Historian explains the choice facing white Americans: Social democracy — or follow Trump into the abyss
Donald Trump's coup attempt — and especially the Jan. 6 attack he incited on the U.S. Capitol — were a type of "white riot" and insurrection against multiracial democracy. Sociologist Bart Bonikowski recently offered this analysis to Thomas Edsall of the New York Times:
Ethnonationalist Trump supporters want to return to a past when white men saw themselves as the core of America and minorities and women "knew their place." Because doing so requires the upending of the social order, many are prepared to pursue extreme measures, including racial violence and insurrection. What makes their actions all the more dangerous is a self-righteous belief — reinforced by the president, the Republican Party, and right-wing conspiracy peddlers — that they are on the correct side of history as the true defenders of democracy, even as their actions undermine its core institutions and threaten its stability.
The lethal violence by Trump's followers at the Capitol was not the end but rather another stage of escalation in right-wing extremism and terrorism against multiracial democracy. Law enforcement officials and counter-insurgency experts are warning that the United States will likely experience an increasing amount of white supremacist and other right-wing extremist terrorism and other political violence in response to the country's changing racial demographics. The symbolic power of Joe Biden's presidency, and especially of Kamala Harris, the first woman, first Black person and first Asian American to serve as vice president, will only fuel more right-wing terrorism and other violence.
Trump's neofascist movement has given permission for such violence, and has provided a space for radicalization into political extremism as well as the material and other resources to sustain an armed insurrection against American democracy. Trump has signaled that he hopes to be a "shadow president" commanding this movement through stochastic terrorism.
In total, the power of Donald Trump's appeals to white supremacy, racial authoritarianism, white victimhood and white violence were so powerful for his voters and other followers that despite a ruined economy and a pandemic that has already killed more than 440,000 people in the United States, Trump received millions more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016.
The rise of Trumpism and its enduring appeal for tens of millions of white Americans also reflects a phenomenon described by social scientists and other researchers: Many people in that population feel a growing sense of alienation and loneliness as well as feelings of obsolescence and declining social value. This gives rise to widespread resentment, a disregard for death (and in some cases a literal death wish) and an increasing attraction to conspiracy theories, fantasies of violence, apocalyptic right-wing Christian extremism and other anti-social values and beliefs among Trump's followers and other white Americans.
Whiteness appears to be in a state of crisis. To discuss that dynamic, I recently spoke with David Roediger, a professor of history and American studies at the University of Kansas. He is the author of such notable books as "Working Toward Whiteness," "How Race Survived U.S. History" and "Towards the Abolition of Whiteness." His new book is "The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History."
In this conversation, Roediger explores the perils of increased public focus on the "white working class" and why that language should be used much more carefully. He also addresses such questions as how public discussions about "structural racism" often distort and misrepresent the concept and its implications, and what many liberals and leftists misunderstand about the relationship between race and class.
At the end of this conversation Roediger warns that white America may be at a historical crossroads, facing a choice between embracing a more inclusive social democracy or instead becoming more reactionary and dangerous.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How are you feeling?
Hopeful, in a way. The George Floyd rebellions, which were some of the largest sustained protests in the history of the United States, really changed things in some fundamental ways. On that note, I believe that we could have thought differently about the Trump administration. We could have had a strategy that envisioned bringing Trump down through popular protests. In most European countries, a figure such as Donald Trump would have been protested out of office as much as he was voted out of office, and earlier probably.
Language does political work. It shapes reality and the limits of our collective imaginations, and how we think about political society and our role in it. For example, in the Age of Trump, and especially in the moment of the George Floyd uprising, there were more public discussions of "structural" or "institutional racism." Joe Biden is also using this language. I worry that most people, both in the news media and on the day-to-day, do not have a real understanding of what those words mean in practice.
Structural racism is a very important concept, but it is now becoming an empty signifier. I believe that it is very hard to know what politicians mean when they say "structural racism." And to hear police departments and law enforcement talking about structural racism particularly begs for a serious discussion of the concept as related to redress of grievances. The structures in this country are such that white working people have learned that their racist claims and desires will be listened to. Black people have learned that those white working people have to be placated in their racism or Democrats cannot be elected. If there can be a change where poor whites can be brought together in an alliance with antiracism, that would be an interesting moment.
"Working class" is a term that has come to dominate American political discourse during the Trump regime and now beyond. But it is emptied of all content and meaning. "Working class" is too often used in a superficial race- and gender-neutral way by the mainstream news media and other political elites. In many ways, "working class" is just another way of saying "white men." That assumption is so deep it goes unremarked upon by most.
