In the 1980s, every punk band had a song about racism, the classic of the genre being “Racism Sucks,” by 7 Seconds, whose teenaged members had no doubt learned a great deal about the hard facts of black life on the almost exclusively white streets of Reno, Nev., in 1981. There was also the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks F*** Off,” also from 1981, Black Flag’s “White Minority,” Operation Ivy’s “Unity,” Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White” — it is a pretty big catalogue.
Preachy stuff, in the main, but preaching to whom? By the 1980s, it had become difficult to find an honest-to-God open racist in the wild, at least one under about 50 or so. Punk posed as a counterculture, but here at least it was merely setting the rules of polite society to music. Indeed, it was much, much more outré to be an open racist than to have a purple mohawk — a fact that was helped along enormously by Geraldo Rivera and his infamous 1988 show with white supremacist John Metzger, which ended in a televised skinhead brawl.
People tuned in to watch that episode not because it was familiar, but because it was so unusual.
That trend continued in the following decades, to the extent that organized white racism is effectively a non-factor in American public life. As an Anti-Defamation League report put it, “Many Klan groups simply no longer have the membership necessary to hold public demonstrations or protests,” while other white-supremacist groups — with the important exception of prison gangs — are “stagnant or in decline.” Aryan Circle, one of the largest white-power groups in the nation, has about 1,400 members, most of them incarcerated. Groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center tend to track the number of organizations rather than the membership of such organizations, which exaggerates the size and scope of the movement inasmuch as many of these “groups” are nothing more than Potemkin websites or social-media accounts. Estimates of total membership in racist groups typically run less than 100,000 and possibly as low at 40,000 — in a nation of more than 300 million — and casually racist attitudes have been declining for decades.
The General Social Survey found that in 1972, just under one-third of white southerners supported school segregation; that number fell so far so fast that the question was dropped by the mid 1980s. As Anna Maria Barry-Jester put it at FiveThirtyEight, “since the 1970s, support for public and political forms of discrimination has shrunk significantly.” Whether the question is voting for a black presidential candidate or permitting discrimination in commercial accommodations, racist attitudes and support for racist policies have shrunk to a position of being little more than an ugly social eccentricity. The number of Americans who believe that blacks are genetically inferior to whites is dwarfed by the number of Americans who believe that astrology is scientific.
Which is to say: It’s a small basket of deplorables, after all.
Actual, indisputable racism has become so rare that we have had to invent exotic new versions of it, such as “white privilege” and expressions of bias so surpassingly subtle that when a black police officer shoots a black criminal in an overwhelmingly black city with a black police commissioner and a black mayor, the real underlying question is — of course — white racism. Developing a sommelier’s nose for prejudice is a large part of what is sometimes known as “virtue-signaling” — performative moralizing meant mainly to increase the status of the critic — though that term has come into disfavor through overuse. (E.g.: “I find it difficult to take you seriously while you’re wearing that swastika armband.” “Virtue-signaling! He’s virtue-signaling! Look, everybody, virtue-signaling!” Etc.)
In the public square and in political discourse, racism isn’t about racism.
Racism is in fact a kind of shorthand for the vices, real and imagined, of conservatives — and particularly middle-American conservatives geographically and spiritually outside the coastal elite’s sphere of influence — as understood by the sort of people who will do their best in a few weeks to make Hillary Rodham Clinton president of these United States. Mrs. Clinton’s now-infamous remarks — that one-half of Donald Trump’s supporters are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic,” and “irredeemable” (strong word for a Methodist!) — were, in the spirit of the age, focused on the Internet and social media, on Trump’s “tweets and retweets,” as Abraham Lincoln never put it. Trump of course does have racists among his followers, and he is the favorite candidate of Jew-hating weirdos — at least of Jew-hating weirdos not named Al Sharpton, a man whose continued prominence in Democratic circles is a constant reminder that we would not have to dig too deeply into Mrs. Clinton’s base to uncover characters who make Trump’s sad little gallery of 4Chan beasties look like scholars and gentlemen. There is a deal of deplorability in a nation.
Mrs. Clinton’s deeply uncharitable and deeply un-Christian insistence that those who prefer Trump over her are “irredeemable” (infelix culpa!) is familiar, being as it is only this year’s version of Barack Obama’s description in 2008 of the same irredeemable cohort: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” The president, who plainly thinks of himself as a kind of national redeemer, would have to revise those remarks if making them today, because one item on that litany of sins — anti-trade sentiment — is a hallmark of his party’s 2016 offerings.
