Tim Wise on Trump, the coronavirus and the pandemic of white privilege

Anti-racist author and educator: Trump is "willing to kill tens of thousands of white people" to win re-election

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 22, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Tim Wise (AP Photo/Alex Brandon/City Lights Publishers/Salon)
Donald Trump and Tim Wise (AP Photo/Alex Brandon/City Lights Publishers/Salon)

Several weeks ago, Donald Trump threatened to blockade New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, ostensibly to protect the rest of the country from the coronavirus pandemic. Trump soon pivoted away from that position.

Most mainstream observers and other members of the American news media mocked Trump for his threats and took them (again) as evidence of his ignorance about the Constitution and the rule of law. But Trump was testing norms and boundaries, with the goal of shattering them later.

Last week, Donald Trump took the next step in his escalating war against democracy and the rule of law, commanding his cult members to "liberate" Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia from the "stay-at-home" public health measures that have been enacted in an effort to slow down the rate of infection and death from the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump's threats against state governors is a violation of the presidential oath of office. Legal scholars and other experts have also suggested that Donald Trump's words of incitement come close to the definition of treason in Article III of the Constitution, "Levying war against the United States."

Mary McCord, a former acting assistant attorney general, addressed this in the Washington Post:

President Trump incited insurrection Friday against the duly elected governors of the states of Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia. Just a day after issuing guidance for re-opening America that clearly deferred decision-making to state officials — as it must under our Constitutional order — the president undercut his own guidance by calling for criminal acts against the governors for not opening fast enough.

Trump tweeted, "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!" followed immediately by "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" and then "LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!" This follows Wednesday's demonstration in Michigan, in which armed protestors surrounded the state capitol building in Lansing chanting "Lock her up!" in reference to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and "We will not comply," in reference to her extension of the state's coronavirus-related stay-at-home order. Much smaller and less-armed groups had on Thursday protested on the state capitol grounds in Richmond, Va., and outside the governor's mansion in St. Paul, Minn.

"Liberate" — particularly when it's declared by the chief executive of our republic — isn't some sort of cheeky throwaway. Its definition is "to set at liberty," specifically "to free (something, such as a country) from domination by a foreign power."… It's an echo of the "Second Amendment remedies" rhetoric of the 2010 midterm election. It's clearly a violation of federalism principles, and it's quite possibly a crime under federal law. And insurrection or treason against state government is a crime in Virginia, Michigan and Minnesota, as well as most states. Assembling with others to train or practice using firearms or other explosives for use during a civil disorder is also a crime in many states. But the president himself is calling for just that.

Donald Trump's foot soldiers have obediently followed their Great Leader's commands. By the hundreds, Trump's cult members have descended upon state capitals across the country. Their "protests" are actually staged events paid for and organized by individuals and groups connected to the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other major right-wing funders.

Nonetheless, these fake "protests" are an effective political tool because the mainstream news media, beaten down by the Republicans Party after many years of gaslighting and abuse, treat such dangerous buffoonery as legitimate reflections of the public mood rather than as extensions of the Trump administration's psychological operations campaign.

At these "rallies" Trump's cultists proudly display symbols of their commitment, such as flags emblazoned with his name and white supremacist symbols of rebellion and insurrection. Armed right-wing militia groups are also participating in these staged anti-"stay-in-place" protests. Many of the protesters have brandished assault rifles and other weapons.

White privilege takes many forms. Nonwhites and Muslims would never be allowed to behave in such a threatening manner. If hundreds of camouflage-wearing, heavily armed, black and brown people and/or Muslims (or "socialists," for that matter) gathered in state capitals across the country with the goal of threatening, intimidating and inciting armed rebellion against state governments, police and other law enforcement agencies would have likely used lethal force.

Tim Wise, who is one of America's leading antiracism activists and scholars, and the author of such bestselling books as "White Like Me," "Dear White America" and "Under the Affluence," has described Donald Trump as a "human opioid" of white privilege, white rage and white racism.

