On White Racism and the Trump Vote: A Marxist Perspective
Donald Trump has been elected. If anything seems obvious, now––and very little does––it is that the limp satire beloved by the American bourgeoisie has proven worse than useless. It failed to anticipate the coming storm, and fed the self-satisfaction that plagued the Clinton campaign from start to finish.
There was, however, at least one comic take on the 2016 election that defied this general sense of fatigue and got at something vital: the Tom Hanks Black Jeopardy! sketch on Saturday Night Live (October 22, 2016).
The cable news shows reran it. The anchors laughed. But––to a person––the point of the sketch eluded the networks’ professional talkers. They knew that there was something poignant, something profound, about the baffled discovery on part of the assembled quiz show participants and host––all African American–– that the quietly hostile, resentful, proudly Trumpian white man in their midst was, in fact, a fellow member of the US working class. (This affinity tipped by a variety of culturally coded responses–about the inherent danger of dogs, notwithstanding the assurances of owners, etc). This far into the sketch, the pundits seemed to understand: it flattered their color-blind corporate ethos (“we’re all the same under the skin”).
But the sketch’s button––the Final Jeopardy sequence––apparently could not be processed. At very least, there wasn’t much discussion of it on the cable news shows. For Final Jeopardy, the question, in the form of an answer is as follows: “these lives matter.” The Black Jeopardy! contestants, other than Hanks, know immediately, and to their immediate horror, that to the obvious solution of the puzzle––”What are Black Lives?––the white guest in their midst would counter with a smug: “What are All Lives?” And here, the rough friendship that had been developing breaks down. Cut to commercial.
Marxists share with psychoanalysts a fascination with the moments where the untroubled flow of speech breaks down, where something catches in the throat. Something bugs us, we don’t want to talk about it. This silence, or cough (sometimes a malapropism or mangled word) alerts us to the presence of a contradiction, a double bind, the thing that is making us crazy.
The impossible interpretive problem of Final Jeopardy provides a perfect example. Its meaning, to my mind, is as follows. White people tend to have a certain relationship with whiteness. This overrides all other affinities with other members of the multiracial working class. This is what forces Tom Hanks’s hand to write “What are All Lives?” on the screen. Whiteness possesses his hand like a demon in a horror film. George Lipsitz calls this peculiar strong structuring force that operates––even in cases where an instinctive and humane anti-racism might have a chance to break through––the “possessive investment in whiteness.” We must try to understand the dynamic interplay of the “possessive investment in whiteness” and politics if we are to begin to interpret the calamity of Trumpism and the catastrophe of Trump’s election.
Let’s recall what “possessive investment” means. “Possessive” reminds us of C.B. MacPherson’s analysis of “possessive individualism.” For MacPherson, “possessive individualism” constitutes the core value at the heart of the thought of John Locke and so much other liberal political philosophy. Upon reflection it seems undeniable that modern humans, in the West, are preoccupied with possessing. To have a self––what used to be signalled by the word “propriety”––is to own your own body and personality. To own anything else, you must first own yourself. And if somebody else owns your body and personality for a time––a boss, say––well, then, the things you make belong to them, and not to you.
To be an individual, moreover, is to own property (typically, a bounded parcel of land), or at very least to be formally able to own property. (It was the apparent inability of Native Americans to own property that the US government initiated its horrific “severalty” acts; and it was the inability of other indigenous peoples that turned their lands into “terra nullius”–blank land–freely colonizable by European adventurers). Property and sovereignty are so interconnected in modern societies that they have virtually no meaning independent of one another. I have the power over my own life to the extent that I own things; if I do not own things, I have to sell my labor power. Because most work is unpleasant, people don’t do it unless they have to. It is very much in the interest of those who employ others to make sure that, on a society-wide level, property is unevenly distributed.
So “possessive investment in whiteness” is not meant as a moralizing slur (as in , “oh dear, these acquisitive fiends, alienated from their own humanity”), though it does have, as we shall see, some important ethical implications. But “possessiveness” is not necessarily bad. To be alive, to take an interest in one’s survival and the survival of one’s friends, is to have a perspective on possession. With the exception of certain mendicant orders in the history of Christianity, it is very rare to encounter strict anti-possessiveness as a political value. Much more typical is a kind of generic communist impulse towards rough equality in the distribution of property and the inclination towards the ritual sacrifice of surpluses which, stored up, lead, potentially, to the tyranny of large concentrations of property against the propertyless.
What does happen, in systems like capitalism, is a certain short-circuiting of the logic of property. The best word we have for this eventuality is “greed.” (For some, it may be useful to think of capitalist “greed” in opposition to pre-capitalist “avarice”). Many have observed that greed, in capitalism, works in weird ways: in large part because (unlike every previous system) there is no “natural” limit to accumulation. Nobody, in capitalism, can ever know if they have enough or should have more.
