[I have been sitting on this post for literally a few months — I have not been able to get it into any sort of shape that I am happy with. However, since I have told several people about it, I am going to just grit my teeth and publish. I like the ideas, but the writing is clunky. Sorry.]
Many Trump supporters decry the worst elements of their movement. However, it cannot be denied that anti-white sentiment has been expressed by a number of the Trump faithful, most notably by the KKK and Neo-Nazis, who see Trump as a fellow traveler if not a full adherent to their beliefs. Certainly, during the campaign Trump dallied before rejecting former KKK leader David Duke’s endorsement. I used to think that was pure political opportunism: take all the votes you can get, from whatever source. I thought that he probably rejected Duke after someone explained to him that he would lose votes if he didn’t. However, in his remarks following the terrorism in Charlottesville, Trump clearly showed himself to be either under the sway of a dangerous and immoral philosophy.
In addition, Trump’s record on misogyny is quite clear. He has a past filled with sexually aggressive and inappropriate behavior. This history being tolerated by the Trump faithful is in many ways more disturbing than racial elements: these are the acts of the man himself, not of his followers, which could be repudiated.
A friend of mine, Kevin Phillips, posted several months ago about Trump followers’ views of women and race. He identified the more repugnant attitudes they hold as arising out of the Deep South, and the region’s experience of slavery. When I pointed out that “Last time I checked, Nebraska and Iowa were not in the Deep South,” he countered that the attitudes in question originated from the South and then migrated elsewhere.
Not that the attitudes in question do not exist in the Deep South. Mine is not a “Not all white Southerners” argument; it is a “both sides do it,” but not for the sake of excusing the South. Yes, slavery and its concomitant hatred and fear of African Americans have left deep scars there. And absent significant changes, there can be no absolution for the region. I know this, and it makes me weep.
But the rest of the country has its own history of racial hatred and misogyny as well.
Slavery was the original sin that this country was born into; no state was free of it. The colonies that abolished slavery nonetheless profited from the trade in slaves that took place elsewhere. And at the outbreak of the Civil War, the impetus for fighting the South was to preserve the Union. According to historian Bruce Catton, slavery only became the most important issue later on in the war. And abolitionist sentiment did not automatically translate into a belief in racial equality: white Union soldiers were initially reluctant to fight alongside freed blacks, according to Catton, “for race prejudice of a malignity rarely seen today was very prevalent in the North at that time, and [white soldiers] did not want to associate with [black soldiers] on anything remotely like terms of equality.”
Even Abraham Lincoln said things that could be definitely seen as racist in contemporary eyes, not the least a suggestion that freed slaves immigrate elsewhere once slavery was abolished. His words have been interpreted as being political sops thrown to the pro-slavery crowd. But at the least, his record on equality of the races is equivocal.
In the twentieth century, lynchings of blacks, while most heavily concentrated in the former Confederacy, took place all over the country. The photograph that inspired Abel Meeropol to write the poem that would become the song “Strange Fruit” showed a lynching not in the South but in Marion, Indiana.
In the sixties, Northerners decried the violence used to uphold Jim Crow while sitting in their houses located in housing developments with restrictive covenants.
And the bigotry lived on, in the same way it did in the South. When I lived in Massachusetts, it was common knowledge that God help any African-American who ended up in South Boston. It’s hard to think about now, but there were race riots in Boston as recently as forty years ago.
I am old enough to remember the Boston riots. Those rioters were not acting out of attitudes that spread like a contagion up from the South.
Why does this matter?
It matters because, within a couple of days of the Charlottesville protests, I had two different people say to me with a shrug “Well, it’s Virginia,” as though that were an explanation. It’s the South, their thinking seemed to be — given its history, it makes sense to have white supremacists marching there.
I had to explain to them that the Nazis and white supremacists had come from all over the country. I had to explain that yes, there are more KKK clans in the South than other parts of the country, but they are in fact across the land. They are in every state of the union except possibly Rhode Island. There are at least two in the San Francisco Bay Area.
And that doesn’t take into account Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.
Understanding this helps us get a grip on exactly what we’re dealing with.
Focusing on the South creates incentives to see the other outposts of the “alt-right” as being aberrations. Even if the historical record did not support the finding that racism and misogyny of a particularly ingrained and pernicious sort existed all through the country, not just in the Deep South, acting as though the states of the former Confederacy provided the source for the nastiness of the Trump campaign is counterproductive. The South (except bastions of liberalism such as Atlanta and Austin) will get defensive and angry; the rest of the country (especially the “liberal elite” on the coasts) will see Trumpism as a regional problem.
There is a certain element among Trumpsters that we will never be able to reach, nor should we try. All over the country, there are white supremacists and misogynists. But others may well prove easier to engage with fruitfully.
Fixating on regional differences makes that harder.