With word that President Donald Trump planned to resume his in-person political rallies in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 19, 2020 — that’s Juneteenth, a commemoration of slavery’s end and black America’s biggest secular holiday — it seemed clear the era of Republican dog whistling was finally over.
Tulsa was, of course, site of the so-called ‘race riots’ that slaughtered of hundreds of African-Americans over a two-day period in 1921. That was the height of Jim Crow America, when pogroms like these were sadly unremarkable. This was the symbolism our Republican administration was clearly reaching for, and by now it should not surprise us.
From the moment Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign — in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists had been murdered and buried in an earthen dam back in 1963 — the GOP has positioned itself as the party of white folk. The symbolism was clear enough from Day 1. It was effective enough to lure white southern Democrats (the “Dixiecrats” who fled the Democratic Party during the Civil Rights era) into the once-anathema Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln and The Union. A Trump presidency and the scheduling of this July rally neatly complete the circle.
In light of the protests that gripped American cities in wake of George Floyd’s May 29 killing, we are now free to drop all pretenses. Indeed, it’s time to retire all sorts of presumptions, including the idea that Trump and his white-nationalist “Christian” support is somehow unprecedented. On the contrary: We have been here before.
But first, by all means, let’s also dispense with any and all pearl-clutching from progressives and centrists. Donald Trump understands the nature of his political support and, by now, so should we. To be fair, he’s been remarkably consistent re. the nature of his vision for this country. “Why is it always about race with you people,” his supporters serially countered in pre-Floyd America. Because, as was confirmed in June (which only confirms what the war on drugs and mass incarceration showed us decades before), it’s always been about race.
Let’s further dispense with our vaguely snarky musing on the Trump movement’s signature rallying cry. When he and his followers pledge to “Make America Great Again”, they really do mean to make it white again — or rather, to restore white citizens to their longstanding, “rightful” place of privilege and power in the face of an ever more diverse citizenry and electorate. It’s time to retire this rhetorical question and simply accept it as demonstrable fact.
We can also stop with the lengthy magazine think pieces and earnest video documentaries that explore the economic nature of Trump’s support. Yes, plutocrats love Trumpism. They may indeed be pulling some of these strings. But there is no economic explanation for the white working-class embrace of Donald Trump. And here’s a good rule to follow at all times but particularly in this one: When we perceive our fellow citizens to be repeatedly voting against their own self-interest, we have almost certainly failed to effectively divine that self-interest.
To wit, Trumpism is not an economic movement. It is a white, nationalist, extra-scriptural Christian movement. In four years’ time, it has produced a great many things we can fairly call “unprecedented”. But MAGA isn’t one of them. Going forward, it’s critical that “the rest of us” recognize this.
What’s more, as we’ll establish here, it’s important to recognize this is not the first time white Americans have found themselves on the wrong side of a demographic equation, i.e. trying to maintain political power and privilege in a society where voters of color roughly equal if not outnumber them.
We have indeed been here before. It’s called the Post-Reconstruction South, where the identical demographic situation resulted in the identical political response. To a remarkable degree, the policies articulated by Trump during his campaign and those instituted by his administration these past 40 months are the spiritual godchildren of those initiated by post-Reconstruction southern whites in the late 19th century — for the same desperate and obvious demographic reasons.
No one bothered to ask late 19th century southern white men why they effectively demonized, disenfranchised and, where possible, criminalized black citizens, black voters. No contemporaneous journalists from the agitating north went looking for the economic foundations of Jim Crow. It was obvious to all, north and south, what they were doing and why. Institutional racism was essential and obvious to the white fight for political power in the former Confederacy. The political motivations of white southerners post-1877 had nothing to do with economics, government intrusion, faith, the opioid epidemic, flyover country resentment of coastal elites, etc. It also lasted the better part of 100 years.
And so, in this sense, we should not be surprised that it remains front and center in U.S. politics. It’s about race and power. It has always been about race and power. Not exactly the race of some urban African-American or that of some border Latinx, but rather the so-called white race, “our” race, and its prospects for enduring power in this country. The demography of an immigrant nation has finally caught up to white America, and a lot of them (40 percent by most counts) don’t like it much. It’s time we all accepted this and set about wrestling with it properly.