One of the most frustrating phenomena of the last few year’s is the refusal on the part of much of the traditional media to grapple with the true source of Donald Trump’s powerful and dangerous appeal: racial animus. In a brilliant new piece in the Atlantic, Adam Serwer lays bare the simple facts behind Trump’s rise—and castigates the press for insisting the answer has to be something, anything, other than what it is. The thing is, we’ve been here before:
Thirty years ago, nearly half of Louisiana voted for a Klansman, and the media struggled to explain why.
It was 1990 and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, astonished political observers when he came within striking distance of defeating incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, earning 43 percent of the vote. If Johnston’s Republican rival hadn’t dropped out of the race and endorsed him at the last minute, the outcome might have been different.
Was it economic anxiety? The Washington Post reported that the state had “a large working class that has suffered through a long recession.” Was it a blow against the state’s hated political establishment? An editorial from United Press International explained, “Louisianans showed the nation by voting for Duke that they were mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” Was it anti-Washington rage? A Loyola University pollster argued, “There were the voters who liked Duke, those who hated J. Bennett Johnston, and those who just wanted to send a message to Washington.”
It was none of these, as Serwer shows.
While the rest of the country gawked at Louisiana and the Duke fiasco, Walker Percy, a Louisiana author, gave a prophetic warning to The New York Times.
“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.
Serwer’s piece is so full of so many keen insights that it defies easy summary, so I can only encourage you to read it in full. But this particular observation really stood out to me:
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.
In Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois examined not only the acquiescence of Northern capital to Southern racial hegemony after the Civil War, but also white labor’s decision that preserving a privileged spot in the racial hierarchy was more attractive than standing in solidarity with black workers.
“North and South agreed that laborers must produce profit; the poor white and the Negro wanted to get the profit arising from the laborers’ toil and not to divide it with the employers and landowners,” Du Bois wrote. “When Northern and Southern employers agreed that profit was most important and the method of getting it second, the path to understanding was clear. When white laborers were convinced that the degradation of Negro labor was more fundamental than the uplift of white labor, the end was in sight.” In exchange, white laborers, “while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.” For centuries, capital’s most potent wedge against labor in America has been the belief that it is better to be poor than to be equal to niggers.
Trump is a clown, a narcissist, a demagogue, an abuser, a kleptocrat, a tyrant, a sociopath, and an idiot. But Serwer is absolutely right that he understands one thing very well—the value of this “psychological wage”—and he intends to pay it back in full, with interest, at tremendous cost to the most vulnerable among us and to the country itself.