Tim wise; Trump supporters (AP/Evan Vucci/City Lights Publishers/Salon)

Author and activist Tim Wise: "The Republican Party is a white identity cult"

Leading anti-racist activist and author warns that "the cosplay guys" of Unite the Right are not the real threat


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Chauncey DeVega
September 5, 2018 12:00PM (UTC)

Donald Trump was not elected because of "economic anxiety" among white working-class Americans. This is a zombie narrative that the American news media continues to cling to because it doesn't like the truth: Trump's victory was propelled by racism and a white backlash politics where authoritarianism is valued above multiracial democracy. This is a repeated finding by social scientists, pollsters and other researchers. The conclusion is a matter of consensus and known fact.

Racism is Donald Trump's fortress. He hides behind it when under assault. He stands on its battlements while throwing down chaos, confusion and destruction.

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Donald Trump is a political necromancer who uses racism to control the millions of white Americans who subscribe to his political cult. The Republican Party generally shares Donald Trump's racism and bigotry against nonwhites and Muslims, whatever its leading figures may protest.

How is this moment of white backlash both simultaneously new and also an old story in American life? Are white supremacists and other racists "winning" in Trump's America? Should racists and other bigots be publicly shamed and outed? What is "white identity politics"? Why is it dangerous? How will Donald Trump further embrace white racism in the guise of the so-called "culture war" in response to the Russia Scandal and Special Investigator Robert Mueller?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Tim Wise. He is one the nation's leading anti-racism activists and a frequent guest on MSNBC and other news outlets. Wise is the 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.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. A longer version can be heard on my podcast.

What were your immediate thoughts when you heard Donald Trump channeling white nationalist talking points about "white genocide" and white farmers in South Africa last week?

I thought that it was probably either Stephen Miller's influence or, even more frighteningly, that Donald Trump really does just sit around watching Fox and then pulls out his phone and starts Twitter-thumbing whatever Fox News people such as Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson are saying at a given moment. At least if it's Stephen Miller, we have some sense of the directionality of it where, OK, the call is coming from inside the house, right? As opposed to if it's Tucker Carlson, and these guys on TV can just sit around and be like, “What do we want Trump to do tonight? Let's do this.”

The second thought was that I could just envision the white supremacist leader David Duke, who I've been fighting against for 30-plus years sitting there reading that Twitter feed and popping open a Champagne bottle, whether literally or figuratively. Now, we have the president of the United States tweeting out stuff that could have and would have appeared in David Duke’s newsletters 10 or 15 years ago.

The Unite the Right 2 rally in Washington was routed: Two dozen or so attendees outnumbered by several thousand counter-protesters. There was much celebration by liberal, progressives and other people of conscience. I think this is misplaced. With Donald Trump and the Republican Party mainstreaming white supremacy, their movement is winning in America. Am I being too cynical?

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They’ve certainly won a lot. Obviously, the game is never over until the whistle blows and there's a lot of time left. We certainly have the right and the ability to push back. I don't want to throw in the towel for sure, but I would certainly say that the rumors about the deaths of the "alt-right" white nationalist movement have been greatly exaggerated. The fact that the more cartoonish edge of the movement has been discredited pretty strongly since Charlottesville, that is a good thing, but then again, OK, so you beat the cosplay guys. It's like you beat Mighty Mouse.

Basically, you defeated a Reddit thread in real time. That's nice, but at the end of the day Stephen Miller isn’t on Reddit. Steve Bannon is not on 4chan and 8chan. Those guys don't have any time for this cartoonish "Let's dress up with Viking runes and swastikas and shields and helmets, and go into the street like we're at some Renaissance festival and beat people up." They don't have time for that nonsense.

I like the fact that those folks are on the run, metaphorically. But it's very clear that at the public policy level, with the family separations at the border -- David Duke didn't do that, but he’s certainly happy with it. The inequities that continue to plague black America with regards to police misconduct, that stuff hasn't changed. That's not neo-Nazis and that's not Richard Spencer. The wealth gap is still 15 to 1 between white families and black families on average. None of that has changed. All those disparities and inequities and many others are still there.

Meanwhile, this administration continues to go after the voting rights and the ability of black and brown folks to cast ballots. They are continuing to try and roll back civil rights protections that have existed for years within the Fair Housing Act and within public housing programs. All that stuff is continuing, and it seems to me that we are barking up the wrong tree when we focus on the extremes and we ignore mainstream white nationalism, which, as you said, is essentially in control of one of the two major political parties.

