Members Only | November 29, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Donald Trump, Fascist Politics and the Right Side of American History
White liberals don't believe things can, and will, get worse.
I’ve said before that I take after George Orwell. Disinformation scares me more than bombs. As bad as they are, bombs don’t lie. They don’t make it impossible to tell truth from falsehood. They are trying to kill you. They don’t try to make you feel insane.
But there’s one thing that scares me even more than that. It’s indifference. As bad as things are right now, as unpopular as this president is, I don’t think enough Americans are scared enough, or enraged enough. As bad as things are, I fear that most people, but especially middle-class white liberals, are not inspired nearly enough to care.
White liberals, I suspect, don’t care enough.
White and relatively affluent people, even when they think of themselves as liberals, have the power to turn the whole thing off, as if it were just another tasteless reality-TV show. They can go to work with other white and affluent people, maybe even a majority of whom think of themselves as liberal, and pick their kids up from school, where white and relatively affluent kids also go to school, and not think much about it. They can go the whole week without having given Donald Trump a second thought.
This is possible even here in New Haven, where the Elm City is split more or less into thirds, demographically: a third white, a third African American, a third everybody else. Like other cities in which white people do not prevail numerically, white people here, on average, live in mostly white neighborhoods, send their kids to mostly white private schools. Nonwhite people are visible, of course, but they are not, generally, friends or colleagues of white people. This is not a judgment. This is the world as it is.
A major consequence of this being the world as it is: caring is a choice. Fascism is about punching down, but it’s not punching down on white people (not yet). To be sure, many white people do care about the damage Trump is doing to our communities and institutions, our discourse and democracy. That, however, is still a choice. White people are not yet compelled to care in the way a black woman is compelled to on seeing white men strolling down her street wearing what appears to be “Nazi garb.”
Another major consequence of this being the world as it is: even if white people care, do they care enough? I’m dubious. It’s natural to focus on the 2020 presidential election. My fear is most white liberals will celebrate if Donald Trump is defeated and then … stop. They won’t go farther. They will pat themselves on the back, just as they did after Barack Obama’s victory, while ignoring, as they did after 2008, the fascist politics that would quickly take over the Republican Party within a mere two years.
The Republican Party no longer recognizes the validity and hence the legitimacy of Democratic control of any branch of state and federal government. Republican allies, especially white evangelical leaders, are whipping their followers into a frenzy, warning that impeaching the president is tantamount to defying God. Trump has already called rivals “enemies of the people” and “human scum.” How do you treat enemy human scum? Not with respect. Political violence is the one and only answer.
White liberals, I suspect, don’t care enough. But it’s not only because their skin color shields them from the worst of fascist politics (so far). It’s also because they are liberal. Liberals, but especially white liberals, don’t truly understand why anyone would vote for a troglodyte like Trump. And they don’t understand, I suspect, because they have not experienced the depth of authoritarianism that animates everything about him. People who have, however, are Cassandras warning it’s all going to get much worse.
But it’s not only because their skin color shields them from the worst of fascist politics (so far). It’s also because white liberals are liberal.
Liberals, but especially white liberals, are deeply convinced that there is a right side and a wrong side to history. Racists are on the wrong side. Sexists are on the wrong side. All shades of bigotry are on the wrong side. And because they are on the wrong side of history, it’s just a matter of time before things work themselves out. Eventually, the white liberal thinking goes, all will return to normal. The right side will prevail.
The right side of history might prevail, but not without struggle, pain and sacrifice. But even then, there’s no guarantee. It’s just as plausible that the reverse will happen. Imagine, for instance, the president’s reaction to losing in 2020. Will he concede to the will of the people? Will be respect the peaceable transfer of power? Um, no. He will no doubt blame defeat on an international conspiracy to bring him down, thus fueling and justifying any reaction, including political violence, to a new Democratic president.
As a white liberal, I know lots of people who say they tune Trump out. As a white liberal who has experienced the depth of authoritarianism that animates everything about Trump, I come close to freaking out when I hear that. A cyclone is coming for us, but too many act like it can’t touch them or the people they care about. It will.
Indeed, it already has.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.