Adam Serwer writes the definitive piece on Trumpism at The Atlantic. It is titled The Nationalist’s Delusion, and has the following subheading which tells you what that delusion is:
Trump’s supporters backed a time-honored American political tradition, disavowing racism while promising to enact a broad agenda of discrimination.
Let me provide a bit of a background on Adam, whose family I know. His father, Dan(iel) Serwer, was my classmate at Haverford when we both began in 1963 as the only two National Merit Scholars in that class. We came from adjacent communities, with me graduating from Mamaroneck High School and him from New Rochelle, where he was a classmate of his wife, Jacquelyn Days Serwer. Dan was of Jewish heritage, was a science major who somehow gravitated towards diplomacy and got a Ph. D. in History, That gravitation was fed in part by being able to work at the UN as the result of the influence of the father of a girl from nearby Bryn Mawr that he dated, my high school classmate Ellen Schachter. Dan helped put together the Dayton Peace Accords, and finished his federal service as Vice President of the US Institute of Piece.
Jackie went to Sarah Lawrence, where my sister was two years ahead of her at what was then about as unconventional as any American college or university She went on to get masters and doctoral degrees and is a curator and art historian, having served as Chief Curator of the Corcoran Gallery, and now serves as Chief Curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. She is African American, which makes Adam, like Barack Obama, bi-racial. Now a senior editor covering politics at The Atlantic, Adam has worked for a variety of media organizations over the years.
So why do I consider this a definitive piece? Consider just this, the final four paragraphs:
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.
I don’t mean to suggest that Trump’s nationalism is impervious to politics. It is not invincible. Its earlier iterations have been defeated before, and can be defeated now. Abraham Lincoln began the Civil War believing that former slaves would have to be transported to West Africa. Lyndon Johnson began his political career as a segregationist. Both came to realize that the question of black rights in America is not mere identity politics—not a peripheral matter, but the central, existential question of the Republic. Nothing is inevitable, people can change. No one is irredeemable. But recognition precedes enlightenment.
Nevertheless, 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.
Let me offer a few general comments about the piece even as I urge you to clear the time to read the entire piece.
I have given you Adam’s conclusion. Those four paragraphs are preceded by an examination in detail that covers a large sweep of America’s political, social, and cultural history. It examines in detail — and I think thoroughly debunks — the notion offered by many pundits that Trumpism is a result of economic dislocation for the White Working Class- after all, even though Trump drew a lesser percentage of the wealthier White vote than did Romney, he won every single income category. Serwer reminds us that if one looks at the lowest economic stratum, Clinton won in part because that stratum is heavily people color, specifically Black and Latino (and I might also add Native American).
What is particularly interesting is when Serwer looks back at the Senate run David Duke made in Louisiana in 1990, when Bennett Johnson won only because his Republican opponent dropped out late in the race and endorsed him, and Duke was held to 43% of the vote. In fact, Serwer begins his piece with that election, and notes that in its aftermath there was a lot of rhetoric similar to what we have seen in the aftermath of last year, even though Duke won every segment of the white vote, losing only because ¼ of the electorate was Black which vote heavily for the Democrat. Duke presented himself in a way that should be very familiar after our most recent national election.
Let me offer one paragraph from the analysis that Serwer offers after having provided us with the details of how the vote broke out:
By accepting the economic theory of Duke’s success, the media were buying into the candidate’s own vision of himself as a savior of the working class. He had appealed to voters in economic terms: He tore into welfare and foreign aid, affirmative action and outsourcing, and attacked political action committees for subverting the interests of the common man. He even tried to appeal to black voters, buying a 30-minute ad in which he declared, “I’m not your enemy.”
By now, between the beginning just explored, and the conclusion previously offered, you should have a sense of the thoroughness of Serwer’s examination.
Let me offer one more section, which Serwer begins by quoting a warning share withThe New York Times by Louisiana author Walker Percy:
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking David Duke is a unique phenomenon confined to Louisiana rednecks and yahoos. He’s not,” Percy said. “He’s not just appealing to the old Klan constituency, he’s appealing to the white middle class. And don’t think that he or somebody like him won’t appeal to the white middle class of Chicago or Queens.”
A few days after Duke’s strong showing, the Queens-born businessman Donald Trump appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live.
“It’s anger. I mean, that’s an anger vote. People are angry about what’s happened. People are angry about the jobs. If you look at Louisiana, they’re really in deep trouble,” Trump told King.
Trump later predicted that Duke, if he ran for president, would siphon most of his votes away from the incumbent, George H. W. Bush—in the process revealing his own understanding of the effectiveness of white-nationalist appeals to the GOP.
In this context, Serwer’s reminder of Trump claiming after Duke endorsed him places that in an appropriate context, something mainstream political reporters and analysts absolutely failed to do.
Note especially the end of the final paragraph of that block quote where Serwer talks about Trump’s own understanding of the effectiveness of white-nationalist appeals to the GOP.
Serwer also discusses how the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency unleashed many of the forces that lead to the electoral college victory by Trump. He discusses how Clinton was in the 2008 primary campaign was able to do very well with some of the very White voters who left the Democratic party to vote for Trump in 2016.
This is thorough.
This is insightful.
This is an article that is very much worth bookmarking and keeping at hand.
I have met Adam only once, at a book event for his father, whom I have now known for more than 5 decades. I have read his work for a number of years as he has gone from outlet to outlet, including among others MSNBC, Buzzfeed, and Mother Jones. This is, as he said on Twitter yesterday, is something on which he has been working for some time.
I for one am glad that he did.
Please, read it, pass it on.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.