"reconciliation", a whitewashed and purely nostalgic view of the U.S., “economic anxiety”, fears of a more diverse and multicultural culture, mainstream conservatism is aligning itself with this hardcore reactionary tendency, the MAGA movement, the right-wing storming of the U.S. Capitol, the widespread voter fraud that never took place, the anti-Semitic “QAnon” conspiracy theory, to great a disparity of beliefs and values, White Supremacy
Reconciliation or Reconstruction?: We Need a Social Revolution
By Scott Patrick
In the wake of the right-wing storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, there were predictable calls for “healing” and “unity” to counteract the clear division and extreme polarization in U.S. society. Immediately, however, there came rejections of these appeals, with an insistence on accountability for those who helped promote and radicalize the Trump supporters who attempted to occupy the Capitol and possibly execute the Vice President and members of Congress. These diverging demands echo two rival perspectives when it comes to the MAGA movement: whether the left should seek to entreat right-wing discontents based on their more valid grievances, or accept there is an insurmountable disconnect when it comes to ideas, beliefs, and values.
The so-called “Trump insurrection” has, for many, validated the latter argument. While President Donald Trump undeniably used a rally to encourage his followers to overturn the “stolen” 2020 election, the common threads uniting the mob that raided the Capitol are adherence to irrational, bogus philosophies: white supremacy, the anti-Semitic “QAnon” conspiracy theory, widespread voter fraud that never took place, etc. A movement that once proclaimed “Blue Lives Matter” in opposition to “Black Lives Matter” had no problem killing one Capitol Police officer and injuring several others. One of the more iconic figures to emerge on January 6 was the “QAnon shaman,” a shirtless man tattooed in white supremacist iconography, wearing an animal skin headdress adorned with horns. To find common ground with those individuals who invaded the Capitol is too tall an order for many Americans, many of whom have come to resent the respectability afforded to deplorable, dangerous ideas in our society.
Yet the argument that leftists should have empathy for right-wingers persists, both among centrists as well as more radical voices. Pete Buttigieg during the Democratic primary blamed Trump’s electoral success on working class communities left behind by globalization; Noam Chomsky repeatedly said leftists should seek to organize members of the Tea Party and Trump’s base, not mock them. According to this line of thinking, Trump voters are not so much motivated by racism, sexism, or any other kind of social chauvinism, but by economic anxiety. If Trump, FOX News, or Glenn Beck have induced these people to rally around anti-immigration or anti-government sentiment, then that represents a failure by the U.S. left to offer them the “correct” alternatives to those ideas.
Several studies have demonstrated, however, that those areas of the U.S. that flipped most dramatically from supporting to Obama to Trump correlated not with low income or high unemployment rates but with racial make-up. Trump’s hate-mongering against Mexican and Muslim migrants resonated with so many Americans not because of “economic anxiety” but due to fears of a more diverse and multicultural culture, one that acknowledges and rebukes white supremacy in U.S. history, disdains the repression of women and LGBTQ+ people, and wants to erode the outsized influence of the economic elite in our politics. In response to these shifting attitudes and principles, conservatives have coalesced around increasingly extreme attempts to retain a whitewashed and purely nostalgic view of the U.S., our past, and our moral authority in the world. They have been conditioned to see the U.S., its role in the world, and its history in a certain way, and in the face of a growing counterculture that challenges those beliefs, they are resorting to progressively radical strategies, from rallying to the demagogic and petulant Trump to assailing the headquarters of the national legislature. With further political violence from far-right extremists likely, it appears this progression will continue.
The reality is that right-wingers are not interested in debate. Unlike an episode of The West Wing, their threat cannot be defused by decency, rule-following, and reason. Their ideological programming goes deeper than FOX News; numerous institutions, from the family unit to the U.S. education system to popular entertainment, have all planted and reinforced a dogma that validates and praises the status quo. White mothers teach their children to be suspicious in Black neighborhoods. Movies and television portray women largely as supporting characters to help the leading man get to where he needs to be. Teachers teach their students that, because liberalism and capitalism “won” in the 20th century, our political system cannot be improved upon and our economic system is the one most conducive to human nature. Prior to the glut of new scholarship coming from Eric Foner and Henry Louis Gates, the Reconstruction era in U.S. history was depicted as government overreach instead of an attempt at a “second founding.” To this day, the Founding Fathers are typically presented as enlightened, benevolent demigods who created an infallible Constitution rather than a collection of elite mostly slave-owning oligarchs explicitly dedicated to protecting “the opulent minority” from the servile masses that constituted the actual majority. As a growing number of Americans realize that the conservative romantic ideal of the U.S. never existed, particularly among young Americans, the fervor with which conservatives have sought to defend this non-existent conception of an infallible, solely glorious vision of the U.S. (and, to an extent, the whole nationalist-capitalist-white male chauvinist project that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries) has increased exponentially, to the extent of open violence in the streets.
Unfortunately, many Americans still refuse to believe mainstream conservatism is aligning itself with this hardcore reactionary tendency, even though poll after poll shows a significant number of Republicans believe President-elect Joe Biden’s election was “illegitimate” or do not accept Trump’s culpability in inciting the January 6 revolt. These are mostly the same Americans who witnessed said revolt and professed complete shock and surprise, rather than seeing it as the logical evolution of the emboldening of right-wing extremism in Michigan, D.C., and elsewhere. The “we are better than this” crowd clings to the fantasy that Biden’s inauguration will magically turn the U.S. back to “normal,” a comfortable and prosperous nation where white-collar professionals can brunch in peace. The truth is the Biden administration will not resolve systemic racism against people of color among law enforcement, the staggering inequality between the haves and the have-nots worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, or any other of our compounding crises. The architects of U.S. policy remain an unaccountable coterie of elites who take their cues from billionaires. The democratic deficit between what a majority of people want (such as universal health care) and what we will actually get will continue to widen. The surge in populism is a genie not returning to the bottle.
If there is reason to hope, it lies in the very limited triumphs of the aforementioned counterculture challenging the foundations of the right-wing vision of the U.S. The election of our first Black president, the nomination of a woman nominee for president, and most recently the election of our first woman of color as vice president all point to very gradual civilizing forces at play. Of course, this progress is not nearly sufficient, as the grievances expressed by Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, Occupy Wall Street, and Standing Rock all testify; we are literally facing an existential crisis as the human race and yet decisive and bold responses are absent. The sort of far-ranging, deep structural reform required is nowhere near imminent. What we need is a social revolution, a daring overturning of the entire social order, with a new Constitution arranged along modern and progressive values, to say nothing of a new political system and economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top. This also entails a cultural struggle, a “long march through the institutions,” so that we might have a clean break with the cultural hegemony that has produced the angry white Trump voter. Rather than seek to woo the reactionary, we must present them with an ultimatum: fix their hearts or be left behind in the very museum of half-truths and lies they worship.