Does Trump want a race war? Tim Wise on right-wing terrorism and our president

Anti-racism activist and author: It's time for white people who believe in justice to stand up and step forward

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 2, 2019 8:00AM (EDT)

Racism is more than what is "inside someone's heart" or their private thoughts, beliefs and values. Racism is the behavior and outcomes that result. When discussing President Trump, the most powerful person on the planet, these distinctions and definitions impact the lives of many millions, if not billions, of people.

In many ways, a person is what they do. By those criteria, Donald Trump is a racist and a white supremacist.

Trump activated racism and white supremacy to win the 2016 presidential election — and clearly intends to do the same to win the 2020 election as well.

Donald Trump's recent series of racist attacks on prominent black and brown people are a tactic in service of a much larger strategy: the maintenance, protection and expansion of white privilege and the overall power of white people as a group in America and around the world, by any means possible.

Nearly three years into Trump's presidency why do so many journalists and other political observers still  act shocked or surprised by Donald Trump's blatant racism and authoritarian behavior? Is Republican strategist Rick Wilson correct in his assessment that Donald Trump wants a "race war" in America? How should we understand Trump's and the right wing's dishonest use of "anti-Semitism" as a slur against Democrats and progressives, nonwhites and Muslims? How are Donald Trump, the Republican Party and the broader right-wing movement weaponizing white America's fear about the country's changing demographics? In what ways is the recent mass shooting in California by an apparent white supremacist — along with a large increase in right-wing political violence in America — an expected outcome  of Trump's presidency?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Tim Wise, one of 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” and “Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America.”

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can also listen to my full conversation with Tim Wise through the player embedded below.

Donald Trump has clearly shown that racism and white supremacy will once again be his dominant strategy to win the 2020 presidential election. This should not be a surprise given all of Trump's racist behavior both before he was president and since. Yet many in the mainstream news media seem surprised or shocked. Why is this? 

There is a historical naiveté that's been taught to and then internalized by many white folks, where they somehow believe that the United States is this unique, exceptional place where horrible things did not and do not happen. The United States was actually founded on horrible things such as genocide, enslavement and the other horrors of white supremacy. These horrors coexisted with really pretty rhetoric about freedom and democracy — for white people.

Only white people have the luxury of such a naive view of American history. Black and brown folks have always known better. There is also a real sense where, psychologically, many people do not want to believe that things can get as bad as they have become under Donald Trump. People know that once matters become that dire and bad they must do something about it. At that point you become morally compelled to act. Acting in response to those horrors is really scary for a lot of people, particularly people who are not naturally inclined to be activists or challenge injustice.

Of course white people have a long history of not listening to what people of color tell us. Black and brown folks were trying to warn America about Donald Trump.

For several years experts on authoritarianism have been warning the American people and the world  about the threat embodied by Donald Trump, and how his assaults on democracy would only escalate once he was in the White House.

Obviously, Trump was going to do this. How many op-eds and other stories have been written saying, "Is this a new low for Donald Trump?" Every week there is a new low. And now the new narrative is that there is "no bottom" for Trump's behavior. Donald Trump started his campaign calling Mexican refugees, migrants and immigrants "rapists" and "drug dealers." What more do we need to know about Donald Trump?

On the part of Republicans there is a willingness to abide evil, either because Republicans agree with Trump's assault on democracy or because they do not care enough as they are getting their tax cuts, deregulation and all the other things that he is delivering to the various constituency groups of the right-wing movement. And then of course there is just the banality of evil which explains Donald Trump, his supporters, and allies too.

Among the Democrats, there is paralysis. It is caused by a belief that the New Deal coalition still exists and that the Democrats have to pander to it. That belief is absolute nonsense. White working-class folks who are strong union members and who are dedicated to solidarity are already part of the Democratic Party's coalition. You don't need to pander to them. You don't have to go out and specifically tailor a message to them. They understand the value of solidarity and they have for a long time.

But a large swath of white working-class folks are gone, lost to Trumpism. They are lost. They are not coming back. The only way you're going to get those white working-class voters back is if you win elections, get them universal health care, decent education and drag those white voters kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

What are your thoughts about Trump's racist attacks on Rep. Elijah Cummings and the Rev. Al Sharpton?

The attack on Cummings was classic racism, of course, masquerading under the guise of simply pushing back at criticism from the congressman. Of course, when Trump pushes back against politicians who are white and criticize him he never refers to the places they are from as "infested" or says that “no human would want to live there.” Trump never refers to West Virginia, for example — which is poor, like parts of Baltimore — in those kinds of terms. We all know why.

