LONDON – The recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, carried out by a young white man who had posted a hate-filled anti-immigrant screed shortly beforehand, has called attention to US President Donald Trump’s own rhetorical affinity for white supremacy. Trump has consistently insulted Mexicans, African Americans, and other people of color. He referred to Haitian and African immigrants as coming from “shithole countries.” Last month, he told four new members of Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar, to “go back” to where they came from. All four Congresswomen are, of course, American citizens. All but one (Omar) were born in the United States.
Trump’s Republican supporters deny that he is a racist. Who knows? But he is clearly appealing to his followers’ darkest instincts, which are angry, vengeful, bigoted, and prejudiced in ways that can only be described as racist. By stirring up hatred, Trump hopes to mobilize enough voters to be reelected next year.
The president is careful not to incite people openly to commit violence. But many violent people feel licensed by his words to do so. This makes Trump’s behavior dangerous and contemptible, and he must be held to account for it. He deserves to be called a racist. Some of his critics go further than that. They argue that race should be the central issue of the 2020 elections. Because Trump relies on angry white voters, diversity, anti-racism, and the elevation of people of color should be the counterstrategy.
This course would be morally justified. The question is whether it would be the most effective way to vote the scoundrel out, which should be the main aim of anyone who sees Trump as a danger to the republic, let alone to people who are targeted by angry racists. There is room for doubt.
Some people don’t actually mind being called racists. At a rally of the French National Front in 2018, Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon told the crowd to wear the word “racist” as a badge of honor. But many Trump supporters don’t think of themselves as racists and resent the allegation. Quite a number of these people, often from the white working class, voted twice for Barack Obama. The Democrats need to get some of these voters back into their fold, especially in pivotal Midwestern states.
But fear of offending Trump supporters who don’t regard themselves as bigots is not the only reason to be careful about racializing politics even more than it already is. The fact that Trump plays that game is no reason for his opponents to follow his example. What makes politics in the US so complicated is the conflation of race, class, and culture.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina criticized Trump for getting too personal in his hostile comments about the four congresswomen. But it was all too typical of a particular way of thinking to call them “a bunch of communists,” as Graham did. The women are left-wing by most American standards, but certainly not communists. Communism, or even socialism, is regarded in certain right-wing circles as “un-American” by definition. That was the thinking in the early 1950s, when Senator Joe McCarthy was on the prowl for un-American “communists” – often ruining the lives of people who were merely on the left.
By the same token, writers, professors, or lawyers who favor reproductive freedom, or who don’t believe in God, or argue in favor of equal rights for people of all genders and sexual orientations, or support universal health care for all, are often accused of being more like namby-pamby godless Europeans.
Leftist or secular views cannot be associated with any particular race. If anything, highly educated white people are likely to espouse them. And those who believe that a coalition of non-white minorities is best placed to oppose Trump’s white chauvinism should be wary. A significant number of African Americans and Latinos are religious and socially conservative.
Of course, race plays an important part in the American culture wars. And the concept of “white privilege” is not invalid. But to see the country’s political, social, and cultural fissures in terms of a racial divide is, well, too black and white. To make opposition to white privilege the main platform in the fight against Trump not only risks alienating people the Democrats need on their side, but could also set Democrats against one another.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is far from an ideal candidate for the Democrats. He is too old and not quick enough on his feet. But to attack him, and even demand an apology from him, because he said he was once able to work with colleagues whose racial prejudices he clearly didn’t share, is a mistake. Working with people with whom you disagree, or actually abhor, is the stuff of politics.
Trump has managed to push the Democratic Party further to the left than it was under Obama. This suits him well. He would like to make the four congresswomen into the face of his political enemies.
Biden, who is proud to associate himself with the Obama years, is criticized by his younger rivals for being out of step with our more racially sensitive times. The second night of last week’s Democratic debates was marked by a spirit of antagonism toward the Obama administration. Biden found this “bizarre.”
He had a point. Obama managed to be successful precisely because he minimized race in his politics. He didn’t ignore it. Some of his best speeches were about it. But he carefully avoided making race into the main issue. He didn’t have to. His election made the point for him. And he is still more popular than any other politician alive.
Biden, alas, is no Obama. But the fact that he has more support among black voters than any of his competitors, even those who are black, should tell us something. If the Democrats want to beat Trump, they attack his flawed but infinitely better predecessor at their peril.
Ian Buruma is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, Year Zero: A History of 1945, and, most recently, A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir.