By now it should be clear that racism is a feature of the Trump administration, not a bug.
White House chief of staff John Kelly’s hideous rewriting of Civil War history is merely the latest evidence. Can anyone really believe “the lack of an ability to compromise” caused that bloody war? Is it possible to become a four-star Marine Corps general without knowing that the Constitution itself was structured around a compromise on slavery? Or that the first half of the 19th century saw a series of equally immoral compromises that let slavery continue?
How can a man whose son died in service of his country believe that “men … of good faith” is an acceptable description of military officers who committed treason and took up arms against the United States, as did Robert E. Lee and the rest of the Confederate generals? Do people of good faith hold others in cruel bondage, buy and sell them like chattel and forcibly compel their unpaid labor?
Kelly buys into the racist, revisionist, dripping-with-Spanish-moss version of history that white Southerners concocted as they were imposing the system of Jim Crow repression. Anyone ignorant enough to believe the war was about anything other than slavery should read the declarations issued by the Confederate states upon secession. Here is a quote from Mississippi’s proclamation, which is vile but at least forthright:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”
Those who profited handsomely from slavery – including the growing financial markets of Wall Street and the bustling textile mills of New England – knew full well that it was wrong. They just didn’t want to give it up.
Kelly’s “good faith” historical claptrap would be bad enough in a vacuum. But it alarmingly echoes President Donald Trump’s “many sides” analysis of the Charlottesville incident – and continues a tone that Trump set at the outset of his campaign, when he vilified Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists.
With remarkable consistency, Trump has picked fights that portray white Americans as besieged, offended or disadvantaged by dark and alien Others. Rather than embrace the nation’s multicultural diversity, he blames it for a host of problems – crime, terrorism, drug abuse, economic stagnation. He encourages whites to fear the coming day when they are no longer a racial majority. He stokes anxiety by dividing the country into “us” and “them.”
And Trump does all of this cynically and deliberately. He saw a handful of black National Football League players kneeling during the national anthem and recognized an opportunity. With a campaign of demagoguery on Twitter, he provoked many more players into joining the protest. But I’m confident he saw that result as a victory, not a failure, because it allowed him to portray a bunch of African-American men as unpatriotic for exercising their right to free speech.
Trump is even less inhibited in displaying contempt for Muslims. His repeated attempts at imposing a travel ban covering majority-Muslim countries is not about terrorism; it would do nothing to deter legally resident or home-grown “lone wolf” attackers, such as the man who allegedly drove a truck down a Manhattan bike path Tuesday, killing eight people. Rather, the call for some sort of draconian religion-based ban is a naked appeal to white Christian nativism.
When Trump miscalibrates and strays into explicit racism, as he did in the case of Charlottesville, there are expressions of shock and horror from fellow Republicans and even members of his cabinet. But nobody renounces him, except senators who are about to retire. Nobody quits his administration on principle. Trump’s enablers meekly go back to the all-important business of cutting rich people’s taxes.
Making whites feel embattled and aggrieved is central to the Trump presidency. It is what makes him different from all other recent presidents, perhaps going back as far as Woodrow Wilson, who imposed Jim Crow segregation on the federal workforce. It is what makes Trump so corrosive to the national fabric.
There is one master practitioner of identity politics in the United States today. Shamefully, he lives in the White House.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.