White Nationalism in the cringing eyes of the refined elite

Trump wins. So did much of white, male America. Were the elite press and analysts blind to white nationalism?

(L-R) Brandon Miles, Brandon Partin and Michael Miles cheer before Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump attends a campaign rally at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Florida August 11, 2016. REUTERS/Eric Thayer - RTSMSW0 via Salon
(L-R) Brandon Miles, Brandon Partin and Michael Miles cheer before Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump attends a campaign rally at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Florida August 11, 2016. REUTERS/Eric Thayer – RTSMSW0 via Salon

On the “Enlightened” Academy and Moonshine

So much of the American academy and journalist community was caught off-guard by the support for Donald Trump. How can these groups, groups devoted to writing & thinking about America, have been so blinded to the tone of the country?

As a newly minted professor, I am part of that intellectual class. I was surrounded by a common sense that a sober America would choose status quo Clinton . . . that routine lies and conspiracy theories could not win the day . . . that “reason” would prevail.

Where did this confidence come from? Looking back, it was foolish. Take David Brooks and his description of shopping for a pink rug as a metaphor to explain why Trump voters would turn away.

How did we become so delusional as to believe overt racism and sexism was off the table for “progressive” America?

Looking back on my graduate studies, I wonder how the echo chamber of higher education is responsible for the disconnect between two sides of America I know.

I studied international media and American responses to foreign news. At my final defense of the research, some of my professors objected to my study of media nationalism and the white male anxiety I argued was at the core of anti-foreign media groups.

I was a graduate student with a sprawling dissertation. The 300-page study of foreign news in North America thudded on the conference table between the intimidating dissertation committee and me. The professors were challenging me on certain points of my argument, undermining claims and questioning premises. Pretty typical stuff, though I was surprised one premise came under specific scrutiny: white nationalism was an important force worth studying in American media politics. These groups were “fringe,” a professor argued. They were not worthy of the academy’s attention.

I countered that groups like Accuracy in Media and the pro-Israel Honest Reporting Canada are important in a study of foreign news. Both took hard lines against foreign media that expressed unorthodox views on America’s place in the world. Both organizations, for mildly different reasons, resisted Al Jazeera’s growth in their respective countries.

Front page of Accuracy in Media days after Trump's surprise victory with the support of white nationalism in key states.
Front page of Accuracy in Media days after Trump’s surprise victory with the support of white nationalism in key states.

For both activist organizations, the middle-eastern channel offered different (and threatening) perspectives on international affairs, undermining national interests and political ambitions (as envisioned by conservative media critics).

Conservative media activists interested me and, I believed, played a significant but poorly understood role in media policy. To some, however, these groups were weak shills for major political-economic forces. Exxon was behind them rather than an alienated portion of the country. Nativist media activists were not an expression of tension related to a contest American identity in a shrinking, multicultural world.

After years of research, guided by these respected scholars, I was tuned into the concerns of the professoriate. I was focused on the hundreds of articles and books read in preparation for this moment. Panic gripped me. Was I wrong to spend so much time detailing these groups?

As I listened, my mind left the room. I floated away from the large oaken table and regal atmosphere of the defense seminar. I drifted away from that moment in my slow march toward a middle-class income and intellectual refinement. All I could think about was my life 20 years earlier in rural Illinois. Scenes paraded through my memory as if a flashback before death:

  • The casual racism of close friends next to the bonfire at a farmhouse. Strange, irreverent belches of the word, “Nigger!,” when (white) Jeremy was annoyed with his (white) brother. There were no black people within miles.
  • Their working class parents, our elders, drinking jarred moonshine and Miller High Life on couches dragged out next to the fire.
  • Innocent Peter’s (white) face as he threw moonshine parties at the country house he rented with a couple more (white) friends who also rejected the college track. When The Rolling Stones song, Gimme Shelter, played he asked me if I liked “that black music,” referring to the wailing backup vocalist on the song. “I don’t,” he told me with some trepidation.
  • The two black classmates in my graduating class of 218 232. (thanks, Ryan)
  • Timothy White (white), small-town classmate, now a line cook, turning to his black kitchen co-worker. “This is Trevor. I call him ‘Big Nig’.” He laughs. “Trevor calls me Tiny Whitie.”
  • A non-white, non-rural student who transferred into my high school only to be punched so hard by the (white) class muscleman that he suffered brain damage. I never got to meet him.
  • Receiving word, years into my grad school training, that the same high school muscleman had died. His father was a garbage man. After high school, he was as well. But he was dead at 36.

Peter was dead at 39. Jeremy was dead at 37. Their condescending ghosts floated in front of me as I tried to regain focus on the panel of professors, on my ticket to a middle class life.

I refocused on the slim, hard-lined, white face of the prof challenging me. I pushed back again. “While these groups may exert little obvious pressure on policymakers and the industry behemoths, we should not ignore the steep cultural anxiety of white, non-elite America. We cannot ignore the cultural resonance these nativist groups have with Americans if not D.C. policy makers.”

The prof seemed unconvinced though willing to tolerate my research choices.

Looking back on this moment, I can see how America is divided. I can sense how I was divided. It is not simply white vs. black or white vs. Arab. It is not a matter of shining the sunlight disinfectant on the stain of racism in America. It is a fundamental difference of experience. Different bubbles. When living in affluence, race debates are academic. When living in restaurant kitchens and moonshine bonfires, race becomes a means to assert superiority despite economic struggles. It is a nervous burst of drunken slurs at your annoying brother. It is a barbaric yawp in the woods when no one in the city can hear you.

The America that elected Trump surprised the professors and politicos. Such angry discussions of race were artifacts of the 1960s Voting Rights movement. They were the feelings of a submerged and disenfranchised everyperson. Racism was important but safely at the fringes of American society, driven to the dark wilderness of the web, they seemed to suggest.

Then Trump. It is at the margins no longer. Shades of white supremacy have been long ignored and dismissed. It was precisely this view of the fringe from On-High that blinded the highly educated and professional class. The tide was rising and a figurehead like Trump was all it took to bring these views into the center of American political discourse.

The lesson here is not that I had the intelligence to see something my academic colleagues could not. The point is that American democracy has forced a fragmented American public to look at one another and recognize competing views, no matter how dismissed, misguided, uneducated, elitist, shallow or repugnant.

The jarring drunken shouts of “nigger” around campfires and between acoustic renditions of Cash and Skynyrd shaped my view of racism. It showed me the depth of its roots, roots one can only know if digging in dirt. Moonshine gave me a glimpse into the anxiety of white, male America. It invited me into the culture through the seminar room that is a deteriorated couch on a bare yard. The question is how I can use my position, straddling the world of this anxiety and a “refined” world in which describing its existence can be an offense worthy of Academic termination and marginalization.

To be truly anti-racist as a white person, we cannot flinch from seeing the substantial racial and economic animosity that animated the candidacy of the least qualified person to reach the White House. We must see it by moonshine and bonfire to understand the depth of the American divide.

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