[Marxism] Adam Shatz on Trump’s Racism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 31 06:14:59 MDT 2017

(Shatz is always very interesting.)

London Review of Books
Vol. 39 No. 17 · 7 September 2017
Wrecking Ball
Adam Shatz on Trump’s Racism

In late July, HBO unveiled plans for a new show set in an alternative 
reality, in which the Confederate South, led by General Robert E. Lee, 
has successfully seceded from the Union. D.B. Weiss, one of the 
producers of Confederate, explained the thinking behind the series: 
‘What would the world have looked like if Lee had sacked DC, if the 
South had won – that just always fascinated me.’ On 12 August, in 
Charlottesville, Virginia, Weiss got his answer, with the ‘Unite the 
Right’ demonstration against the planned removal of Lee’s statue in 
Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park). This ‘gallant scene of 
the pastoral South’, as Billie Holiday might have described it, was open 
to anyone who hated black people and Jews, from members of the Ku Klux 
Klan to neo-Nazis. Emboldened by having an ally in the highest office in 
the land, they came with Confederate flags, swastikas, medieval-looking 
wooden shields, torches and, of course, guns. They came to fight. One 
young woman in the counter-demonstration was murdered by a man who 
rammed his car into her, weaponising his vehicle just as jihadists have 
done in London and Nice and Barcelona. A helicopter surveilling the 
event crashed, killing the two officers inside. Dozens were injured.

The ‘Unite the Right’ protest was a reminder that the dream of the 
Confederacy has never died: the vision of Herrenvolk democracy has 
continued to smoulder since Union troops left the vanquished but still 
defiant South, scarcely a decade after the end of the war. Eric Foner 
has described the Reconstruction era, when ex-slaves became citizens and 
the first biracial Southern governments were elected to power, as 
America’s ‘unfinished revolution’. The battle over Reconstruction never 
ended; it has simply changed form. Nor has it been confined to the 
South: the North has had its own, scarcely less virulent form of white 
supremacy. The struggle to achieve full enfranchisement for black people 
in the United States has produced many martyrs: Medgar Evers and Martin 
Luther King; James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. And now 
Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old paralegal killed in Emancipation Park.

It is true, as some have sanctimoniously pointed out, that even in her 
death, Heyer was a beneficiary of white privilege, remembered as a 
‘strong woman’, rather than subjected to the invasive examination of 
background typically meted out to unarmed black people killed by the 
police. But her biography suggests that she would have been the first to 
object to any special treatment. ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not 
paying attention,’ she wrote in her last Facebook post. She broke up 
with a boyfriend who expressed unease over her friendship with a black 
man, her manager at work. White supremacists have reserved a particular 
loathing for white women in the civil rights struggle: ‘nigger lovers’, 
they call them. One white woman at the counter-demonstration reported a 
jeering fascist saying to her: ‘I hope you are raped by a nigger.’ Heyer 
is likely to have heard similar things. For white supremacists, the end 
of white rule has always meant the conquest of white women by men of 
colour, from the rapacious emancipated slaves in Birth of a Nation to 
Trump’s Mexican ‘rapists’.

The man charged with Heyer’s murder, James Alex Fields Jr, a 20-year-old 
from Ohio, fits the usual terrorist profile: a radical loser without a 
father, intelligent but semi-educated and isolated, drunk on visions of 
grandeur on the stage of history. His murder weapon was a car, rather 
than a gun, but he was cut from the same cloth as Dylann Roof, who shot 
dead nine worshippers at a church in Charleston two years ago. Fields 
wrote school papers celebrating the Third Reich and shouted racist 
curses at home, but neither his teachers nor his mother thought to 
report on his ‘radicalisation’. Even if they had, the government is 
unlikely to have cared. In February, it was reported that the Trump 
administration no longer intended to investigate white nationalists, who 
have been responsible for a large share of violent hate crimes in the 
United States; the focus of the ‘countering violent extremism’ programme 
would be limited to Islamist radicals. White nationalists were exultant. 
‘Donald Trump is setting us free,’ the Daily Stormer website crowed.