In turn, Trump's supporters are eager drug addicts. They are evidently willing to risk their lives to show their love and support for him by attending his human coronavirus petri-dish rallies.

As part of an ongoing series of conversations here at Salon, I recently spoke with Tim Wise about what the coronavirus pandemic reveals about the deadly consequences of white privilege and other forms of social inequality in America. Wise also explains how Donald Trump, as a white man (and a Republican), benefits from a level of presumed competence and intelligence not afforded to black and brown people. Moreover, if Donald Trump were not white he would long ago have been impeached and removed from office.

Wise also discusses how Nazis and other fascists and right-wing extremists are taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to advance their war on America's multiracial democracy.

You can also listen to my conversation with Tim Wise on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

I took a walk yesterday and I was dutifully following the rule to stay six feet away from other people. I then had a realization: As a black man in America, I am already conditioned to having to obey all the new rules of social distancing forced by the coronavirus pandemic. When I walk down the street, especially when it is dark outside, very often white people try to avoid me.

People of color have to deal with attributional ambiguity all the time in terms of trying to understand other people's behavior. What was that look? What was that clutching of the purse or the briefcase? Why did they get off the elevator when I got on it? Black and brown people know what it is like to be looked at by white people as carrying some type of contagion. For the most part — gay white folks during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic being a notable exception — white folks are not used to being viewed as potential carriers of something awful.  

White folks are not used to people of color moving away from them or looking at them funny. There are now many millions of people in American right now who perhaps for the first time in their lives are having a type of existential crisis.

They have to ask themselves, "If I go outside will I be safe? Can I go drive around? Can I walk or jog around the neighborhood? Can I go to the store and be safe?" Now, those are all legitimate questions in the middle of a pandemic.

But of course, the irony is that millions of Americans ask those same questions every day, with or without a virus breathing down their neck. People of color, especially black people, have to wonder, "Can I go for a jog around the neighborhood?" Why that question? Because black and brown people have to deal with the fact that someone in that neighborhood might call the police on them.  

Can I just go driving around? Well, not if I'm a person of color because I may become a victim of racial profiling by the police and that can escalate to me being shot and killed or otherwise abused. Women must ask themselves about public space and where they can go safely because of the reality of sexual assault and rape culture.

The coronavirus is an opportunity for people with privilege, and American society as a whole, to broaden their empathy for others.

Will you have a job? Will you have health care? Will it be affordable? Are you going to die? These are the things that lots of people think about all the time. When this crisis is over, many Americans will still be thinking about those questions because of social inequality and how they are living it.  

You have described Donald Trump as a "human opioid" of white privilege, racism and anger. Watching Trump's negligent and malicious response to the coronavirus, and the enduring love and support from his cult-like supporters, has proven the wisdom of your observation. If Donald Trump were a black man or a Latino or a woman he would have been removed from office several years ago. 

Only white people, especially white men, are allowed to be as incompetent as Donald Trump and still remain in positions of power. Donald Trump and his administration's foot-dragging in response to the coronavirus was intended to keep his poll numbers up. It was intended to not scare the markets. It was intended to put a happy face on things, but all of that obviously delayed much-needed testing. It delayed the rollout of the economic package which just passed. As a practical matter, Trump's incompetence delayed getting money to people who desperately need it. And of course, Trump's incompetence delayed getting the masks, ventilators and other equipment that was needed to save lives.

Tens of thousands of white people are going to die because of Donald Trump's incompetence. And much of that incompetence and delay in taking the necessary steps to prepare the country to better deal with the virus was connected to his xenophobia and his racism, with his obsessions with China and the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border as somehow being responsible for the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, or a way of stopping it from coming here.

A good number of those people who are going to die are Trump's voters. It is very obvious that Donald Trump and his administration are willing to kill his own base of supporters in order to try to win re-election in 2020.

