Image: Far-right rally descends into violence in Charlottesville
Today’s far-right populists relish the idea that they can be morally contemptible, yet still prevail.
The concept of “white supremacy” is having a moment right now, and understandably so. White resentment, entitlement and bigotry never went away, but it is closer to the political mainstream now than it has been for decades.
The rhetoric of the likes of Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Steve Bannon and other figures in the ascendant populist right might not openly embrace “white power”, but there is no doubt that open white racists have been emboldened by them. Trump may have not wanted Richard Spencer (who coined the term “alt right”) to gleefully exclaim: “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory” just after the 2016 US election, but he was not particularly bothered by it either.
Online and offline, there is a rich and growing milieu of radical racist thinkers and activists. Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, was immersed in it and active on the Gab social network, stirring up hate towards Jews who support refugees.
However, white supremacy, as used to describe a belief in the racial superiority of white people, may not be the best concept to help us understand what is going on here. It’s not that there isn’t a barely concealed attempt to rehabilitate the long and clearly documented history of white racism in “western” democracies. The issue is that I’m not sure that it’s “supremacy” that is the goal here, so much as a licence for a perverse kind of degeneracy.
Consider the contrast between Barack Obama and Trump. Obama is not a perfect human being, nor was he a perfect US president. But it’s impossible to deny his qualities. He is intelligent, competent, witty, plain-speaking, empathetic and has a loving relationship with his family. Obama is also a man who was not born into wealth and power, and worked hard to make something of his life. Trump is the reverse: incompetent, mendacious, rude and seemingly incapable of non-instrumental relationships. The only way he has made anything of his life is through being born into privilege, with sufficient reserves of family capital to allow him to build a “business” based on little more than bragging.
Aside from his politics, Trump is simply a man who falls short of any moral code you could care to imagine. Politicians are often cynical, cruel or corrupt, but a complete absence of human decency is rare. Even George W Bush can pass sweets to Michelle Obama and paint loving portraits of the soldiers he sent off to die.
But for millions of Americans to choose Trump and to continue to support him cannot simply be dismissed as voters “holding their noses” and selecting the individual who could best forward their agenda, regardless of his personal qualities. For a significant proportion of his supporters, it was a deliberate choice for moral degeneracy, even a celebration of it. It is also a reproach to the Obama years and to Obama personally. A bad white man will always be better than a good black man, regardless of the political platforms they support.
The degeneracy of Trump tells us something about changing trends within white racism. Social Darwinism, and “scientific” attempts to prove the superiority of the “white race” still have a presence on the far right. But I don’t think that this is the dominant ideological driver behind the resurgence of white racism. Sure, the Proud Boys, members of whom have been associated with violent assaults on counter-protesters, advocate “western chauvinism”, but this woolly idea is flexible enough not to be tied into pseudoscientific notions of white superiority as a fact.
What I think we are seeing is something rawer, a lust for power, coupled with an unvarnished hatred of non-white others that sees little need to disguise itself. This is a white racism that is predicated on nothing other than a desire to dominate and subjugate. Trump’s brutal expression of his basest urges empowers and licenses a similar abandonment, among his followers, of any pretence that white dominance is unjustifiable. This is not white supremacy as we have understood it. It is a move to demonstrate that whiteness can be as morally degenerate as one wishes it to be and still prevail.
At the heart of this proud degeneracy is an insecurity. A fear of “white genocide” has become normative on the far right, based on conspiracy theories about the likes of George Soros encouraging mass immigration as an attempt to replace the white race. Trump has come very close to trying to validate this myth. At the now infamous rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, the marchers chanted: “You will not replace us”. This suggests an awareness that white power cannot rest on justifiable foundations. Indeed, outside the old-style far right, the very concept of whiteness and race itself is given limited intellectual justification. All there is left is assertion and hate.
Degeneracy is not confined to the openly racist far right – it is a theme that runs through the populist right more generally, even when racism is absent or not emphasised. One of the key features of the populist wave is a certain proud incompetence. There are of course still competent rightwing populists around, but it is frequently the likes of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage or Matteo Salvini who prevail. They are uninterested and incapable of conducting policymaking and government in a systematic, productive way. They make a virtue of their lack of understanding; they cause chaos and delight in destruction. They are a kind of taunt, in the same way as Trump is: we have no idea what we are doing, we will destroy, we are contemptible human beings and still you love us.
Some analyses of the rise of Trump and the populist right claim that they draw their popularity from those who feel “left behind” and see their own flaws gloriously reflected in them. This is only true to an extent. If even a tiny fraction of Brexit-supporting Sunderland was as blithely destructive as Farage, the city would be a smouldering ruin.
No, what these people offer their supporters is a guarantee: we will make sure that however much your life degenerates, our power as degenerate white men should reassure you that there is still hope. Yes, you are better than we are, but you don’t have to be. In a bewildering, chaotic world, this is immensely reassuring.
Perhaps there are opportunities here for anti-racism and opposition to the populist right. If white racism and populism now rests on nothing more than naked power and self-assertion, there will be no need to wade through the academic verbiage about “bell curves” and black crime rates before we can tackle the problem. And perhaps the very degeneracy of Trump and the rest will begin to pall after a while. Most people – “white” or otherwise – are simply much better human beings than the leaders of the populist right. Maybe wallowing in the muck of white degeneracy will become such a sordid experience that an eventual realisation that it is better to be an Obama than a Trump will take hold. Maybe the best approach to resisting white degenerate leaders is to point out to their supporters that, far from being “deplorables”, they are usually better than those who lead them.