Trump, Black Lives Matter, and transforming the terms of debate.

A very worrying thing is taking place, right before our eyes. I have just read a post from the columnist Tim Montgomerie, in which he approvingly quotes an article by Andrew Sullivan, one of the most prominent conservative thinkers in America. In the post, Mr. Montgomerie approvingly quotes the following section of text:

Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well. A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain. These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in Hoffer’s words, “disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.”

And so they wait, and they steam, and they lash out. This was part of the emotional force of the tea party: not just the advancement of racial minorities, gays, and women but the simultaneous demonization of the white working-class world, its culture and way of life. Obama never intended this, but he became a symbol to many of this cultural marginalization. The Black Lives Matter left stoked the fires still further; so did the gay left, for whom the word magnanimity seems unknown, even in the wake of stunning successes. And as the tea party swept through Washington in 2010, as its representatives repeatedly held the government budget hostage, threatened the very credit of the U.S., and refused to hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee, the American political and media Establishment mostly chose to interpret such behavior as something other than unprecedented. But Trump saw what others didn’t, just as Hoffer noted: “The frustrated individual and the true believer make better prognosticators than those who have reason to want the preservation of the status quo.” (My emphasis in bold.)

It’s a long piece of text, but the section that I would like to talk about briefly is that piece in bold. It’s only one line, but it’s very revealing, I think. Black Lives Matter is an ongoing protest movement to address the wrongful death of black people at police hands; it is an attempt to encourage greater scrutiny of a problem that is now getting some attention but not nearly enough resolution. Sullivan doesn’t adequately scrutinise why the desire of some black people for justice should have been so upsetting to the apparently monolithic white working class. After all, what skin was it off their collective nose? What was it to do with them? How exactly is a wish for better treatment by the police any kind of affront to “the white working-class world, its culture and way of life”? In Sullivan’s article he is not sympathetic to Trump’s bigotry: he rejects it throughout. However, in failing to critique some of the apparently racially-motivated elements of Trump’s support, he helps to cast aspersions on the Black Lives Matter movement. He implies that the problem with the Black Lives Matter movement is that it somehow pushed white working class people too far too soon, and Trump’s election was a logical result.

Elsewhere in the article, Mr. Sullivan refers to Black Lives Matter as part of “the kind of identity politics that unwittingly empowers [Trump]”. (My emphasis.) Yet Black Lives Matter is not “identity politics”, in this newly-negative sense: it is not asking for special treatment for a particular marginalised group, it is asking for equal treatment under the law. It is asking why Freddie Gray can have his spine severed in the back of a police van and every officer involved can walk free; it is asking why Sandra Bland can be pulled over for failing to execute a turn signal and end up dead in a jail cell. It is about asking why Eric Garner had to die for selling cigarettes. If that long, painful advocacy is to be reduced to the now-pejorative phrase “identity politics”, then we are in a troubling place indeed.

Mr. Sullivan notes that “Neo-fascist movements do not advance gradually by persuasion; they first transform the terms of the debate”. Yet in framing Black Lives Matter as a movement that has served primarily to provoke white ire, and not as one which is looking for justice in cases where it is being denied, Mr. Sullivan actually helps to transform those terms of debate. It is the same transformation which has led to the characterisation of those who are concerned about equal rights for marginalised groups as “elitist”That is a dangerous shift, and it must be resisted at every turn.

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