To watch the president of the United States prevaricate and dissemble in the face of white supremacist terror is and hopefully always will be shocking. But it’s hardly surprising. Donald Trump’s march to the Oval Office began with the charge that Barack Obama was secretly born in Kenya, he catapulted to the top of the Republican pack with the charge that Mexican immigrants are predominantly rapists and murderers, and along the way he managed to espouse the view that a federal judge should be disqualified from a case on the basis of ethnicity.
Trump embraces a politics of racial conflict because it works for him.
As Bloomberg’s Joshua Green recounts in his new book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, candidate Trump shrugged off media and political attention to his dalliances with the unsavory racist elements of the alt-right. “We polled the race stuff and it doesn’t matter,” Bannon told Green in September; “it doesn’t move anyone who isn’t already in [Clinton’s] camp.”
The fundamental issue is that the United States contains very few committed and vocal white supremacists (turnout for the Virginia rally was dwarfed by counterprotests nationwide). But it does contain an awful lot of white people. To the extent that politics is seen as a crude zero-sum struggle between racial groups, most of them are going to back the side they perceive as supporting the interests of white people.
Yet the reality is that while Trump is inflicting tangible disproportionate harm to racial minorities across the country, he’s not doing anything substantive to advance the interests of his typical white supporter either. He’s loudly embraced a brand of toxic racial politics while quietly creating a narrow winner’s circle of C-suite executive and inheritors of vast fortunes. And it’s the loyalty of the business class, not of neo-Nazi street brawlers, that ultimately ensures Trump’s position of power and is in turn receiving its due rewards.
Donald Trump’s plutocracy
Trump’s racial policymaking is both sadly real and entirely negative.
From the various iterations of his travel ban to stepped-up internal immigration enforcement to wink-nudge encouragement of police brutality and neo-Nazis, Trump is creating an environment that both is subjectively alarming to nonwhites and singles out vulnerable groups for extraordinary levels of suffering.
But these are not policies that actually do anything to advance the interests of the white population. They don’t create jobs, grow the economy, or improve public safety. On immigration, where Trump’s approach has taken on the most substance, it rather clearly does the reverse.
Yet it’s not the case that nobody is helped by Trump’s policy agenda. Instead, over and over again Trump has put in place new politics that share a dominant plutocratic theme. Despite his well-documented struggles with the legislative process, Trump has gotten real things done, and they are overwhelmingly things that help incumbent businesses get over on the public interests.
Trump and congressional Republicans, for example, deployed the Congressional Review Act to roll back many of the Obama administration’s 2016 regulatory actions. Thanks to Trump:
- It’s easier for mining companies to dump pollution into streams.
- It’s easier for oil companies to bribe foreign governments.
- It’s easier for broadband internet providers to sell their customers’ user data.
- But it’s now harder for state governments to set up low-fee retirement accounts so people could save money without getting ripped off.
Trump doesn’t tweet about it much, but it turns out that making it harder for people to avoid financial rip-offs is something of a passion for the Trump administration. He has, for example, gutted enforcement of an Obama-era rule that would have made it illegal for financial advisers to deliberately rip off their customers.
None of this, obviously, has anything to do with helping white people any more than the Trump Federal Communications Commission’s ongoing efforts to dismantle net neutrality or the Trump Treasury’s efforts to reopen corporate tax loopholes are motivated by concern for the welfare of the European-American population. At the behest of the chemical industry, the Trump Environmental Protection Agency has approved the continued sale of a pesticide that poisons children’s brains, and at the behest of for-profit colleges, the Trump Education Department is rolling back regulations offering debt relief to students misled by scam schools.
The winners here are not “anxious” working-class heartlanders, but the owners and managers of big companies who have the government off their backs and barely even need to defend their stances in public with Trump’s antics sucking up the bulk of attention.
Trump’s attacks on minorities help almost nobody
Meanwhile, Trump’s racial politics are fundamentally a negative-sum game in which everyone loses, with nonwhites taking it on the chin hardest.
Take the recent announcement that Trump’s Justice Department wants to investigate colleges and universities for anti-white discrimination. This is a potential disaster for black and Latino applicants and for diversity in higher education. But it’s a mistake to see Trumpism as a boon to white applicants.
Rather than redistribute resources from nonwhite to white students, Trump is shrinking the overall higher education pie and simply trying to ensure that black and Latino students bear a disproportionate share of the burden. His higher education budget proposals attracted less attention than the affirmative action story, but they are worth paying attention to since, as described by Adam Harris of the Chronicle of Higher Education, they’re an across-the-board disaster for everyone:
President Trump’s budget would eliminate the public-service loan-forgiveness program, subsidized Stafford Loans, and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants; begin to phase out the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities; and allow the Perkins Loan program to expire. It would also cut spending in half on Federal Work-Study programs, slash the budget of the National Institutes of Health by a fifth, eliminate programs that foster foreign-language study, and reduce spending that supports international-education programs and exchanges, such as the Fulbright Scholar program, by 55 percent.