Greed in capitalism thus often takes the form of hoarding. Here we see a turning inward of the expansive, energetic desire-for-more of avarice (“he who dies with the most toys wins!” as the 80s bumper sticker snickered, a crass sentiment that is, nevertheless, understandable at the level of the universal enthusiasm for toys), towards the pleasures (such as they are) of stinginess, of sitting on piles of wealth that are never to be re-circulated. As a creature of modern capitalism, “possessive investment in whiteness” sometimes takes on this coloration. This is particularly evident in the practice that Lipsitz calls “resource-hoarding”–the stingy, accumulative pleasure taken in the fight against affirmative action or the violence of the man at the bar ranting about welfare queens and disability cheats.
And, it must be recalled: whites have hoarded resources––to an almost unfathomable degree––in the contemporary US. Whites take pleasure in “resource-hoarding” but also fear––at an existential level––that any weakening of their “possessive investment” in whiteness might be fatal to the property in their personhood. Nothing engenders panic like the threat of traumatic dissolution of self, which we usually describe as a “psychotic break.” Thus, the joking about whether “economic anxiety” did or did not play a role in the 2016 election makes very little sense: of course, in a time of economic turbulence (characteristic of capitalism since the late 1970s), property is threatened, and threats to property are threats to personhood.
If, during the Bush years, it seemed impossible to so many of the kids I knew in San Marcos, TX, that anything could ever happen to imperil their ownership of Ford F-150s and cookie-cutter homes: well, that all changed in 2007-08. It is true that the hedge fund class has largely been insulated from these shocks. But, in contemplating the ways in which many members of that group might have found Trump appealing enough to vote for, we must recall the dual nature of the “possessive investment in whiteness.” It is both an existential relationship to the conditions of life, in the most profound and sacred sense, and a source of enjoyment and pleasure.
We recall the story of Donald Trump Jr, drunk and getting asked to leave a New York comedy club for laughing too hard at some ethnic jokes. Obviously, these jokes were meant to make people laugh; otherwise they would not have been written and told. But there are different ways to laugh, and the laughter of the bridge-and-tunnel stand-up comedy fan (particularly, the fan who shares the same general race and class situation as the joketeller) is different from the laughter of the scion of great wealth and privilege, even if the jokes are the same. As we think about this matter, we need to remember that people can be sold whiteness both because it answers deep, spiritual needs, and because it is a source of illicit, often obscene, fun.
We need to think a little bit about the “investment” part of the “possessive investment in whiteness,” too. (Those who know some Freudian theory may find it profitable to think of investment as “cathexis”: the process by which drives are channeled to specific outlets). White people, for the most part, do not want to be racist, or at very least not to be thought of as “racists,” any more than I want my pension fund to be invested in the stock of a company that produces chemical weapons. But, once, my money is sunk–invested––it is easy to forget about. Investment brings with it a strong sense of inevitability. Once I have invested my resources, become invested in certain things, it begins to behoove me to cultivate some strategic forms of ignorance (even as I remain bound to things that disgust me).
One of the most brilliant moves in the Black Jeopardy! sketch was to cast Tom Hanks, loveable goofball, America’s dad, as the Trumpian foil. Here, the SNL writers illuminate something very important: whatever Trumpist racism is, it is not triumphant because more Americans are the snarling and demonic bigots who flocked to Trump’s rallies (no matter how successful Trump’s summer tour was, it must be recalled that only a tiny percentage of the electorate ever attended these sad pageants). Trumpism triumphs because nice people can be won––to a minimal degree, to the degree that they pull the lever for Trump, decline to vote for the Democrats, or stay home––to white racism. In coming essays, I will attend to the phenomenon of hardcore Trumpism, and try to explore the attractions of that noxious and distilled ideological product. Here, we concentrate on the far more consequential business of generic Trumpian white racism, which can only be properly explained with the tools of Marxist historical materialism.
When Chris Cillizza or J.D. Vance or whomever insist: 60 million Americans are not racist! they mean that all these Tom Hankses are not carriers of the virus “racism,” do not relax to Johnny Rebel or Skrewdriver records, will not face St Peter at the pearly gates and be condemned to hell for the sin of despising their darker-skinned fellow citizens. Fair enough. Statistically speaking, almost nobody is a racist according to this rubric. And more importantly: let’s take a step back and contemplate: who asks such questions of a person? The doctor asks about viruses, and we are not doctors; the judge asks about the inner motivations of the accused, and we are not judges; the priest asks about the sinner’s soul, and we are not priests.
