In just the past two weeks, Donald Trump has told four ethnic minority congresswomen, three of them natural born citizens, to “go back” to the “broken and crime infested” “countries” “from which they came,” described the African American Congressman Elijah Cummings as a “bully” and his city of Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” and picked a fight with the Rev. Al Sharpton, pronouncing him “a con man, a troublemaker, always looking for a score” who “Hates Whites & Cops!”
Trump’s game isn’t difficult to discern. He is practicing the same sort of resentment-based, racial-identity politics that has fueled his political rise since the earlier part of this decade, when he began expressing doubts that the first black president was actually born in the United States.
Trump’s motives are mean, his tactics distasteful, and his manner of expression bigoted and unpresidential. But in the race to see who can press harder on the race button, Trump has a worthy opponent in today’s left. Just as it is hard to see Trump as anything other than a bigot and a button-presser, it is similarly impossible to deny the radical transformation of the progressive intellectual and activist universe in the nearly three years since Trump was elected into a self-appointed politburo that is trying to impose its own aggressively race-obsessed vision on America.
Indeed, many of Trump’s opponents on the left have turned themselves into committed ideologues with a programmatic understanding of human behavior and human differences rooted in some biological component that is impossible or nearly impossible to change. The way the left talks incessantly about “white men,” or openly puts membership in victim groups above individual rights and virtues, is the essence of what most people mean by racism. Not “reverse racism”—but real, actual, racism.
It is also true that there is something about this president that elicits an exceptionally contradictory impulse in his opponents. Progressives who, during the Obama administration, praised the benefits of a “reset” with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, today use talking points lifted straight from the lurid oeuvre of Joe McCarthy in attacking Republicans as Russian “assets” and “traitors.” With his every utterance and action, Trump inspires a Pavlovian response from his critics, who feel that anything he supports must be opposed, and anything he opposes must be supported, to the hilt and in abundance, causing them to embrace some of the worst of their own camp. Trump is like Newton’s Third Law of Physics, inspiring an equal and opposite reaction with absolutely everything he says and does.
Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s longtime closest aide, therefore praises Congresswoman Ilhan Omar as “the change in Congress we have been waiting for” whom “many around the country are both counting on” and “will have your back.” Similarly, when Trump attacked Sharpton, a succession of Democratic presidential candidates and liberal media figures, like clockwork, rallied to defend the nation’s premier race huckster and shakedown artist:
.@TheRevAl is a champion in the fight for civil rights. The fact that President Trump continues to use the power of the presidency to unleash racist attacks on the people he serves is despicable. This hate has no place in our country. It’s beneath the dignity of the office.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) July 29, 2019
.@TheRevAl has spent his life fighting for what’s right and working to improve our nation, even in the face of hate. It’s shameful, yet unsurprising that Trump would continue to attack those who have done so much for our country.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) July 29, 2019
.@TheRevAl has dedicated his life to the fight for justice for all. No amount of racist tweets from the man in the White House will erase that—and we must not let them divide us. I stand with my friend Al Sharpton in calling out these ongoing attacks on people of color.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) July 29, 2019
I’ve known @TheRevAl for decades and Trump’s characterization is not only disrespectful, it’s untrue. While @TheRevAl was pushing for justice in the teachings of Dr. King, Trump was calling for the execution of five innocent black boys. https://t.co/UhR1cpjpxj
— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) July 29, 2019
The comparison between Trump and Sharpton is an instructive one: While the former was cynically ginning up outrage against the Central Park Five, the Rev. Al was blackening the names of innocent men with the Tawana Brawley hoax, fomenting riots against Jewish “diamond merchants” in Brooklyn, and inciting an arson attack on a building owned by a “white interloper.” Same difference. But what are facts such as these to the gringo of Gracie Mansion?
