Politics

What the Trump Era Showed White Americans About Whiteness

A group of white protesters storm the Capitol building.
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Photo by Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images.

This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.

As insurgents stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, a certain shock and awe settled over many white Americans. On Twitter, politicians, cable news hosts, and regular everyday white folks seemed unable to understand how an attempted coup was playing out, not “in a third-world country,” but right here in the USA. Those who’d been paying attention, however, recognized that Jan. 6 was neither unprecedented nor foreign. It was plain American whiteness—emboldened beyond measure under Donald Trump.

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The attack on the Capitol and the apparent plans to harm lawmakers were extreme reactions to a lost election. But this was a response already programmed into Trumpism, an ideology made possible by its forefather, white supremacy. Trump was, as Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in 2017, the first American president to exist purely because of his whiteness. He brought no credentials or qualifications to the position outside of his role as a shamelessly racist retort to the political success of the disciplined and highly qualified first Black president.

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A lot of white folks ate up this brand of nationalism because Trump promised to actively assure their dominance and power by any means necessary—an idea that clearly appealed to the white public, consciously or not. Trump was bold enough to say it openly, with his chest. His general theatrics managed to convince many observers that these assertions of raw power were somehow not real. People chose to believe he was simply a loudmouth who had accidentally become president, while his administration dismantled human rights protections at every turn. (“The very serious function of racism is distraction,” said Toni Morrison.)

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Some of us saw him from the beginning as a real threat to the country’s very fragile social fabric. In 2016, even as much of the media wrote Trump off as an imbecile who wouldn’t be capable of orchestrating serious damage to American democracy, many Black and brown reporters, as well as those who cover extremism, warned against underestimating Trump and his followers. We urged against focusing on “economic anxiety” as he described predominantly Black countries as “shitholes” and called Mexicans criminals and “rapists.” We knew that white Americans had not voted against their own self-interest, but rather many believe that preserving whiteness in an unequal society is their best interest—even if it’s at the expense of the institutions that benefit many of them as well.

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But for every white person yelling along at a Trump rally, there was another white person declaring that there was nothing to seriously worry about—and that the people who said the danger and damage were real were getting carried away. This is the pervasiveness of whiteness. It’s a force many white people have long seemed unwilling to deconstruct. It is why “well-meaning” white people will go to great lengths to superficially distance themselves from obvious racists while giving the benefit of doubt to their parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, and friends who fit the same paradigm. 

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In the Atlantic, a white writer could describe the insurgents who stormed the Capitol as a ragtag band of undesirables, “deadbeat dads, YouPorn enthusiasts, slow students, and MMA fans,” even as other reporting showed otherwise. It was seemingly comforting for some white journalists to view the Trump mobs as Confederate flag–toting rednecks who eat bushels of fast food and don’t bother to drink water. Imbeciles who don’t know any better. The subtext of this, of course, is that those white people weren’t like them. Insisting that those who stormed the Capitol fit into cartoonish hick stereotypes of whiteness shows just how little “well-meaning” white people are willing to accept that racists come from all walks of life—including their own circles. Their failure to recognize their own proximity to the problem is part of why Trump and his supporters were able to go as far as they did.

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From Nov. 3 until Jan. 6, high-ranking Republicans facilitated Trump’s brand of whiteness by “raising questions” about the election, “hearing out the challenges,” or failing to say that Joe Biden won until the last possible instant. “Our institutions are actually built for this,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell in November amid the Trump campaign’s crusade to overturn the election results, disregarding the fact that there was no evidence that Trump had won. “We have the system in place to consider concerns and President Trump is 100 percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options.” The allegations were enough, an angry fantasy world where white people could retreat.

The quieter phenomena of white complacency, downplaying, and silence are what gave whiteness the guts to violently storm government buildings wearing preprinted paraphernalia celebrating the attack. This is what empowered whiteness to attempt to rewrite history, disenfranchise Black voters, build pipelines through Native American reservations, and construct an entire conspiracy theory upholding Trump as a savior.

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Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the end of the Trump Administration marks the dawn of a new era. The same whiteness that uplifted Trump’s egregious policy agenda existed before him and will be around after he’s gone. Even now, as President Joe Biden takes office, the press cannot take premature sighs of relief. If history serves as an accurate predictor, the desire to speak plainly and directly about racism will wane, and the idea that we have moved beyond this ugly moment in history will prevail. And so will whiteness, yet again.

This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.

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