"There was a market for white resentment": Tim Wise on Trump, David Duke and the bigotry that's risen from the shadows

Read or listen: Interview with Tim Wise about what the Trump phenomenon portends for the future of U.S. politics

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 22, 2016 7:21PM (EDT)

Tim Wise   (City Lights Publishers)
Tim Wise (City Lights Publishers)

Listen to an excerpt of the interview here:

The ascendance of Donald Trump over the Republican Party has been met with many questions about racial progress and social justice in the United States. Is Donald Trump’s rise to power fueled primary by “white economic anxiety?” Alternatively, is it a function of white racism and nativism? What of his championing by overt white supremacists such as David Duke and neo-Nazis?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Tim Wise, one of the United States’ leading antiracism activists and author of numerous books including “Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority,” as well as “Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America” about the Trump phenomenon and what it portends for the future of American politics and society.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You have been working on antiracism and social justice issues for some time. You fought against David Duke during his first run at elected office, have written several books on white privilege and travel the country speaking about these issues. What do you make of this political moment?

I remember really clearly, even though it’s been a quarter century, the night that David Duke lost the Senate race in 1990. Those of us who were involved in that, we were gathered at the Sheraton, I think it was, on Canal Street in New Orleans. The media was there and they were asking my boss at the time, Lance Hill, [of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism], “What do you make of this?” And his statement was “Well, tonight was a referendum on hate, and hate won.”

Duke lost. He lost by whatever the percentage was, but he received approximately 60 percent of the white vote. I think the overall vote was something like 56 to 44. But he got 60 percent of the white vote. What Lance was saying at the time — and what he would reiterate the next year when Duke lost the governor’s race but still got 55 percent of the [white] vote — was that the problem was never Duke. It was Duke-ism. It was that mentality of blaming black and brown folks for problems that they did not create, scapegoating people of color for every possible social problem.

And even though it’s been a quarter century, it strikes me that in many ways, that’s still where we are. Only the difference, and it’s frightening, is that back in those days many of us believed — my boss, myself, the people I worked with — we all believed that Duke-ism was easily transportable across state lines. I remember Lance used to call it “cocaine politics.” It was very concealable and easily transportable across state lines. And people said, “Well, that’s just Louisiana. That’s just those stupid Louisianans.”

But we always knew that there was a market for white resentment, and a quarter century later I think that market has become much more lucrative in the sense that the kinds of things Duke was saying a quarter century ago are now sort of mainstream.

It’s a formula that they’ve been playing for a very, very long time and which I think the Democratic Party has not taken seriously enough.

Given the history you’ve laid out, do you think Donald Trump is converting new people or is he giving them permission to voice and act on impulses they’ve always had? 

My guess is that it’s more of the latter than the former. That might be wishful thinking. But my guess is that the folks who were lining up, and I’m talking the real hard-core base of Trump support, are people who did not need to be convinced by Donald Trump that the “problem” was Mexicans or the “problem” was Black Lives Matter or the “problem” was Muslims. These are people who, according to all the evidence I’ve seen, are probably the kind of folks who believe the president wasn’t born in America.

My guess is that the typical Trump base supporter — I’m not saying every supporter but the people that are really that hard-core one-third of the Republican Party that were out there from the very beginning — are people who probably were not convinced by him but who looked at his candidacy as this sort of excuse for saying all of the crazy bullshit that they’d been thinking and said in their personal emails for years. That’s why so much of this has been about “challenging political correctness.”

But there are people out there who — I guess because of their own fragile masculinity, their own fragile sense of whiteness — believe that “I just can’t say what I want to say anymore.” Well, of course, that’s bullshit. People can say whatever they want to say. We don’t line you up against a wall and shoot you in the head for being a bigot.

But the fact is, if you say bigoted, crazy, misogynistic, racist shit, we have the right to call you a crazy, bigoted misogynistic racist. And if you complain about being labeled the very thing that your own words convince us that you are, you don’t really have a lot of ground to stand on. I think that’s sort of where Trump is. He’s not converting people, but he’s taking people who were already convinced that their voice has somehow been silenced.

Carole Pateman and Charles Mills have written a great book called “The Contract and Domination,” which examines the overlaps between racism and sexism. Taking the long view, how do you think that the racism we’ve seen against Obama from conservatives is going to be related to the sexism and the misogyny that Hillary Clinton is going to experience if she is elected president?

They are definitely conjoined. There is no way to understand the Trump phenomenon, for example, and the hostility toward Hillary Clinton, as a merely sexist issue. And there’s no way to understand the hostility towards Barack Obama as a merely racial issue because all of these things are intertwined.

For example, the argument that people sometimes make about Trump supporters is that “Well, you know, there’s this class element, and they’re just working-class folks who feel battered by the economy, and they just can’t quite find their grasp on the economy, and so we need to understand them.”

