“Is American conservatism inherently bigoted?” That’s the question asked by Peter Beinart in a new piece for the Atlantic. It’s also a question that a lot of Americans have been asking over the past several years, particularly with the rise of Donald Trump. Beinart has been a passionate critic of Trump’s racism and bigotry, but he argues that liberals have been too unsparing in their labeling of people and institutions as racist. With Americans becoming increasingly progressive in some ways, Beinart recognizes that the ground is constantly moving beneath people’s feet. (Six years ago, Barack Obama was not openly in favor of gay marriage; now such an opinion is often considered beyond the pale.)
To discuss his essay and the American dialogue a year after Trump’s election, I spoke by phone with Beinart recently. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Ed Gillespie’s Virginia campaign (before we knew his racial appeals didn’t end up working), the notion that political correctness causes racism, how to talk to people who embrace social change at a different rate than you do, and the costs and benefits of labeling people who vote for bigots as “racist.”
Isaac Chotiner: You don’t really mention this in the essay, but one thing that struck me while reading it is: However we want to define people, and whether “racist” is the right label for them, a lot of people—46 percent of voters—just undeniably voted for a racist. How do we talk about them?
Peter Beinart: One of the points that Ta-Nehisi Coates has made repeatedly that is very well taken is that journalists should not think like political consultants. So, it may be politically unwise to call those people “deplorable” and to call out their racism, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. But I do think that in applying the term racist or bigot, except in the really extreme cases, it makes sense to try to apply the term towards an act or a policy or a statement rather than to a person.
And I think if I were going to critique Hillary’s “deplorable” comment, I might critique it along those lines, which is to say that a lot of Trump supporters believe deplorable things—which they absolutely do; just look at how much support the Muslim ban had in all of the polls—rather than to call the people “deplorable.” Because I think there’s a way in which, again, except in really extreme cases, even people who hold bigoted views are more complicated than that. And it also, obviously, is going to get people’s backs up much more, and so we should try to focus these terms on policy and action rather than individuals.
To take an example in the news: Ed Gillespie in Virginia ran a campaign that I think you and I would say has racist elements to it.
In some ways, it’s a Trumpian campaign. But it’s also very similar to a lot of Republican campaigns from the pre-Trump era. And you see a lot of Democrats labeling the campaign racist, or labeling Ed Gillespie racist for running this campaign. How do you think we should talk about something like the Gillespie campaign, which really is mainstream Republican at this point?
My piece just came out, but I actually wrote it a couple months ago, and I actually think that the circumstances are worse now than they were back then, because I think it’s become more clear now that the Gillespie campaign and the New Jersey campaign are good examples of this—and the kind of exiting of Jeff Flake and Bob Corker—of how much Trumpism is the model for the Republican Party. I think it was a little bit less clear even this summer.
As much as possible I think we should try to be specific in the way we deploy these terms, so I think saying Ed Gillespie is racist—or even the Ed Gillespie campaign is racist—is less valuable both descriptively but also in terms of its impact than saying this particular ad of Ed Gillespie is racist in this particular way. I certainly am not suggesting that we should take these terms out of parlance, because goodness knows we are in the Trump era, where so much of this deserves that. But I also think that they have such power because there is this sense, rightly or wrongly, amongst conservatives, that conservatives genuinely seem to believe, a lot of them, that they are routinely and unfairly tagged with these terms. I think it makes it all the more important that when they are deployed, that they’re deployed as specifically as possibly, so I would want people to say, name me the specific thing that Ed Gillespie has said or done in this campaign that’s racist.
You mentioned in your piece what Marco Rubio said about Black Lives Matter a long time ago, where he kind of tried to show some empathy for people who are feeling like race relations in the country needed to change, and you pointed out that when Republicans do things like this that, Democrats can and should highlight them and applaud them. But when this is all happening under a paradigm of Republicans, especially Republican officeholders, supporting a bigoted president, it’s just very hard to have any sort of conversation.