The American Left has long embraced the totalitarian slogan “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem,” and among those who are part of the problem, the Left identifies two main cohorts. First are victims of what the Marxists call “false consciousness,” the rubes who are what’s the matter with Kansas, who are too gobsmacked and God-haunted to understand their own economic and political interests and therefore vote against them. They are the dupes. The second group is the saboteurs, those who are driven by hatred, nihilism, and atavistic superstition to oppose all that is good and right and progressive. Trump originally left the Left a little bit nonplussed: He’s an on-paper billionaire, sure, which provides some foundation for hating him, but he did not meet their other expectations. Where a proper right-wing villain should be religious — a member of the Christian Taliban, preferably — Trump is secular and thrice-married (so far), much more Dimmesdale than Chillingworth; a proper right-wing villain should be from Texas or Utah, not from New York City; where he should be a gun nut, Trump has long sympathized with the Obama-Clinton view of such bogeymen as so-called assault weapons and probably has never handled a shotgun outside the confines of some rarefied Scottish clays course; where he should be a warmonger, Trump is one part Ron Paul (at least when it became popular to oppose the Iraq War) and one part realpolitik Gordon Gekko: Forget democracy, grab the oil.
That being the case, the Left settled on: fat racist.
The fat part is at least as important as the racist part, because both are shorthand in the progressive mind for sinful.
No sooner had Trump appeared on The Dr. Oz Show to talk about his health than his Democratic opponents began castigating him for his “obesity.” Fat trutherism immediately became the order of the day. There were hundreds of examples, including Sara Morrison’s conspiracy theory, published on Vocativ, that the Republican had added an inch to his height in order to evade a BMI calculation that would have made him technically obese. “If you wanted to be considered overweight instead of obese, perhaps because you are vain and already fielding concerns about being the oldest person ever elected to the presidency, well, adding an inch would be a great way to do that,” she wrote. “Especially if the claimed weight was already stretching the bounds of credibility, and the person claiming it seems to have a thing for eating and being photographed with fast food, including buckets of fried chicken, double cheeseburgers, and massive taco bowls.” Indira Lakshmanan of the Boston Globe echoed the claim. Others reveled in the story. The Daily Edge: “Dr. Oz says obese 70-year-old man who doesn’t exercise is in great shape.” The journalist and TV personality Touré denounced the “nearly obese millionaire birther.” Entertainer Bill Madden described Trump as “270 pounds of Lipitor-guzzling, orange-spray-tanned trans fat.” (Lipitor, a cholesterol reducer, is a tablet.) Gersh Kuntzman of the New York Daily News: “Donald Trump can now officially be called ‘Fat Donald.’” You’d think Kuntzman would be more circumspect about suggesting nasty nicknames.
John Stoehr, who writes a column for U.S. News and World Report, argued that this was all fair game: “Yes, it matters,” he wrote. “Why? Because Trump should be held to his own standards. Remember his calling women ‘fat pigs’?” Which would be fair enough, if such criticism were limited to Trump, or even if it were limited to high-profile public figures with a penchant for personal attacks, such as Rush Limbaugh. But it is not — not by a long shot. When the tea-party rallies made headlines, the protesters were painted as racists, as marionettes being manipulated by Charles and David Koch, etc., but mostly they were dismissed as fat. Wonkette published an entire feature on the physical repulsiveness of those attending a Glenn Beck rally — the sour-faced woman in the flag shirt on a mobility scooter became the Left’s avatar of the movement — with Ken Layne writing: “Remain seated, ye lardbottoms, and also stick to daylight hours, so you don’t run into each other, on those ridiculous scooters paid for by Socialist Medicare.” Those devices were quickly nicknamed “obesity scooters.”
“This is why liberals need not fear a Tea Party uprising,” one high-minded progressive wrote at Wonkette. “The only thing you need to feel safe from these a**h***s is a flight of stairs.” Later, progressive counter-protesters donned XXXXL American-flag T-shirts over fat suits and rode around on scooters while carrying placards reading: “English was good enough for Jesus!” and “Thank you, Fox News, for keeping us inflamed!” Others fantasized about these benighted fools’ convening to “ride their obesity scooters in a victory formation to celebrate all those lazy gubmint employees who never made it to full pension because they rushed headlong into the Twin Towers.”
In the progressive mind, which is a perversion of the Puritan mind, afflictions of the body are mere manifestations of afflictions of the soul. That is why even though gun violence in the United States is disproportionately a young, urban, African-American phenomenon, the personification of gun violence in progressive editorial cartoons is obese, rural, and white — see Jim Morin of the Miami Herald, Nick Anderson of the Houston Chronicle, Walt Handelsman of The Advocate, and many others. It’s so common that it is a cliché, and hence unremarked upon.
In much the same way that antique Calvinists and modern-day proponents of the “prosperity gospel” see health and wealth as signs of divine favor, progressives see high rates of diabetes in rural Georgia and the relative poverty of some parts of Mississippi as judgment from the great god of politics.
In their more intellectually honest moments, some progressives wonder publicly whether sneering is in fact the most effective form of political persuasion. (It is very, very effective: Ask Jon Stewart, an intellectual lightweight who developed a reputation as a formidable thinker simply by ridiculing people Democrats enjoy seeing ridiculed.) At Vox, Emmett Rensin published an essay decrying liberal smugness, which caused irony meters to explode on planets in faraway galaxies.
