Donald Trump rode the politics of power and emotion to the White House. If his opponents continue to respond in kind, he might have killed the politics of principle in the process.
a piece in The Atlantic that I regularly returned to this summer amid the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and racial unrest. Goldsmith argued that while the Constitution and the rule of law had proven rather adept at checking President Donald Trump’s worst norm-breaking and law-breaking impulses, many of the institutions he attacked had responded in kind with a worrisome amount of norm-breaking of their own. Institutions, said Goldsmith, withstood President Trump’s attacks but “defied their own norms, and harmed themselves and the nation in the process.” Whether they be federal bureaucrats mounting internal “resistance” or over-zealous judges issuing nationwide injunctions, said Goldsmith, those in President Trump’s crosshairs often betrayed the core values and norms of their own institutions, while trying to protect themselves from what they (often rightly) deemed unlawful, improper executive overreach.n the fall of 2017, Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith wrote
Goldsmith’s argument—that President Trump’s norm-breaking catalyzes norm-breaking on the part of his foes—was a rather specific one, focused on the interactions between the different branches of the federal government under the Trump presidency. Perhaps, though, the argument warrants extension into the wider realm of American culture and politics. It seems that Trumpism is helping propel its fiercest opponents into the same flawed, dangerous modes of argumentation that make Trumpism so contemptible to begin with. Perhaps Trumpism and, say, anti-racism are birds of a feather—two separate, competing bundles of oversimplified historical narrative and political argumentation, each of whose logical conclusions point towards a future of deep division, widespread contempt, and even violence in the United States of America.
The animating force behind both Trumpism and anti-racism is not principle; it is power—it is a desire to correct what their respective adherents perceive as a wrongful power disparity. This is an inherently divisive, Schmittian vision of politics, as it is focused on re-orienting group-based hierarchies rather than pushing the entirety of the polity towards a common goal or set of goals (think “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” for example). If either version of power politics—Trumpism or anti-racism—gains dominant, entrenched cultural and political power in the decades to come, the results for Americans could be disastrous.
Trumpism: A Narrative of Wrongful Decline and Rightful Reclamation of Power
Thanks to its mercurial namesake, Trumpism can mean many things: a politics of vanity, a politics of lies, a politics of pure self-promotion, etc. But if Trumpism has any coherent, philosophical core of meaning, it is to be found in its narrative power and the focus of that narrative on the concept of power itself. Trumpism is an oversimplified story of American decline—or more specifically, the decline in the cultural, social, political, and economic power of “real Americans.” Trumpism asserts that America was once great, but thanks to the corrupt dealings of globalist-minded Washington insiders (and the favored treatment those leaders extended to non-Americans and racial minorities), America has fallen from greatness. This necessitated a tear-it-all-down approach (or rather, a “drain the swamp” approach) that placed the bull in the china shop—or as the comedian John Mulaney hilariously puts it, a horse in the hospital.
Trumpism, then, is not wedded to a set of universal ideals, a conception of human nature, or a vision for America’s future. Trumpism arose in order to correct what it perceives as an unjust power shift—to put “others” who have grown too loud, too proud, and too privileged in the past couple of decades back in their place. The animating force of Trumpist politics is raw power, not principle.
Trumpism’s conception of politics as a contest of power—a view that pits the interests of “us” versus “them,” however defined—is, of course, wrapped up in the issue of race. Racial resentment was not the whole story of Trump’s victory, but the data suggests that it most definitely was a big part of the story.
Mimicking the Foe: Anti-Racism’s Ideological Coherence with Trumpism
And thus enters the backlash to the Trumpist backlash. Catalyzed by video-taped instances of blood-curdling police brutality against African Americans, the racially disparate impacts of COVID-19, and President Trump’s waffling between apathy and outright resistance to the cause of racial justice in America, a novel “anti-racist” movement has bubbled up from our nation’s faculty lounges and African American Studies departments into city streets, corporate boardrooms, and middle-school classrooms. Anti-racism and its variants—whether they come in the form of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s lead essay for The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project or the writings of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi—eschew universal principles and extol power politics much like Trumpism. Anti-racists frame America’s past and its present as an undifferentiated, Manichean struggle between the forces of whiteness (bad) and blackness (good). To borrow a phrase from Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, these narratives turn history “into a simplistic tale of good versus evil.”
Of course, anti-racist thought long predates Trumpism’s rise to power. As Andrew Sullivan recently pointed out, the anti-racism of phrases like “silence is violence” have their roots in the “critical theory” that has been percolating around American universities for quite some time. But things happen, and sometimes people look to big sweeping ideas and theories to explain why certain things happen. Donald J. Trump was elected president. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other black Americans have been killed by the police. There are many explanations—related and unrelated—for these events, but few are so simple and emotionally compelling as the assertion that the United States is and always has been a racist, white supremacist nation who has generated and still generates its wealth, power, and sense of self via the oppression of people of color.
This anti-racist understanding of the United States—as well as the politics it spawns—is not much different than Trumpism. The animating force behind anti-racist thinking and politics is the continued racial inequality that still does permeate American wealth, incomes, education outcomes, labor force participation rates, and so many other facets of individual and communal well-being. Narrowing this gap is certainly an eminently urgent, necessary task. But why? Is it because white people are too powerful? Is it because black and brown people should be just as powerful, or perhaps more powerful than white people?
Anti-racism does not give a satisfactory answer to these questions because it has lost its grip on why racism is a moral problem in the first place. One need not look any further than the Declaration of Independence to understand why the various, historically contingent disparities between white and black Americans present American society with a moral conundrum. We all have equal human dignity; viewing or treating one another differently solely on account of the amount of melatonin in our skin degrades that dignity.
But this is far from a self-evident truth in the minds of Ibram X. Kendi and other anti-racists. For Kendi, your race defines you. Your blackness or your whiteness resides at the very core of your individuality. Writing to black Americans recently in The Atlantic, Kendi stated: “You are all the same person—all the murdered, all the living, all the infected, all the resisting—because racist America treats the whole black community and all of its anti-racist allies as dangerous.”
The factual invalidity of Kendi’s rhetorical flourish aside, this “You are all the same person” talk is an essential part of the underlying flaw of anti-racism: it is an overcorrection. Resistance to an ideology (racism) that degrades individuals’ human dignity by classing them and subjugating them as a singular homogenous group has unfortunately spawned a competing ideology (anti-racism) that traffics in the same homogenization to lift up and celebrate the subjugated. This is the strange result of accepting the premise of racism and all other forms of power politics—namely, that we are engaged in a sub-national competition of groups rather than a common, national project of advancing individual and communal flourishing. The referential unit of anti-racism—like all power politics—is the group, not the individual.
For one, this betrays reality. As Columbia University’s John McWhorter recently pointed out, we human beings (no matter the color of our skin) are imbued with individual agency. Making the group rather than the individual the smallest building block of politics flies in the face of this basic fact. This aside, the real worrisome part about anti-racism is its end goal. Much like Trumpism, it is best not to think too hard about the ultimate upshot of anti-racism. Neither presents a positive vision for the future of our multi-racial nation; both augur an intensification of racial tensions and group-based power struggles.
The Way Forward: Recovering the Politics of Principle
An anti-racist future might not look all that different from a Trumpist one. Both would be ridden with violence and civic contempt. The only alternative worth pursuing is to double down on what we know to be true—what our nation’s Declaration of Independence, as well as all of the globe’s great faith traditions, tell us to be true: That we are individuals who are endowed with equal rights and equal dignity. This is a principled premise off of which we can and should construct a benign, even virtuous politics in the years to come.
Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021.