We were so close.
For a minute there it seemed like America had come to its goddamn senses. It closed out the first decade of the new century by electing its first African-American president, while simultaneously handing him healthy, veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate after a decade of letting The Fear drive us into the arms of a half-witted dufus by the name of George W. Bush, who seized that opportunity to fail spectacularly at virtually every conceivable measure of the public trust in return.
During the Bush years — It took almost eight full years for people to realize that some random hirsute foreigner probably wasn’t going to blow up their ’91 Ford Taurus or reduce the local Piggly Wiggly to rubble in Allah’s name, but not before they let largely the same people who scared them into thinking so demolish their 401ks and drive the entire global economy screaming over a cliff. All this while simultaneously building the world’s largest self-service surveillance network ever conceived. Any pretense of the American notion of giving a shit about human rights took a pretty solid beating in the 00s, along with a lot of guys with names like Mohamed in CIA black sites scattered around the world.
But for one brief, shining moment towards the end of the 00s, a green sprig of hope grew between the cracks of the nation’s thick, stony head. For about a minute and a half — it looked like America might be on the verge of a true moment of evolution. At least that’s what a lot of us told ourselves back then.
To be clear — Shitty White People doing Shitty White People Stuff isn’t anything new. SWPs have been on a pretty hard roll for at least the last six centuries. But for about forty of the last fifty or so years in America, we have at least made it impolite to be openly racist in most rooms. Usually, that didn’t comprise of much more than at least taking a cursory glance over each shoulder before making a racist joke, but when you consider we aren’t that far out in geologic time from when a white person could buy and sell black people out in the open market — it’s at least some sort of progress.
Few people have summed up this plan on how to closet their racism more succinctly than Republican strategist Lee Atwater — who spelled it out verbatim in a 1981 interview. As America evolved, racists still desperately needed a way to signal to other racists without just saying that shit out loud:
“Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “ Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
In other words — how to say the loud part quiet. This has become the new white hood — find a thing you can do or say that every other racist can clearly identify, that’s just ambiguous enough to pass off as something else. “But your honor — we were just playing something called the circle game — I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
For most of the last 50 years, that’s how it rolled. You could argue that America didn’t get at any less substantively racist — in some ways, it got even worse (94 Crime Bill) But at the bare minimum, at least some, if not most Shitty White People went underground.
But then Barack Obama came, and SWPs lost their fucking minds. Its possible no single person in American history posed a greater existential threat to every pillar of white supremacist orthodoxy than Barack Hussein Obama, and that’s when they realized it was time to up their game.
Aside from the fact that Obama represented a shining contradiction to nearly every racist trope SWPs tell themselves — Obama created the fear in them that The Bill was coming. Shitty White People just naturally assumed black people in power were going to treat them the same way they had treated black folks for the last 400 years.
It took them absolutely no time whatsoever for them to start scaring the shit out of each other with ghost stories about eugenic death panels and FEMA concentration camps. In other words, we are talking about people so transcendently racist — that it was literally impossible for them to conceive of anyone else not being at least as racist as they were. It’s entirely possible most of the institutional racism since the Reconstruction has just been predicated on white people being absolutely convinced that the second they took their foot off the neck of the black man, white people would be getting lynched in the streets in droves.
The war over the ACA was really about health care the same way the civil war was about state’s rights. Some of the sickest people in the developed world actively pushed back on the attempt to give themselves affordable health care simply because the person trying to give it to them was black. Thus began the Tea Party Movement — essentially a Lee Atwater wet dream of white grievance orchestrated around right wing political fan fiction sculpted into a surprising array of bullshit policy positions all seemingly hand crafted as a trojan horse hope chest full of seething racism and resentment.
And it just kept going from there. In the mid-term elections of 2010, SWPs managed to fill the United States House of Representatives and a surprising amount of the Senate with a bunch of low watt amateurs, whose only qualifications for high office were the ability to make more thinly veiled audible dog whistle racist noises louder than the next guy in the local Republican primary. American would-be elected officials quickly learned by pavlovian response that the fastest way to fill a campaign war chest would be to light one’s hair on fire, preferably in prime time on Fox news.
Meanwhile — a large swath of white America was coming to grips that they were being left behind. Every time they looked at their increasingly larger and more ubiquitous screens — they were being acutely reminded that there were people out there living opulent lives of blinding excess (usually in some coastal state) and they weren’t one of them. Slowly it just melted into regionally based, inchoate resentment between people who took a shower after work towards people who took one before it.
Despite chart after chart showing how they were ostensibly the most productive work force in the history of mankind, none of that money seemed to be making it to them. For the first time since the end of the Great Depression, America was waking up to the fact that there were methodically and systematically being screwed; that everything they had been told to expect as a nation of temporarily disgraced millionaires probably wasn’t coming, and someone needed to be blamed for it.