Knowing is the shibboleth into the smug style’s culture, a cultural [sic] that celebrates hip commitments and valorizes hip taste, that loves nothing more than hate-reading anyone who doesn’t get them. A culture that has come to replace politics itself. The knowing know that police reform, that abortion rights, that labor unions are important, but go no further: What is important, after all, is to signal that you know these things. What is important is to launch links and mockery at those who don’t. The Good Facts are enough: Anybody who fails to capitulate to them is part of the Problem, is terminally uncool. No persuasion, only retweets. Eye roll, crying emoji, forward to John Oliver for sick burns.
Rensin’s real concern is exactly what you would expect: that lefty smugness is hindering lefty progress. That the Left might actually be wrong about some important things, and that these errors are neither relieved nor excused by the “liberal good intentions” that Rensin accepts without question, does not occur to him.
Kevin Drum, writing in Mother Jones, offered a slight corrective, arguing that the problem is not smugness but condescension:
We’re convinced that conservatives, especially working-class conservatives, are just dumb. Smug suggests only a supreme confidence that we’re right — but conservative elites also believe they’re right, and they believe it as much as we do. The difference is that, generally speaking, they’re less condescending about it.
. . . Generally speaking, elite conservatives think liberals are ignorant of basic truths: Econ 101; the work-sapping impact of welfare dependence; the value of traditional culture; the obvious dangers of the world that surrounds us. For working-class conservatives it’s worse: they’re just baffled by it all. They’re made to feel guilty about everything that’s any fun: college football for exploiting kids; pro football for maiming its players; SUVs for destroying the climate; living in the suburbs for being implicitly racist. If they try to argue, they’re accused of mansplaining or straightsplaining or whitesplaining. If they put a wrong word out of place, they’re slut shaming or fat shaming. Who the hell talks like that? They think it’s just crazy. Why do they have to put up with all this condescending gibberish from twenty-something liberals? What’s wrong with the values they grew up with?
Drum, like Rensin, cannot quite manage to consider that last question, and concludes that this is a problem of — as you’d expect — marketing.
But it is not that. Our so-called liberal friends do not think we are merely ignorant: They think we are evil.
The progressive mind believes in the unity of vice, the flip side of the Socratic unity of virtue, the belief that all good characteristics are not only compatible but also related, that they are aspects of a unitary whole that is difficult to see in its entirety. The unity of vice, in the progressive mind, is the suspicion that someone who disagrees with you about taxes or climate policy is at heart a racist, racism being the comprehensive social sin in the American mind. If you are a conservative or a libertarian, you have no doubt encountered progressives who refuse to believe that the Koch brothers are longtime supporters of gay marriage, that Barry Goldwater was an NAACP member who funded a desegregation lawsuit out of his own pocket, that Rick Perry has been a leading voice on criminal-justice reform, that National Review has favored marijuana decriminalization since the 1980s. For those of the mindset criticized by Kevin Drum (and, sometimes, for Kevin Drum), “conservative” and “bigot” are synonyms. That is how modern progressives can consider the case of 20th-century southern Democrats who supported the New Deal, the Great Society, progressive labor reforms, the minimum wage, welfare, social-insurance programs, etc., and spit: “Conservatives!”
This belief, and the hatred associated with it, is religious in its intensity.
Literally. A survey conducted by the American National Election Study in 2000 found that ill feeling and suspicion among religious groups (Evangelicals vs. Catholics vs. Jews) and between racial groups paled in comparison with the most intense hatred in American politics, which is the self-reported loathing of self-described secular Democrats for religious “fundamentalists,” which was as near to off the charts as you can get: Asked to rank their goodwill toward fundamentalists on a scale of 0 to 100, more than half of Democratic National Convention delegates surveyed chose zero — and the average score was eleven. For comparison, the average score white Christian fundamentalists gave to Jews was 66. The Democrats did not think highly of big business, the rich, or Republicans as a group, but they intensely disliked Christian fundamentalists and pro-life groups. A long write-up of the findings was published in the Fall 2002 issue of The Public Interest.
With that in mind, it is interesting, and perhaps not entirely coincidental, that Mrs. Clinton chose that particular adjective for the nasties in the Trump camp: “irredeemable.” “Culture” begins with “cult,” and how we live is an expression of what we value and what we believe. These are strange times: Atheists are more aggressive evangelists than Jehovah’s Witnesses, the might of the federal government is being brought to bear in service of the project of permitting men to use women’s restrooms, the liberal love of diversity and toleration requires that people be drummed out of their jobs and out of polite society, and people who call themselves “liberals” celebrate as a positive good the fact that young conservatives are afraid to speak their minds on college campuses. If any of that seems a little weird to you, then Jon Stewart and the gentlemen at Vox may suggest that this is because you are not very smart. But that is not quite enough for Mrs. Clinton, who believes that you are not only dumb but dumb and wicked.
Every faith gets its Inquisition, and every Inquisition gets its Grand Inquisitor. Ours has a thing for pantsuits, and she is even tougher on heretics than was the Spanish original: Tomás de Torquemada, an orthodox Dominican, did not think anybody irredeemable.