White supremacism isn’t just a strong word for prejudice—it’s better described as a faith. You don’t talk religious people out of their faith just by offering them something more logical than what they and their favorite people have been believing for their entire lives. And white supremacism, as Dallas-based historian Michael Phillips demonstrates (in an article titled “The Elite Roots of Richard Spencer’s Racism,” written several weeks prior to the punch that made Spencer into a household meme) is a faith shared by many members of America’s ruling class.
Phillips’ article is a powerful account of white nationalism among America’s educated elites, and is worth reading for that alone. But the most timely and surprising part of the piece is when he quotes liberal journalists—particularly those at Mother Jones—who show respect and even affection toward Richard Spencer and, by extension, the neonazis of America’s upper class.
Phillips quotes articles that describe Spencer as “dapper,” “tidy” and “restrained,” and detail the expensive food that he orders during the interview. He offers this take on the phenomenon:
Bourgeois reporters seem shocked to meet a racist who is apparently one of them, not some cartoonish working-class stereotype, drinking a Budweiser in a t-shirt and mangling English like Archie Bunker.
But while Spencer may startle the press, he represents a common and longstanding (if overlooked) phenomenon: the well-educated and financially comfortable bigot.
Phillips’ article seems to gives these reporters the benefit of the doubt, but I think that something more disturbing is going on than the naivete he suggests. While many people in this country have never encountered wealthy, Ivy-educated white supremacists (many Americans don’t know a lot of rich people in the first place), I don’t think that alone explains certain reporters’ fixation on Classy Nazis.
In late November in 2016, Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum wrote an article called “Let’s Be Careful With the White Supremacy Label.” If you look at the url for the article, you can see what was apparently its original title: “Let’s Please Kill the White Supremacy Fad.” In Drum’s view, the intentional sorting of black Americans into a lower class and white Americans into a higher class is a “fad” started by Ta-Nehisi Coates, rather than a real thing that continues to happen.
People like Drum don’t deny America’s history, but they do believe that the white supremacist policies that force black Americans into a lower caste happen on a macro level. In their belief system, America is no longer influenced in any major way by the belief that white Americans are superior to black Americans.
Not all liberal reporters share Drum’s extreme beliefs on the subject, but many of them seem to share Drum’s basic belief that racism is an exceptional, aberrational thing in an America that is “already great because it is good.” In their belief system, racism mostly comes from the votes of poor people—from people who have few resources and minimal power beyond voting.
This odd belief isn’t just reflected by a few reporters; it was also reflected in Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential campaign against Donald Trump. She appealed to “the good Republicans.” She reminded us that America was “better than this,” while prominent democrat Chuck Schumer bragged that she could win the election by picking up votes from suburban Republicans, even if it meant losing the votes of poor white Democrats.
Clinton seems to have believed that, by appealing to Good Republicans, she could restore us to a mythical Golden Age when we were a multiracial yet monocultural land of hardworking, friendly, conservative Americans. It’s hard to forgive her campaign for losing to Trump, but her dream of being the president that Bobby Kennedy never got to be seemed to come from a genuine and positive place.
Hillary would see Richard Spencer and say, without hesitation, “You, sir, do not represent the good America that I know.” She wouldn’t be moved by his hair or his lattes.
But the Mother Jones-types who fixate on Spencer’s decorum are coming from a different place than Hillary. They linger on him not because he challenges the Clintonian ideal of a Multiracial Mayberry but because his classiness actually makes them second-guess their own liberal politics. Their worldview is based on deferring to America’s elites, and, in their minds, those elites are mostly tolerant liberals. They are tolerant liberals because they believe that’s what the elites are.
So when they discover that white supremacists like Richard Spencer are actually elites, it plants an idea in their heads: what if these racist elites are actually right? Their liberalism is flimsy and based on an association with lattes and nice hair, so a neonazi with lattes and nice hair is all it takes to make them wonder if maybe they, too, should start heiling Trump.
White supremacism isn’t the basis of American culture—much of the country’s organic culture is the product of a cooperative, ethnically diverse working class. But the USA’s ruling class have been white supremacists for much of the country’s history. And America’s present has a lot of continuity with its past.
Elites’ white supremacy, unlike their wealth, trickles down in America. It makes liberal journalists wonder if maybe racism is classy, and it validates the impulsive racial paranoia of lower-class whites whose lives are financially and socially unstable.
Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, as well as the whole of history that preceded it, teaches us a clear lesson: when elites believe crazy things, they tend to cling to those beliefs. They’re not moved by appeals to decency because, when you’re an elite, there are few benefits to an open mind and few drawbacks to a closed one. “Have you no decency, sir?” rings a bit hollow when you return, every day, to one of the most decent homes in a country where few people succeed at owning decent homes.
People like Spencer spend their lives in institutions and social groups that might expose them to new ideas, but mostly validate their belief that they can’t be wrong. His schools may have taught him that tolerance is good (in between lessons on Charles Murray and Milton Friedman) but most of all, his upbringing taught him that he was an elite—and elites are always right.
Working-class people, on the other hand, are more likely to question what they learn in school and to be open to new ideas. Most of us haven’t experienced the intense validation that allows someone like Richard Spencer to imagine that far-fetched racial theories are real and OK. Many working-class whites grew up with bad ideas about black people but still voted for Obama. Many elite whites grew up with civility and moderation, but they voted for McCain, then Romney, then Trump.
Bourgeois writers who report on the good taste of neonazis believe in a Centrist purity politics where appealing to the imaginary better natures of wealthy white supremacists is better than giving free medicine to poor racists. They stand by this even when giving free medicine to poor racists is the only way to win an election. In their worldview, it’s nobler to go for elites and lose than to go for the riff-raff and win.
But the rest of us can’t abide by that. We value winning more than centrist purity, and so we can only afford to do things the Obama/Sanders way. Offering poor deplorables a life where they don’t die of hunger, disease, and drug abuse is the only decent way to get their votes. And getting their votes is our only hope against white supremacists.