This election is about whether the majority of white Americans can do the right thing — for the first time in modern history
By Umair Haque
There’s a simple question that needs to be asked if you really want to make sense of the upcoming American election. Are American white people ready to — really — reject fascism?
Much is being made of the early wave of electoral turnout. Much is also being made of women and minorities and young people turning out to vote. All that is certainly historic. But in a very real sense, the question of this election hinges of a much simpler, grimmer, and more ominous reality.
60 per cent of white Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Is that number really going to fall enough? Is a minority of white Americans really going to support Trump this time? Are white Americans really ready to reject fascism, en masse?
The ugly truth, that no one much seems to want to examine, or even admit, is this. While it’s great — and crucial — that minorities vote, and it’s true that minorities can make a difference in moving America forward, America’s lack of progress, its failure to become a modern society, is about white Americans.
White Americans still decide America’s destiny. They make up 77 per cent of the population. They are the ones who put Trump in office in 2016.
Is it really realistic to expect that Trump’s support among white Americans will fall by ten percent or more, suddenly plunging to minority levels?
I’ve put this question to you in several different ways because I want you to understand this is a serious and urgent question. Pundits and commentators seem to give the impression that this election is about everyone else — Black women, Hispanics, Latinos, young people. In fact, it is, and always has been, about white Americans.
Trump cannot lose unless three things happen. One, white Americans’ support for him falls suddenly and massively. Two, white Americans simply fail to turn out, and so minority votes matter more — that one doesn’t seem to be happening, by the way. Or three, huge divisions emerge among white Americans — Trump’s support among women craters, for example. But the point remains: this election is (unfortunately) about white Americans and whether or not they are really ready to reject a fascist society.
So: are they? Really? What we do know about white Americans is pretty troubling, after all, at least if you look at it in global and historic terms. They are the ones who have decided America’s fate in almost every way, really. They are the ones who have chosen, for the last few decades, over and over again, to build a society that doesn’t have what the rest of the rich world and now even much of the poorer world takes for granted — functioning healthcare, retirement.
In other words, white Americans really are different. They can be regressive, hostile, selfish, and cruel, to a degree that’s unique and jaw-dropping to the rest of the world. Who else makes their kids be traumatised by “active shooter drills”…just so they can carry guns to their local Starbucks? Who else votes against their own healthcare and retirement…and for their own families? White Americans. It’s not as if Black and Latino people want these things or make them happen. It’s America’s white majority that has produced a failed nation, if we are honest — not anyone else — and they are really, really, different, in terms of their attitudes, ideologies, and mindsets, than anyone else in the Western world.
How different? Voters in Europe and Canada — white majorities there — can be relied upon to act with some modicum of decency and humanity and common sense. They back, over and over again, what the world now considers modern social contracts that make up functioning, sophisticated societies — healthcare, retirement, education, childcare, and so on, for all, not just themselves. It would be a massive, massive shock if voters anywhere else in the West began to act like America’s white majority — they are so far off the scale of conservatism, in formal terms, that it might as well not exist.
White Americans have long had precisely the opposite attitude to their counterparts in other Western societies. America is the rich world’s most backward society precisely because white Americans can be relied upon to vote down even the tiniest shred of forward motion. America, for example, still hasn’t passed the Equal Rights Amendment. And where white Americans can’t vote down progress, they make it socioculturally impossible: they still treat Black people like second-class citizens, whom police forces brutalise and kill in horrific ways, America’s still effectively a segregated society, where Black people have made no economic progress since segregation ended.
White Americans flatly refuse to make any kind of collective investment in any kind of public good whatsoever. The only thing they seem to back, as a social investment, is brutality: they’ll spend money on militarised police forces and wars, but never — never — on healthcare, retirement, or any other kind of true public good.
They are the only people in the entire world, apart from Brits, who predictably vote for worse lives, who choose self-destruction, over and over again.
I stress this because I want you to see how perverse this attitude really is, how different it really is, how unique it really is — and therefore, too, what we are really asking for when we imagine that Biden will sweep to some kind of easy victory. Is that really plausible? Are white Americans really ready to change?
That brings me to the reason why white Americans are so different than white majorities in every other Western country. The rest of the world — more or less all of it — is baffled, bewildered, and or deeply amused by white Americans voting over and over again for worse lives. What they want to know is: why? What on earth makes a person deny their own families healthcare and retirement? What the?
The answer is twofold. The first part lies in America’s sordid, grim history of racial violence and slavery. The vast majority of white Americans have long held an attitude that goes like this: “I won’t invest in those dirty, filthy people! In their healthcare, retirement, education! Why, they used to be my granddaddy’s slaves! And even if they weren’t, they’re not like us. Even if it means me not having my own public goods, I won’t invest in theirs. I’ll burn down any notion of an equal society just to preserve my own dominance.”
That sounds bizarre, backwards and foolish to the rest of the world…because it is. And yet from the point of view of the majority of white Americans, it makes a kind of grotesque sense. They have made the choice that it’s better to stay on top, even if in it’s a collapsing society, than be equals in a rising one. At least that way they have the feeling of power, the rush of supremacy, the shared sense of belonging to the class of chosen people. They aren’t the untouchables, the subhumans, the hated ones, and that gives them status, meaning, pride, and self-worth.
Of course, all that’s also a pretty good description of…fascism. That’s not a coincidence. The Nazis studied America’s institutions of racial violence and brutality, its race laws, intently, to understand how to dehumanise the Jews and other hated minorities. Fascism wasn’t born in Weimar Germany. It was only advanced to new heights. The birth of fascism was in America. That’s why it all feels so red-white-and-blue. Fascism, if we really think about it, was born in a Constitution that made hated minorities 3/5th human beings, so that they could be enslaved. What we still call “slavery” is a euphemism for what is probably history’s greatest crime against humanity. Generations wiped out, a never-ending genocide, human lives by the millions treated with contempt, abused, exploited, for centuries.
