Friday, April 06, 2018

This is About Race (Whatever Else It Is About)

News broke this week that Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, has audaciously exploited his post as an opportunity for graft on a colossal scale. He has handed out $30,000 raises to proteges using obscure provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act,  accepted lodging for $50/night in the luxury condo of a lobbyist, and led a first-class junket to Morocco accompanied by a large retinue (one of whom was a salaried employee who has evidently not shown up to work for the several months that she has been on payroll) for the purpose of promoting the sale of liquid natural gas (a mission that does not fall within the brief of the EPA, but which profits one of the top clients of the lobbyist in whose condo Pruitt has been residing).  This is only a partial list of the boondoggles in which Pruitt has indulged, and Pruitt himself is only the top of a very long list of Trump appointees and officials (Carl Icahn, Tom Price, Steve Mnuchin, David Shulkin, etc. etc.) caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Given what is already a matter of public record, once the full word is out on the Trump administration, it seems on a pace to go down in history as one of the most corrupt regimes in American history.

In light of the sheer scale of corruption on display in the Trump cabinet, it is a wonder that the President's approval ratings remain persistently afloat above thirty-five percent. Some of this is explicable as ignorance. Another part of it is surely the product of Oz-like misdirection: the public is too distracted by "scandals" surrounding the President's tweets to pay much attention to the graft behind the curtain. But such factors cannot fully account for the deafening roar of blithe indifference resounding from the President's supporters regarding the swampy misdemeanors of his retinue.

Why, then, do so many of Trump's followers continue to admire him even though they certainly know that he and his cohort are crooked? The answer lies in the reasons that they voted for him in the first place. One must always remember that the steep ascent of Donald J. Trump began when, after coming down the escalator at Trump Tower, he uttered the words (speaking of Mexican migrants): "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." Many factors have contributed to the phenomenon of Trumpism (globalization, automation, terrorism, etc. etc.), but this moment in our politics has always, first and foremost, been about race. 

The election of Barack Obama initiated a panic in a significant portion of the electorate. For decades we had been aware of the changing demographics of the nation: at some inflection point in the not-too-distant future, "whites" will be a "minority" (more accurately a plurality, to the extent that "whites" as a category is at all meaningful, which it generally is not). Obama's election convinced many voters that the electoral impact of that future inflection point had hit sooner than expected.

As depressing as it is to contemplate, this "realization" induced a very tribal calculus in the political mindset of a large part of the electorate. As long as the traditional demographic status quo had prevailed, confidence in the government and care for the scrupulousness of its operations were fueled by a deep-seated intuition that, in a democracy, the federal government was (by and large) the proprietary concern of the "white" majority. But Barack Obama's election signaled the imminent dawning of a new era, one in which all of the coercive and remunerative powers of the government would "belong" to people of color. This apprehension underpinned the appeal of Donald Trump's call to "Make America Great Again," and explains the buoyancy of his approval numbers in the face of massive corruption and graft.

Trump's supporters do not really care about the corruption in his cabinet because, on some very visceral level, they feel that it is natural for white guys to clean out the store before the "others" move in and take over. My stating this is not meant to endorse rhetoric labeling Trump's supporters "deplorable," nor do I believe that anyone who continues to support the administration is overtly and consciously racist. But at least on a subconscious level, something like the perspective I have described above informs the outlook of many millions who continue to give Trump their support, even though (I suspect) many millions of people who feel this way are not aware that it is so and would vehemently deny such sentiments if confronted with them.

My aim in articulating these observations is not to self-righteously condemn or to stoke indignation. Racial panic is deeply woven into the fabric of our shared history and culture, no one can be totally blamed for having come under its influence to a degree. But we should be clear about what is at stake. Our system, from its founding, has been a very versatile admixture of pragmatism and principle. On the one hand, powerful imperatives were progressively built into the framework of our basic law (for example, the Fourteenth Amendment's injunction to afford all citizens "the equal protection of the laws") that have fostered expanding vistas of civil liberty for all. On the other hand, there have always been maneuvers (for example, the provision in Article 1 that each slave would count as "three-fifths" of a person) to divide people by race, class, and gender, and in so doing to secure the dominance of entrenched elites. The system has been preserved because, over time and in moments of crisis (such as the Civil War), leaders have generally chosen to continue to expand the libertarian compact to include formerly dispossessed or disenfranchised groups rather than scuttle the system in favor of preserving the prerogatives of elites. 

We are at another such moment of decision. If we persist in treating the federal government as a proprietary racket that serves the interests of a single "tribe", we will debase the Constitution until it is worth less than the paper on which it is printed. If, on the other hand, we can elect new leaders who will utilize the power of the federal government to ameliorate our current crises (ecological degradation, infrastructural decay, economic disenfranchisement of large populations) on behalf of all people regardless of race, class, creed or gender, we can usher in a new era of confidence in our evolving system, and make our Constitution serve future generations as well as (or better than)  it did generations past and present. 

The choice is a very stark one, and the consequences will be rapid and irreversible. The horizon for an effective change of course is very short. At the very latest, the election of 2020 will be our last chance to pull out of the current nose dive. But if the Republicans retain control of Congress after the midterm election this fall, the opportunity to preserve the system may be lost.

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