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The Trump Campaign: a White Revolt Against ‘Neoliberal Multiculturalism’

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When pressed to explain why they are backing their candidate, some of Donald Trump’s white supporters often answer with a critique – one that Trump himself articulates – in which they couple America’s multiculturalism and growing multicultural population with, for example, trade agreements like NAFTA, corporate relocation of American manufacturing jobs overseas, and business reliance on cheap immigrant labor. Not surprisingly, this coupling has been routinely analyzed and condemned as racist scapegoating of people of color – primarily African Americans and Hispanics – for economic problems not of their own making.

Yet the fact that these Trump supporters interweave neoliberal policies and practices into their frequent invectives against multiculturalism indicates that something else is at work. Indeed, it suggests that what we might be witnessing is blowback from what Jodi Melamed (“The Spirit of Neoliberalism”) calls neoliberal multiculturalism – the “incorporation of U.S. multiculturalism into the legitimating and operating procedures of neoliberalism” – and thus blowback from neoliberal proponents’ evocation of multiculturalism to champion their economic policies and practices as the embodiment of our national ethos; from the framing of “neoliberal policy as the key to a postracist” and multicultural “world of freedom and opportunity”; from the fact that multiculturalism functions now as our nation’s “official antiracism,” through which neoliberalism – and thus our economic dominance – is cast as “in harmony with some version of antiracist goals”; from the ways multiculturalism serves as the expression and face – both politically and aesthetically – of U.S. global military and economic power; and, from capital’s cosmetic readjustments to our rapidly growing multicultural society – its commercials of interracial couples, biracial children, and bilingual voice-overs.

Most especially, however, Trump’s support appears to be blow back from the fact that neoliberalism has innovated, through its incorporation of multiculturalism, “new” means of “fixing human capacities to naturalize inequality,” and in ways that do not exclude – on the basis of race – folks like Trump’s supporters from its discipline and punishment.

In essence, the Trump campaign appears to be driven in part by a revolt against the “new racism” that neoliberalism has produced.

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Within the framework of neoliberalism, Melamed tells us, multiculturalism “codes the wealth, mobility, and political power of neoliberalism’s beneficiaries to be the just deserts of ‘multicultural world citizens.’” At the same time, it represents those whom “neoliberalism dispossesses” as “handicapped by their own ‘monoculturalism.’” Neoliberal multiculturalism thus innovates “a new racism,” one that “rewards or punishes people for being or not being ‘multicultural Americans,’ an ideological figure that arises out of neoliberal frameworks.” In fact, it “extends racializing practices and discipline beyond the color line” – beyond, that is, the white supremacist logic of race as phenotype. As a consequence, “new categories of privilege and stigma determined by ideological, economic, and cultural criteria overlay older, conventional racial categories” – meaning, that “traditionally recognized racial identities” (like white identity, for example) “can now occupy both sides of the privilege/stigma opposition.”

This is all bad news for those Trump supporters who not only desperately cling to monoculturalism (as expressed, for example, by their desire to “Make America Great [white] Again”), but who also live and work in a hypersegregated white world. As economist/researcher Jonathan Rothwell found, the women and men “who view Trump favorably are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones. Holding other factors constant, support for Trump is highly elevated in areas with few college graduates, far from the Mexican border, and in neighborhoods that stand out within the commuting zone for being white, segregated enclaves, with little exposure to blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.”

Within the framework of neoliberalism, to be so damn white is to be, or to risk being cast as, just another Other.

This might help to explain in part why Trump supporters at times speak of themselves in terms of racial marginalization, terms they conflate with their lost (or perceived lost) fortunes under a neoliberal economic order that they understand to be at odds with their particular identity politics because it is aligned with the multiculturalism they loathe. To them, nothing signifies this alignment more clearly and demonstrably than the triumph of Barack Obama, who for eight years has stood at the helm of the neoliberal global order and who Trump supporters blame for policies (like NAFTA, for example) enacted prior to his administration.

Of course, it goes without saying that neoliberal policies have absolutely created great suffering for many whites who support Trump – especially those who are poor – and have opened a space for neoliberal policymakers and cheer leaders to explicitly and unashamedly frame these whites as undeserving, shiftless and lazy (monocultural) Others. “The truth about these [white] dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die,” wrote Kevin Williamson of the National Review. “Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible…The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.”

