I delivered these reflections at the Community Christian Church on November 8, 2020. It is lightly edited.
Despite Tuesday’s election results, Donald Trump received widespread support across the USA, signaling a tolerance for, and, in many cases, a celebration of, Trump’s performative fascism and a growing normalization of White nationalism. Understanding that the popularity of authoritarian leaders is a symptom of these deeper problems in our society, we realize that we still have vital work to do to close up the vulnerabilities that make fascism possible. Now is not only a moment to celebrate, but a moment to rededicate ourselves to creating a future where kindness and compassion, justice and wisdom, are not only possible, but real.
Performative Fascism as a Way of Life
Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale and author of 2018's How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, described Trump in this way:
“I’m not saying that Trump is a fascist. Trump is certainly performing fascism … . It’s the tropes of fascism, and I think that’s worrisome enough. What’s to stop him from escalating? What’s to stop a future person, a future president from escalating, whether Democrat or Republican? … There are already existing structures. Our prison system is an already existing structure that’s sort of ravenous for prisoners, for bodies. Trump is showing how you can use existing structures in fascist ways, if you so desire. He might be doing it merely performatively – we don’t know. But you want to stop it early, so you don’t allow this performative fascism to be something that could be turned non-performative and degrade our democratic norms.” (https://www.businessinsider.com/is-trump-fascist-jason-stanley-says-it-is-wrong-question-2020-7 )
But instead of showing a collective will to put an end to performative fascism, half of the voting public of the USA demonstrated that they will, at the very least, tolerate it and, in many millions of cases, they will even celebrate it. Put another way: we wanted this election to be a landslide defeat of Donald Trump because we wanted it to be a referendum on democracy, on saying “NO” to the continued slide toward fascism. And that did not happen.
Stanley went on to say that the USA’s long habit of leaving our social problems “unsolved and unaddressed” leaves us continually vulnerable to demagogic politicians and fascist forces. He said:
“We have these fascist forces, … we have our prison system; we have these enormous budgets for our police; we have an enormous military budget; we have all these returning Iraq War veterans; we had a war on terror that gave us the Department of Homeland Security. They are tools that someone can pick up and push further. … What we need to do is remove the fascist forces. We need to address our prison system, address our over-policing problem, address our inequality, cut down the insider dealing between corporate elites and the government. And then we won't get people who can do this kind of thing.” (https://www.businessinsider.com/is-trump-fascist-jason-stanley-says-it-is-wrong-question-2020-7 )
The Normalization of White Nationalism
That said, I have to confess that I personally doubted that the election would be a landslide, because I don’t have confidence in the people who had to make that choice. And, yes, I am talking about and to fellow White people.
It’s no secret that the White majority is in decline. According to the Brookings Institute, White people made up almost 80% of the US population just 40 years ago. Recent data shows that number to be roughly 60%. And a growing percentage of that number is older and rural. By last year, 27 of 100 of the USA’s largest cities had minority-White populations, and more than 50% of the nation’s children (under 16 years old) “identified as a racial or ethnic minority” for the first time in national history. (https://www.brookings.edu/research/new-census-data-shows-the-nation-is-diversifying-even-faster-than-predicted/ )
While much has been made of the uptick of racial and ethnic minorities voting for Trump, don’t be distracted from the essential role of White people. We can clear this up by taking some lessons from the New York Times exit polls (Note: exit polls have many limitations, but they were the best available data on this article's timeline). (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/03/us/elections/exit-polls-president.html )
White voters still made up 65% of voters, and 57% of them voted for Trump. And, despite Trump’s well-established reputation as a misogynist, 55% of White women still voted for him.
And while White people aged 45-59 voted for Trump at the highest rate, 60%, more than half of the White people in every age group voted for Trump. The lowest rate was for White people aged 18-29, and 51% of them still voted for Trump.
No other racial or ethnic group voted for Trump at near these levels or numbers. The next highest was Latinos over 6o years old; 39% of whom voted for Trump, but who make up only 2% of the voting population.
