Some of my best friends are white

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So much has been written and is being written about why Donald Trump won the 2016 election that I do not think I can add anything original. Nevertheless, at times like this, there is an irrepressible need to shout, if only to remind yourself that you are awake. I will, therefore, shout briefly about what we in this country stand to lose, and about how we – the non-white minority – can retain some form of kinship with those who voted for this calamity.

That it is a calamity is undeniable. It is no use arguing that Trump’s declared agenda is just campaign rhetoric, or that he will be mellowed by power, or restrained by conscientious colleagues, or disciplined by the responsibilities of governance. With both houses of Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court in Republic hands, and most of the Republican Party cynically (and predictably) falling in line behind Trump, there will be little meaningful restraint. It is equally pointless to suggest that Trump is actually a moderate who was merely playing to the gallery. He is mainly empty: an unprepared and narcissistic novice without a secure political base, who will – out of necessity – surround himself with men whose agendas are quite real. The administrative team that he has already appointed – men like Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions and Michael Flynn, with their undisguised virulence – has already confirmed that the next presidency will be at least as destructive as that of George W. Bush. Indeed, it will almost certainly be worse.

Overnight on November 8, a hundred years of small political victories and major civilizational gains were placed before the axes of barbarians who are, one can assume, themselves astonished at their good fortune. On the chopping block: the gains of the Progressive era, the New Deal, the Great Society, the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. More precisely, we stand to lose the regulatory state that has provided us with clean air and water, ensured the safety of toys and automobiles, protected public lands from despoliation, and given meaning to the very concept of public resources, including the idea that the state is a public resource. The incoming regime has already promised to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency and to back out of international anti-pollution accords. Drilling in the national parks, coal-fired power plants, and all-you-can-use lead paint cannot be far behind.

On the chopping block: the welfare state that has its origins in the great white crisis of the Depression, and that has, ever since, provided Americans with a safety net of unemployment benefits, health care and security in old age. That state has ensured that although there is poverty in this country, children rarely starve or freeze to death anymore, or die on the doorsteps of the hospital. That state has also concretized the idea that the individual is not an atomized subject who is solely responsible for his successes and failures, but a member of overlapping communities of citizens, with all the advantages and disadvantages that membership involves. It has functioned as the representative of the national community in the life of the individual, underlining the principle that ‘society’ includes a relationship of support between the community and the individual. Now, to borrow a line from Margaret Thatcher, we stand at the threshold of a state premised on the notion that there is no such thing as society.

On the chopping block: the painfully won edifice of civil rights, the central moral narrative of twentieth-century America. White supremacy is the basic platform on which Trump was elected. His slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ is a direct offshoot of the Tea Party’s narrative of ‘taking our country back,’ i.e., the reclamation of the White House from a black man. When was America last ‘great’? It was, of course, in the time of Ward Cleaver, cars with tail fins, and a distinctly white-southern form of Americana: uniformly white faces at the drive-in theater and the chrome-plated diner. What is it about the 1950s that so much of American nostalgia revolves around this decade of corn-syrup well-being? Some of it has to do with prosperity and unionized manufacturing jobs, no doubt. But it is also the moment before the Civil Rights Act and federally protected voting rights, before Cesar Chavez and Chicano activism, before Muhammad Ali, before women bosses, before the Stonewall riots, before Third World immigrants, and before the Bates motel became a Patel motel. Those who think the 1950s were ‘great’ exhibit not just an economic nostalgia, but nostalgia for a racial order.

For the ‘white working class’ – which is not so much an economic status as a cultural identity – that supported Trump, ‘feeling’ economically insecure was inseparable from the intolerable insecurity of what we loosely call diversity. Voters who had no intention of picking oranges or washing dishes for a living supported a candidate who insisted we need a wall to keep Mexicans out, and to deport them en masse. Anti-immigration politics is almost always a racial posture, not an economic one.

