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White Tears In Trump’s America

How the Republican nominee and his supporters are perverting identity politics

A President Donald Trump would be an asset to the American Nazi Party cause. That’s not hyperbole — it’s a pronouncement from ANP chairman Rocky Suhayda. If Trump wins the general election in November, Suhayda recently said on his radio show, “it’s going to be a real opportunity for people like white nationalists, acting intelligently to build upon that.” He added, “It doesn’t have to be anti, like the movement’s been for decades, so much as it has to be pro-white.” He also pushed for a white version of the Congressional Black Caucus, essentially, to advocate for the needs of white folks at the federal level. (Given how monochromatic Congress always has been and remains today, I’d suggest this new white caucus be called “Congress.”)

Suhayda’s endorsement isn’t terribly surprising; he isn’t the first white supremacist to say that Trump is his kind of guy. But what Suhayda has inadvertently touched upon is one of the more fascinating, and dangerous, themes of both the 2016 presidential election and the conservative reaction to the current civil rights movement: the increasingly public, and often ugly, assertion of white identity.

No matter how white the candidate pool is, political discussions about race in America tend to focus almost exclusively on brown and black people. Issues related to “racial justice” are thought to deal primarily with African-American and Latino communities, and white Americans enjoy a certain invisibility. Not so in the age of Trump. His supporters are loud about their grievances, unable to be content with the historical benefits that whiteness still confers upon them, and compelled to rebel against a browning America that no longer solely centers their experience. So rather than adjust or deal with a challenge to their unearned privilege, these angry folks act as if something is being stolen from them.

They’re misidentifying the thieves. Despite positioning himself as the White Working Man’s Champion — as he did on Wednesday, with a charade of a speech in front of a bunch of coal workers — Trump’s entire economic plan manages to leave those folks who most support him behind. He offered some vague details in a speech Monday in Detroit, for example, that included a child care expense tax exemption that helps wealthy people and likely won’t put a dime back into a poor family’s pockets. Back in June, the respected bond credit rating giant Moody’s predicted that 3.5 million American jobs would be lost under a President Trump, home prices and the stock market would fall, and the country would enter a downturn that “would last longer than the Great Recession.” Of course, people like Trump himself — the infamous One Percent — they’d be cool.

To distract his largely undereducated white voters from the fact that his administration would screw them over, Trump yammers about building walls to keep out those Mexicans — who are the real problem — and calls Black Lives Matter “inherently racist,” among other assorted flamethrowing. The most performative aspects of American whiteness, once confined to the occasional white mob violence or Ku Klux Klan march in your public square, are now broadcast almost daily thanks to the Trump insurgence. A lot of white folks are surely horrified by this fact, and were I white, I would be, too. I don’t like admitting that I get the please don’t let the criminal be black or please don’t let the terrorist have an Arabic-sounding name feeling whenever I watch the news, but that’s reality for a lot of us out here. I can imagine a lot of white people feeling the same when they see Trump and his supporters making them look bad.

Take an NBC News video from an Ohio rally on August 1, which featured a white Trump supporter saying he still might vote for the candidate “if he murdered the right person.” The New York Times also recently published a short video that put the angry passion of Trump’s supporters on stark display: His backers utter slurs like “dirty beaners” and “nigger” — the latter directed at President Obama. A manic young man starts bouncing around and going buck wild, as if he was in a mosh pit, outside a rally as he shouts for Trump to “build the wall.” Another man is ejected from a Trump rally for his t-shirt, which reads “Fuck Islam.” The same man is shown standing unrepentant outside the arena later on, bumping fists with a departing Trump supporter who thanks him for “not taking the shirt off.”

That video sparked a lot of shock from white friends and followers on my social media, but I actually thought it was mild, considering the physical violence we’ve seen visited upon protesters at earlier Trump rallies. These people aren’t looking to merely express pride in their whiteness, as Suhayda might claim; these are people seeking to express their belief in white supremacy. And what happens when their candidate loses in the fall? God only knows.

If these Trump supporters were simply going by the facts about the America we’re actually living in — one of declining unemployment, declining crime, declining illegal immigration, and increased deportation under Obama — perhaps they wouldn’t be quite this pissed. Add to that the greater health outcomes for those living in states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and you see Big Government working for the American underclass more effectively than it’s been given credit for. But facts aren’t the primary concern of these Trump supporters, and nor is the typical GOP party line about Big Government being evil. Not having to share the gains of that Big Government with people who don’t look and think like them — that’s their primary concern.

The Republican Party has catered openly to racist white voters for generations now, thanks to the “Southern strategy” and myriad other subtler efforts engineered to guarantee that entire sections of the American electoral map stay red. Trump is on board with all that, but tactics like the “Southern strategy” were always meant to be quieter than this. Judging by the coalition keeping Trump afloat, racist dog whistles clearly are no longer enough for those who see America as an inherently white nation.

Whiteness doesn’t just come with inherent cultural and socioeconomic privileges. White identity has also been elastic, and remains so to protect those privileges. It has had to expand over time to include other groups it previously considered threats — the Irish, the Italians, the Jews. But thanks to skin color, white Americans in the past never had to worry about expanding that privilege to include those of us who have always been more readily identifiable. Until now.

Social progress is not a zero-sum game, in which equality for one marginalized group means oppression for another. This isn’t just applicable to conversations concerning race, either, or gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and other arenas of identity. Presidential elections are a rare public moment when many American citizens can be engaged at one time in debating and discussing solutions for national issues. I’d like to put systemic racism high atop that list. Instead, thanks to Trump, we’re wasting time delicately tending to the feelings of white people who believe they’ve been wronged by the darker hordes their politicians warned them about.

Perhaps economically disadvantaged white people will realize one day that Obama and other people of color are not conspiring against them or seeking to undermine them. The only folks doing that run the party that has nominated Donald Trump for president.