Slate is running a weeklong series on President Trump’s first year in office. Read Jim Newell’s companion essay about Trump’s conventional—and reversible—policy agenda.
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
With that promise—the centerpiece of his inaugural address—Donald Trump committed to a populist presidency. In his first year, President Trump has delivered the opposite.
Trump promised generous health care reform. Instead, he delivered a monthslong effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act and end a Medicaid expansion that brought insurance and health services to millions of people, many of them his supporters in states like Kentucky and West Virginia. He promised to bring in the “best people” to staff his administration and—upon taking office—promptly staffed his White House and the larger bureaucracy with a cadre of sycophants, opportunists, and ideologues hostile to the missions and values of the departments they lead. Trump promised tax reform that wouldn’t benefit the rich and delivered just the opposite. And, most famously, Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and wash corruption from Washington. What that has meant, in practice, is an open effort to enrich himself and his family at the expense of taxpayers, directing public funds to his private clubs and resorts.
But there’s another way to read Trump’s promise—not as a commitment to economic populism but as a statement of racial solidarity. Far from acting as a president for all Americans, he’s governed explicitly as a president for white Americans and the racial reactionaries among them. He’s spoken to their fear and fanned their anger, making his office a rallying point for those who see decline in multiracial democracy and his administration a tool for those who would turn the clock back on racial progress. If those Americans are the “forgotten men and women” of President Trump’s inaugural address, then he’s been a man of his word. That simmering pursuit of racial grievance has been its defining characteristic and threatens to be its most enduring achievement.
Within a week of taking the oath of office, President Trump moved to deliver on white resentment. His “travel ban” targeted refugees and visitors from predominantly Muslim countries, regardless of their actual threat to the United States. And it had clear roots in the anti-Muslim bigotry of Trump’s bid for president. Trump claimed that “Islam hates us.” He praised the idea—drawn from a debunked story about Gen. John Pershing during the Philippine–American War—of murdering Muslim prisoners of war with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood as a desecration of their bodies. He falsely claimed that “thousands and thousands” of American Muslims cheered the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He proposed ethnic profiling of Muslims and called for surveillance of U.S. mosques. He falsely accused the “Muslim community” of not turning in the San Bernardino, California, shooters.
The travel ban was just the first step for a proudly anti-immigrant and anti-refugee administration, whose ideas were rooted in racialized conceptions of citizenship and belonging. President Trump issued executive orders prioritizing deportation for a wider array of immigrants. With this authorization, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency had license to essentially terrorize immigrant communities, uprooting families and deporting otherwise law-abiding residents. Trump has since announced plans to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and to remove similar protections for immigrants who work and reside in the United States under a program that grants status to refugees fleeing war or natural disaster.
There is a chance this is racially neutral, and untethered from Trump’s harsh rhetoric on the campaign trail—that the goal here is simply a more manageable, if conservative, immigration system. But this is hard to believe, given what Trump says in the White House as president. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he asked during a bipartisan discussion on immigration last week, according to the Washington Post and later corroborated by Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois. “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.” The president also wondered why the country didn’t accept more immigrants from countries like Norway.
The message couldn’t be clearer. Poor countries like Haiti, black countries, are shitholes, and their people are shit—untouchable, irredeemable, and unworthy of American shores, regardless of what they’ve earned or accomplished. By contrast, rich countries like Norway, white countries, are deserving. Their immigrants are welcome, not because of their skills, but because of who they are. President Trump says he wants more “merit-based” immigration to the United States, where merit simply means white.
That expression of white nationalist belief—that the United States is a white country, for white people—is echoed by sympathy for actual white nationalists. Trump accused “many sides” of fomenting violence after a gathering of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, led to the killing of local activist Heather Heyer, and asked all Americans to “cherish history,” all but endorsing the defense of Confederate monuments. One month later, the president attacked black professional football players who kneeled during the national anthem in protest of police violence as disrespecting “our flag.” His supporters have gotten the message. In the latest CBS News national tracking poll, 71 percent of Trump voters say that the president has made their “culture and way of life safer.”
It was these kinds of appeals that allowed Trump to roll through a crowded field of Republican challengers, and it remains the ideological throughline of his presidency, the quality that distinguishes his tenure from that of a more ordinary Republican president. Trump pays little lip service to the modern ideal of an inclusive, multiracial American democracy. For him, to be a full citizen of this country is to be white, to the point that he presumes Americanness on the part of non-American white people. When the Pittsburgh Penguins toured the White House after winning the National Hockey League championship, Trump praised them as “incredible patriots,” despite the fact that most of the players are foreign-born, representing Canada, Finland, Sweden, Russia, and Germany. Meanwhile, the president treats actual American citizens in Puerto Rico as foreigners, hostile of their claims and indifferent to the suffering and disadvantage that has consumed their island in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
The idea of the United States as a multiracial endeavor, where its citizens and residents possess equal status and dignity, is not settled. In a slave-holding country whose founding hardened racial hierarchy, the equal citizenship of blacks and other nonwhites is still contested terrain on which political battles are fought. And still looming large in our collective political identity is the belief that America is a white democracy, a “white man’s government,” where those deemed white hold a racial monopoly on status, resources, and opportunity.
