The Slatest

Trump, Badly Needing to Reach Swing Voters, Pivots to … Esoteric White Intellectual Grievance Jargon?

A “critical race theory” FAQ.

A photo illustration featuring the text "The 1619 Project" and drawings of colonial-era Black Americans.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Campwillowlake/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

With less than two months to go in a reelection campaign that he appears to be losing,
the eyes of the political punditsphere (ugh, gross) are on Donald Trump. What will he use as a “closing argument” to try and win back the wavering swing-state independent voters who carried him over Hillary Clinton? At the Republican National Convention, Trump and his advisers went with a fiery message about protecting the suburbs from rioters and antifa, but that hasn’t substantially changed his odds. What’s the next “pivot” going to be?

On Thursday, Trump sort of answered that question, delivering a speech at the White House in which he denounced “critical race theory” and the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which he described as manifestations of a “radical” movement that wants to “burn down the principles enshrined in our founding documents.” What’s going on? What are those things? And is this really the best use of a presidential candidate’s time, even this candidate? We will explain.

Why does Donald Trump, of all people, have opinions on the latest developments in prestige journalism and critical theory?

A number of writers with let’s say conservative views on race—like, for example, Andrew Sullivan—are fixated on the 1619 Project and other manifestations of academic anti-racism, which they blame for the introduction of hateful “woke” concepts into the mainstream. To those with this view, the Black Lives Matter movement—what with its belief that American criminal justice institutions manifest centuries of institutional racism—is a seditious one. When BLM became a topic of national discussion after George Floyd’s death, right-wing personalities like Fox News host Tucker Carlson began using the intellectual framework developed by writers like Sullivan in their attempts to portray the movement as one that is not just deluded but in fact actively dangerous. This is likely how it came to the attention of the president.

Great, but what is critical race theory?

Critical race theory began as a movement in legal academia, about a quarter-century ago, in which scholars used multidisciplinary and outright non-“academic” methods to examine and challenge the ways in which conventional legal discourse obscured and promoted racist power inequities (and other kinds of inequities) in society. It was effectively marginalized and suppressed in elite law schools by a coalition of outright conservatives and ostensible liberals who said they were defending the professional norms of their specialty—which was, of course, exactly the sort of thing critical race theorists had wanted to talk about.

Since then, the concept has reemerged on the left as a sort of catchall term for analysis of the social and historical conditions that produce racist outcomes. To certain segments of the right, it’s become a boogeyman that gets blamed whenever someone discusses racism as an ongoing social phenomenon conveying material benefits to “white” people rather than as a matter of natural inequality between biological races or as the aggregate effect of individual acts of conscious ill will that people used to do a lot but have mostly stopped doing.

The idea that racist ideas have influenced the structure of American society doesn’t sound all that extremist.

You can take the idea to places that are divisive even among leftists and liberals, but no, the basic concept of asking whether a given principle or ideal might just be an excuse for justifying racial discrimination is familiar to anyone who has, for example, learned about the ways that white Southerners tried to rationalize slavery.

And what is the 1619 Project?

The 1619 Project was an issue of the New York Times Magazine that described the European settlement of North America and the founding of the United States in a way that emphasized the centrality of slavery (and the dehumanization of African-descended individuals more generally) in the political and economic arrangements of the time. It also argued that those arrangements have continued to shape the material realities of American life down to the present day. It was a popular issue that’s been turned (or is being turned) into a podcast, a curriculum for teachers, and a book.

Again, I have to ask whether it’s really controversial to point out that the early American economy ran in large part on slave labor, or that Founders who claimed to believe in human equality did not actually let anyone besides white, male landowners participate in the political process.

Again, your skepticism is justified. Some historians have criticized parts of the 1619 Project for failing to describe the varied conditions under which African-descended residents of the Americas lived during the colonial era, and for overstating the degree to which the preservation of slavery motivated American revolutionaries relative to other concerns. But even one of the most prominent scholars to make such criticism, for example, also says that “overall, the 1619 Project is a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history.” It is also easy to argue—and progressives have in fact argued it for literally hundreds of years—that criticizing racial repression, rather than being an insult to the United States’ founding documents and ideals, is a patriotic way to celebrate them. The essay that introduces the 1619 package makes this very point.

Is Donald Trump criticizing critical race theory and the 1619 Project in a way that makes reasonable points about the ways that using historical scholarship for polemical, political purposes can introduce misconceptions into the public discourse—but also acknowledges the fundamental role of racial categorization and discrimination in building the set of concepts, institutions, and narratives that we know as “America”?

Hahahahahaha. You’re so funny! No, as you can see above, he is arguing that saying anything critical about the United States means you want protesters to burn down buildings. Over the course of his entire history as a public figure, Trump never passed up an opportunity to portray Black people as a threat, and he seems to have been drawn to this issue at this time because of its synergy with his other beliefs about Joe Biden empowering radical/criminal people of color.

Didn’t you say that message hasn’t been working?

I did! Every poll that’s been taken since the Republican convention, during which Trump and other speakers absolutely hammered away at the mission of telling the public that Biden wants Black criminals and insurrectionists to overrun white neighborhoods, has shown that such messages are not resonating with persuadable voters or improving Trump’s image. There does not seem to be any logical explanation as to why an even more arcane and literally academic attempt to link Biden to Black radicalism would work when previous efforts did not. (Trump barely even tried to make the connection: Biden was mentioned only once in the speech, for not having objected when a city where he has a home—Wilmington, Delaware—took down a statue of a local slaveowner who signed the Declaration of Independence.)

Can you speculate how this could possibly work, even hypothetically?

Maybe it could appeal to the definition of patriotism held by older white voters in Florida? But even then, Trump is working against Biden’s lifetime of selling himself as a true-blue regular guy who loves his country, not to mention the true fact that his late son Beau served in Iraq. Pinning insurrectionist, radical, anti-white motives on the white, hawkish 77-year-old former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—it’s a heavy lift.

Is there something else Trump should be talking about instead?

The one issue on which voters have consistently said they trust Trump as much as or more than Biden is the economy.

So why doesn’t he talk about the economy, then?

It’s possible that he would fare worse on the economic question if he provoked a Biden counterattack—if voters who think of him as the guy who lets businesses do their thing and loves the stock market were prompted to think about his role in presiding over the failed coronavirus response and the accompanying mass collapse of employment. Meanwhile, Trump’s personal goal seems to be to recapture the experience of 2016, when he beat Hillary Clinton by playing up white fears of cultural displacement, and he doesn’t seem to want to admit that he is now dealing with a different opponent, a different economic and political context, and a significant chunk of the white electorate that reacted to his victory that year by becoming more liberal on racial issues, not less. It also could be that Stephen Miller, the arch-racist crank who writes his speeches, is just trying to get as many of his pet issues onto the presidential teleprompter as he can before time runs out.

Mostly, though, it seems as if expecting Trump to execute a coherent campaign messaging strategy is, like Infrastructure Week, a fantasy about what sort of thing a president might be able to do if that president were someone other than Donald Trump. And, just, like:

A "distracted boyfriend" meme image in which Donald Trump is distracted from the concept of "anything else" by the concept of "Fox News stuff."
Imgflip Meme Generator

I can’t explain it any better than that.