“The Nationalist’s Delusion,” Adam Serwer’s long essay for The Atlantic, is well worth the time it takes to read it. (It’s even worth the time it takes to navigate through the maddening, browser-hijacking ads on The Atlantic’s site.)
Serwer begins with an eerily familiar survey of David Duke’s 1990 campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from Louisiana. The former Klan leader and neo-Nazi lost, but he carried nearly 60 percent of the white vote. Pundits rushed to find an explanation for Duke’s popularity among white voters — any explanation other than the obvious one.
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking David Duke is a unique phenomenon confined to Louisiana rednecks and yahoos. He’s not,” the novelist Walker Percy warned at the time. “Don’t think that he or somebody like him won’t appeal to the white middle class of Chicago or Queens.”
From there, Serwer alternates between zooming out to take in the historical view — W.E.B. Du Bois and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens take turns in the spotlight — and zooming in to evaluate the nitty gritty date of the 2016 election. It’s a remarkable piece and you should read the whole thing. Historians will be reading it years from now, so consider this your chance to get ahead of the game.
Here are a few choice excerpts to whet your appetite.
On Trump’s “revolt” against poor people, immigrants, black Americans, and other supposed “elites”:
When you look at Trump’s strength among white Americans of all income categories, but his weakness among Americans struggling with poverty, the story of Trump looks less like a story of working-class revolt than a story of white backlash. And the stories of struggling white Trump supporters look less like the whole truth than a convenient narrative — one that obscures the racist nature of that backlash, instead casting it as a rebellion against an unfeeling establishment that somehow includes working-class and poor people who happen not to be white.
The nature of racism in America means that when the rich exploit everyone else, there is always an easier and more vulnerable target to punish. The Irish immigrants who in 1863 ignited a pogrom against black Americans in New York City to protest the draft resented a policy that offered the rich the chance to buy their way out; their response was nevertheless to purge black people from the city for a generation.
On what can and cannot be said in public:
The reason many equated Clinton’s “deplorables” remark with Trump’s agenda of discriminatory state violence seems to be the widespread perception that racism is primarily an interpersonal matter — that is, it’s about name-calling or rudeness, rather than institutional and political power. This is a belief hardly limited to the president’s supporters, but crucial to their understanding of Trump as lacking personal prejudice.… But even as once-acceptable forms of bigotry have become unacceptable to express overtly, white Americans remain politically dominant enough to shape media coverage in a manner that minimizes obvious manifestations of prejudice, such as backing a racist candidate, as something else entirely. The most transgressive political statement of the 2016 election, the one that violated strict societal norms by stating an inconvenient fact that few wanted to acknowledge, the most politically incorrect, was made by the candidate who lost.
Birtherism is rightly remembered as a racist conspiracy theory, born of an inability to accept the legitimacy of the first black president. But it is more than that, and the insistence that it was a fringe belief undersells the fact that it was one of the most important political developments of the past decade.
Birtherism is a synthesis of the prejudice toward blacks, immigrants, and Muslims that swelled on the right during the Obama era: Obama was not merely black but also a foreigner, not just black and foreign but also a secret Muslim. Birtherism was not simply racism, but nationalism — a statement of values and a definition of who belongs in America. By embracing the conspiracy theory of Obama’s faith and foreign birth, Trump was also endorsing a definition of being American that excluded the first black president. Birtherism, and then Trumpism, united all three rising strains of prejudice on the right in opposition to the man who had become the sum of their fears.
The big finish:
Trumpism emerged from a haze of delusion, denial, pride, and cruelty — not as a historical anomaly, but as a profoundly American phenomenon. This explains both how tens of millions of white Americans could pull the lever for a candidate running on a racist platform and justify doing so, and why a predominantly white political class would search so desperately for an alternative explanation for what it had just seen. To acknowledge the centrality of racial inequality to American democracy is to question its legitimacy — so it must be denied.
… A majority of white voters backed a candidate who assured them that they will never have to share this country with people of color as equals. That is the reality that all Americans will have to deal with, and one that most of the country has yet to confront.
Yet at its core, white nationalism has and always will be a hustle, a con, a fraud that cannot deliver the broad-based prosperity it promises, not even to most white people. Perhaps the most persuasive argument against Trumpist nationalism is not one its opponents can make in a way that his supporters will believe. But the failure of Trump’s promises to white America may yet show that both the fruit and the tree are poison.