- Donald Trump’s “genius,” White “natural aristocracy,” and Democratic Equality in America
Republican Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency exposes deep strains in how Americans envision democratic equality. The campaign and election highlighted long-standing patterns of thought and action through which Americans perpetuate inequalities of race and class in the name of equality and justice. At a time when many Americans have become concerned about sharp inequalities of income and wealth, global warming, and judge the political system “rigged,” decisive support from working class white Americans helped to elect a billionaire populist who is hardly a “self-made man.”
The idea of democratic equality implies equality before the law, equal opportunity, equal respect for all, equal political rights; more than that, as Robert Dahl says, it includes the principle that all adult members of the political community are “about equal in being well qualified to have a say in governing” the community.1 Trump has not given the ideal of equality a prominent place in his agenda. Nonetheless, his fusion of white nationalism, quasi-democratic populism, and business class elitism epitomizes an exclusionary, meritocratic version of civic equality. Evoking the American dream, Trump promises opportunity for all full-fledged American citizens to rise (or fall) as far as their talents and efforts take them. He has no critique of the unequal basic structures of opportunity in American society; instead, he affirms competitive, hierarchical political and economic relationships that relegate everyday people to following leaders.
Trump’s success in rallying working class whites to vote for him, arguably against their own economic interests, has spurred debate about the relative efficacy of class-based versus identity-based egalitarian politics.2 For instance, the political theorist Mark Lilla contends that Democrats lost the 2016 election by focusing too much on identity differences of race, gender and sexuality that divided Americans rather than “appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them.”3 Vermont Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders calls for Democrats to focus more sharply on class inequalities, including the vulnerabilities faced by working- and middle-class whites.4 [End Page 10]
These arguments insist that an effective democratic left must choose between either class-based or identity-based egalitarianism rather than articulate a multifaceted democratic egalitarianism. There is serious flaw in such views, however: the Trump phenomenon recapitulates basic tensions American political ideology embedded in the racial underpinnings of American nationalism—including those manifest in ideas of equality and democracy. In short, the country’s racialized divisions have worked historically to obscure and perpetuate the country’s class inequalities. The central feature has been enduring (though shifting) cross-class political alliances of white Americans.5 Accordingly, an egalitarian-democratic alternative to Trumpism must counter how Trump renews an influential American political tradition: white male elites who have exploited the interplay of class, racialized, and gendered inequalities to affirm “equality”—insisting that each individual be treated according to her or his abilities—while sustaining sharp inequalities of status, opportunities, income, wealth, and power.
In what follows, I offer a provisional genealogy of Trumpism.6 I focus on the entwinement of race and class to clarify how central elements of Trumpism—particularly his entrepreneurial-meritocratic notion of civic equality—embody long-standing, racially marked dilemmas of democratic equality in the United States. I discuss how these dilemmas were crystalized during two junctures of American ideological and political development: (1) Thomas Jefferson’s post-Revolutionary republican articulation of the idea of a “natural aristocracy” in 1813; (2) the racial lineage of the twentieth century ideal of the “American dream” in the democratic individualism epitomized by Abraham Lincoln in the nineteenth century. In the third section, I discuss the sham conception of democratic equality implicit in Trump’s politics.
1. Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy”
In his critique of “identity liberalism,” Mark Lilla declares, “Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.”7 By tracing the origins of American identity politics to Ku Klux Klan, Lilla advances...