How whiteness poses the greatest threat to US democracy

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

People forget that championing whiteness is what makes Trump powerful.

Agrowing chorus of voices is warning that our democracy is in grave danger, but there is much less discussion of the exact nature of the threat. Recently, President Biden emphasized the severity of the threat by going to the place where the constitution was signed to give what the White House described as “a speech on the continued battle for the soul of the nation”.

Biden specifically named “Donald Trump and the Maga Republicans” as the ones carrying out the attacks, and that is accurate, on the surface. The deeper, more longstanding threat, however, was articulated by historian Taylor Branch in a 2018 conversation with author Isabel Wilkerson recounted in Wilkerson’s book Caste. As they discussed how the rise of white domestic terrorism under Trump was part of the backlash to the country’s growing racial diversity, Branch noted that, “people said they wouldn’t stand for being a minority in their own country”. He went on to add, “the real question would be if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?”

Whiteness is the deeper threat because championing whiteness is what makes Trump powerful. People forget that Trump was not particularly well-regarded before he started attacking Mexican immigrants and signaling to white people that he would be the defender of their way of life. In the months before he launched his campaign, he was polling at just 4% in the May 2015 ABC/Washington Post poll. After stirring the racial resentment pot, his popularity took off, growing exponentially in a matter of weeks and propelling him to the front of the pack by mid-July 2015 when he commanded support of 24% of voters, far ahead of all the other Republican candidates.

As his support grew with each racially infused statement – such as banning Muslims from entering the US – Trump marveled at the unshakable passion of his followers, observing quite presciently that, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters … It’s like, incredible.”

Trump’s 2015 discovery of the power of whiteness is the same lesson that Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace internalized in the crucible of southern politics during the civil rights movement in the 1950s. “I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes – and I couldn’t make them listen,” Wallace said, adding, “Then I began talking about n—–s – and they stomped the floor.” After Trump began talking about Mexicans, and then Muslims, many white people from coast to coast stomped the floor and even stormed the Capitol to keep him in power, seeking to destroy the democratic tradition of a peaceful transfer of power.

As Wallace’s words show, Trump is not the first leader of a movement to make America white again, and for more than a century we have consistently underestimated the political power of whiteness.

The clearest example is the start of the civil war itself. A hundred and sixty years before the January 6, 2021 insurrection, the legislatures in one-third of the states passed laws rejecting the outcome of a presidential election and then issued a literal call to arms where hundreds of thousands of people picked up their guns and, in the name of defending whiteness, proceeded to shoot and kill hundreds of thousands of their fellow Americans.

In 1968, Alabama’s Wallace saw that the audience for white nationalism reached far beyond his state’s borders and mounted a presidential campaign that secured 13.5% of all votes cast. The strength of Wallace’s showing influenced Richard Nixon’s presidential administration to the extent that historian Dan Carter wrote: “When George Wallace had played his fiddle, the President of the United States had danced Jim Crow.”

In 1990, an actual Klansman, former Grand Wizard of the KKK David Duke, mounted a bid for the US Senate and was initially dismissed as unable to win because of his unapologetic white supremacist views. Duke shocked the establishment by attracting the support of 44% of Louisiana’s voters.

The good news is that the proponents of whiteness do not command majority support. The original Confederates themselves were in the minority and represented just 11% of the country’s white population. People who enjoy majority support have no need to unleash fusillades of voter suppression legislation in the states with the largest numbers of people of color. Yet, from the grandfather clauses of the 1800s to the restrictive voting laws passed last year in the south and south-west, we are seeing an unrelenting practice of trying to depress and destroy democracy by engaging in what the writer Ron Brownstein has described as, “stacking sandbags against a rising tide of demographic change”.

Just as the enemies of democracy know that they must destroy democracy in order to prevail, the clearest way to defeat them is to aggressively expand democratic participation. Mathematically there is a clear New American Majority made up of the vast majority of people of color in alliance with the meaningful minority of white people who want to live in a multiracial nation. With the sole exception of the 2004 election, that coalition has won the popular vote in every presidential election since 1992.

In order to defend democracy and win the fight for the soul of the nation, two things must happen. One is to make massive investments in the people and organizations working to expand voting and civic participation. Coalitions like America Votes Georgia and Arizona Wins played critical roles in bringing hundreds of thousands of people of color into the electorate, helping to transform those former Confederate bastions.

The second step is to directly challenge the nation to choose democracy over whiteness. When Taylor Branch posed his provocative question in 2018, it was in the wake of tragedies such as the killing of Heather Heyer, a white woman protesting the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, march of white nationalists incensed at plans to remove Confederate statues. Trump’s response to Heyer’s killing – she was intentionally struck by a car driven by a white supremacist – was to shrug and note that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the march.

When he launched his presidential campaign in 2019, Biden explicitly invoked Trump’s post-Charlottesville embrace of whiteness, saying “We have a problem with this rising tide of white supremacy in America,” and went on to oust a defender of white nationalism from America’s White House. Far from being chastened, however, the enemies of democracy have only intensified their efforts. To ultimately prevail in this defense of our democracy, we must clearly understand the underlying forces imperiling the nation, name the nature of the opposition, and summon the majority of Americans to unapologetically affirm that this is a multi-racial country.

Source : The Guardian