Trump’s loudly articulated threats against Muslims reflect the same racial posture. Here, however, it is necessary that we separate the red herrings from the rotten fish. The aspect of the new ‘Muslim policy’ that has got the most publicity is a vague plan to subject Muslims to registration. Accompanied by explicit references to Japanese internment and the possibility that Muslims might be required to carry documents identifying them by religion, it has naturally raised the specter of families being herded into camps, and the Nuremberg laws. Those particular dangers are, I think, not especially acute. The rhetoric of dramatic new forms of registration and detention is for the most part a ritual of victory and a tactic of racial intimidation: a celebratory experience of hate speech without repercussions. The history of first-wave fascism is unlikely to repeat itself so exactly, and Japanese internment is not the most relevant model for what awaits Muslims in this country. The more reliable models are Guantanamo and the ‘black sites’ that spread like an American fungus after 2001. It is easy for liberals to forget that registration of Muslims – in the form of secret ‘no fly lists,’ police surveillance and FBI watch-lists – already exists. In the age of electronic data collection, these can be more subtle than garish yellow stars of David, and we can reasonably expect that they will be expanded.
When we see the Trump phenomenon as a dramatic departure from existing political norms, we sometimes miss the powerful currents of continuity that link it to the ‘War on Terror.’ It is, for instance, shot through with the same vision of racialized enemies who must be confronted both abroad and at home, and that was normalized not only through the news, but through television shows like 24 and Homeland. It exhibits the same indifference towards legal and constitutional niceties. Trump may want to bring back the use of torture, but torture never fully went away. It was merely suspended, by a sort of gentleman’s agreement within the US government that has now been jettisoned by people who are uninterested in being gentlemen. When Barack Obama declined to prosecute CIA employees and members of the Bush administration for torture, he left the door open for future governments to resort to waterboarding and worse, unobstructed by legal judgments or the fear of punishment. America – in the sense of a racialized national-security state – invested in Trump well before the election. He did not come out of the blue. He came, rather, from the cracks that have been deliberately maintained within American liberalism, and that have produced different strains of fascism at different times. It is worth remembering that fascism is not the polar opposite of democracy, especially after 1945. It is a tendency within democracy, based on the same valorization of the majority.

In these circumstances, we – minorities – can expect difficulties that are only partly unprecedented. We can expect intensified police violence, more harassment by government bureaucracies, confrontations in the streets and schoolyards with racists engaged in taking their country back, and the infringement of voting rights. Usually, the frequency and seriousness of these problems will depend upon who we are, where we are, who we are with, and how much money we have. Sometimes those things will make no difference. Some of us will have to live with an intensified fear of deportation or imprisonment. Some will lose their jobs. Some will be ‘registered,’ blacklisted or tortured. Some of these problems we will share with our white friends and colleagues; others will be ours alone. Dealing with these realities will require resilience and extraordinary political intelligence. I do not think anybody knows how it can be done. We have only begun to dread and to steel ourselves.

I will, accordingly, say nothing about how to resist, or how to ‘take our country back.’ I will instead say a few words about survival and sanity, and about community. There has been some talk – mainly from the stunned governing establishment – about ‘unity’ and ‘coming together as a country.’ This election, however, has forced us to look at our white neighbors a little differently, or at least, warily. I do not mean neighbors who scream racist epithets at black passers-by or attack hijab-wearing women on public transportation. Few of us have any desire to ‘unite’ with a lynch mob, although readers of G√ľnter Grass and Hanif Kureishi know that the line between an assailant and a defender in a racist society is not always a sharp one. I mean the nice ones, who greet us by name when we walk into their pizzerias and take care of our children when we drop them off at school. Are they, or are they not, a part of the mob? We are quite aware that more than a few of them voted for Trump. They are, in fact, aware that we are aware; they do not want us to think of them as racist, and fall silent – out of courtesy! – when we walk in on their celebrations. For those of us who live outside the blue enclaves of the major cities, especially, they are woven into our communities, as much as we are woven into theirs.

