For justice-minded people, the unfolding drama of the 2016 presidential contest has been disorienting and frightening. The usual jockeying for control of the Republican Party among Christian Nationalists, neoconservatives, and Chamber of Commerce types has been trumped by the rise of stridently bigoted populism. We’ve all witnessed ugly rhetoric in presidential campaigns before, but this is a different level of threat.
To defeat the current upsurge in right-wing populism, progressives will need to disrupt, defuse, and – critically – compete for portions of its constituency. Donald Trump’s torrent of racist and misogynist remarks and his fascistic policy proposals –barring Muslims from entry to the U.S. and deporting 11 million undocumented people – are aimed at the growing masses of White middle- and working-class people fearful of their declining economic and social standing. Amidst all the demonizing, explains PRA alum Chip Berlet, Trump’s supporters “are responding to rhetoric that honors them as the bedrock of American society.” From White suffering, he is mobilizing White rage.
It’s working. And the media circus around the primaries has pulled the national conversation to the Right, opening space for liberal politicians to abandon commitments to immigrant justice and other progressive demands. As we develop strategies and slogans to contest bigoted populism, we must think broader than any one candidate and beyond the current electoral calendar.
One thing we desperately need is a compelling story about race and the economy to upend the false but increasingly dominant right-wing populist explanation: liberal elites have usurped the wealth and social standing of “real Americans” and doled it out as patronage to communities of color and other undeserving masses of “takers.”
In reality, the racism that once helped to build the White middle class has for decades been strategically redeployed by the Right to undermine public support for democratic institutions and antipoverty programs. The result: falling real wages and accelerated income and wealth inequality even among Whites. Simply put, racism is destroying the American middle and working classes.
But that story is not told clearly, loudly, or often enough. Most liberal discussion of the economy addresses race, if at all, in terms of disproportionate economic hardship. And much of the current national discussion about racism only addresses jobs and the economy in order to pivot away from the realities of racism. What we need is a synthesis.
As Heather McGhee and Ian Haney-López have argued, “The progressive movement should expand from a vision of racism as violence done solely to people of color to include a conception of racism as a political weapon wielded by elites against the 99 percent, nonwhite and white alike.” Call it the love child of Black Lives Matter and Occupy. Let’s make it clear that racism is not a viable vehicle for economic advancement for the growing White precariat. Only a multi-racial movement of and for working people can accomplish that.
To compete, we’ll have to build it. We can start by flipping the script on race and the economy and agreeing that we need to contest for some of those currently drawn to snake oil solutions to their suffering.