As for Sharpton that is just a “Black Bogeymen: The Greatest Hits” album basically. Trump has never attacked Sharpton before, and Sharpton hasn’t been any more critical of him in recent weeks than at any point since 2015. But why the attacks now? If white racial anxiety is rolling down the tracks, might as well load as much coal as you can into it — my pun there very much intended. That is Trump's way of thinking. Trump will probably go after Rev. Jesse Jackson next.

The mainstream news media has made many errors in their analysis of the rise of Trump and what is going on in America under his regime. One of the errors is to underplay and not take seriously the fact that Trump's supporters and many other white Americans believe that they are in an existential struggle against black and brown people. If they think such fictions are true, and internalize all the other delusions which come with such thinking about a "threat" to white, Christian America, then anything is possible. This is a dire situation, a true national emergency.

All those people who actually believe that the threat represented by Donald Trump is going away if he loses in 2020, or at the end of his reign in 2024 when things "get back to normal," are missing the point.

Let's say Donald Trump loses in 2020. Do we actually think that those white people who believe that there is this existential threat to "Western society" and "Christianity" are just going away? That these Trump supporters will wait for another four years to vote again? That is not how Trump's voters and his other supporters think.

Republicans and other white conservatives have been able to win at the ballot box — at least in 2016. What if the White Right does not win in 2020? What if the Democrats hold the House, and what if they narrow the Senate, or even take back the Senate? And then what if all that Trump has done to please his supporters seems to be reversed, or at least halted? Do we really think Trump's supporters are going to just slink away? That Trump's supporters and other members of the white right are not going to remember the boxes of ammunition in their basements?

Right now they are mailing pipe bombs to their "enemies" even when white people as a group are on top. The hate crime numbers are going up and Trump's supporters are winning. Imagine what happens when they and too many other white conservatives feel that their backs are against the wall. People of conscience and other Americans need to understand what it is that we are facing. This is not a joke. The right wing in America is not comprised of people who play nice with others.

How do you explain Donald Trump and the Republicans' newfound obsession with "anti-Semitism"? How does this fit into how the right has long distorted and twisted the actual meaning of racism to serve its goals?

It's not really a great strategy, because the vast majority of Jewish folks can see through it. Most Jewish folks don't really like being, once again, the middlemen between white Gentiles and people of color. Historically that position has not served us very well in America. It certainly has not served people of color very well.

Trump and the Republican Party's claims about anti-Semitism are not really aimed at Jewish folks. I think that those cries are aimed at Christian nationalists who feel themselves to be lovers of the Jews, mostly so they can get us all to go back to Israel so that Jesus Christ can come back to Earth at some point and send all Jews to hell. When Trump and other Republicans and conservatives pose as people who are concerned about anti-Semitism, that is ultimately less about being friends to Jews than it is signaling to right-wing Christians that they are going to pursue policies that the latter believe will bring about the End Times.

Now, as far as the lowering of the bar as to what constitutes "racism," this is part of a broader effort by conservatives to flip the script on what racism itself really is. Not only have Trump and other conservatives made it impossible for anything they do to be considered racist they have twisted the meaning of racism so it only applies to Democrats and black and brown people.

White conservatives raised the bar for what is considered racism for themselves, but lowered it for people of color so that everything becomes "reverse discrimination." It is all part of an attempt to cast people of color as the "real bigots," whether they're bigots against white people, whether they're bigots against Israel, whether they're bigots against America. It's just a way of saying nonwhites are the real haters in America.

Political consultant Rick Wilson is, to his credit, one of the most outspoken "Never Trump" conservatives. After Trump's rally in Greenville, North Carolina, two weeks ago, Wilson wrote a powerful essay for the Daily Beast in which he said that Donald Trump wants to start a "race war." Is Rick Wilson correct?

The only thing about Rick Wilson's analysis which is incorrect — and this is something I have said for a long time — is that it presumes that America has not already been in a "race war" for several hundred years.

What is happening with Trump and his movement right now is simply a new battle in a centuries-long war that white supremacy has been fighting to maintain itself over nonwhite people in this country, as well as around the world.

The fact that people of color along the way have won some battles, have not died as a group yet, have not gone away, have not been vanquished or fully conquered, is a source of never-ending confusion, I take it, on the part of certain white people. How do people of color persist? How do they survive?

