Racism and Nationalism Were Central to the Election of Donald Trump

Adam Serwer has published a profound piece at the Atlantic titled, “The Nationalist’s Delusion.” His subtitle gives you an idea of where he’s headed: “Trump’s supporters backed a time-honored American political tradition, disavowing racism while promising to enact a broad agenda of discrimination.” Here is how he summarizes the point later on in the piece:

What I found was that Trump embodied his supporters’ most profound beliefs—combining an insistence that discriminatory policies were necessary with vehement denials that his policies would discriminate and absolute outrage that the question would even be asked…

The specific dissonance of Trumpism—advocacy for discriminatory, even cruel, policies combined with vehement denials that such policies are racially motivated—provides the emotional core of its appeal. It is the most recent manifestation of a contradiction as old as the United States, a society founded by slaveholders on the principle that all men are created equal.

From historical analysis to current data and interviews with Trump supporters, Serwer provides more than ample documentation for this assertion. But one of the most fascinating questions of our time is the one that asks how a country that elected Barack Obama twice could suffer from the delusion Serwer chronicled, leading to the election of Donald Trump.

Last month Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his article titled, “The First White President,” gave us some insight into how the presidency of Barack Obama affected Donald Trump.

For Trump, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally…Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own.

What Serwer has done is extend that to the voters who supported Trump.

Trump’s great political insight was that Obama’s time in office inflicted a profound psychological wound on many white Americans, one that he could remedy by adopting the false narrative that placed the first black president outside the bounds of American citizenship. He intuited that Obama’s presence in the White House decreased the value of what W. E. B. Du Bois described as the “psychological wage” of whiteness across all classes of white Americans, and that the path to their hearts lay in invoking a bygone past when this affront had not, and could not, take place.

Long before the election of Obama, Trump was aware of the power of racial animus as a tool that could be exploited within the Republican Party. Here’s what he told Larry King during an interview in which he discussed the possibility of David Duke running for president in 1992:

“Whether that be good or bad, David Duke is going to get a lot of votes. Pat Buchanan—who really has many of the same theories, except it’s in a better package—Pat Buchanan is going to take a lot of votes away from George Bush,” Trump said. “So if you have these two guys running, or even one of them running, I think George Bush could be in big trouble.”

Two decades later, with the country’s first African American president in the White House, Trump used that awareness to launch himself onto the national political scene by promoting a conspiracy theory.

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.

Whether Trump’s use of nationalism was done strategically or impulsively because of his own leanings is a question I’ll leave to others. He was obviously tapping into what Serwer described as the “profound psychological wound on many white Americans” that resulted from Obama’s presidency.

Even though the ranks of media and punditry are still filled predominantly with white people (mostly men), we now have excellent commentary on Trumpism from three extremely insightful African American writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adam Serwer and Jamelle Bouie. If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest that you read all three. While each of them ads their own unique take on this political and cultural phenomenon, their conclusions are pretty similar.

To the extent that undoing racism involves white people being open to the way the world looks from the perspective of African Americans, it grows increasingly difficult to ignore the conclusion of these fine young writers that racism and nationalism were central to the election of Donald Trump. That is not an appeal to authority. Instead, it is an appeal to the importance of listening to people whose experience is different than our own.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.