Virtually all the many takes I have come across thus far discussing the transition from President Trump to President Biden have stressed the discontinuity of the hand-off. We have either heard tell of a return to normalcy and decency after four years of bigotry, cruelty, chaos, and incompetence, or else, of the impending revenge of elites and the “deep state” against an outsider who dared to challenge their hegemony, and the coming-to-power of an easily-puppeted feeblemind fronting for authoritarian socialists and other radicals behind the scenes. But there is a significant respect in which President Biden’s agenda and actions to date reflect a dispiriting continuity with his predecessor: like Trump before him, President Biden promises to further exacerbate the zero-sum identitarian tribalism that has edged this diverse nation ever closer to the battle of all against all.
[P]rominent race-baiters who had injected race back into our national conversation at every opportunity in the years preceding Trump’s election
In October 2017, Ta Nehisi-Coates (who has done as much as anyone to bring our current obsession with skin color to the fore again after the tailwinds of the 60s’ civil rights revolution had finally begun to dampen down race’s pernicious influence among us) published an article in The Atlantic entitled “The First White President.” His argument was that Donald Trump was our first leader expressly elected for championing the race-based grievances of white Americans. “Trump,” he contended, “truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president.” According to Coates, President Trump was white America’s revenge for eight years of Barack Obama.
At the time, I penned a response to Coates in which I agreed with his charge that racial issues were salient to many who had voted for Trump in 2016. Where I took issue with Coates was in his blindness to the complicity of people exactly like himself—prominent race-baiters who had injected race back into our national conversation at every opportunity in the years preceding Trump’s election. With Coates leading the pack, an assortment of prominent race writers, people like Michelle Alexander, Britney Cooper, Chauncey DeVega, Jamelle Bouie and others sharing their general worldview, began to popularize the kinds of critical race theory approaches championed by academics such as Kimberlé Crenshaw Williams and bell hooks.
Demonizing the Civil Rights Era’s aspirational idea of race blindness as, itself, a form of racism, one that denies the unique experiences of people of color, these writers argued. Instead, they championed a race-in-your-face perspective that opened up and poured salt on America’s racial wounds. They purported to find “white supremacy” and lingering conscious and unconscious racism in every crack and crevice. The sad, though entirely predictable, result was a dramatic escalation in racial tensions nationwide. Starting with the wholly concocted “Hands Up Don’t Shoot!” line that brought with it the Ferguson riots of 2015, those tensions erupted and entered a new phase: a race war being waged upon America.
INTENSIFYING RACIAL HOSTILITY
Despite the fact that no material, adverse change in the treatment of black Americans had taken place in the years leading up to Ferguson and beyond, what followed was a media-stoked, empirically unsupported tall tale foisting upon us a series of incidents folded into the narrative that unarmed black Americans were being routinely, disproportionately killed by bad white cops. The escalating tensions this narrative fueled culminated, of course, in the brutal summer of 2020, during which crowds of young people, stuck at home and restless from the coronavirus shutdowns, spilled out into the streets and erupted in #BLM’s notorious “peaceful protests,” full of violent anti-cop, anti-white, anti-American rhetoric that predictably brought with it rioting, looting and waves of tumult and destruction. Today, in cities like New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee and others all across the country, we still live with the out-of-control crime and violence that this summer’s “war on cops” unleashed.
Trump, I argued in my response to Coates, was elected because of race but not because of racists.
Yet much of our media and political class—the same people who had no trouble quickly, roundly (and correctly) condemning the violent thugs who mobbed the Capitol on January 6th—have, to date, failed entirely in extending that condemnation to the similar (but far more extensive) violence in the name of #BlackLivesMatter and the rampaging thugs who were allowed to deface and pillage our cities with virtual impunity for weeks on end.
But before we had the Summer of Floyd, we had Donald Trump. Trump, I argued in my response to Coates, was elected because of race but not because of racists. Many of the same white people who had voted in overwhelming numbers for Barack Obama in 2008 had turned around and voted for Trump in 2016, as a November 9, 2016 tweet from New York Times writer and election analyst Nate Cohn made clear:
Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters. It's not a simple racism story
— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) November 9, 2016
These voters did not suddenly wake up and realize that they’d mistakenly elevated a black man to the Oval Office; nor had they become raving white racists over the course of eight short years. Rather, over the course of those years, they had been subjected to a relentless media-stoked campaign of aggressive racial tribalism. With predictably disastrous consequences, they had been scolded for their “white privilege” and ineluctable unconscious bias, and that the Civil Rights Era’s noble aspiration towards race-blindness is a form of racism. In the end, they got fed up with it all and voted for the only candidate bold enough to stand up loudly and proudly for the good ole American way.
Unfortunately, neither as a candidate nor as our President did Donald Trump endeavor to ease racial tensions and return us to the straight and narrow high road leading to a post-racial future. The regressive left’s race war had, no surprise, summoned up an aggressive (and at times inarticulate) culture warrior rather than a reflective peacemaker.
From the very moment Trump descended that gleaming escalator and regaled us with tales of rapists and drug dealers from Mexico, the hand for the next four years was dealt. For a media obsessed with racial alarmism, every other word out of Trump’s mouth was headline-worthy: “shithole countries,” the “Chinese virus,” or referring to undocumented immigrants as “animals” (something CNN’s Oliver Darcy himself remarked was taken out of context by media outlets).
