Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Coiled Spring

Steve Bannon said something weird in that interview this week with Charlie Rose. He said, "The left, all they try to do is identity politics... The more you play identity politics and we focus on economic nationalism, we will win. We will roll you up... Identity politics is a loser."

Everybody has an "identity." You are who you are, and if you belong to a group that is perceived and used to interpret your behavior, you may "identify" with that group. That is fundamental human nature. In the jostling of political forces, some identities get a better deal than some others. Politicians tend to pass bills that they can relate to, that is, that are compatible with their identity -- they are not necessarily racists, they just see the world the way they see it. Identity becomes policy, and the result is inequality and unfairness. Trying to get a fair deal for the underdog is, I guess, "identity politics," to Breitbart readers.

A few decades ago white identity was transparent, it would just be referred to as "ordinary" or "normal," because white people ran everything and whiteness was assumed. "Our way of life" meant white people's way of life. The media were full of white people, state and federal officials were white. As various minorities grew in number they began demanding more of the privileges that white people had, and in the national dialogue white people had to justify why they deserved more than the others. Spoiler alert: there is no such justification.

A recent poll found that 39% of Americans agree that "White people are currently under attack in this country." If we assume that the 39% was all white people, and 62% of Americans are non-Hispanic whites, then nearly two-thirds of white Americans feel that way. It's probably a little lower than that, but it's a bunch.

Bannon's statement was clever and also duplicitous: Trump's campaign was nothing but identity politics. Of course Trump could not campaign with slogans about "white rights" or "white pride" without revealing the racism inherent in his viewpoint, and even out-in-the-open racists would be embarrassed to vote for him. But if Hillary would make statements favorable to minorities -- black people, LGBT, Muslims, Hispanics -- then, Bannon understood, this would trigger an identity reaction in the white population which would be enough to elect a candidate. When you have two-thirds of a group thinking they are under attack, then you have a huge amount of potential energy waiting to be released. You have a coiled spring under pressure, and the Trump campaign only had to release it.

Most white people in America's past were able to live comfortably ignorant of the problems that other groups were having, because it didn't affect them much. There was no conscious "white identity" you could put your finger on. If you grew up in a white neighborhood, went to school with white kids, worked with white people, you were only dimly aware that there was anything else. White people referred to themselves as "people," not "white people." Ordinary people, normal Americans. Other groups lived across town, they shined your shoes or cleaned your house, they knew their place, they played their parts like characters in a white people's cartoon, and there was no reason to give a thought to them as actual, real, live people. This is the origin of the slogan "Make America Great Again." Racism was easy in the good old days, you didn't even have to think about it.

But the numbers have shifted, and white people are having to give up some of their prestige. Most of us are okay with that, we realize that it's fair and actually those other groups have some pretty cool treats to bring to the party. But even though white Americans are still getting a larger piece of the pie than everybody else, it is slightly smaller than it used to be and some of them are feeling sorry for themselves. Nothing will create a sense of identity quite as efficiently as being under attack.

Bannon explained to Charlie Rose that the Trump campaign talked about economics while the Democrats brought up racial and ethnic topics (like, sure, he never said anything about Mexicans or Muslims or black people). Even today a lot of the commercial media analyze Trump's appeal in terms of economics, without evidence, because that is more comfortable for white journalists and their white readers, who do not like to have to talk about their own tacit prejudice. You can kill and imprison blacks, deport Hispanics, ban Muslims, but you can't send 'em all back where they came from, because there are just too many of them. You can't Make America White Again. You can't take your country back. You have to share it.

In the meantime, self-pitying white people have elected the most incompetent leadership ever, just to make a point. They wanted to end political correctness and piss off liberals and, well, I guess they did that. Now what? How long can they chant "lock her up" before even they realize how stupid that is? Now that they have won the election, they have to do the job. But Trump didn't run to do the job, he ran to make a statement about racial identity, and identity politics is not a job description. He is the least qualified person in the world to actually be President, and is doing a terrible job at it. But they got him into office, so that makes them the winner.

A couple of really good articles on this topic came out this last week. I definitely recommend reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' poetic unrolling of this theme, as well as Greg Sargent's thoughtful follow-on to it. These are "interesting times," as referred to in the Chinese curse, and it is important for us to figure out how we got into this situation, so we can figure out how to get out of it again.