Selcer: The conservative desire for “greatness” reveals American nationalism’s foundations in white supremacy

What does it mean to make America “great” again?

To answer that question, we must first identify what’s so “great” about the United States. As the midterm elections approach, with voter suppression running rampant across the country, it would be statistically inaccurate to claim that representative democracy makes America “great.” We need to be more honest with each other and ourselves.

We also need to recognize that our broken federal government cannot be fully blamed on Trump. In response to the political advancements of people of color in the post-Civil Rights era, we have seen continuous efforts to reassert white supremacy within the governing body. Populist white nationalism has always been about maintaining a racial hierarchy that is becoming less and less manageable.

Frankly, white people have a good reason to be worried about the status of their supremacy given that America will have a majority of black and brown citizens by 2044.

Poor and middle class white Americans who love Trump are responding to his race-baiting, plain and simple. If we examine the premise of MAGA even a little bit, we quickly discover that racism is the default position for white people within the American narrative of “greatness.” Life has clearly improved for people of color, women and queer people since the “great” American age of the 1940s and 1950s.

The only people whose lifestyles seem to have declined are white people in the middle and lower classes, and especially white men; part of this is owing to a loss of privilege, but most is owing to a loss of economic security. Wealthy conservatives rely upon getting whites to the polls over issues of race, rather than working class economic interests, in election years like this where many white conservatives now prefer the Democratic platform on key issues like affordable healthcare. The most effective way to distract white people from the wealth gap is by appealing to racism.

One prime example of this is conservative fear-mongering surrounding the “invasion” of a migrant caravan in the weeks leading up to the midterms. Though these refugees are walking on foot and remain 2,000 miles away from their expected point of entry at the US border, Trump plans to deploy 15,000 active-duty troops to the border. His strategy is an obvious political gambit designed to stoke white fear of a racial war against the state.

The GOP fabricated this “national emergency” in order to turn out the white conservative vote. Republicans desperately need to do that because, in all respects, the white vote continues to pull the most weight within our electoral process. We aren’t a truly representative democracy today, and we never have been. But since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling which struck down key clauses of the antiracist Voting Rights Act of 1965, we have seen a profound resurgence in conservative-led voter suppression tactics.

In 2016, 65 million people voted for Clinton; 4.5 million people voted for Johnson; 1.5 million people voted for Stein; and another 108 million eligible citizens did not vote. Donald Trump won with just 63 million votes which represented 25.6 percent of eligible American voters.

Are we a representative democracy if 75 percent of eligible American voters did not consent to the administration whose thumb we are being crushed beneath?

History reveals that Democrats tend to win in elections with high voter turnout, especially among people of color. But Pew Research shows that only 59.6 percent of eligible black voters, 49.4 percent of Asian voters, and 47.6 percent of Latinx voters had their votes counted in 2016 — as compared to 65.3 percent of white voters.

Voters of color face constant barriers: from Latinx residents of Dodge City being unable to access the single overcrowded voting location outside the city limits in Kansas, to black and Latinx voters having their registrations thrown out by vote purges in Georgia, to Native Americans facing racist voter-ID laws targeting them in North Dakota. Voters of color also risk Trump-fueled intimidation by white supremacists at the polls everywhere else.

With all this trouble, why bother voting in a system that’s stacked so heavily against you anyways?

We must consider those who cannot vote, too. The Sentencing Project estimates that 1 in 13 black Americans have lost their voting rights due to felony disenfranchisement—as compared to 1 in 56 white Americans. Since 1976, post-Voting Rights Act, the number of disenfranchised citizens has risen from 1.17 million to 6.1 million. In highly conservative states, people of color face astronomical rates of disenfranchisement: 21 percent of black citizens in Florida, 26 percent in Kentucky, 21 percent in Tennessee, and 22 percent in Virginia. Additionally, citizens of US territories like Guam and Puerto Rico cannot vote in federal elections and have no voting representation in Congress. Most of these 4.4 million people are people of color.

Imagine having millions of extra voters of color (as well as electoral college votes for the territories) in 2016, when Trump won despite Clinton’s 2.8 million popular vote lead. Would a more racially-representative democracy have turned out a different result?

Viewing American politics through the rose-colored lenses of nationalism means ignoring the inconvenient fact that during the supposedly “great” eras of the US, life was much worse for black and brown Americans. In many ways, pride in the legacy of American democracy is pride in the history of the racial oppression that continues today.

Black Americans do not share the same history as white Americans. Native Americans do not share the same history as white Americans. Latinx Americans do not share the same history as white Americans. Asian Americans do not share the same history as white Americans.

White Americans calling for a return to American traditionalism want to see a revival of their own history—the history of white supremacy.

So: what does it mean to make America “great” again?

We must heed the lesson of The Handmaid’s Tale: “Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”

PhD student/fist-shaker. My research fields include contemporary US politics and culture, feminist studies, and theory & praxis—with an emphasis on the role of power in discourse. I also teach writing at the University of Oregon.

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