We think the Civil War ended at Appomattox. It did not. And if anybody won the Civil War, it was the South and the Confederacy. I've lived in the South my whole life. The United States is in this moment right now with Donald Trump because the South and the Confederacy won. The war is really never over.

Donald Trump wants to continue the Civil War — this "race war" —  because it keeps him in power. It fires up his base. And that's really what at the end of the day he's concerned about.

But Trump's minions and other supporters are concerned about quite a bit more than that. They see him as an avatar of their own rage. I think Trump simply wants to be king. He wants to be an Emperor God. I don't think there's any question about that fact. Donald Trump wants to be the Führer of America for the sake of being the Führer. This is shown by his self-interested behavior above that of the country or the American people.

That doesn't mean that Donald Trump isn't a fascist. It doesn't mean that he isn't an authoritarian. It certainly doesn't mean that Trump isn't a racist. This situation is even more dangerous than all of that. Donald Trump is ultimately the kind of racist, fascist authoritarian who will do anything to stay in power by channeling those values and beliefs. Trump's base, however, will use that same energy for purposes that are even darker than what Trump may have actually intended.

As an example of increasing right-wing violence, there was a mass shooting in California last weekend, apparently committed by a young white man who based on his online profiles and other evidence was probably a neo-Nazi or a white supremacist. How we locate this most recent example of right-wing terrorism relative to the Age of Trump?

White folks are being radicalized daily on the internet in ways that the Trump administration sees no need to condemn, monitor effectively or even acknowledge. They are being given a green light for terrorism. Trump is the driver of this by his silence and even tacit approval. Yes, it’s a gun issue — but white liberals who focus on that in the wake of politically inspired terrorism are missing the larger point. People driven by hatred to violence have to be disrupted at the root. Their ideology has to be confronted, they have to be shunned, made pariahs in the society and removed from polite society when all else fails.

These are terrorists, not simply violent people with easy access to guns. Although most average people who commit violence with guns — suicide or homicide — might be deterred by stronger gun laws, politically inspired terrorists are the ones who definitely will not be. These right-wing terrorists will just switch from guns to truck bombs, like Timothy McVeigh. This is a war on white supremacy and fascism, and should be understood by the public and government as being one.

Donald Trump and the right-wing media have been targeting Rep. Ilhan Omar, as well as the other progressive congresswomen known as "the Squad," for violence. What Trump and his supporters are doing is almost a textbook example of scripted violence and stochastic terrorism. Ilhan Omar, especially, has shown such grace even in the face of these threats. I hope my instincts are not true. But I have a feeling that Omar has accepted that she cannot stop the violence which is being directed at her, that perhaps she has accepted her fate.

When you step into this moment at such a high level and with Omar's high profile, and you take on someone with the power of Donald Trump — not just the formal powers of the president, but the power to marshal these forces of authoritarian and bigoted violence — one has to know what the risks are. I'm sure she does. I'm sure she accepted those risks the minute she first started talking about politics and became a public figure.

Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib know what the risks are. As women of color in America, how can they not?  This is a very important moment n America because the only way that Ilhan Omar and the other members of the Squad are going to be safe, relatively speaking, and that anyone else who dares to step up in this moment is going to be safe, is for more of us, the American people, to step into the moment.

It is precisely the belief that no one will do anything if Ilhan Omar suffers harm that empowers right-wing terrorists. It is precisely the belief that no one will care if this violence is ramped up and another Oklahoma City happens, or if hate crimes continue to rise. That empowers right-wing terrorists and street hooligans. They don't back down because you treat them nice. Like schoolyard bullies, they don't back down when you give them a little bit of your lunch money. They don't back down because you tweet something decent about them or you try to extend the hand of friendship. They back down when you stand up for your beliefs and values.

Chris Hayes recently said that this Republican Party has to be destroyed as it currently exists. He was quick to point out this must be done nonviolently and peacefully, and I agree with that. But this Republican Party has to be politically eviscerated. And the only way that's going to happen is if all the people who were sending out thoughts and prayers to Ilhan Omar start showing up for her. And not just show up for her like they did at the airport in Minneapolis — which was great, by the way. They must show up in much greater numbers than that one moment.

We white folks must step up in much greater numbers by refusing to go along with the continued demonization of our brothers and sisters of color and Muslim folks in this and other countries. This must be done across every level of our society. Stepping into this moment cannot be done just at specific moments, such as during protests, if we are going to save America's multiracial democracy and defeat Donald Trump and all the horrible things that he and his movement represent.

By Chauncey DeVega

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

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