Review by Brian Tanguay
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, there was a perception that the United States had crossed a line and put the worst excesses of racism behind it. Many Americans believed Obama would lead a diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation into a post-racial future. Instead there was a vicious backlash best exemplified by the rise of the Tea Party movement. Eight years after Obama’s historic election, after America’s first black president guided the nation through the worst financial calamity since the Great Depression, passed the Affordable Care Act, and governed without a major scandal, Donald J. Trump ascended to the White House by tapping the vein where our racist, misogynist, and xenophobic fears have long resided.
Because Trump’s four years in office were marked by chaos and scandal, and the Covid pandemic, we forget that Trump won the Republican nomination and then the presidency by riding the baseless claim that Obama’s presidency was illegitimate because Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Trump didn’t create the “Birther” controversy, but more than anyone else he breathed life into it. Trump went on to vilify Muslims and Mexican immigrants and demand that we build a great border wall to keep out undesirables. These calls resonated in many parts of the country, exposing a seething discontent that had simmered during the Obama years.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Donald J. Trump opened the door that allowed what had been fringe elements of white supremacy into the political and social mainstream. During his reign, Trump took pains to avoid condemning white supremacist groups. As noted by the Southern Poverty Law Center in its Hate and Extremism In 2021 report, “Without question the rise to power of former President Donald Trump electrified the hate movement in the United States and abroad.” The SPLC is currently tracking more than 1,600 domestic extremist groups, nearly half of which hold beliefs that attack or malign entire classes of people.
In A Field Guide to White Supremacy, editors Kathleen Belew and Ramon Gutierrez present nineteen essays from contributors including Rebecca Solnit, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and Khaled A. Beydown, that provide background and context for the persistence of racial, sexual, and xenophobic intolerance in the United States. This is an important and timely collection in a moment of political and social polarization, when health workers, school board members, and poll workers across the country find themselves being targeted or threatened, and a few members of Congress openly promote violence against their political adversaries. As Jamelle Bouie writes in his essay about lynching, Trump’s rhetoric not only defined an enemy, it was also “a language of racial threat — of purity and morality — that has its roots in the lynching era.” Aggrieved and resentful white people, in particular white men, are in the process of turning Trump’s rhetoric into a political movement. The racist dog whistle has been replaced by a racist bullhorn.
One of the essays I found most interesting was by Joseph E. Lowndes on the through line between Pat Buchanan and Donald J. Trump. Like Trump, Buchanan advocated a right-wing populism that focused on immigration, crime, and preservation of American culture during his bids for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992, 1996, and 2000. It was Buchanan who said in 1991 that, “we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.” Imagine if Buchanan had had the backing of FOX News and a social media platform. The point is that these ideas didn’t originate with Trump, they have been with us for a long time, but have now gained traction and exited the shadows. When the President of the United States declines to condemn a parade of torch-bearing white men chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” as Trump did after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, it shows how much the landscape has shifted. Since 2017 there have been more acts of violence, a plot to kidnap the Governor of Michigan, and, of course, the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
In their conclusion Belew and Gutierrez write, “our only hope of confronting this threat to the idea of America is in better understanding our history.” I fully agree with this prescription, but as we have seen with Critical Race Theory, even well-documented history is being politicized by proponents of intolerance who demand that history be scrubbed of facts that might make white people uncomfortable. Moral courage and clarity are required to honestly confront past injustices. The German people confronted the consequences of Naziism after World War II, and decades later South Africans did the same after the apartheid regime fell. It can be done, though at the moment Americans hardly appear inclined to engage in the necessary hard work.