Trump propelled himself to the presidency on a white wave grievance—playing on the racist tropes and assumptions that immigrants were coming for white American jobs and China was destroying our economy. In 1989, he called for the execution of the Central Park Five, the five Black teenagers who were convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park and whose sentences were later vacated after another man confessed to the crime. Even before he ran for president, Trump was also a proponent of the racist birther conspiracy, which questioned Barack Obama’s legitimacy as president. Once on the campaign trail in 2015, Trump embodied the fear and grievance of white America. He repeated the lie that Mexican immigrants were murderers and rapists. His narrative was that white Americans were the victims and the enemies were the press, “radical Islamic terrorists,” Syrian refugees, and Mexican immigrants. He’d build a wall and keep them out, he promised. He’d bring back jobs; white Americans would be rich and great again.
White nationalists loved him. Richard Spencer told Al Letson of the Reveal podcast in 2017 that Trump made white nationalism part of mainstream political culture.
And he did. From Charlottesville to El Paso to immigration policies to banning federal funding for diversity initiatives to the violent insurrection at the Capitol, white nationalism was in the White House.
Today is Inauguration Day. No matter what else happens, Donald Trump is no longer the president.
It’s tempting to say, “We made it.” But so many have not. 400,000 Americans are dead from a virus that is preventable with a face mask. A little cloth covering. 545 children have lost their families because of the Trump administration’s family separation policy that forced them apart. Heather Heyer isn’t here. Five people died in the violent insurrection. So many of us are alive, yes, but we are ghosts of ourselves. Hollowed out by loss and harassment and illness. How many more people were terrorized and are dead because white nationalism was catalyzed by the highest office in the land?
So, no. We didn’t make it. And it’s not over.
White grievance is one of the few renewable natural resources that Americans are willing to invest in. And why not? It’s good business. Fox News has made an empire of it. Look at all the journalists who have made a lot of money writing books about Donald Trump. Think about all the people who have made money writing about their time in the White House.
We are a country and an economy built on white grievance. Even after slavery as a practice was ended in 1865, it’s never really gone away. Segregationist policies and politicians, Jim Crow laws, redlining practices and suburban white flight have set the boundaries and borders of our country. During the 2016 election, writers like Dave Eggers and George Saunders bent over backward to describe the anger and pain of the white voter, going to Trump rallies and writing about the slavering hordes in a way that othered and fetishized them. This narrative allowed white grievance to flourish; after a takedown in the “liberal media”, white voters could crucify themselves on the cross of culture, claiming to be the victims and misunderstood, the poor forgotten minority.
But what 2020 has shown us is that there was little difference between who we saw as the deplorable and who wasn’t. Pandemic and the anti-racist movements have collapsed the veneer of white respectability and plausible racial deniability. And even as Republicans, who slavishly supported Trump’s policies for years and benefitted from them politically, try to wash their hands of the violence, the violent legacy of white supremacy is still there.
Like with David Duke and Steve King, America is willing to forgive a bigot as long as he’s an effective bigot. But once the bigotry becomes too hard to ignore and it impacts their ability to get anything done, white grievance looks for a new home.
But the politics of white grievance, their force and power, remain with us.
The day before the inauguration, The Daily podcast just released an episode doing a “mood check” with Trump supporters. In my email inbox, I see the Iowa GOP trying to raise money off of the fact that Democrats “think National Guard members are a threat to national security.” How dare Democrats suggest that National Guard members who have ties to far-right extremist groups, just like the groups behind the violent insurrection, might be a threat? It’s the collective pearl clutching over the “attack on the First Amendment,” and it will be the concern trolling over “liberal spending.”
The great white whine refuses to be silenced.
American politics have always been about grievance. But whose grievances are aired and whose are seen as credible? That’s what’s changing more than the power and voice of white grievance. As racial reckoning expands not just from policing but to newsrooms, corporate boards, and city councils, the sheer absurdity of declaring oneself unheard while being the loudest and whiniest voice in the room and holding the office of the presidency is an irony that can’t be ignored.
White grievance thrives on being an outsider and an underdog, but after four years of being in power, maybe it’s time to admit to ourselves that it isn’t a fringe ideology. That people aren’t “brainwashed” or “misinformed” in part of America. And we gain nothing from lying to ourselves.