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It is not a fringe movement, it is the Republican Party. As you have long said about the Republican Party, it is a white identity organization. I would even go so far as to say the Republican Party is a white identity cult at this point, with just a few people hanging on, trying to steer the ship back in what they consider to be a less offensive direction. But I’ve got news for them: They're going to get thrown overboard, their day is done. There is no future for a Republican Party that is not a white nationalist party at this point.

Language is very important in these discussions. What is "white identity politics"? Why does it matter?

White identity politics, unlike its black or brown equivalent, is very much about attempting to hoard the advantages and the hegemonic dominance that whites, as a group, have generally had for 400 years in what we now call the United States. That is very different from black and brown "identity politics." Black folks and other people of color organizing on the basis of their racial and ethnic identity, to try to get a better deal politically or economically, is like trying to get a seat at the table at the fancy banquet. When white folks organize collectively for "our interests” -- putting aside what these individuals actually think those are -- it's not trying to get a seat at the table, it's about keeping the entire meal to ourselves. It's about saying that we will have all the seats or very nearly all the seats. If you all get any, it'll be at our discretion.

It's fundamentally about a politics of hoarding and not opportunity. It's about hoarding domination. It is about saying that we want to maintain dominance of the culture. The only people who are honest about that are, in fact, the Nazis. They will tell you that directly. Jared Taylor, one of the more prominent white nationalists, says, “Why wouldn't I want white people to maintain power? Why wouldn't any group want to maintain power if they'd had power?” That's something that at least they're honest about, and I respect their honesty as opposed to those who say, “No, we believe in pluralism,” but then they actually support policies and procedures that maintain white domination.

White identity politics is hoarding and hegemonic dominance. It's organizing on the basis of that dominance. Whiteness has really never meant very much except for domination of those who did not qualify for the designation. Whiteness is to be proud of an identity that doesn't have any inherent cultural meaning.

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Whereas when any black person talks about being a proud black person, they're talking about something very different. They're talking about pride in the fact that their people have survived and thrived, in spite of the obstacles and barriers that have been put in their path. It's the ability to persevere. It's the ability to excel in spite of the challenges. That's actually about internal fortitude as opposed to being proud of whiteness, which is about a designation you were given that elevated you above people. White identity politics is saying, “Hurray for our status,” even though that status came at the direct expense of other people's lives and liberties. White pride is a fundamentally different and more obnoxious thing than any other form of pride that one can think of in this country.

The rise of Trump and his version of racial authoritarianism feels like something new, but also something that has been in America since before the Founding. The color line has been described as a "changing same." How do you reconcile this tension?

It is like an intermission or a commercial break. That's not to say that we haven't had better and worse moments in American history. It's not to say that it's been an unbroken string of awfulness. But it is to say that the things that Trumpism has tapped into have been there from the beginning. They are not a breaking with form. They are not a deviation from a norm. They are perhaps a more extreme iteration of a norm, but they are, in fact, something that is akin to a virus that's been in your body for a very long time.

When Trump refers to these "white genocide" memes or parrots other white supremacist talking points -- either overtly or in the form of "dog whistles" -- why do you think that resonates with many white voters?

It resonates today in a way that it maybe wouldn't have even 20 years ago, let alone 50 or 100 years ago. Two things: One is that the fear of blackness and the fear of payback for the history of slavery and white supremacy has a long history. As I mentioned on Joy Reid's [MSNBC] show, this goes all the way back to at least the Haitian Revolution in the 1800s, if not earlier in America and the West. It goes back to the fear of slave rebellions. It goes back to the fear of black folks rising up and violently responding to what had been done to them.

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At some level, I think it's always been there. But the reason it is amplified today is that in the recent past the cultural norm of the country was still dominantly white. It didn't make sense to be paranoid about "the blacks are coming "or "the brown folks are coming." Before 1965, when immigration reform is passed, the numbers in the country are approximately 85 percent non-Hispanic white and about 10 percent African-American at that point, and then the other 5 percent are Latinos, Asian-Americans and indigenous people.

At that time, there were still white folks paranoid about losing power and believing in narratives about "reverse discrimination," but it was almost quaint and ridiculous. It didn't really catch fire in the same way, because whiteness was just still this uninterrogated norm. Even as recently as the early to mid-‘90s this was largely true. In many ways being white still meant never having to think about it.

That was true for most of American history. That is part of the core meaning of white privilege. But now in the last 20 years, white folks have had to think about it. In part, they've had to think about it because those of us doing anti-racism work have forced the issue, which we needed to do. We've raised these issues. They've gained some more prominence.