Trump is so hollow a person, so impulsive a leader, that it’s easy to 
miss the great paradox of his presidency: that a cipher of a man has 
revealed the hidden depths, the ugly unmastered history, of the country 
he claims to lead. David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Klan 
and a former Louisiana state representative, whose endorsement Trump 
could barely bring himself to disavow, said that Unite the Right was 
intended to ‘fulfil the promises of Donald Trump’. When Fields set off 
for Charlottesville, he told his mother he would be attending a rally 
for Trump, which wasn’t entirely a fib. The fascists in Charlottesville 
are a fringe, not a mass movement, but they are a coddled fringe: hence 
Trump’s attempt to blame ‘many sides’ for the violence, as if victims 
and perpetrators inhabited the same moral plane. The fascists represent 
the hard edge of the coalition that brought him to power, and they 
express, though in a cruder form, the ideology of the men he chose as 
advisers, from Steve Bannon to Sebastian Gorka. When – apparently under 
intense pressure from his aides – Trump finally denounced white 
supremacists as ‘evil’ in a speech read off a teleprompter, he sounded 
like a little boy forced to eat his spinach, or to rat on his friends. 
No president has been so easily flattered, so thrilled by the sight of 
his own name, which his advisers include in policy memos in order to 
hold his attention. To repudiate a follower is not only to threaten his 
electoral base, as Bannon, before his departure, surely counselled him; 
it is to threaten the supply of adulation that is Trump’s lifeline, and 
the only thing, aside from loyalty to Trump, that he has raised to a 

Trump’s Republican allies scrambled to denounce the violence, in ever 
more pious tones, while falling far short of withdrawing their support 
for Trump. Listening to Paul Ryan, John McCain, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz 
and Orrin Hatch inveigh against the evil of white supremacy, you might 
have thought they’d just dusted off their copies of Between the World 
and Me. They can hardly claim to have been shocked by Trump’s response, 
however. As erratic as Trump has been, he has been remarkably consistent 
on the question of race. He cut his teeth in a real-estate firm – his 
father’s – that was investigated by the FBI for not renting to blacks. 
In 1989 he took out an ad in four newspapers, calling for the execution 
of five young black and Latino men charged with raping a jogger in 
Central Park; even when the ‘Central Park Five’ were exonerated 13 years 
later, he continued to insist on their guilt. He built a campaign on the 
claim that Obama was not American, appealing to the oldest prejudices 
about black American rights to citizenship. He has revelled in the idea 
of police brutality.

What, then, explains the paroxysms of Republican anti-racism in the face 
of Charlottesville? The purpose was not to expunge white supremacy from 
American life, but to expunge its naked expression, which Trump, to 
their embarrassment, has been reckless enough to encourage. Since the 
Nixon era, Republicans have understood that the party’s plans to favour 
the white ‘silent majority’ depend on coded language that everyone 
understands but which can be plausibly denied. Cruz and Hatch may have 
been distressed by Trump’s response to Charlottesville, but neither of 
them objects to his policies on race, which amount to the most 
aggressive assault on civil rights since the Voting Rights Act was 
signed into law in 1965. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, whom the 
New York Times has hailed as a ‘forceful figure’ for his comparatively 
forthright condemnation of the violence, has led these efforts. He has 
cut back the civil rights division of the Justice Department, promised 
to end oversight of police departments and proposed relaunching the war 
on drugs that helped lead to the scandal of mass incarceration. His idea 
of a ‘civil rights investigation’ is to investigate cases of 
discrimination against white students in universities, or – Trump’s 
favourite – claims of ‘voter fraud’ in last year’s election, a flagrant 
attempt to suppress the vote among blacks and Latinos who supported 
Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s attacks on Muslims, undocumented immigrants and other non-white 
people were portrayed by some members of the press during the campaign 
as a kind of rhetorical extravagance: the lurid expression, like his 
tower and his casinos, of a tabloid clown. The implicit suggestion was 
that his racism needn’t be taken too seriously, and that it wasn’t, in 
any case, the major reason for his popularity. A number of prominent 
liberal intellectuals – in a move that suggested self-flagellation but 
was closer to racial blindness – claimed that if Trump was popular, it 
was because of liberal condescension to the fabled white working class. 
The identity politics of the left, they suggested, was driving 
misunderstood and maligned blue-collar workers into Trump’s arms. As it 
turned out, Trump’s support among whites ranged across class lines, and 
was particularly strong among middle and upper-middle-class whites. They 
were driven into his arms by identity politics – their own. They 
understood, and welcomed, Trump’s promise to make America great again 
for what it really meant: to make it white again, and to take back the 
White House from a black president.