If you want to understand why White people voted this way, you don’t have to look far. The Times asked respondents to tell them which “issues mattered most in deciding how you voted for president,” and priorities became very clear, very quickly. For Trump voters, the key issues were the economy, especially related to COVID-19, and “crime and safety.” That latter phrase is very important: if you’ve paid attention to Trump, you know that talking about crime and “law and order” is how he talks about race in the USA. (https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/10/07/what-trump-really-means-when-he-tweets-law-order )
The issue of racism and White supremacy was, unsurprisingly, then, one of the biggest and probably the most important differences between those who voted for Trump and those who did not.
Of the 26% of voters who called racism “A minor problem or not a problem at all,” 82% of them voted for Trump. Conversely, of the 71% of voters who correctly noted that addressing racism in the USA should be a top priority, 70% of those voted for Biden.
Similarly, of the respondents who said that the criminal justice system “Treats all people fairly,” 83% were Trump supporters. However, of the respondents who correctly noted that the criminal justice system “Treats Black people unfairly,” 81% of them voted for Biden. (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/03/us/elections/exit-polls-president.html )
My phrasing is deliberate. That racism is still rampant in the United States, and that the criminal justice system disproportionately targets and punishes racial and ethnic minorities, are established facts. There isn’t anything to debate here. Unfortunately, we can see a pattern among Americans in general, but especially Trump supporters, of rejecting reality. As another example, 31% of respondents said that climate change was not a serious problem, and 84% of those people voted for Trump. And of the voters who viewed wearing a mask in public as a personal choice, rather than a public health responsibility and vital part of our efforts to slow the pandemic and prevent unnecessary suffering, 72% voted for Trump.
This is all part of performative fascism. It twists everything around. White Supremacists aren’t viewed as a problem, but people protesting racism are the objects of fear, hatred, and violence. Climate change isn’t acknowledged as real, even in the face of the increased natural disasters, wildfires, and diseases that follow in climate change’s wake. Instead, we’re told that all of this is a plot to damage the economy and usher in a totalitarian regime. What this all amounts to is the increasing normalization of White nationalism. This election turned out to be a referendum on how socially acceptable it was to tolerate and promote White nationalism and performative fascism, and more than half of White people voted that they approved. This is important.
More than Words
Because the threats are not imagined; the risks are real. By now, you have all heard about the way a Trump Train of around 100 vehicles tried to run a Biden-Harris campaign bus off the road in Texas. Driving mainly pickup trucks covered in Trump campaign flags, they shouted profanities at and eventually blocked the Biden campaign bus. Later, the Biden campaign canceled an event scheduled for Austin. In response, Donald Trump tweeted, “I LOVE TEXAS!” (https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/31/politics/biden-bus-2020-campaign-texas-trump-supporters/index.html ) If a collection of right-wing extremists trying to run the campaign bus of an establishment candidate off the road isn’t a symbol of the current state of American society and politics, I don’t what is!
Since the election, the threats continue to escalate. Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon used his online platform to announce that Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray should be beheaded as a "warning to federal bureaucrats." He went on to say:
"I'd actually like to go back to the old times of Tudor England, I'd put the heads on pikes, right, I'd put them at the two corners of the White House as a warning to federal bureaucrats. You either get with the program or you're gone—time to stop playing games." (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/06/id-put-heads-pikes-former-trump-adviser-steve-bannon-calls-beheading-fauci-and-fbi )
And Scott Walden, a police captain in Alabama, is now under investigation for a Facebook comment that insisted “they need to line up [every Biden voter] and put a bullet in their skull for treason." (https://www.newsweek.com/alabama-police-captain-put-leave-after-threatening-shoot-biden-supporters-1545338 ) This should be shocking; instead, it’s a sad commentary on the state of our society that we’ve become almost unsurprised.
But words matter, and this isn’t empty rhetoric. Violent hate crimes in the United States continue to rise (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/nov/12/hate-crimes-2018-latinos-transgender-fbi ), and domestic terrorism continues to be an increased risk. In fact, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project and MilitiaWatch assessed that Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Oregon had a high risk for activity and violence by armed extremists before and after the election, and North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, California and New Mexico were at moderate risk. They identified threats from both individuals and groups, such as the Three Percenters, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Light Foot Militia, Civilian Defense Force, American Contingency, Patriot Prayer, Boogaloo Bois and People’s Rights. (https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/523078-study-warns-five-states-at-high-risk-for-election-related-armed-violence-by ) These are not the actions and warnings that characterize a healthy, functioning society.
