recognize the shared humanity of all, even as we recognize and engage each other’s differences. Doing so is the process of belonging, which is the method of expanding the circle of human concern to encompass all. As whiteness is currently constituted, it is a break from spirituality, from the self, from the other, and from the environment, as has been illustrated in these pages. A question that is often asked is why would whites give up the privilege and wages associated with whiteness. The answer in part was given by Dubois. They gain the possibility of a democracy where the wages material and otherwise are much higher. There has always been a cost for whiteness that non-white and white in an asymmetrical way have paid so the elite can enjoy the material benefits that should belong to society. The cost for whiteness has continued to escalate. If we can reimagine a true democracy where all belong, we can claim the benefit of our economy, a real democracy and our humanity.
As was articulated at the outset of this foreword, Trumpism is more than just a phenomenon pinpointed to a single period in time. It is also more than just a phenomenon pinpointed to a single place. Trumpism is a manifestation of anger and hostility activated to defend identity that is based on dominance. However, whiteness is not the only form of dominance. Dominance-based identities exist across the globe and are being activated in repressive and authoritarian forms in every region and reach of the planet. The struggles against these forms of intense othering have to be linked worldwide. With the global integration of an exploitation-based economy, the same pressures and responses can be found in nation after nation. The fight is to ensure the correct response. The goal is not to replace one form of dominance with another. The goal is to replace dominance.
Yes, we are all highly influenced by our situatedness, but we are not imprisoned by it. Conservatives would have us believe that our situatedness is irrelevant; liberals maintain that it is essential and fixed. Neither view is true. Through the acknowledgment, as opposed to the neglect, of each other’s situatedness, we can begin the project of improving everyone’s upward mobility, relationship to material needs, and sense of belonging. Such a project calls on an engagement with spirituality—in the sense of self-discovery through engagement with and rediscovery of those we have long thought of as other and through establishing a closer relationship with the planet and the environment. We must do the work necessary to encompass everyone in our idea of the “we.” Further exploration of the concepts I have briefly discussed here as well as solutions to building a more inclusive tomorrow await the reader in the pages of this book.