Yet the spectre of a black president continues to haunt the White House, 
not least in Trump’s imagination. In his most revealing, because least 
rehearsed, response to Charlottesville, Trump said that racism ‘has been 
going on for a long time in our country – not Donald Trump, not Barack 
Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.’ Trump often 
invokes Obama, not least when he is trying to dismantle national 
healthcare: the name ‘Obama’ seems to give him a sense of mooring. 
Still, this was a curious remark, coming from someone who has had little 
patience for history or the longue durée, and who had rather strongly 
implied that if America had a race problem, it was Obama’s doing. One 
possible interpretation of this cryptic (and typically ungrammatical) 
statement is that Trump could hardly be expected to end racism, when the 
country’s first black president, of all people, could not: a backhanded, 
and racist, compliment to his predecessor. Another is that Trump remains 
perversely fixated on the figure of Obama, aware that without him, and 
without the anti-Obama backlash he spearheaded, he would not be president.

It’s not clear that Trump would even have seriously pursued the 
presidency had it not been for Obama’s roasting of him at the 2011 White 
House Correspondents’ Dinner – comic revenge for the birtherist lie. 
‘Donald Trump is here tonight,’ Obama said, introducing his guest. ‘Now, 
I know he’s taken some flak lately. But no one is happier, no one is 
prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. 
And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues 
that matter, like … Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened 
in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?’ Trump was so mortified he 
practically ran to the exit after the plates were cleared. As Joshua 
Green reports in his new book on Trump’s relationship with Steve Bannon, 
Devil’s Bargain, ‘Trump’s interest in politics intensified right after 
the dinner, instead of quickly melting away, as it had after each of his 
presidential flirtations in the past.’ The White House Correspondents’ 
Dinner was his own private Treaty of Versailles: by winning the 
presidency, he hoped to wash away the shame of being mocked by the son 
of an African immigrant. It was this personal sense of humiliation, of 
being put in his place by a black man, that allowed him to forge an 
almost mystical connection with his ‘base’, as he still calls his 
supporters, the only Americans he addresses directly these days. But 
even Trump can’t avoid noticing that the former president’s ‘base’ 
vastly exceeds his own. In three separate tweets posted on 13 August, 
the day after Heyer’s death, Obama, resurfacing from his seemingly 
permanent vacation, quoted Nelson Mandela: ‘No one is born hating 
another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or 
his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, 
they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human 
heart than its opposite.’ The first of these tweets became the most 
liked in history, without even naming its target.

The Apprentice, Trump’s reality TV show, was, in spite of his sulphurous 
reputation on race, very popular among black and Latino audiences – more 
so, in fact, than it was among whites – and he has often boasted of his 
multicultural bona fides. ‘I have a great relationship with the blacks’; 
‘The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love the 
Hispanics!’ But ever since he entered politics on a platform catering to 
white nationalism, ‘the blacks’ and ‘the Hispanics’ have abandoned him. 
Where could he turn after Charlottesville? Ivanka and Jared Kushner, who 
were about to join their friend David Geffen, a gay Democrat, on his 
yacht in Croatia, prevailed on him to denounce the evils of white 
supremacy, and on 14 August Trump genuflected to anti-racist norms. But, 
as David Duke reminded him on Twitter, ‘I would recommend you take a 
good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in 
the presidency, not radical leftists.’ The following day, at a rancorous 
press conference at Trump Tower, Trump insisted that he had said nothing 
wrong in his initial remarks on Charlottesville, and that the 
counter-demonstrators were equally responsible for the violence – in 
fact a bit more so. After all, the protesters had a permit, and the 
counter-protesters (‘very violent’) did not. There were, he added, some 
‘very fine people’ among the protesters. Who were these fine people, 
lost in the torch-lit crowds of white nationalists? Trump didn’t say, 
but he implicitly endorsed their cause: the defence of Lee’s statue. ‘So 
this week, it’s Robert E. Lee … I wonder, is it George Washington next 
week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?’

Duke praised Trump for his ‘honesty and courage’ in condemning left-wing 
‘terrorists’ in Charlottesville. But Duke was not alone in his support 
for Trump. While many Republican politicians deplored Trump’s equation 
of racists and anti-racists, and while the executives on his business 
advisory boards deserted him, the base remained fiercely loyal. And for 
the next few days, the press was aflutter with stories about ‘antifa’, 
the roving band of young anti-fascist militants who battle with fascists 
in street demonstrations. In a New York Times profile of the movement, 
the white supremacist leader Richard Spencer, one of the organisers of 
Unite the Right, was interviewed saying the antifa ‘have a sadistic 
streak’, as if he were an authority on violent extremism rather than its 
embodiment. With Trump’s help, the alt-right had succeeded in inserting 
itself into a mainstream conversation of ‘many sides’.