The World We Inherited
I know that most of the White people who voted for Trump would likely disagree with that assessment. I know because I’ve had so many conversations with White people who insisted that racism just isn’t a problem, that we’ve moved passed all that. They insist that White supremacy went away with slavery. If I press them, they admit that, yes, it was still a problem with Jim Crow. And if I press a little more, they’ll usually even admit that segregation was bad. But the Civil Rights Movement, they insist, fixed all that. Now, they tell me, the only reason that racism is a problem is because we keep talking about it. They insist that, if we’d just shut up, there wouldn’t be a problem. They don’t understand that this kind of deflection has been the weapon of White people to avoid dismantling racism at every stage of history. Please, fellow White people, we have got to do the work.
If I sound a little desperate when I ask this, it’s because we are staring at a long history of White people’s refusal to dismantle a system of privilege and power that benefits us at the cost of the well-being of fellow human beings and the earth itself. We’ve been having this conversation and doing the work for hundreds of years, with limited results.
For example, in preparing to speak today, I went back and read the words I offered four years ago, on the weekend that Trump won the election. I found the words still relevant, so I hope it is not considered poor form to quote myself:
“That human history is overflowing with injustice is one of the most bewildering and difficult realities for people to face with honesty, especially by those who benefit from that oppression and exploitation. It’s a price we have been all too willing to see paid, as long as someone else was doing the paying; it’s the price that has been paid by a planet squeezed to death by our insatiable, ignorant greed. … Yet we have proved, again and again, and I’m especially talking to white people here, that we would rather not be honest about the ideas and actions that have led us to this point, and that sustain systems that are overwhelmingly and obviously unjust. As long as there is profit to be made or power to be grabbed, as long as our conveniences and adoring self-views are more important than justice, as long as we feel helpless in the face of it all, there will be easy reasons to excuse, justify, or hide our complicity.” (https://www.welcomingpath.com/2017/11/a-fragile-whole-one-year-later.html )
Those words are even more poignant when we consider another result from the Times’ exit polls. 41% of voters said they were better off financially during the Trump administration, and 72% of them voted for Trump. In other words, the perception of their own financial gain justified indifference for the well-being of others. Perhaps this is true of most people, but it certainly applies to us as White folks: when we think things are going well enough for us, we step away from the struggle.
And this brings us to a more difficult point: there is a reason that all these existing structures have been so easily used in fascist ways and turned against the well-being of the people they were ostensibly designed to protect. The hard truth is that the United States of America was birthed in oppression and those in power have long relied on polarizing its population in order to accumulate wealth and power. The world we have inherited after four years of Trump is consistent with the world we lived in before the Trump administration. As I said four years ago,
“… the current global economic system came into existence on the bones and backs of millions upon millions of human beings, through the tragedies of genocide, slavery, and colonialism, and the ruthless extraction and use of natural resources without consideration for disastrous ecological impacts on natural and human communities. Further, the current global economic system is maintained through the continued exploitation of billions of human beings working, living, and dying under oppressive, dangerous, and economically unjust conditions, and the continued ruthless extraction and use of natural resources with little consideration for the impacts. For those on the margins, crushed under the glittery boot of capitalist expansion, the meaning of life is reduced to survival. For those outside of power but within the circle of privilege, the meaning of life is reduced to consumption. We sustain it with the choices we make when we shop, invest, and spend our time. The earth and everything and everyone on it is reduced to a potential source of profit, and we are reduced to a pool of data that can predict what we are most likely to buy and when.” (https://www.welcomingpath.com/2017/11/a-fragile-whole-one-year-later.html )
A Better Inheritance
So I’ll be honest with you: in my experience as a queer, working class person who is also working to unlearn and dismantle White supremacy while living in southwest Missouri, the lives of oppressed people here generally did get worse during the Trump administration, but they did not generally get worse in new ways. These last four years have indeed been overflowing with suffering and cruelty, and marginalized communities have suffered the most. But, for many of us, these last four years represented a difference of degree. We already lived in a world that wasn’t designed for us.