What’s more troubling is that the Democratic Party began its love affair with Sharpton well over a decade before Trump was anywhere near the White House, rehabilitating one of New York City’s worst demagogues to the ranks of what Politico laughably describes as a “civil rights leader”—welcoming him to the 2004 Democratic presidential primary, perennially paying him obeisance at Sylvia’s of Harlem, giving him a show on MSNBC, and inviting him to the White House an astonishing 118 times during the Obama presidency. (Thanks, Valerie!)
And what of the blatant statement of racist thinking remark from first-term Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts:
We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice.
Insisting that someone with a “brown” or “black” face must endorse a set of ideological precepts (presumably dictated by Ayanna Pressley)—in other words, that one’s skin color ought to determine how one thinks and acts—is textbook racism. Yet while practically every mainstream media outlet is describing, as objective fact, Trump’s various outbursts as “racist,” not a single one has characterized Pressley’s remark in similar fashion.
For a large and growing segment of progressives, absolutely everything has been racialized, to the point where progressives are now pushing the case that Joe Biden, who loyally served by Obama’s side for eight years, is a latter-day Bull Connor who must “atone” for his past. There is more than a whiff of Cultural Revolution “struggle sessions” in the hypervigilance of the left, and its lust for apologies and public humiliations: Last month in the New York Times Magazine, the Jamaican-born poet Claudia Rankine published a paranoid meditation about “white male privilege,” recording a series of mundane encounters with various white men, each and every single one of whom she imbued with an all-enveloping sense of white supremacy. Those men who cut her in the first-class line at the airport? It could not be that they are rude, harried people. No, they were RACISTS. Every single white man Rankine meets, she presumes to be in possession of “white privilege”—an ineffable trait that she describes as having biological qualities. No matter what their station in life, they are mystically endowed with this trait and thus possess more “power” than Rankine—a National Book Award-winning Yale professor, poet, and $625,000 MacArthur “genius” grant recipient.
In many progressive circles, the word “white” has become a gleeful synonym for “ignorant,” “bigoted,” or “unenlightened.” In mainstream media and other progressive discourse, attacks on “straight white men” are as ubiquitous as they are indiscriminate. When Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims decided to harass a pro-life demonstrator standing peacefully outside a Philadelphia abortion clinic earlier this year, he described her as “an old white lady,” as if the color of her skin had anything whatsoever to do with the validity of her belief that life begins at conception. Recently minted New York Times editorial writer Sarah Jeong spent years tweeting vile insults about white people that would have ended her career had she written them about any other group or “race.”
Meanwhile, in such circles, anything nonwhite is sacralized. “Trans women of color” led the uprising at Stonewall. (Except they didn’t). Squad member Rashida Tlaib, in a recent interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, justified her support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against “racist” Israel by referencing her growing up in the “blackest, beautiful city” of Detroit. Violent attacks on Jews in New York City are at record highs, and are being perpetrated almost exclusively by black and Hispanic men, and yet Mayor de Blasio bizarrely blames it all on a “right-wing movement.” “What if we just let black women run everything,” proposed author Molly Knight, to which the actor Mark Ruffalo smarmily responded, “I’m definitely ready for that. I said a prayer the other day and when God answered me back she was a Black Woman.”
Now take a look at the disaster currently unfolding at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. After months of complaints by the Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses that not enough “people of color” are represented among senior staff of the campaign arm for House Democrats, a slew of top officials were forced to resign, including Allison Jaslow, a lesbian Iraq war veteran. The shuffle comes after two Hispanic Democrats demanded that DCCC Chairman Cheri Bustos “appoint a qualified person of color, of which there are many, as executive director at once.” According to Politico, a desperate Bustos felt the need to tell staffers that “her husband is of Mexican descent, her children are half Mexican and her son is marrying an African American woman,” a comment for which she apologized and “announced that she will undergo diversity and inclusion training.”
What was most remarkable about the defenestration of Cheri Bustos was not the speed with which it happened, or the seemingly minor nature of the offense—we became conditioned to all that sometime around Trump’s election, or the sacralization of #MeToo, or maybe it was the rise of Twitter, or the collapse of journalism. It was that this time, no one actually bothered to explain the offense.