The problems Donald Trump identified were pressing and real: unchecked illegal immigration, rampant identity politics, and a nation ruled for too long by complacent technocrats who were unwilling to stand up against stale orthodoxies that put the interests of actual Americans below those of international bodies and multinational corporations. What is more, his populist agenda could and should have united us and created a new consensus for decades to come. But the rhetorical and political firebombs Trump often threw into the mix tended to create easy fodder for the sensation-peddling corporate media, undermine Trump’s own agenda and, ultimately, divide Americans still further.
Trump’s sometimes inartful responses to wedge identity issues never failed to set the media ablaze.
Thus, while approving of his objectives, even some other Republicans felt that the 2017 travel ban, popularized as the “Muslim ban,” was ham-handedly executed, something the media (of course) had a field day misrepresenting. Likewise, Trump’s sometimes inartful responses to wedge identity issues never failed to set the media ablaze. Although, for example, he made perfectly clear that his notorious “very fine people on both sides” comment on the conflagration in Charlottesville did not apply to the racist far right (“I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists—because they should be condemned totally”), his clarification fell on deaf ears because he had already given the salivating media the tone-deaf one-liner it needed to paint him as an unrepentant white supremacist. The same dynamic played out during the first presidential debate with Biden, when Trump told the far right Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”—another ill-advised, off-the-cuff remark that made other Republicans understandably uncomfortable. Needless to say, the final broad brushstroke in the media’s picture of Trump as a divisive white nationalist surrogate was laid down when we got a Confederate Flag-waving mob storming the Capitol.
To be sure, during these same four years, the left’s identity warriors had done more than their fair share to stoke the flames. We had the overreach of the female-infantilizing #MeToo movement. We had free speech crackdowns and deplatformings galore. We had biological males taking prized spots on podiums in female sports categories. We had The New York Times engaging in the absurdly anti-American, ahistorical “1619 Project,” and trying to pass it off as history worthy of being taught in schools across the nation. We had Robin DiAngelo selling eager white dupes on the unfalsifiable idea that if they did not accept the dominant narrative that they were, by virtue of their skin color alone, privileged racists complicit in white supremacy, then they were guilty of “white fragility.” We had her comrade-in-arms Ibram X. Kendi purporting to inform us that any racial disparities were conclusive evidence of racism. We had Antifa. We had calls to defund the police. And, as above, we had the #BLM riots and NPR giving a forum to someone who had written a book entitled In Defense of Looting.
This, unfortunately, is the way these things go. One side ups the ante, and the other responds in kind. And until a greater common cause presents itself, or a transcendent leader steps in to change the channel, the punches and counterpunches keep coming and escalating. Even a once-in-a-century pandemic, it seems, is not that common cause, and Joe Biden, alas, is not that transcendent leader.
THE GREAT UNITER ALIENATES AND DIVIDES
In his brief time in office, President Biden has hammered hard on the “uniting America” note he often struck during his campaign, and especially after his victory. But, to put it bluntly, either Biden is a fool, or else he takes us for fools: in virtually every one of those same speeches in which he promised to take on the mantle of the Great Uniter, he has simultaneously stressed his commitment to prioritizing the very kinds of wedge identity issues that most divide us.
Our unremitting national obsession with racial and other identity issues will continue to engineer its predictable backlash.
As he has made clear, what he calls “racial equity”—but what many of us view as more racial acrimony and balkanization—is one of the core items on his Presidential agenda. He did not so much as bother to conceal what should have been the embarrassing fact that his selection of Kamala Harris for Vice-President was driven by race and gender, considerations that would be strictly taboo in any sane society. His August 21st Democratic National Convention speech, his November 7, 2020 victory speech, and his inauguration day address all paid lip service to uniting the country, and yet, all invoked the regressive left’s empirically dubious toxic meme of “systemic racism” that alienates much of the country.
Unsurprisingly, one of President Biden’s first acts in office was the issuance of executive orders concerning racial equity, in which, among other things, he re-instituted the kind of demonstrably counterproductive diversity and sensitivity training that only increases bias and reifies racial differences and that Trump had wisely squelched. Biden declared as he announced the initiative: “I’m not promising we can end it tomorrow, but I promise you we’re going to continue to make progress to eliminate systemic racism, and every branch of the White House and the federal government is going to be part of that effort.”
President Biden has also made sure to dig deep into the national talent pool to unearth a transgender individual for appointment as his assistant health secretary and to issue a sweeping executive order that requires, among other things, any institution receiving federal funding to permit biological males identifying as female to participate in female sports. Such moves are clear follow-throughs on Biden’s divisive, far-left-fringe LGBTQ agenda.
These are ominous signs. They are sure signs that the growing divisiveness we have lamented over the past four years will proceed apace. Our unremitting national obsession with racial and other identity issues will continue to engineer its predictable backlash. Membership in white supremacist organizations, once a fringe phenomenon, will continue to grow, and race-baiting leftists, faced increasingly with real white supremacy as opposed to the contrived kind they currently fulminate against, will get to say, “I told you so”—oblivious to their own starring role in the catastrophe.
I hold out hope that one day a greater, wiser politician than the ones that currently rise up among us will come along and guide us back to the high road; the path that leads up to the post-racial future rather than down into the seething cauldron of identity, in which teams of color-, gender- and sexually-coded gladiators fight tooth and claw over scarce social spoils. But we are moving further and further away from the high road today. Donald Trump played our dangerous game on behalf of our team, and now Joe Biden, his hollow professions of unity notwithstanding, is playing on behalf of the other team. But the game remains fundamentally the same. It is one in which a loss is certain to result in a tantrum that sweeps all the pieces off the board and sends us all hurtling towards the abyss.