Fascism seems to run deep in America’s blood because it does. The legacy of American slavery, which is best seen as the original kind of fascism, the one that proved to history’s later fascists that such terrible things as genocide could be accomplished by a dedicated enough society, poisons America to this very day.
It’s no coincidence, after all, that as soon as segregation was lifted, Reagan was elected, who gave white Americans another way out. Sure, it was illegal now to segregate black people. So under the mantras of “personal responsibility” and “freedom of choice” white Americans simply began denying everyone, including themselves basic public goods. Slavery — the original fascism — is what broke America as a society, and it has never really reckoned with the poisonous history it has inherited from it: a set of social attitudes that still prevail amongst white Americans.
Let me make that point again, because it matters intensely. White Americans, as a group, have never been able to treat any other group in society as equals. Never. Not once in America’s long history have white Americans as a majority been able to live up to America’s founding ideals of freedom and justice for all. Not once.
White Americans might object to that, so let me make it clear. Until 1971, America was segregated — because that’s what white Americans wanted. After 1971, there was a brief window of possibility. But under Reagan, America’s old attitudes emerged all over again. If segregation wasn’t possible, white Americans reasoned, then they’d simply define “freedom” as the ability to act in ways the rest of the world considered backwards and barbaric and racist and hateful and ignorant and violent. “Freedom” then became the “choice” to withhold public investment from the rest of society — groups white Americans had never considered equals — even if it meant white Americans wouldn’t have things like healthcare and retirement of their own. White Americans, in other words, were so against the idea of genuine equality that they were willing to pay a steep price to defend their old way of life, which was to treat everyone else as an inferior, a hated minority, and a subhuman.
How steep? They were willing to deny themselves and their own families basic public goods, to maintain their own social dominance — that is how committed they were to the idea of their supremacy as a group. To put it another way, they were willing to live shorter, poorer, dumber, meaner lives — if only they stayed on top, above all the rest.
That is historically how committed white American has been to the idea of its own supremacy and superiority. That doesn’t mean every white American is a racist. But it does mean that white Americans, as a group, have never, ever been able to pass the test of a civilised society. They are the ones who kept America backwards, violent, and brutish. Precisely because that was how their privilege was to be maintained, even if they paid a price themselves. White America has never been able to treat anyone else as a true equal — ever.
Even when Barack Obama was elected, the vast majority didn’t vote for him. They supported John McCain by 55–43 per cent, a margin of 12 points. If you do the math, it appears that even JFK only won because of the minority vote — even he didn’t win a white majority. Election after election, white Americans overwhelmingly vote against progress. That is how deep white America’s bias runs. It has never, ever gone away.
All that is how Trump got elected. That is where this fatal social attitude was always going to lead. America has a white people problem. It hasn’t been able to transcend its ugly history of bigotry and hate, and this group, which is the majority of Americans, hasn’t been able to act as a majority in any other way than to deny equality, to thwart social progress, to limit America’s becoming a genuinely modern society, where everyone is treated with dignity and justice, and it has repeatedly found new ways to exert the power of its regressive attitudes — like resorting to Reagan’s “individual freedom” revolution when segregation finally failed legally.
Let me say it even more simply. White America has never — ever — done the right thing. As a group, as a majority. It has always chosen inequality and repression and bigotry and hate, where it could. I know that sounds harsh. I don’t mean it personally. And I don’t even mean it in a bad way. It’s an ugly truth to discuss, certainly. It’s a grim fact to reckon with. But it’s a fact of history, that needs to be considered carefully, especially by white Americans, because they’re the only ones with the power to change it.
That brings me back to this election. What is it really about? In a way, it couldn’t be simpler. When we say: “Biden will sweep to victory!” we are also really saying: “White America is going to do the right thing!” But what we are not considering is history’s grim, painful, bitter truth — one which casts a dark shadow of doubt over it all. White America has almost never done the right thing. It has almost never acted in the interests of anyone but itself as a group. The majority of white Americans have always voted to preserve their own dominance, even if it cost them, presumably because that is how deep feelings of supremacy run. I say “almost never” because the last time white Americans acted in the interest of somebody other than themselves was…the Civil War.
That’s the kind of history we are up against in this election.
The question then becomes a much darker one. Is white America capable of doing the right thing? At all? For maybe the first time in modern history? Can white Americans, as a group, choose something other than their own supremacy and primacy, other than their own power, like a modern society of equals?
When I put it that way, maybe you see why I’m a little more hesitant to be so optimistic about the upcoming election than most pundits. I think even white Americans of the good kind don’t understand that they are sharply in the minority in their own social group, historically. That therefore, white Americans, as a group, as a majority, doing the right thing would be something truly historic: it would mean a true transformation in social attitudes that has never happened before.
Is that likely? Or is it likelier that history’s inertia tends to prevail? Is it more likely that white Americans, as a group, act to preserve their own supremacy and power, at everyone’s expense, even their own, voting for it, like they’ve always done?
Or will they suddenly snap out of their coma, and wake up? Can centuries really change in moments? Is this the reckoning America’s been waiting for? I don’t know. You tell me. I’m dubious. I think history tends to win, and change, especially, in people and power, is slow, rare, and precious. Which is why I ask.
So let me ask you all over again. Are white Americans really ready to reject fascism? – Medium.