Trump’s stepped-up deportations are, of course, primarily hurting undocumented immigrants and their families. But credible analysis from conservative think tanks as well as progressive ones has concluded that trying to squeeze millions of long-time residents out of the country will make the typical American poorer. Trump’s plans to curtail legal immigration will, likewise, make native-born Americans less prosperous.
Meanwhile, for all Trump’s notional concern for the impact of immigrants on working-class Americans, his budget proposal would devastate Medicaid and the earned income tax credit while showering the top 1 percent with tax cuts.
Trumpism, in short, is fundamentally a hustle. It’s essentially a bet that if you punch nonwhite America in the face, white America will be so busy gawking they won’t notice their pockets are being picked too. And history teaches that it might work.
Can Democrats convince white people that racism hurts them?
Lyndon Johnson, speaking at the Jung Hotel in New Orleans during the 1964 campaign told an extraordinary secondhand story about what an old Southern senator allegedly told former House leader Sam Rayburn (D-TX) when Rayburn first got to Washington and called on him:
He was talking about the economy and what a great future we could have in the South, if we could just meet our economic problems, if we could just take a look at the resources of the South and develop them. And he said, "Sammy, I wish I felt a little better. I would like to go back to old" — and I won't call the name of the State; it wasn't Louisiana and it wasn't Texas — "I would like to go back down there and make them one more Democratic speech. I just feel like I have one in me. The poor old State, they haven't heard a Democratic speech in 30 years. All they ever hear at election time is 'nigger, nigger, nigger!'"
Johnson, himself a Southerner, bookended the story with a vow to enforce the Civil Rights Act as “the law of the land” but also said that “I am not going to let them build up the hate and try to buy my people by appealing to their prejudice.”
The argument of both Johnson and the possibly apocryphal senator, in other words, was that Jim Crow, though obviously distinctly burdensome on the black South, had also been detrimental to the white South. Rather than investing in its people and developing its full economic potential, the South spent decades propping up a nationwide conservative coalition whose policy preferences kept the region poor and backward. Johnson was reelected that year in a landslide, but he didn’t convince the white voters of Louisiana (or Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia or South Carolina) who backed the GOP for the first time that year and have done so loyally ever since.
Back in February of 2016, Ian Haney-López and Heather McGhee urged Bernie Sanders to adopt this style of argument as a means to improve his standing with voters of color in the Democratic primary.
“The progressive movement,” they wrote, “should expand from a vision of racism as violence done solely to people of color to include a conception of racism as a political weapon wielded by elites against the 99 percent, nonwhite and white alike.”
Sanders didn’t really do this and lost the primary while garnering very few nonwhite voters, and then Clinton proceeded to wage a general election campaign that largely inverted this advice. Seeking to counter Trump by assembling a broad coalition of decency, Clinton focused on Trump’s personal unfitness and racism while downplaying traditional policy issues. It didn’t work. But it came close enough to working, and Clinton suffered from enough idiosyncratic problems (James Comey, etc.) that it’s tempting — especially in the wake of the spectacular events of Charlottesville — to some to try again. But it would be a mistake.
Corporate America has learned to love Trump
The key reality of Trump-era politics is that an American business elite that was never sold on candidate Trump has come to embrace a President Trump who embraces it back.
When invited to do so back in June, the leaders of America’s biggest high-tech companies — including shops like Google that have gone to great lengths to cultivate a progressive image — duly paid court to Trump and offered him the requisite flattery. And why shouldn’t they? Trump has lined up behind the business-friendly approach to antitrust law that they crave, and the enormous corporate income tax that he’s proposing would be especially beneficial to Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and other highly profitable multinationals whose largely noncorporeal businesses are ideally suited to various international tax shenanigans.
As Trump likes to remind us, under his watch stock prices and profits are up.
Job growth has slowed relative to where it was last year, but a light regulatory touch and some tax cuts is just what the doctor ordered as far as economic elites are concerned.
It’s completely impossible to ignore Trump’s outrages and provocations on race, especially in light of the quite literally deadly consequences they can have. The Trump show as a culture war phenomenon is repugnant.
But it serves a real function, maintaining Trump’s electoral base without requiring him to take the trouble of helping them or to put in the work to convince them that his business-friendly policymaking is actually correct. The interests of the wealthy are being served at the expense of children’s neurological development, funding for higher education and health care, consumers’ interest in fair investment opportunities, internet users’ privacy rights, and dozens of other public interest priorities. The failure of much of the public to see that is integral to Trump’s mass political support, but the business community’s acute awareness of it is integral to his continued backing by congress and the institutional Republican Party.
Those of us who are troubled by what Trump is doing to American culture and national identity need to clearly identify and understand the full constellation of forces that drive Trumpism and derive concrete material benefits from Trump’s presence in office. Trump’s racial war is real, but the real winners are flying private jets, not marching with torches.