Our question, rather, is: under what conditions can the “possessive investment in whiteness” take hold of white Americans who would, under other circumstances, want not to be racist (or, at very least, not to be seen as racist)? The Tom Hanks of Black Jeopardy!, we imagine, is possessively invested in whiteness in all manner of ways. Even if working class, he has likely inherited some wealth or property from forbears whose acquisition of material security was massively helped by the federal government, in the form of housing and loan assistance. Redlining and systemic discrimination prevented African American wealth consolidation, and today cross-racial wealth disparities are stunningly stark. White trade unionism may well have helped Tom Hanks’s ancestors accrue seniority and pensions; outside of public sector unions, these gains were largely denied to African American counterparts, and the long-term consequences of “last hired and first fired” remain dire. Massive state disinvestment in cities and encouragement of suburban growth, as well as strategic agribusiness funding of the white hinterland continue to have radiating race effects. The punitive turn in American policing and prison policy, combined with the toxic effects of racist zoning, combined with the deadliness of recent wars fought by a proletarian volunteer army encouraged to enlist as a hedge against institutional racism and targeting by the carceral machinery of the state: all of this means that it should be perfectly obvious to everyone that racial capitalism’s fundamental work of producing drastically shorter lifespans for nonwhite people gains momentum with every passing day.
Under the circumstances, white people ought to feel bad all of the time. This feeling ought to dominate them, if they are not monsters. This was the key claim articulated by the great political theorist and philosopher Cedric Robinson. In an act of extraordinary generosity, Robinson looked at the history of colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, and imperial violence and said: I don’t think so little of the humanity of white bourgeois Europeans and their descendants to imagine that they could preside over the suffering of so many of their fellow humans and not find themselves in a state of constant panic and revulsion, horror at what they had done (and continue to do).
From this insight, Robinson proceeded to explain the history of modern Western thought: a project of frantic ideological creativity seeking to dull, momentarily, the paralyzing shame of having become so murderous, so cruel, so arrogant, so unresponsive to suffering. The first priority of this project was the creation of forged histories of the darker-skinned inhabitants of the planet. Only white people, since the Renaissance, have ever thought to do something so desperate and so cruel; few endeavors have ever been so sadistically effective.
With these forged histories came any number of “sciences” of human difference, predicated on fantasies of innate superiority and inferiority. It was only a short step from these new practices (which constitute the raw material of virtually everything that happens in the modern university) to novel forms of law: in particular, new laws of property, forged out of the common law and fragments of Roman jurisprudence, and crystallized in the writings of British jurists like Sir William Blackstone at the time of modern capitalism’s breakthrough in England. It was Blackstone, far more than Locke, whose vision drove the theorists of the new American state; it was the combined influence of Blackstone and Locke that convinced the founders of the United States that a republic premised upon private property in both smallholdings and in persons of African origin might be viable.
Without at all meaning to, then, the founders of the United States came to enshrine a legally constituted, propertarian whiteness at the heart of the American experiment. According to my own preferred definition, the US was not a “capitalist” state until well into the nineteenth century. But from the start it was a state obsessed with property, uniquely honest about the centrality of violence in the business of creating and maintaining property, and in agreement that property included these sorts of things: land, which was made into property by the ancient processes of occupation and dominion; agriculture, nature transformed into commodities by virtue of the intermingling of human and animal labor with the raw materials of the earth; moveable goods, typically created in workshops by petty proprietors; intangibles, like certain ancient common law rights to waterways and sunlight, as well as inheritances and certain leases; women (as wives) and children (under a given age); and non-white human beings. With the complicated exceptions of indentured servitude, prisoners, and impressed sailors, white men were mostly spared the possibility of propertization–a trend that would grow in importance throughout the early nineteenth century, gaining steam with the expansion of the franchise in the Age of Jackson and against the background of the intensifying violence of the southern slave system.
Post-Civil War, whiteness’s status as property began to take on new dimensions. The Fourteenth Amendment, drafted in large part in order to extend to African Americans the due process property rights of the US Constitution’s Fifth Amendment was quickly transformed into the pretext for “corporate personhood.” This allowed the largest corporations of the Gilded Age, mostly structured around the railways, to grow with astonishing speed, enabled by a new wave of lynchings and an emergent convict lease system across the South: essential to both clearing the land and laying the rails and to terrorizing the working classes below the Mason Dixon line such that incipient forms of interracial unionism would be abandoned. By the time that Plessy v. Ferguson was decided, a new racial order had taken over the surface of the US, and much of the globe, as well. It was in the grooves of these deep striations that the modern American class structure was born.
If we are to be Marxists, we need to focus our attention on whiteness as it was reproduced through the interaction of this cluster of phenomena––law, property, and race––as we look at recent political history. How class struggles came to be articulated around the impassable “possessive investment in whiteness.” If we can commit ourselves to this task, we may spend less time fruitlessly decrying “identity politics,” and devote our energies to the more urgent work of plotting our path forward, beyond the immediacy of this very live nightmare.