The Crucial Role of History in Understanding Trumpism

Even in our polarized political climate, when Trump suggested that the racists in Charlottesville were “very fine,” a consensus of all but the most vehement white nationalists developed to condemn his remarks as racist. As I suggested at the time, that is because he crossed a line.

Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the majority of Americans have come to recognize the manifestations of overt racism. That hasn’t always been the case.

A Gallup poll from 1963 showed that 66% of whites believed that black people were treated equally when it came to housing, education and employment. Another, from the year before, showed that 85% of white people believed black children had the same chances of a good education as white children.

In the age of Jim Crow, most white people had absolutely no idea what Martin Luther King was trying to do.

What I learned a few years ago from absorbing this history is the importance to listening to people of color when confronted with questions about defining racism. White people have a terrible track record on that score.

Rather than overt racism, it is the continuing disagreement in this country about covert (or often systemic) racism that Adam Serwer was referring to as the delusion that animated many Trump supporters.

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.

He’s not talking about the rage filled mob mentality that animated the neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville. He was attempting to explain the delusions white people harbor in which the covert forms of racism don’t exist, even as they gravitate to racist policies.

In his book, The Culture of Make Believe, Derrick Jensen describes how that form of racism gets triggered.

From the perspective of those who are entitled, the problems begin when those they despise do not go along with—and have the power and wherewithal to not go along with—the perceived entitlement…

Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, “normal,” chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.

Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.

As Tim Wise pointed out, the election of our first African American president was one event that formed the “perfect storm for white anxiety.” Things like America’s changing demographics and the impact of the Great Recession were additional contributors. Taken together, they provided a challenge to the entitlement that normalizes covert and systemic racism. The explosion Jensen described came in the form of the election of Donald Trump, who for years had recognized that this form of racism was available for exploitation and was triggered by the presidency of Barack Obama.

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.

What people like Derrick Jensen, Adam Serwer and Ta-Nehisi Coates have done is to provide us with an historical look at the antecedents of the racism and nationalism that led to Trumpism. These are patterns that have been present since this country’s founding. As George Santayana said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

Some pundits have suggested that these writers are too pessimistic in their analysis. That argument stems from a couple of fallacies. One is to simply deny the delusion Serwer identified and look to other explanations for Trumpism. No one would suggest that racism is the single and only appeal Trump offered to his supporters. Any social phenomenon is more complex than that. But to deny its centrality is to not only deny our history, but the kinds of data these writers have presented for its manifestation in the present.

In suggesting that this kind of analysis is too pessimistic, some critics go in search of more simple policies to appeal to Trump voters (i.e., offer solutions to their “economic anxiety”), suggesting that a struggle against racism is too difficult and destined for failure. When I hear those arguments, I am reminded of what Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote immediately after the election of Barack Obama.

Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined — in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion’s share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King’s belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.

We might ask ourselves why we are more skeptical about the capacity of white people to confront racism than Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is fascinating for me to watch white people deny the reality of the central role that racism played in the election of Donald Trump, while at the same time assuming that white people are incapable of overcoming racism. If I didn’t know better, I might assume that the whole argument is designed to avoid addressing the topic. There’s a lot of historical precedent for that too.

In the end, for this country to deal with Trumpism beyond the presidency of Donald Trump, we must honestly and courageously address the disease that led to his election in the first place. Any attempt to dismiss the central role that racism played in that not only ignores our history, it would be like putting a Band-Aid on an infected wound. Sooner or later it will come back to haunt us. Why not simply address it now? That is what people like Rev. William Barber are suggesting when they talk about the “third reconstruction” and the power of fusion politics, all of which is grounded in our history as well.


If you value the kind of respectful back-and-forth dialogue Martin Longman and I are having about this topic, please consider donating to Washington Monthly. That’s what keeps us going. Thank you!

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.