Monday, February 26th 2018

Trump, Accidental Presidents and Racial Resentment

February 5th, 2018 in Leadership by

By Martin H. Singer
Martin “Marty” Singer is the former Chairman and CEO of PCTEL, a wireless networks solutions provider. He also held senior management and technical positions at Motorola, Tellabs, AT&T and Bell Labs. He is a former member of the Board of the America-Israel Chamber of Commerce Chicago. Singer, who earned a Vanderbilt Ph.D in experimental psychology, thinks and writes often about leadership.

When Donald Trump re-tweeted anti-Muslim videos from the British white supremacist hate group leader Jayda Fransen, global leaders and others took him to task. His only response to the outcry was a shot across Theresa May’s bow: “Theresa May, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!” He basked in the opprobrium of the offended. Trump had triumphed again. He had successfully delivered his message of racial resentment to his base: western civilization is White, and all other colors represent danger. Does anyone really believe that Trump randomly characterized predominantly black countries and continents, Haiti and Africa, as “s***holes?”

The pollsters now confirm what we suspected all along: racial and ethnic resentment was the rocket fuel for a crucial Trump constituency. Trump convinced stagnated wage-earners that immigrants dragged down their paychecks. It was the Uber and Lyft driver from Eastern Europe, Asia, or South America deflating their wages; not the Internet of Things and the associated automation. Cheap imports ruined retail; not the obsolescence of brick-and-mortar distribution of goods. Mexicans brought us opioids; not the meth labs buried in beet-red states. Regulation and unfair competition destroyed the coal industry; not the availability of inexpensive and cleaner alternatives with lower extraction risks.

When all else failed, Trump launched a subliminal attack on Jews heralded by David Duke. Trump’s campaign aired ads blaming “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” The ad displayed three images: George Soros, Lloyd Blankfein, and Janet Yellen: All prominent Jews in the financial world. The next day, David Duke thanked Donald Trump for telling the truth about “Elite Jews.” Duke beats this drum daily explaining to his followers that “there is a replacement of the American elite from the people who have founded America and now it’s a Jewish elite.”

There is always someone to blame. Assigning a name and a face to the carrier of ill winds somehow makes those troubles easier to bear. In each generation, demagogues exploit this human frailty and fan the flames of hatred so that they can lead legions of the uninformed in a march against a ghosted enemy that can be held accountable for all that is wrong. Ironically, the most down-trodden often become the favorite object of this hatred. The victims become the villains. The underpaid factory worker morphs into the outside agitator, the refugee immigrant the usurper, and the emancipated slave the destroyer of culture.

Americans have great pedigree in the politics of racial resentment. Ron Chernow’s recent biography, Grant, captures the hubris of white entitlement in its defense of slavery. Grant wrote in his memoirs, “Southern slave-owners believed that . . . the ownership of slaves conferred a sort of patent of nobility . . . They convinced themselves… of the divine origin of the institution.” He captures, in the simplest of statements, the fabricated entitlement of the southern white man: we have slaves therefore we are masters. We dominate an inferior race; therefore, we are superior. As a young military leader in Mexico, Grant thought about man’s propensity to define status in the context of domination. Commenting on Mexico, General Grant wrote, “The better class are very proud and tyrannize over the lower and much more numerous class as much as a hard master does over his negroes, and they submit to it quite as humbly.”

Racial resentment thrives on the flip side of entitlement. Chernow’s description of Reconstruction emphasizes the rage and fear associated with racial resentment. The diluted, high school version of Reconstruction focuses on the re-building of the South after the Civil War and the anger against carpet-baggers, corruption, and the unfair impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. Chernow paints a different picture. Reconstruction, often viewed as a period in which the victorious North punished the South, was nothing less than the continued litigation of the war’s premise – that slavery must end, and that African Americans should enjoy rights equal to those of their former slave owners.

Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s unelected successor, sided with unrepentant southerners after the Civil War. Johnson dedicated his presidency to the proposition that America was white and that its greatness would be lost if the vote and equal rights were granted to former slaves. Johnson gave great comfort to the white supremacists of that period. Johnson claimed – as President – “This is a country for white men…and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.” Later Johnson worried that the “poor, quiet, unoffending, harmless whites of the South weren’t “trodden under foot to protect niggers.” Johnson’s rhetoric had consequences. He refused to deploy federal resources to protect black citizens and thousands were murdered by the white supremacists of his era. Today Richard Spencer, the titular head of the white supremacy movement, takes comfort in Trump’s observation that there “were some really fine people” among the Charlottesville alt-right protesters. Spencer sent out a quick text to his minions: “Really proud of him…He bucked the narrative of Alt-Right violence”. Ryan Lenz, with the Southern Poverty Law Center has suggested that “Trump supporters are now feeling legitimized in their hatred.”

Johnson, the tragically accidental president of the 1860’s did his best to undermine the outcome of the great Civil War. Trump, the electorally accidental president of the 2010’s is the proud torch-bearer of this tradition. Trump echoes Johnson’s populist pandering to white identity. His tweets promise Johnson’s “poor, quiet, unoffending, harmless whites” that a “wall” will ensure that Mexicans won’t overrun their country; that Muslims and refugees won’t degrade their culture; that the welfare queens won’t steal their tax dollars, and that the immigrant worker won’t undermine their wages. He’ll keep Jewish bankers and financial manipulators from taking over their small-town finances. He’ll protect them from the violent left of Charlottesville and defend the monuments that honor the past in which we all knew our rightful place. Donald J. Trump. Perhaps the “J” is for Johnson.