It's also been something we've had to think about because of demographic changes. It's something we've had to think about because of cultural changes. As I talk about in my book, "Dear White America," you had all this stuff happening at once. You had Barack Obama becoming president in 2008. Here's a man of color with a “exotic name” and an “exotic background” even if you accept that he's only from Hawaii. For most white people, that’s still really exotic, right? Maybe not Kenya, but it's still a vacation destination.

You have the economy melting down, confronting white folks with a level of insecurity that we hadn't seen in three generations. There were changes at the level of national and global entertainment and popular culture. The importance of that cannot be overstated. And now there is a global economy where you have to compete with nonwhites.

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What are your thoughts about these efforts to publicly shame white racists who are caught in public, often on video, calling people racial slurs? I worry that this may all backfire. 

Yes, it's a hard call. The folks who engage in racially motivated physical violence against nonwhites must be outed. They have to be exposed. I think they need to lose their jobs if that's what their employer decides. I certainly think they should be arrested if they've committed a crime. But for people that just say really racist, horrible stuff on social media? I think it's about discernment. When people have a history of saying horribly offensive things -- and especially if they are in a sensitive position, for example, teachers or police or a judge -- that kind of thinking could be a precursor to horribly unequal treatment within the judicial system, law enforcement  or education. In that instance I think it is perfectly appropriate to expose those individuals and to out them because they are doing real damage.

If on the other hand, it is someone who works in some service industry job and said some really stupid stuff on Facebook -- I don't feel a lot of sympathy for them when they get outed, because, if you're stupid enough to put racist slurs on Facebook, then you're stupid enough to deal with the repercussions. I don't feel a lot of sympathy. It's the way I felt when Richard Spencer got hit in the face. It wouldn't have been my approach, but I didn't cry about it. I don't lose sleep when Nazis get hit in the face.

But if someone says or does something on social media or wherever that's horrific and racist, and they actually come forward and submit themselves to a process of accountability and reconciliation on the terms dictated by those who have been harmed, then I believe that person should no longer be the object of shame and scorn. That person should in fact be supported in becoming a better person. I do believe that's important.

READ MORE: The Year of the Woman in electoral politics? Maybe so — but not for Republicans

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Will a truth and reconciliation commission be necessary for proper healing to take place in post-Trump America?

I certainly think so. The irony of the tweets that Trump sent out about South Africa -- beyond the stupidity of a ridiculous claim that white farmers are being subjected to genocide, for which there is no evidence -- is that South Africa, unlike the United States, has had a process of truth and reconciliation, however imperfect. I think that we could learn something from South Africa.

It's not going to wipe the slate clean. It is not going to solve the problem of unequal life chances and systemic racism caused by white supremacy and white unearned advantages. But, it's very obvious to me that as a country, particularly as we get further and further away from the era of overt segregation, and certainly further and further away from the era of enslavement, we have young people who are growing up with no understanding of how the United States has operated even historically, let alone how racism and other types of social inequality continues to operate now. A truth and reconciliation process could help remedy this problem.

Trump's racism is central to his political agenda and authoritarian assault on democracy. The closer Robert Mueller gets and the more Trump feels imperiled the more he will deploy even more obvious white supremacist narratives to generate and keep support among his public. What do you think Trump does next as Mueller tightens the screws?

You certainly could be right. He's already made some comments that are very similar to the white supremacist mantra of “diversity is not our strength." White supremacists also say "diversity" is "genocide." Trump has made those comments about Europe already when he says that European culture’s being lost, and his similar comments about Confederate statues fit that theme. "We're losing our beautiful statues and our heritage." Whether or not Trump will try to maintain the plausible deniability of not saying it exactly like Richard Spencer does remains an open question.

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I think he will certainly use the football season to attack black athletes, which is why it is so important for any white players of conscience -- even if they are not necessarily 100 percent on board with the movement that Colin Kaepernick began -- to start taking a knee, because that is the only way they are  going to help insulate black players from the rage of Donald Trump. Even that might not be enough, but it would certainly help.

Trump will also use any horrible crime committed by a Hispanic or other nonwhite person over the next several months to service his white racist culture war strategy.

But there is a longer term threat. What Trumpism and its racism does is it further sediments the Afrikaner base of the Republican Party. As America continues to change demographically, what comes after Trump -- even if there are a few good years in-between -- is going to be even more committed to white nationalism if we do not fully discredit that kind of dangerous, deranged and backwards thinking in the next decade.

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Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff 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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