Well, if it were really a working-class issue, if it were a class issue as opposed to race or gender or both, then you would expect black and Latino and Asian folks — who are working class in much greater percentages, I should point [out], than white folks — to be flocking to Donald Trump. You would say, well, if it’s a class issue, the disproportionate percentage of working-class people who are people of color should love Donald Trump. And, of course, they don’t.

By the same token, if the hostility toward Hillary Clinton were just an issue of misogyny or patriarchy, you would expect that black men, Latino men, Asian men, indigenous Native North American men would be just as hostile to her and just as supportive of Trump as white men. And yet what does the data say? The data is real clear. It’s pretty much the fact that white men are the base for Donald Trump. So when we talk about gender and sex issues, we need to understand there’s a particularly fragile white masculinity that is at the root of Trump’s movement.

You said the magic phrase there: “fragile white masculinity.” Why is there such a hostile response online and elsewhere to discussions of that concept?  

Well, I think it’s certainly a little bit about the general sense of any group that has been so dominant having to actually confront the notion of pluralism and having to share space is probably really frightening, I guess. So there’s part of it that’s generic and there’s part of it that’s very specific. I vacillate between these two poles of wanting to be understanding and wanting to not be.

It seems to me on the one hand, if you wax nostalgic for this era of white, Christian, straight, male hegemony, there’s part of me that wants to say to you, “Fuck you.” There really is part of me that wants to say, “I want your America to die, and I want you to be sad tomorrow, and I want you to deal with the fact painfully that your country is gone. And I don’t care because your country, as you conceived of it, deserved to die.”

And there’s part of me — because I’m not an asshole and I try to be a decent human being — who says, “Wow, you know what? It must really suck to have been told all of your life that the world was yours, that you were entitled to everything and then [you] come to find out that, eh, maybe you’re just gonna have to settle for your portion rather than everything. That sucks and it’s not your fault that you were lied to. It’s not your fault that somebody sort of told you that you were the shit and then come to find out you’re just one of many.”

So there’s part of me that wants to, as the saying goes and I’ve mentioned this many times in my work, “be soft on people and hard on systems” because I know systems are the real problem. But there’s that point where you also say, “You know what? At some point when your personal shit threatens democracy, threatens justice, then I have to just roll over you.”

And I’ll be honest with you because I think we have to be honest in these kind of moments. I don’t know which of those tendencies is the one that’s going to win. I’d love to be able to be really kind and ecumenical and work it all out. And then there’s part of me that’s like, “Shit, you want to kill my people and I’m supposed to be nice to you? You want to roll over the people I care about and I’m supposed to invite you to coffee?” I don’t know. It’s very much up in the air.

I’m not so much worried about the election. I think it’s going to be a lot closer than the pundits are saying that it’s going to be and Trump will lose. What do you think happens the day after with these voters that have lost? Where do they go?

That, I think, is the issue because ultimately there are two things going on. One is these Trump folks, and I’m talking about their hard-core base support. They really believe they’re gonna win. You can see it on Twitter. You can see it on Facebook. You know, Sean Hannity said, Trump’s got more Facebook followers; he has bigger rallies.

So I think the danger is . . . when they lose and I tend to agree with you, I think they’re gonna lose, although it’s not guaranteed. The question is, If the vote total is close — if it’s 10 points, it’s different — but if it’s 4 points or 5 points or less, where do they go? I wrote “Dear White America” in 2012. My argument at the time was, What do these white folks do who have been nurtured in this anxiety and resentment and this idea that they’ve ‘lost their country’?

At the time I was thinking about the Tea Party; I wasn’t even thinking about Trumpkins. My point at the time was, What do these people do? Are these the kind of people who gladly say, “Oh gosh, we lost, that sucks. But we’ll just work harder next time and gosh darn it, in four years we’ll come back and we’ll be ready to go.” My argument was then, and is now, I don’t think that that’s what Trump’s people are like. I don’t think Trump’s people are the kind of people who go, “Gosh darn it. How can we tweak our message to get moderate voters?” These are people who I think, to be perfectly honest, lose in November and then they look around and look at their wall and they say, “Well goddamn. We’ve got a lot of guns. We don’t have the vote, but we got the guns.”

So I hate to believe that that’s what this is coming to, but I honestly believe there’s a point where these folks are more committed to their version of America than they are to what the words of America — the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, all of that — say we’re supposed to be about. So I think those of us who care about pluralism, progressivism, justice, equality, all of those things had better be really clear: These people who are voting for Donald Trump are not convertible. They are not our allies. They are not our potential friends. It is about literally either steamrolling and defeating them and imposing a just and decent society or it is about letting them win. And I don’t believe there is any middle ground between that. I’d love to think that there was, but I just do not see it.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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