On the one hand, we can allow that many white voters may have followed their ‘economic anxieties,’ or their feeling of ‘being abandoned’ by mainstream politicians (much-noted by the media after the election), or their desire to ‘try something different,’ whatever that means. We can accept that they did not connect the dots. We can allow that they were merely being stupid, because there is no better word for ‘trying something different’ without knowing what that ‘something’ is, or for believing that Donald Trump, of all people, is a friend of workers who want unionized jobs and an enemy of corruption. But on the other hand, we cannot ignore the reality that our white neighbors voted for a man who had the endorsement of the KKK. (When was the Klan last a factor in a presidential election? We would have to go back to the era of Woodrow Wilson.) Trump’s racist rhetoric did not bother them; they were able to see it as unimportant. The racial violence on display at his rallies, which he never repudiated, did not trouble them either. The young black protesters who were manhandled and abused by mobs confident in their strength of numbers did not matter to them.

To live alongside such neighbors is the necessary lot of minorities in any democratic nation-state. I will therefore make a counterintuitive suggestion: counterintuitive, because it flies in the face of the heroic-defiant exhortations to fight in which we are now indulging, and which are undoubtedly necessary. Let us give our neighbors the benefit of the doubt. Let us accept that most of them were not thinking about you and me when they voted. Let us accept that although they think Mexicans are our misfortune, are afraid of black people, and believe Muslims have no place in American society, they think we – their co-worker, or son-in-law, or even their friend – are okay. They can, on occasion, almost forget that we are not white. In other words, let us accept the ‘some of my best friends are Jews’ argument against the charge of anti-Semitism. But first, let us think about what that argument means.

People who think that immigration is a problem, but are nice to you, an individual immigrant, are making an exception. They will make that exception only as long as you do not challenge them beyond a certain point, i.e., as long as you are tactful and grateful, and accept the fundamental inequality that comes with being a minority in a democracy. But it does mean that they are able to make exceptions for individuals, and thus – in moments of forgetfulness, so to speak – to disaggregate the monolithic categories that constitute their world.

I want to suggest that the ability of the racist to make exceptions for neighbors and coworkers is not altogether a bad thing. It can function, and does function, as a mode of coexistence in majoritarianism. This is especially true when democracy has dispensed with liberalism. Even liberalism was always a self-contradictory ideology: in On Liberty, John Stuart Mill found it necessary to insert caveats that made it clear that in a world premised on equality, some people must be less equal than others. Moreover, as an ideological system, the multi-ethnic nation-state has its own inherent conflicts: whereas the liberal state is premised on the equality of all citizens, the idea of the nation inevitably becomes racialized and implies that ‘other’ races – i.e., other nations – have a lesser claim upon the state. This is a predicament we call ethnocracy, or the complication of liberal democracy by ethnic nationalism. America is not formally an ethnocracy, but in reality it cannot avoid the idea that some ethnicities are more American than others.

‘Muslims are nasty, but not you, dear neighbor,’ is a way of managing those contradictions. It is bad ideology, in the sense that it is both intellectually and ethically flawed. It leaves the door open for discrimination and deportation. But it is also deeply human, allowing for personal affection, friendship, protectiveness, and even tolerance – not so much their tolerance of us, as our tolerance of them.
Such flawed tolerance produces space within which we can live on an everyday basis. It also produces space within which we can organize and fight – not always with the brashness of militants, but with the guile, tact and humor of minorities in any majoritarian political order. It produces space within which we can teach – and I say this not just as an educator, but as a liberal who believes that if you can make an exception for me, you can learn to become uncertain about the category itself. That is undoubtedly somewhat wistful, but the wistful is a necessary component of any progressive politics.

Finally, such tolerance produces space within which we – minorities – can do some introspection of our own, and become alert to our own prejudices and hierarchies: how we treat women, homosexuals, other minorities, the poor, and anyone who is less powerful than we are. We can, in this space, become aware that power is not a black-or-white, constant, consistent thing that you either have or do not have. Power fluctuates with every interaction and change of context. It is not a bad thing to learn, ourselves, from the experience of being at the receiving end.

November 19, 2016