To talk about the "white working class" is really to fight on the terrain that the likes of a Trump or a Steve Bannon or Breitbart could occupy.
If one goes down the road of talking about the "white working class," inevitably the emphasis ends up on "white." With the Bannons and Trumps that "white" is emphasized, as in the full-blown white nationalism that they gravitate towards.
Even with the Democrats there is an emphasis on the "white" in "white working class," because they do not have anything as a party to offer in terms of class or the specifics of trade policy that would actually appeal to the people in Macomb County, Michigan. The Democrats are not for trade union rights in any fundamental way. The Democrats are not for reorganizing the working class. The Democrats are very much in favor of disastrous trade deals such as NAFTA.
When political leaders and pundits say "middle class" they mean the white middle class — what is imagined to be the middle of the class structure. But for African Americans, the 50th percentile has about one-ninth of the wealth of the middle of the white class structure.
The term "middle class" obscures racial differences and related inequalities. I believe this has been true since at least the 1980s. Some of us on the left are implicated in this too, because there is a kind of left politics that argues, "Oh, we should advance these middle-class economic demands, which in turn would mean we do not have to talk about race so much. Our economic agenda helps everyone, so we can avoid these challenging conversations about race".
These types of approaches to class and race in America mean that there is very little space in the public discourse to seriously consider what would bring poor people together across the color line, while also being attentive to the specific grievances that African Americans and immigrants have in the United States.
Race and class should not be discussed as being separate and apart from one another in America, or the West more generally. Where do you think the impulse to talk in simple terms, to decouple the two concepts, comes from?
For some of us who are materialists and apply Marxist analyses, part of our worst impulses are when we argue that class concerns should submerge concerns about racial justice.
For all his experience with the Black Freedom Struggle, there have been too many moments when Bernie Sanders was also guilty of that type of class reductionism.
The fact that the Sanders 2016 campaign introduced the word "socialism" into the national vocabulary was a big achievement. Given that, many people were willing to allow certain problems to go uncommented upon. In 2020, it seemed to me that Bernie Sanders had been given better advice about how to talk about race.
I believe that Sanders was most comfortable in both 2016 and 2020 speaking about things that are important for Black and brown people in the United States such as Medicare for All. Sanders was also advocating economic policies that did not have a specifically important racial dimension to them, such as college tuition for all.
Systems of white supremacy and white racism also hurt white people. How can we do a better job of explaining that to white folks?
The willingness to accept dehumanization never ends at the color line. As an example, America's prison system is essentially an extension of Jim Crow that disproportionately targets young Black men. But that same system, from the 1980s forward also vastly increased the number of white people who are incarcerated. Using America's Jim Crow prison system as an example, we can highlight the racism at work there against black men — but then, at the same time, call attention to how white people, in particular poor white people, are also being hurt by mass incarceration. Another example is how the number of white women incarcerated has gone through the roof in the same period.
How do you think whiteness is doing at present in America?
A majority of whites in the United States still support Trump. We often get confused by these extraordinarily close elections. In fact, these elections are so close because African Americans vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate. The same is true for Latinos and Hispanics. This gives the appearance that there is all this resistance against Trump and what he represents, but in reality white Americans are generally supportive of him. We do not gain much in this country by denying that fact.
These political and cultural problems have been going on for a long time in white America. Those problems continued and maybe even accelerated under Donald Trump.
Moreover, there are huge numbers of eligible voters who do not participate. Poor people are much less likely to vote. There is something wrong with America's culture and politics that is larger than Donald Trump.
An example of the many problems in white America — not exclusively found among the so-called white working class — is shown through the response to COVID and refusing to wear a mask. This a literal embrace of death by large numbers of white people in America. The mindless embrace of death by refusing to wear a mask also represents a type of widespread malaise.
There is much evidence of this from the studies about the opioid crisis and the so-called deaths of despair among certain segments of the white public. In total, that data and other examples point to a type of psychological emergency among some whites.
Is whiteness in some form of crisis as shown by the Age of Trump, which was at its core a white supremacist and neofascist backlash against multiracial democracy?
I do not subscribe to the argument that in the next few decades white people will somehow not be the largest group and that therefore means the end of whiteness as we know it in America.
At present there is a re-examination of the assumptions that undergird whiteness in America. That could result in a type of social democracy, or whiteness could be refurbished by admitting into its ranks groups who are now considered "people of color." There are real possibilities of a reactionary move as well.
What is a crisis? Something that we do not know where it leads. Lots of white Americans are experiencing such a crisis.