What exactly is wrong with the phrase “of Mexican descent?” Mexico is a nation, and it has a culture—like Ireland or Britain or Italy. Is it offensive to describe someone as being “of Italian descent”? Of “Irish descent”? Is the word “Mexican” offensive? Should it have been “Hispanic,” even though almost no one in Mexico has ever heard that word—and most Mexicans would find it quite offensive to be lumped together in a single transnational clump with Guatemalans and Salvadorans?
Is the word “descent” offensive? Should Cheri Bustos have used “heritage” to describe her husband and children’s ties to Mexico—or is that word worse? Was it the word “of” that required her to be sent to a reeducation camp?
The point of language policing isn’t really a concern over the proper uses of language, of course. It’s an instrument of power. If someone has the power to police your language, it means he has power over you—the power to condemn you as a racist, to have you fired from your job, to make others shun you, to make sure you never work again. That kind of power is intended to inculcate fear. Among progressives, that power is also fast becoming absolute—and the more absolute it becomes, the more arbitrary and corrupt its applications become, which the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights were designed to check.
Moreover, who the hell polices how someone refers to their own husband and children?
By the lights of the new progressive jus sanguinis, it doesn’t matter if one is married to a Hispanic person, or a black person, or whomever, and gave birth to mischling Hispanic children: Cheri Bustos is white and must repent. Meanwhile, at the behest of a Congressional Black Caucus that helped water down a House resolution intended to condemn Ilhan Omar’s anti-Semitism earlier this year, the DCCC forced the resignation of a lesbian war veteran for no particularly good reason—and an African American woman with a history of homophobic and anti-Hispanic tweets has been promoted.
Having overtaken higher education, corporate America, and politics, the “diversity and inclusion” crusade now has its eyes set on culture, an area of human endeavor that progressives have typically taken to the barricades to defend from overweening government bureaucrats. Four years ago, Mayor de Blasio hatched a plan to increase “diversity and inclusion” among the staffs and boards of cultural institutions. Women and (shockingly) gays happen to be vastly overrepresented in such tallies, but their “diversity and inclusion” in the arts may very well need to be curtailed in order to make room for other, favored minority groups. Two years ago, de Blasio announced that the city would link funding for cultural institutions not to the quality of their content or its popularity with the museum and theater-going public, but rather the racial makeup of their staff and boards, what the Times described as an “unusual move by the city, which rarely dictates policy to its cultural leaders,” and is indeed the sort of politicized tampering one associates with the various third-world banana republics de Blasio idolized in his halcyon days as a supporter of the Sandinistas.
Despite what the Times described as de Blasio’s “years of rarely visiting or championing cultural institutions” and the absence of any evidence that racial minorities have in any way been discriminated against in hiring practices, the city’s arts agency is flush with “organizational charts and multistep processes” to reorient arts programming to its imperatives. And anyone who raises objections to this campaign, who stands in the way of the “diversity and inclusion” revolution, can expect to be broken like the eggs in an omelet.
“There are people who will resist, who will resent, who will obstruct,” the then City Council speaker declared. After all, “any moment for equality and inclusion doesn’t come easily.”
As the academic Zach Goldberg has rigorously unpacked in this space, much of the increasingly racialized modes of thinking so common today on the left are a function of the tribalism that Trump’s election intensified, and his never-ending demagoguery exacerbates. And none of it, needless to say, is good for the Jews, whom progressives have, within their mystical and esoteric racial taxonomy, categorized as “white,” meaning that they are in possession of undeserved “power” that must be “redistributed” to those deprived of it. “Whiteness” is an ever-expanding concept, metastasizing to include “white Hispanics” and, soon, Asians.
Racial prejudice is arguably this country’s founding sin and it remains, by far, our most divisive issue. The role of the president should be to heal that division, whenever and wherever he can. Instead, our commander-in-chief regularly plays with our most sensitive and painful societal traumas like a pyro with matchbooks. What a pity that his opponents have decided to respond not by sending fire trucks, but gasoline.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.