The Corner

Culture

Trump, Race, and D. W. Griffith

I don’t share the race obsession of many of my fellow Americans. I was born here (specifically, Youngstown, Ohio) but spent my childhood abroad, so I didn’t marinate in the various resentments of racism, “reverse racism,” etc. To me, looking on mostly from the outside, the civil-rights movement was inspiring, one of the greatest successes in the history of nonviolent reform. I still think it was a great success, despite today’s anxieties.

But race demagogues on both sides continue to prosper — because race is such a useful political tool of manipulation. Many of Donald Trump’s supporters fan the flames of this sort of resentment. And on the other side we have casual insinuations such as this, from a discussion, in this morning’s L.A. Times, of the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation:

Much of the film’s allure, at least among white audiences, was the glorification of the Old South, that world of tea, Spanish moss, buggy whips and summer dances. It was a populist paean to recapture certain vestiges of an America undergoing dramatic change, similar to Donald Trump vowing to “make America great again,” a phrase that has roused supporters in Appalachia, the South and the Rust Belt, where blue-collar workers feel threatened by immigration and economic globalization.

This amounts to a rhetorical stolen base. Yes, there is nostalgia in the 1915 movie, and there is nostalgia in today’s Trump movement. But to compare the two without mentioning important distinctions is inflammatory. The typical lionizer of the Old South in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 audience was at best a minimizer of racist oppression, at worst an enthusiast for it. Yes, there are some dark forces supporting Donald Trump, but there are also some perfectly decent folks who have convinced themselves, that, e.g., getting into trade wars will bring back high-paying jobs. You can fault them for their lack of economic acuity, if you like, but that phenomenon is qualitatively different from pining for the days of slavery, and the two should not be so easily conflated.

(The L.A. Times piece is, of course, connected to the imminent release of a new film about the slavery era, also titled “The Birth of a Nation.” I’m not sure I’m going to see it, because I tend to avoid movies that strive to raise my consciousness on issues on which my consciousness was already raised back when I was a schoolboy, four decades ago. If people whose critical acumen I trust – I live in L.A., I’m fortunate to know many such — tell me the film is an excellent work of art, and not just an op-ed, I’ll go to see it.)

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