Rather than blaming capitalism, it was just far easier, and much more on-brand for Shitty White People to punch down and blame the least powerful people in society as the cause of their problems instead. Rather than accept that the supposedly meritocratic prosperity doctrine that they bought into as a religion their whole lives was a total sham to all but a handful of winners — they declared open season on anyone darker than a grocery bag, and while they were at it, threw in women and the LGBT communities for good measure.
Donald J. Trump stumbled in to this shit zeitgeist like every other accident of success in his life. It’s a glowing testimony of how good it is to be rich. The only thing that ever separated Trump from being a 3rd rate used car salesman bouncing from one sketchy lot to another across Long Island was the Scrooge McDuck pile of money his father accumulated as a openly racist slumlord in the 1960s and 70s.
After burning though whatever money he inherited, along with all the money other people loaned him, It was the dumb luck of a Hollywood writer’s strike (and the end of antena-based television in rural areas) that helped launch his stupid reality show into the homes of slack jawed yokels in the flyover states, where he cemented his status as a poor person’s idea of what a rich person was. The longer Trump could keep a camera and a microphone in front of his face (things that Trump needs more than water or oxygen to survive) the longer they realized that Trump, for all his money, was a Shitty White Person just like them. He spoke their same language of perpetual victimhood and grievance, even in the midst of a game they were clearly doing so much better in than the people they were blaming for their perceived lack of success on. It turns out privilege is just like money — you can never have too much of it, especially if you believe in a zero sum game where your every failure is the result of someone else’s success. This is exactly why equality feels like oppression to people accustomed to privilege.
The greatest gift Trump gave SWPs was being proof of concept that an openly racist, mediocre white person with a fourth grade vocabulary and no more nuanced understanding of the world than could be learned from habitually watching Fox and Friends could not only become a billionaire — he could become the leader of the free world. Trump rescued the lie of American capitalism for a bunch of destitute people, thus sparing them learning any important lessons about their place in the New Gilded Age. Red meat was back on the menu.
In retrospect, it should come as no surprise that Trump ripped through the Republican primary effortlessly. The Republican party had been selling rich guy policy to poor people for a generation, and much in the same way you have to wrap a pill in some sort of meat to get a dog to swallow it, the right used the steady appeal of racism, homophobia and misogyny to get people that make less than $40k a year to somehow give a shit about things like the estate tax. Trump just stripped the extra parts away and said the quiet parts loud, and Shitty White People awarded him the American Presidency for it. (Turns out he may have had some foreign help as well, or at least the threat of him being party to people peeing in places other than where they should, and in front of more cameras than usual.)
To be fair, Shitty White People didn’t just limit themselves to the right. Shitty White people on the left managed to rediscover measles, and somehow serious people are having to explain how the world is actually round to some of them. That’s how good it is to be white. It means you can think that science or physics don’t necessarily apply to you all the time. White people will believe almost anything as long as it’s coming from a pretty white lady, or at least a convincing looking website. You’d be fucking shocked at what Gwyneth Paltrow can convince white people to stick up their bodies and why.
Shitty White People doing Shitty Things to anyone they could get away with bullying is nothing new. But the 2010s were a real comeback decade for SWPs. When police weren’t shooting unarmed black folks in the streets in broad daylight, they were chasing around one call after another generated by the fact that this was the decade that 911 for all intents and purposes became a customer service hotline for white people uncomfortable with the sight of black people doing just about any mundane activity you could imagine.
Donald Trump didn’t make America more racist — but what he did do was signal to racists that they still had numbers and could still pick one of their own for president, despite being told for decades that they were becoming the minority. It’s no coincidence that hate crimes started skyrocketing after his election. Trump ran, and has governed on an open policy of white supremacy, and now the racist fringe has convinced themselves that they have been the silent majority all along. You can rest absolutely assured that anytime you see someone in a red MAGA hat, the subtext for the word “great” on it is “white”. Anyone who tells you different is kidding themselves.
“Seriously, your honor — we were just playing something called the circle game — I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I, for one, am glad to see this tire fire of a decade burn itself out. In 11 months we are going to take a referendum of just how racist this country is, and I know I’m not the only one that’s afraid of the answer. We know for a fact that something around 41% of the 60% of the people that can be bothered to vote in this country are willing to tolerate openly racist rhetoric out of the white house, so long as it comes with the appropriate tax breaks and judicial appointments. The black box we have no way of peering into is just who makes up that 40% that doesn’t usually vote. Welcome to Civilization Edgeplay. Who’s ready to roll those dice?
When the history books are written, or at least scrawled on the sides of collapsed buildings in pig’s blood in the coming post-apocalyptic hellscape — let the record show that the 2010s belonged lock, stock and barrel to Shitty White People, and we are all poorer for it. Let’s hope maybe this go round we can shove these people back in the closet and start trying to perfect this union once again. I don’t know how many more shots we’re gonna get at this.