I agree with you, but I think that this is so bad for the country. The country needs a less racist conservatism, or less bigoted conservatism, if not a nonbigoted—I mean, many people say our liberalism is bigoted too, so it depends on from what perspective you’re seeing this. I think that in some ways, we didn’t appreciate—you know, Mitt Romney and George W. Bush had lots of problems and all, but we are in so much worse shape now than we were then, that I think it’s kind of incumbent on liberals and conservatives to try to think together, those who oppose Trump, what it would take to try to breathe some life back into this, to have a Republican that actually wanted to compete for the black and Latino vote again, rather than purely running against them. I don’t claim to kind of have conclusive answers, but I think the project is one that liberals and conservatives of good will need to really both be engaged in.
There is this idea out there, which I see online if I ever write something about Trump and racism, that basically one reason white people are driven to Trump is because they get called racist all the time.
“I’m so angry about being called racist that I’m going to vote for a racist president.”
Right! Doesn’t exactly disprove the thesis!
It’s a ridiculous thesis. But I also think it’s worth thinking about culturally what it means having a country where a lot of people are labeled racist.
This was something that I was really wrestling with and struggling with a lot in writing the piece. As I think the question implies, it’s somewhat ridiculous to suggest that political correctness is creating racism when America was pretty darn racist for a long time before anyone had heard of the term political correctness, and before any of this kind of culture of “political correctness” existed, right? So, obviously American racism does not require political correctness to exist and flourish throughout our history.
So I think that’s kind of obvious. I do think that, though—and I tried to cite a couple of studies in the piece—there are more and less effective ways of talking to people who hold views, some of which we would consider bigoted. And there is an art of persuasion, and that art kind of matters politically, and it also matters civically, like it matters in the way we interact. And while it’s true while Ta-Nehisi Coates says, like, journalists should just say what’s true, that’s definitely true, but it’s also important that we try to think about how we nurture and strengthen nonbigoted points of view, nonbigoted attitudes among people who we still fundamentally disagree with, you know? And I think that’s what I was trying to get at in the first half of the piece.
One thing that’s come up in conversations I’ve had about Weinstein and sexual harassment with people who are, say, over the age of 50, is this real discomfort about how things are changing in the culture. I hate the Mark Lilla thesis that, you know, Democratic Party PC-ness is what’s costing them elections, but I also think that, just for the health of our civic culture, it’s important to be aware of how people are different. I guess I don’t have an answer, because things like sexism and racism need to change, and going easy on them because it makes people “uncomfortable” is its own form of PC-ness.
Certain cultural norms emerge, and sometimes they emerge quite quickly, like let’s say around issues about trans people. I mean, that’s been pretty recent in terms of its evolution in the broad public consciousness. And certain language emerges, and certain norms emerge about how you talk. And that’s very good, those things, and that’s partly why I am a progressive. I believe in that progressive impulse. But I think where it can be a problem is where you basically don’t give people any time and space to evolve a little bit more slowly, and one of the things I tried to say in the piece is I think it’s important to look at whether people are moving in the right direction, rather than necessarily demand that they move at the same speed.
And I think to have some level of sensitivity that certain things are radical changes for people, again especially older people. And that we want to kind of appreciate, if they’re moving in the right direction and becoming more tolerant than they were, it may be smarter to celebrate that in hopes that they will continue to move in that direction than to kind of slam them for not being as far along as the most woke liberals are. And I think sometimes conservatives feel that way, I think that’s why conservatives are often saying, “How can I be a bigot because I oppose gay marriage. Was Barack Obama a bigot when he didn’t support gay marriage?”
I agree, but one of the many ways in which Trump screws everything up is that it’s so much harder to take that as an acceptable answer when you feel like your fellow countrymen have just voted for a reactionary racist.
To say, “Well at least we’re moving in the right direction on these things” after this election is really hard, when you are scared the country is in the broad sense not progressing but entering a reactionary time.
Right. I think there have been several moments in American history where progressives bought into the kind of famous Martin Luther King Jr. line about the arc of the moral universe being long and bending toward justice, and then you get shocked into the realization that actually there’s no inevitability about that at all. And I think that happened to liberals during World War I, I think it happened in the 1960s and ’70s and now it’s happening again. You’re right, in that moment it becomes much harder and unfortunately these are the wages of Donald Trump’s presidency.