United States: Trump was defeated, but his white nationalist base remains a powerful political movement

January 6, 2021
The Ku Klux Klan has its origins in the affluent, educated middle-class segments of white American society. Images: Pixabay, Wikimedia Commons.

There are no tears for the election loss of lame-duck United States President Donald Trump. The latter will leave office and return to the bowels of financial speculation from which he emerged. However, the political base which sustained and reinforced his presidency – ultranationalist conspiracism and white supremacy – will remain a powerful political force.

Late last year, Minnesota Democrat and “squad” member Representative Ilhan Omar made an accurate observation. Trump rallies, she said, closely resemble the Ku Klux Klan rallies of old. This is not hyperbole, but a succinct description of the political forces which coalesced around the Trump presidency – white nationalism and far rightist groups. We like to think that Trump was an aberration, or a deviation from standard American political processes. Actually, his politicking was extreme, but not outside the mainstream.

Jamelle Bouie, writing in the New York Times, states that while the Democrats won the 2020 election, the outcome was not a repudiation of Trumpism. Trump actually outperformed his 2016 result, and made inroads into the Hispanic and African American communities. Right-wing populism, while largely based in the majority Anglo American community, also appeals to nonwhite voters. The American racial pyramid, where being considered “white” is the ticket to upward mobility, still exerts a profound influence.

The Republican Party’s racism is usually disguised by the promotion of a few African American faces – those whose message is on point with the imperatives of American big capital. In the days of racial slavery, a few African American slaves were raised to a “house negro”; today, a small stratum of ultra wealthy African Americans serves the same political function with regard to modern-day capitalism.

White nationalist organisations, and their Republican Party allies, deployed an age-old yet winning strategy – use social and economic alienation to promote a racialised economic vision. Trump and his colleagues portrayed themselves as “anti-elite” – the elite being defined as liberals, proponents of ethnic and racial equality, the Democratic Party, feminism, secularism, environmental groups – in short, anyone opposed to a free-marketeering agenda. Redirecting blame to minority groups, Trump exploited social grievances in order to build a white majoritarian platform.

This political strategy is nothing new. Since the end of the American Civil War, white nationalism has been fighting a rearguard action – a low-intensity campaign aimed at undermining the ability of African American – and other marginalised groups – from exercising their equal rights within the American capitalist system. The Klan, and its white nationalist supporters, denounced the “Northern elites” as beholden to a secretive, multiethnic cabal intent on denying white Americans their rightful place.

This notion of white anxiety has exploded into open violence over the decades in American history. While the Klan is often regarded as a marginal presence, composed mainly of buffoons and the ignorant, it actually has its origins in the affluent, educated middle-class segments of white American society.

Christopher Petrella, writing in the Washington Post, states that white nationalism was never only on the extremes of American capitalism:

Contrary to popular belief, white supremacy has not gestated on the fringes of American politics. Rather, it has flourished as a social movement grounded in respectability politics and led by elites. Understanding this history is essential to eradicating the scourge of white supremacy and advancing more just political alternatives.

Blaming racism exclusively on Anglo working class Americans distorts our understanding of white nationalism, but also lets the capitalist class and its academic supporters off the hook. Deploying conspiratorial viewpoints to underscore a racist political perspective has its working-class supporters, to be sure. However, we need to accurately apportion the blame for the rise of white supremacist groups on the shoulders of the billionaire oligarchs without whose support organised racism would not be possible. Today’s Silicon Valley tech oligarchs – while deploying a “woke” persona – are heavily implicated in funding racist Republicans.

Racism has a long history of influencing US electoral politics – no doubt about that. Conspiratorial thinking however, experienced a resurgence under the Trump presidency. COVID-19 denialism is shockingly harmful, and Trump did his utmost to downplay the severity of the current pandemic, at least initially. However, this pandemic is not the first time that ultranationalist conspiracism has raised its toxic head.

Murtaza Hussain, writing for The Intercept, notes that the far right, coalescing under Trump, is seizing the opportunity to inflict deadly violence against its opponents and influence the course of a post-pandemic society. Social and economic tensions predate the pandemic, of course; but in the current breakdown of US society, fascistic and sectarian tendencies are making their morbid presence felt.

COVID-19 denialism has found a ready-made audience in the cesspit of Trumpism – white nationalism is very much a conspiratorially-minded ideology. In the 1950s and 60s, racial integration and desegregation were denounced as part of a “communist plot” by liberal elites to dilute the integrity of the white race. Today, anti-quarantine rallies have featured condemnations of “government intrusion”, melding seamlessly with white supremacist and neo-Confederate themes about “big government tyranny”.

If the incoming Democratic administration is going to seriously tackle white nationalism, it needs to offer more than just “woke” appointments and statements about the meritorious contributions of migrants to US society. An urgent reckoning with the politics and economics of US racial capitalism needs to be on the agenda, otherwise the ultranationalist right will continue to grow.

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