A great self-comforting fallacy is often deployed in discussing American racism: One has to intend racism to be a real racist, which is to say that without intention, there is no racism. This belief in the legitimacy of intention is directly related to the sacrosanct status of feeling in America, to the notion that feeling is more authentic and true than fact or thought. (This is hardly news. The idea is spread wide and thick all across this good land: In today’s America if people felt that gravity didn’t apply, they’d feel free to fly.) If feelings are sovereign and unassailable, so are the intentions that come out of them—one’s agency is rooted in feelings, realized in intentions. Thus, for instance, the ethical legitimacy of voting for a Donald Trump who intends to forestall the nonexistent rise in crime would be unquestionable because it’s rooted in feelings. (Newt Gingrich unabashedly expressed the idea here.)
The ethics of feeling align with the belief, deeply embedded in a population far exceeding the number of Republican voters, that the good intentions of America are forever inscribed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and thus congenitally imbue all those who feel American. Never mind slavery, systemic racism and exploitation, disenfranchisement of women, frequent wars of aggression. The Founding Intentions are good and there for all to see, and the acts don’t matter; American history is rife with crimes dismissed as honest mistakes. Most recently, the lies of the Bushist regime, which created systems of torture and surveillance, came out of the feeling that the country was endangered after 9/11—who could deny the truth and legitimacy of that?
The self-congratulating American ethos allowed for an immoral and criminal enterprise to avoid prosecution. One of the benefits of that immunity was that Americans could continue to feel as decent people, despite all the contrary evidence. The election of Barack Obama confirmed the feeling, while he, in return, graciously eschewed addressing in any substantial way the ethical (and financial) bankruptcy of the Bushist America.* American culture went fully along with it, because, no matter what we’ve done, we’re a great people (We elected a black man!), all of us born and bred as citizens within the exceptionalist ethics. Even now, after Trump passed a national job interview while his psychopathic tendencies were manifest, the Democrats, beginning with President Obama, cannot accept that the idea of American decency is no longer viable.
So here comes Donald Trump. He, as they say, tells it like it is, which is true only if what is is determined by feeling. He is but a Viagratic bundle of incoherent aggression clustered around a single bullshit intention: to make America great again. Once his supporters’ feelings empowered the intention, no fact or thought could ever matter. Trump’s election confirmed the ethos, and neither the Trumpist voters’ hurt feelings nor their decent intentions could after that be diagnosed as racist. Who in their right mind would argue that they intended to endorse the discourse of white nationalism, or to reconfigure American democracy as an autocracy?
The insurmountable advantage of the intentionalist ethos is that one can assign the moral value to one’s act by way of negotiating one’s intentions. Presently, among the white citizens of this country, a vast reassessment of what constitutes a “real” racist is taking place. The Trumpist white voters counter the claim that Trump intends to discriminate against nonwhites by invoking his good intention to make America great. In the same turn, they reject being called racist, as might their white Clintonite friends and family, because, you know, they can’t be “real” racists. The convoluted interpretations of the electoral outcome centered around the foggy feeling of economic anxiety serve the same purpose. Many a Thanksgiving dinner will be spent conducting such ethical negotiations, all the negotiators stuffed with the same turkey. The common outcome, other than indigestion, will be the normalization of racism: We agree to disagree, fuck the darkies and their friends the Jews.
The grand negotiation amounts to a whitewash operation. The majority of white Trump voters (as distinct from those who like to light up crosses and have no problem with racism) are presently invested in conceptualizing ethical positions in which they can feel not racist while fully and willingly enjoying all the benefits of an openly racist system wherein whiteness has an immense value. This is not new either. Indeed, this is how white America has operated for a long while. What is relatively new is the blatant aggression of Trumpian racism and, with it, a new value of whiteness, all of which requires some crafty renegotiation. Trumpist voters (and their Thanksgiving guests) would like themselves to feel that they’re unintentionally white within an intentionally white-nationalist political operation, soon to take over the American state apparatus.
But the only ethics that matter are act-based ethics—it’s what you do that matters, not what you feel. After all, the legal system in this country, as yet based in reason and belief in the rationality of law, is contingent upon the ethical value of the act. And an act is a fact—what you do is what is. The Trump voters committed an act of voting for an unabashed racist, whose hate speech is an act and a fact in public space. There is, of course, more than a distinct possibility that white Trump voters knew exactly what they were voting for and they wished for it. After all, Trump kept promising it, over and over again, and it’s already here. But even if they didn’t intend their racism, those who voted for Trump must reconcile with his acts. These might include deporting millions of people, which is not possible without violence, or legally discriminating against Muslim American citizens. If such acts come to pass, those who have already committed the initial act of voting for Trump, whatever their intentions may have been, will have undeniably given him a mandate for radical racism.
A citizen’s basic responsibility is to be aware of the consequences of his or her acts. The feelings that led tens of millions to vote for Trump have been rendered morally irrelevant by their vote. Perhaps those feelings and intentions might be interesting to psychiatrists and historians, but an immigrant family or a woman in a hijab being chased down might care less. The racist act of voting instantly converted Trump supporters into racists, and now they’re as real as can be. They might or might not want to deal with that fact, but what’s left of the decent America must.
*Correction, Nov. 15, 2016: This post originally misspelled Barack Obama’s first name. (Return.)