Over Memorial Day weekend, I was part of a team representing Dissent in a debate with two editors from American Affairs, a new journal that had gained notoriety as an intellectual home for Trumpism. Now, with Labor Day still a few weeks away, Julius Krein, editor of American Affairs, has announced in the New York Times that he no longer supports Trump. Some reactions to the piece have been admiring. (Peter Beinart, who has experience making enormous mistakes in public, called it a “genuinely admirable mea culpa.”) Others have been less approving. (“Fuck absolutely everything about this guy,” tweeted Spencer Ackerman.)
Tempting as schadenfreude can be, the explanation Krein gives for his change of heart is more interesting—and more important—than his personal story. At our debate with American Affairs, the argument turned on whether the breakdown of a bipartisan consensus on the inevitability of globalization and the magic of markets had made possible new alliances between left and right. The American Affairs position was, emphatically, yes. Whatever our differences, we had a common enemy: untrammeled global capitalism. In the age of Trump, they contended, populists of all ideological persuasions could launch a multi-front war against a neoliberal establishment in the name of a renewed economic nationalism.
Team Dissent was more skeptical. Donald Trump’s campaign hadn’t been a simple exercise in economic nationalism—it was also a demonstration of white nationalism. There were good reasons for that. In the United States, racial identity and national identity have been linked from the start. That doesn’t mean every invocation of the nation is inherently racist—last summer’s Democratic National Convention was a festival of multiracial nationalism—but it does provide a historical backdrop to our contemporary politics that can’t be ignored.
Following last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Krein seems to be coming around to our point of view. Trump supporters who dismissed his pandering to white nationalism, he writes, “were deluding ourselves.” Although Trump has always claimed to speak for the nation as a whole, he has only managed to “inflame the most vicious forces of division within our country,” empowering the racist right and undermining the right-wing populism that Krein wants to advance.
Steve Bannon might be having similar thoughts today. Speaking with American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner earlier this week, Bannon made his own case for an unlikely ideological partnership. As Kuttner explained it, Bannon hoped “to battle the trade doves inside the administration while building an outside coalition of trade hawks that includes left as well as right.”
Like the American Affairs team earlier this summer, Bannon was quick to dismiss the white nationalists who have lately gained so much attention. “It’s a fringe element,” he said. If the Democrats were smart, he added, they would realize that soon. “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
If Bannon were right, then Trump would be well on his way to forging a coalition of the working class that would transform American politics. That, Bannon insists—at least in interviews with the mainstream press—was always his real goal. “If we deliver,” he said after Trump’s victory in November, “we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we’ll govern for 50 years.” Today, Trump’s approval rating is lower than any president’s at this point in a first term and Bannon is out of a job.
Critics of Trump and Bannon have been drawn to a straightforward account for their failure. According to Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith, the problem can be boiled down to one word: race. “Bannon has become just the latest American political figure to dream of a class-based politics,” Smith writes, “and then to founder on the thing that really makes American politics exceptional: its deep racial divisions.” The United States has never developed a proper social democratic party because in this country “race has trumped class”—always.
The pessimism of Smith’s assertion sounds like wisdom—except that, like all sweeping declarations about history that turns on just one variable, it’s a radical oversimplification of the case. Scholars and activists alike have been debating the issue at least since 1906, when German sociologist Werner Sombart famously asked, “why is there no socialism in the United States?” The racial diversity of the American working class has been one popular answer—but so has the success of American capitalism; the absence of feudalism; the importance of federalism; the size of the country; the early arrival of universal white male suffrage; the multiple veto points built into the national government; the durability of the two-party system; the prospect that Americans born on the bottom rung of the social ladder could, every once in a while, climb to the top; and the brutality of the repression dealt out to American socialists (who did exist, even if not in sufficient numbers to take over a major party).
The historian Eric Foner has offered a more plausible answer that grants all of these factors a potential role but reaches for a deeper interpretation. “[M]ass politics, mass culture, and mass consumption came to America before it did to Europe,” Foner observed in a classic 1984 essay. This conjunction meant that “American socialists were the first to face the dilemma of how to define socialist politics in a capitalist democracy.”
Today, a new generation of American socialists is grappling with the same question. To arrive at a better answer than our predecessor, we have to start by recognizing the force behind the racial fatalism that drives Smith’s grim diagnosis—and then we have to move beyond it. The notion that racism is an original sin that dooms any attempt at class politics is the Trump era’s version of the equally shortsighted conviction from the Obama years that the United States had entered a postracial age.
Race is not some timeless fact of American life. Like everything else that matters in social life, race has a history. Racial identities have shifted over time, and so has the power of appeals to racism. Multiracial coalitions underpinned the New Deal and the Great Society—and they also put Barack Obama in the White House. America’s legacy of racial oppression is a burden we all carry, but it is not a death sentence. Nor are race and class isolated from each other in vacuum-sealed containers, as too much of the discussion around these subjects continues to pretend.
These issues have been on my mind lately, and not just because of Charlottesville. A few weeks ago, I became a father. If demographic predictions are accurate, the United States will become a majority-minority country before my son turns thirty. He’ll be one of the reasons for that shift. I’m white. My wife, whose family comes from South India, isn’t. By the racial calculus white nationalists would impose on us, that makes me a race traitor, and my son a loss for the home team.
Back in the debate with American Affairs, I said that the greatest challenge facing my generation is building a decently egalitarian, multiracial democracy, ideally without incinerating the planet. Unlike the American Affairs romance with Trump, that belief has been strong enough to make it through the summer. A majority-minority country is a country where elections can’t be won by pandering to white racism—and it might be one where radicals with a capacious enough political vision can overcome the divisions that have been used to separate us. History gives ample reason to doubt that we’ll be able to pull it off. But when I look at my son’s face I’m reminded of something more powerful than the weight of the past: the possibility of something new.
Timothy Shenk is a Carnegie Fellow at New America and co-book review editor at Dissent. He is the author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist.
Read this article in Spanish at Horizontal.