In describing the formation of “whiteness” as a social position, historian David Roediger coined the term “herrenvolk republicanism” to describe the ideology constructed by white Americans in the wake of the Civil War and the aftermath of Reconstruction. Herrenvolk, which translates to “master race,” denotes the importance of racial hierarchy to the project at hand. Republicanism has less to do with the political party that shares the name, and more with a deep-rooted American ideology that elevates the independent producer—the farmer or the merchant—over those spurned as dependent, or worse, parasitic. It celebrated the middle of American society, and the preservation of that middle as integral to the maintenance of democracy.
Republican ideology developed in a slave society was theorized by slave owners like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and took on the assumptions of that society. Among them was the racial nature of dependency. Like women and children, slaves were considered dependent. But the condition of slavery was reserved for people of African descent. To be a slave was to be black, and critically, to be black was to be a slave, and thus embody a total form of dependency. Even if free, black Americans were the antithesis of republicanism, unable in their bodies to participate in civic life. Under herrenvolk republicanism, blacks could not be producers placing them in permanent opposition to this independent, and white, middle of citizens. They were a permanent subclass, whose perpetual disadvantage guaranteed a measure of status to white Americans. No matter how far they fell, how dependent they became, they would always retain a claim on the polity. They would never be black.
These ideas are too deep-rooted—too recent in American history—to simply disappear with the emergence of formal racial equality. We are, after all, just a century removed from when whiteness legally conferred citizenship, and just a few generations removed from when whiteness opened the door to middle-class opportunity, subsidized by the federal government through programs like the G.I. Bill and benefits like subsidized mortgage loans. We are barely 50 years removed from when the preservation of material whiteness—white suburbs and white schools—was an explicit aim of local and state policy. And through all of this, we witnessed times when the cultural or cash value of whiteness seemed to decline, and white Americans would move in defense of it, fighting to reassert their racial entitlement.
There was the end of the 19th century as Reconstruction came to a close and the white South—with the complicity of the white North, buried biracial democracy under an avalanche of theft, deceit, intimidation, and violence. There were the 1910s and 1920s, when the United States witnessed an explosion of nativism and the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan, formed to push back against the modest gains of women, immigrants, religious minorities, and especially black Americans. There was the backlash to the civil rights movement, and there is the present backlash, embodied in Donald Trump, and driven by the primal fear of millions of white Americans who feel themselves losing the social status and economic standing once conferred by whiteness.
Trump fans those flames of racial anger. And to the extent that it has been successful, it’s in part because white racial entitlement is embedded in the nation’s practices and habits of mind, manifested in the persistence of school segregation and the reality of housing and workplace discrimination. Massive effort has ameliorated this in the past, and fewer Americans than ever hold on to these ideas. But they’re still present in our society, still potent, still capable of great damage.
More than anything else, the first year of the Trump administration has been marked by a steady attack on the equal status of racial and religious minorities. This attack grows out of an American tradition of exclusion, one that is reasserting itself in the face of an increasingly multiracial society that—at least on paper—extends the rights and privileges of democratic participation to all citizens. In which case, the Trump administration hasn’t just been aggressively right wing, it has been so in service of a larger effort to reassert the old hierarchies, generating what public support it has through appeals to racial and patriarchal authority.
This effort has been the administration’s greatest success to date and may well be its most lasting accomplishment. Trump’s rhetoric sends the clear message that America does not welcome nonwhites, and his immigration crackdown brings real fear to black and brown communities across the country. His tax policies don’t just widen income inequality, they entrench our deep racial inequality too, heightening the zero-sum thinking—their gain is my loss—that makes closing those gaps difficult and politically costly. His court picks may allow Republican politicians—who rely almost exclusively on white voters to win elections—to disenfranchise black and Latino voters through gerrymandering, vote dilution, and outright voter suppression.
Trump’s politics of white resentment have overtaken the Republican Party and trickled down to state and local candidates. In Virginia, Corey Stewart’s bid for the Republican nomination for governor and then Ed Gillespie’s general-election campaign for that office each embraced the same kind of racist demagoguery, appealing to white resentment with a loud promise to defend Confederate monuments, as well as campaign materials that condemned kneeling NFL players and ads that warned of dangerous Hispanic immigrants. A party that just four years ago called for greater outreach to black and Latino voters now sees its future in disrespecting them.
For decades, the politics of the American South were built on a foundation of oligarchy and extraction, where—backed by a white middle class acting out of material advantage and racial solidarity—white elites suppressed labor, disenfranchised blacks, and fanned racist violence when the former proved unable to stop open protest and discontent. This foundation eventually collapsed by force of the black freedom struggle, undermined by its own corruption and discontent among a white minority, but it lasted through most of the 20th century. America in 2017 has many futures, but no observer should underestimate the chance that it’s a version of this past.
Which means the resistance to Trump’s brand of politics cannot just be resistance to the president himself and the Republican majorities that enable him and his administration. It must also be a resistance to the habits of mind—and material realities—that produced the situation the country finds itself in.
Resisters must challenge the herrenvolk-ism still present in American life by modeling and performing inclusion across all dimensions. This resistance goes beyond electoral politics and the immediate goal of removing Trump, or at least stopping his progress. Americans who have witnessed this first year of the Trump administration and responded with horror must understand that the challenge of defeating Trumpism is more fundamental than just one man and his party. It’s not restoration of a status quo ante but genuine progress.