Trump’s cleverest tactical move, however, was to link Lee’s statue with 
Washington and Jefferson, both of whom were slave owners. Never mind 
that Lee fought against the Union that Washington and Jefferson helped 
found. Trump, who says ‘the big problem this country has is being 
politically correct,’ shrewdly played to the fear among his supporters 
that the removal of Lee’s statue was a slippery slope in the destruction 
of ‘our heritage’. Bannon may have been on his way out – his resignation 
was made public three days later – but the Trump Tower press conference 
was as clear a sign as any that Bannonism will survive his departure. As 
Green notes, ‘the prevailing worry among the GOP’s intellectual class 
was that the party was too Southern – that its rootedness in Southern 
folkways and values would inhibit its ability to appeal to a rapidly 
diversifying national electorate … Bannon believed exactly the opposite. 
He thought that the South – populist, patriotic, pro-military, and 
sceptical of immigration – was in fact the party’s salvation.’ One of 
the headlines at Breitbart was ‘High and Proud: The Confederate Flag 
Proclaims a Glorious Heritage’. That many Republicans, not just 
Southerners, consider a secessionist rebel to be part of America’s 
‘heritage’ is worth pausing over. What this reconfiguration of national 
heritage suggests is that white Republicans are tired, as they see it, 
of being made to feel guilty for slavery and discrimination. The removal 
of Lee’s statue is, for them, a case of unjust persecution, and an 
abject surrender to those calling for a reckoning with the American 
past, such as Black Lives Matter, whose very name is seen by many whites 
as an expression of racial supremacy, rather than a protest against it.

Trump explained that he had waited to respond to Charlottesville until 
he’d painstakingly weighed the facts of the case. He showed no such 
patience when, on 17 August, Islamic State killed 13 people in 
Barcelona. On Twitter, he encouraged study of General Pershing’s 
counterinsurgency methods in the Philippines, an allusion to the myth 
that Pershing had crushed Muslim rebels by killing them with bullets 
dipped in pig’s blood. ‘No more radical Islamic terror for 35 years!’ 
Having fended off reporters over Charlottesville for days, Trump had 
returned to his characteristic frenzy over Islamist terrorism, which, 
unlike white nationalist terror, has the virtue of allowing him not only 
to condemn violence but to call for more. That he recycled a lie as 
‘history’ was hardly new; more striking was the reference to a practice 
specifically targeting the dietary prohibitions in Islam. He was calling 
for ‘civilisational jihad’, as Bannon might have put it.

The organisers in Charlottesville were also waging a civilisational 
jihad, not only against blacks and Muslims but against Jews. Not since 
the Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois in 1977 has there been such a 
brazenly anti-Semitic gathering in an American city. A number of 
right-wing nationalists in Europe and the States, notably the National 
Front in France, have used Islamophobia to ingratiate themselves with 
Jews, and particularly with Israel, with a certain measure of success. 
Trump, typically, has maintained cordial ties with ‘many sides’, 
flaunting his daughter’s marriage to a Jew (and conversion) and his 
unconditional support for Israel, while invoking anti-Semitic clichés 
about shadowy global conspiracies, and doing nothing to repudiate the 
more than two million anti-Semitic tweets sent in the year before his 
election, many of them by his supporters. Trump’s Jewish allies have 
been mostly unmoved. Neither Steven Mnuchin, his treasury secretary, nor 
Gary Cohn, his chief economic adviser, has resigned. Mnuchin – in 
response to an open letter by three hundred of his Yale classmates 
calling on him to step down – absurdly contended that Trump ‘in no way, 
shape or form, believes that neo-Nazi and other hate groups who endorse 
violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and 
lawful ways’. Benjamin Netanyahu, too, has been conspicuously silent, 
but his communications minister, the Israeli Druze politician Ayoub 
Kara, helpfully explained that because Trump is ‘the best US leader 
Israel has ever had’, ‘we need to put the declarations about Nazis in 
proper proportion.’ There are, after all, ‘many sides’ to an issue.