White suffering, however, goes hand-in-hand with the fact that whiteness remains privileged within our economic and political order, and in spite of the new racism that neoliberalism has produced. We still operate, as Melamed explains, under “a racial-economic schema” that “continues to associate white bodies and national populations with wealth and nonwhite bodies and national populations with want.” Thus, whites who do fall on the side of stigma are nevertheless privileged Others, a people excluded from the kinds of brutal racial procedures that neoliberalism “adapts,” for example, to “innovate new forms of racialized wage slavery such as one finds in the free trade zones of the global South.” Nor are these white Others subject, to any comparable degree, to the kind of discipline and punishment meted out (for instance) to poor, hypersegregated/monocultural African Americans, discards of our racial capitalist regime.

None of this should be surprising, of course. After all, capital and state power remain firmly in the hands of primarily white elites – like Trump – for whom multiculturalism is a means to expand their wealth and power because it facilitates the opening of markets abroad. Within neoliberal frameworks, in fact, white men in particular are the consummate neoliberal subjects, against which most of us are measured and frequently found wanting.

The willingness of Trump’s supporters to not see in neoliberalism white elite power is itself a testimony to their deep investment in the “old” racism of white supremacy, long ago rejected (Melamed tells us) as the official racism of the state in the service of global economic expansion. That investment compels Trump’s supporters to speak in the very terms that mark them as Other (as we saw recently, for example, in the New York Times video of whites at Trump rallies. While that video exposed the raw racism of the candidate’s supporters, it simultaneously framed them – and invited us to see them – as Other). Ironically enough, the more they vocalize their racism, the more they announce themselves as men and women who are unable and/or unwilling to reconstitute themselves as proper neoliberal subjects, i.e., as neoliberal multiculturalists.

Lest we be tempted to say, “so what?”, we would do well to consider this: the very framework that marks Trump’s racist supporters as Other is also a framework that denies – and renders unspeakable – the existence of racism altogether.

Neoliberal multiculturalism articulates our nation, and the neoliberal project that our government serves, as nonracial (or, as Melamed writes, neoliberalism has effectively incorporated “U.S. multiculturalism in a manner that makes neoliberalism appear just,” while it obscures “the racial antagonisms and inequalities on which the neoliberal project depends”). It condemns as “divisive” antiracist critiques of neoliberalism and U.S. racial politics – condemns them as that which actually creates racial division, discord, and inequality. Moreover, it invites punishment and disapprobation upon those who both challenge racist practices and expose neoliberalism as being the racist plunder that it is.

Thus, it should come as no surprise, for instance, that those who organize under the banner of Black Lives Matter are frequently attacked for defending, against neoliberal policing, those presumed to be undeserving of our regard – the black/monocultural children, women and men who are marginalized not because of any political and economic policies (we are told), but because they have failed to refashion themselves as proper American neoliberal subjects, i.e., as disciplined and efficient rugged individualists, self-styled entrepreneurs and competitors in our free market society. Indeed, BLM defense of the undeserving marks BLM itself as the ultimate Other, to which state surveillance and violence, along with “All Lives Matter!” (an incantation of neoliberal multiculturalism if ever there was one), are appropriate, disciplinary responses.

So what seems to be unfolding before us, then, is a racist revolt against a racist paradigm – a revolt that speaks not so much to a desire on the part of Trump’s supporters to upend neoliberalism per se, as it perhaps speaks to an unspoken desire to reconstitute it as an explicit articulation of white power. And why would they want to upend neoliberalism, after all? Contrary to the myth that they’re all poor whites who are beset by low wage employment, addiction, and so-called broken homes, many of Trump’s supporters, as Rothwell discovered, are not particularly distressed. They haven’t been “disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration.” On average, they don’t “have lower incomes than other Americans.” And they are not “more likely to be unemployed” than the rest of their countrymen and women. To the contrary, they have done relatively well for themselves, even if the communities in which they live have taken a downturn.

But as monoculturalists, they are entirely vulnerable to neoliberal multiculturalism’s racializing discipline.

Trump, then, is not only the promise of an end to that vulnerability; he is also a beginning, the promise of a new new racism, one that resembles – and honors – the racism of old. Or as one supporter put it: “He’s the last chance we have to…preserve the culture I grew up in” – the last chance, that is, to preserve a culture of white economic, social, and political privileges that can be passed on, ad infinitum, to future generations of white monocultural Americans.

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