Why is there still so much shock and denial among the American people and the mainstream news media about the Trump regime's cruelty and malevolence? For example, Trump and his servants have been denying needed medical equipment to Democrat-controlled cities and other parts of the country. People are dying as a result of that decision. Trump and his inner circle have been profit-seeking and engaging in other corrupt behavior during the pandemic. Trump and his sycophants have consistently put Trump's re-election as being more important than the American people's lives. They want people to go back to work and risk death. None of this should be a surprise, given America's history of violence against nonwhite people. Why the cries of, "This is not who we are!" when in so many ways it is?

That can all be explained by the country's broken educational system. Obviously, most people really don't know the history of the United States. Moreover, they don't even know the most basic contours and realities of the way that this country has actually operated for most of its history.

It's also motivated reasoning. If we start with the premise that most people are decent, then that makes it harder to look into the face of America's ugliness. There is also the question of being implicated in that ugliness and injustice. Denying those facts makes it easier to function.

If you're white, especially, and if you're middle-class or above and you've got health care while other people do not, then you are implicated in an unjust system.

As James Baldwin said, "Once you acknowledge the truth, now you're on the hook." White folks really don't want to be on the hook. So it's easier to deny what all of our senses are telling us. Donald Trump is so bold with his racism and racial resentment that he makes it harder for white people to deny the reality of this country's past and present.

The Age of Trump and the coronavirus is another opportunity for white supremacists and other right-wing extremists and terrorists to engage in evil. The SPLC has documented a 50% growth in the number of so-called "white nationalist" groups in the United States between 2018 and 2019. A white supremacist terrorist was plotting to blow up a hospital in Kansas City where coronavirus patients are being treated. Nazis have been caught planning to use the coronavirus as a biological weapon to kill Jews, Muslims, nonwhites, FBI agents and others. The news media has largely been silent about these happenings.

So these Nazis are saying that they're going to go get coronavirus and then give it to Jewish people. Let's imagine for moment that a group of Muslims in this country were caught plotting that they were going to do the same thing to Jewish people or the FBI.

They would all have been rounded up. It would be on the news constantly. If a person of color had threatened to blow up that hospital in Kansas City, it would have been on the news 24/7. By largely ignoring these stories about Nazis and other white supremacists and right-wing extremists, the American news media is allowing these groups to flourish. The coronavirus quarantine is necessary for public safety, but it is also an opportunity for far-right extremists to radicalize more people, especially young people online who are not in school and participating in other activities.

Many of these right-wing extremists are "accelerationists" who want civilization to collapse. They are waiting for society to fall apart. They want America and the West to run out of food. They also want to target the country's infrastructure. The mainstream news media is underreporting and therefore diminishing that very real threat during the coronavirus crisis.

Let's engage in a thought experiment: If white folks had realized in the 1960s that racism and white supremacy hurts them too, what would America look like today? Specifically, if white Americans had had such an epiphany, how would the country be positioned to respond to the coronavirus pandemic right now?

Many things would be different in the United States and the world. Of course, there would be some people still locked in the cult mentality of racism. They would not change. But in terms of positive changes, there would be a more robust social welfare system than the piecemeal one that exists today with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The Great Society was greatly limited by anti-black animus and racism.

The social democracy that the New Deal tried to create would also be broader and more inclusive, and therefore much stronger and more resolute in the present and future. All the federal programs that white people love, such as the GI Bill and FHA and VA home loan programs which basically created the white American middle class, would have been expanded to more fully include black and brown Americans.

The United States would also have a much better and more robust public health care system if white racism and racial resentment had not been used by conservatives and those allied with them to gut the government's infrastructure and the very idea that government can do good in the world.

Especially worth highlighting in this moment of fake right-wing "populism" is how the pain that working-class white people have been experiencing in the last 50 years about their jobs, the economy and their lives more generally would have been greatly limited in a true multiracial social democracy. There are many positive changes which would have made for a better, more affluent, prosperous, healthy and safe American society, if not for the power of white supremacy.

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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