On 21 August, Trump outlined his plans for a new build-up of troops in 
Afghanistan, wrapping up his volte-face on overseas military adventures 
in declarations of martial bravado: ‘Our troops will fight to win. We 
will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition.’ 
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a more sober view of the new 
policy when he addressed the Taliban the day after Trump’s speech: ‘You 
will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will 
you.’ The new Afghan surge – Trump refused to reveal how many troops 
were being deployed, or to present a timeline for their engagement – 
was, in fact, a continuation of the failed policies of the last 16 
years, including Obama’s. When Trump said he wouldn’t be 
‘nation-building’, just ‘killing terrorists’, he might have been 
describing Obama’s shift from ground wars to the ever-expanding drone 
war. The press and the foreign policy establishment responded with only 
mild notes of dissent to Trump’s new plan, in large part because he had 
capitulated to his military advisers, who are now widely seen, even by 
some liberals, as the last line of defence against Trump’s destructive 
impulses. (American liberals increasingly suffer from a disease that 
afflicted their Arab counterparts during the Arab uprisings: a desperate 
faith in the wisdom and prudence of the military and intelligence 
services.) Trump had initially toyed with the idea of a complete 
withdrawal of troops, or – Bannon’s idea – farming out security to 
private mercenaries like the company formerly known as Blackwater. But 
Bannon, by then, was back at Breitbart, where he pledged to ‘crush’ his 
enemies (no doubt including Trump’s son-in-law, who had lobbied for his 
dismissal). Trump allowed himself to be persuaded by the military, so 
long as he could be made to look strong, his paramount concern. His 
agreement was sealed after H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, 
showed him a black-and-white photograph from 1972 of a group of pretty 
young Afghan women in miniskirts walking through Kabul. Afghanistan 
could be won over to ‘our heritage’, after all.

By Trump standards, the Afghanistan speech was a judicious, rational 
address. But he was in full Father Coughlin mode the following evening, 
at a rally to thousands of his supporters in Phoenix – the eighth such 
event he’d held since taking office. He spoke for more than an hour. He 
took long pauses, so that they could be filled by applause, and loud 
cries of ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’ and ‘Drain the Swamp!’ His approval ratings may 
have dropped to 34 per cent nationally, and 42 per cent in the 
conservative state of Arizona, but that night he was among fans, the 
only people he doesn’t try to bully, and, as he played his greatest 
hits, the adulation was near carnal. He spent the first half of the 
speech defending his Charlottesville response, claiming that ‘fake news’ 
had distorted his ‘perfect’ words, extensively quoting from his 
speeches, except the lines for which he was criticised. He warned that 
‘they’ – the media, perhaps other sinister, unnamed forces – ‘are trying 
to take away our history and our heritage … They really don’t like our 
country.’ Trump’s domestic enemies – the media, ‘obstructionist 
Democrats’, Republicans who voted against his healthcare plan – were the 
enemies of America, and he would not allow them to win. He would free 
Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a hero of the anti-immigrant right, who was 
found guilty of defying a judge’s 2011 court order to refrain from 
racially profiling Latinos during patrols and turning them over to 
federal immigration authorities. He would raid sanctuary cities 
shielding ‘criminal aliens’, and ‘liberate’ towns menaced by Latino 
gangs. And he would build his ‘beautiful’ wall, even if it meant 
shutting down the government.

Most presidents do everything they can to avoid shutting down the 
government, but Donald Trump is not most presidents. On the eve of the 
Iraq invasion, Colin Powell explained the ‘Pottery Barn rule’ to George 
W. Bush: ‘You break it, you own it.’ Trump has stood this rule on its 
head, and applied it to all of his assets. His fellow Republicans, 
whatever their anxieties about him, were willing to join him on his 
wrecking ball – the destruction of America’s image abroad, the assault 
on truth, the brutalisation of public discourse, the severing of the 
fragile bonds of shared citizenship that hold the country together – so 
long as he delivered on healthcare and tax reform. But their bargain 
hasn’t paid off, because Trump is incapable of running a government. As 
a campaigner, however, which is what, in essence, he is, he is 
terrifyingly competent, and too capricious to be anyone’s tool, as his 
various enablers have all discovered. (Even Bannon confessed that he was 
a ‘blunt instrument for us’.) The reason that Mitch McConnell, the 
Senate majority leader, and other Republicans are worried about Trump 
isn’t that he threatens American democracy, or that America has ceased 
to be a serious country in the world; it’s that Trump’s rule may bring 
about the break-up of the Republican Party.

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