This is why you will hear us emphasizing the importance of organizing, building community, and developing networks of mutual aid, while simultaneously working to heal from internalized oppression, unlearn internalized dominance, and dismantle White supremacy in ourselves and our organizations. People who belong to communities that are typically dehumanized, exploited, and then quietly disposed of – such as black-indigenous-and-people of color; gender and sexuality minorities; and disabled folx – have been doing this work for decades and decades, across generations. Why? Because there has never been a federal or state government that was genuinely interested in and committed to equality and justice for oppressed people. This didn’t start with Trump, and it won’t end with Biden. It arrived here in the oppressive minds and hearts and cultures and systems that colonizers brought to the Americas, and it still lives in the minds and hearts and cultures of our neighbors and, yes, our government officials and, yes, sometimes ourselves.
And that’s also why you’ll keep finding us fighting, no matter who wins what election. These elections are clearly important, but voting was never going to be enough. Voting has never been enough. No matter what the final count in this election, the work is always going to include dismantling White supremacy, fighting corruption, and creating safe, accessible, inclusive, just communities. The work didn’t begin with an election, and it will not end with an election. Our movements have always had a larger vision. We understand that we need to share the work, take breaks, learn from one another, and care for each other. And we stand in a long line of people who have been doing this work, inheriting their courage, grace, determination, and love, and passing it on to the next generation. So we insist on creating a society where we – where all people – can thrive.
That said, our collective movements do impact elections and we celebrate that. For starters, we celebrate Cori Bush, Missouri’s first Black congresswoman. We celebrate Mauree Turner, Oklahoma’s first Muslim legislator and the USA’s first nonbinary legislator. We celebrate Ritchie Torres, the first openly gay Afro-Latino Congressperson. We celebrate Deb Haaland, Yvette Herrell, Teresa Leger Fernandez, and New Mexico’s election of three women of color to the U.S. House of Representatives. We celebrate Sarah McBride, Delaware’s first openly transgender elected official and the USA’s first openly transgender state senator. We celebrate Taylor Small, Vermont’s first transgender state legislator. We celebrate Stephanie Byers’ election to the Kansas Legislature, the first transgender Native American to be elected to office. (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/11/05/historic-election-wins-sarah-mcbride-mauree-turner-deb-haaland-more/6176847002/ ) And we celebrate the incredible community organizing in Georgia, including Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight, the New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter, Georgia People’s Agenda, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. (https://www.democracynow.org/2020/11/6/anoa_changa_georgia_2020_election )
Four years ago, I challenged us to keep insisting on justice and peace, to live up to our commitment to not stand idly by and, more than that, to actively create a society where everyone’s voice was heard and everyone’s needs were met. It’s hard work, and the violence, coercion, and exploitation we face is exhausting. But it’s joyful work, too, and we have proved, again, that the work can be done. It is also urgent work. We are, hopefully, coming to the end of the Trump administration. But the work is just as important as ever. Unless we put an end to the vulnerabilities in our society that leave room for fascism, we are likely to face an even more cruel and terrifying future. So I’ll close with more of my words from four years ago. Because the work remains, and we must do the work.
“How we work for what we love is something we discover together. There is so much being done already, and we may find our place in these movements or find ourselves in the midst of something new. But the first step is to begin reflecting and acting now, so that wisdom has a chance to start her work. … we must announce the way-things-could-be as insistently as we condemn the way-things-are, with all its injustice. We must dream of a future and re-imagine a society where people live peacefully with each other and the earth, our health bound up together. We must remember to work for what we love with even more enthusiasm than we expose that which we fear.” (https://www.welcomingpath.com/2017/11/a-fragile-whole-one-year-later.html )
So we pause to take a breath, to grieve, and to celebrate. And then we rededicate ourselves to creating a future where kindness and compassion, justice and wisdom, are not only possible, but real. Let’s get back to work.