• Rebecca Solnit: When the President of Mediocrity Incites an Insurrection

    White Identity Politics is Out of Control

    Yesterday’s white riot launched by the president’s incendiary rally was another reminder that there are, in the minds of too many people with too much power, those who are considered to be innocent and deserving of respect even when in the act of committing violent crimes. The corollary is that there are others assumed to be committing violent crimes simply for being, their presence itself treated as a kind of menace and transgression. Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night. It is not a matter of deeds, because those statuses don’t change because of acts or their absence. This is racism as a triumph over history, the history of what you just did or didn’t do today, and it’s white supremacist identity politics.

    We saw it yesterday in a mob invasion of Congress that came about because of a man who cannot admit defeat and who fomented this riot in an attempt to drown out that defeat with violent chaos. His policy is that he can have whatever he wants, including whatever facts he wants, and he wanted a win, felt entitled to one, and was trying to fabricate one out of thin air full of the flatulence of his lies and strongarm tactics, from the bullying of election officials to the punishment of anyone who didn’t get on board.

    And yesterday, soon-to-be-former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans who fed the beast of this stolen-election conspiracy theory felt entitled to fluff up their feathers and huff that they were shocked about the consequences as though the consequences hadn’t been openly plotted and fomented for the last two months, with their encouragement. McConnell did belatedly recognize the election outcome, but had he used his power to recognize it and urge his party members to recognize it when it became clear a few days after the election, the nation might have been spared all this.

    “Be there, be wild!” said a December 19 Trump tweet whining again about the election with more sloppy false claims that he’d won. This was a crime plotted in public, an assault fomented by the executive branch against both the legislative branch of government and the votes of the American public.

    I know we’ve been having a national public conversation about all this at least since Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012 (and Black people have been having this conversation for generations), but it was brought home in a stark way yesterday, as we saw how the capitol police whose one job is to defend the capitol could apparently not sufficiently recognize that a shouting mob climbing the walls and smashing the windows was the enemy. There was nothing to separate this from the mindset that a distinguished professor entering his own home (Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates in 2009) was breaking in or any Black man walking down the street was criming by walking and breathing and being.

    This was a crime plotted in public, an assault fomented by the executive branch against both the legislative branch of government and the votes of the American public.

    And these white rioters knew it and counted on it; their confidence as amateur beserkers was striking, as was their ease. They were swanning around like tourists on their crime spree, showing their faces on selfies, posing for journalists, taking souvenirs, trashing the place like frat boys at a party. They did after all have the encouragement of the commander-in-chief. Trump himself has committed more public crimes than, probably, every other president put together since this nation began, and there have been no consequences of note. This must feed a kind of nihilistic sense in which nothing means anything or everything means whatever you want it to mean, because when you’re a star they let you do it and if they let you do it there are no rules and no bearings.

    One of the indigestible facts of this country is that most of its terrorism and nearly all its mass shootings are committed by mostly conservative-leaning white men, conservative here meaning those most earnestly committed to their white supremacist-misogynist identity politics, from the unending terrorism of the Klan and other racist groups and the anti-abortion murders of the 1990s to the present-day mayhem. Indigestible because those in power cannot quite bring themselves to call this problem what it is and treat it as it deserves. Terrorists and threats are supposed to be any kind of “other”—brown, black, immigrant, anti-fascist, environmentalist, etc. Which is to say that the official policy of this country is that what we could call “othering,” but also “saming,” with the latter granted eternal license.

    This is in transition as we become a more egalitarian, inclusive, and diverse country, as nonwhite and nonmale people increasingly participate in deciding who and what matters and affirm that we are all equal under the law. The last four years have been dominated by Trump and Trumpists throwing tantrum after tantrum about the possibility that their entitlement might eventually run into limits.

    Heather Cox Richardson’s nightly letter begins, “Today the Confederate flag flew in the US capitol.” Which is a reminder that one way all this began was with another election, the 1876 election, where Republicans traded away Reconstruction in return for a presidential victory. It turned out there would be no consequences of note for the white supremacists who had waged and lost a civil war in defense of slavery and no defense of the Black people of the south who had been promised rights and justice. It gave away the victory over the Confederacy for which so many had died, and the principles and promise behind it.

    One of the indigestible facts of this country is that a good deal of its terrorism and nearly all its mass shootings are committed by mostly conservative-leaning white men.

    This selling out told white men there were no consequences for their actions, because winning would be winning and losing would also be winning. And it furthered the bleak inequality in which one group would be dehumanized and impoverished no matter what and another would have that endless affirmative action whose shrinkage of late has prompted so much rage. There are no identity politics more passionate (and sulky) than straight white Christian-identified male politics. As Ijeomo Oluo puts it in her new book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, “By defining greatness as a white man’s birthright, we immediately divorce it from real, quantifiable greatness—greatness that benefits, greatness that creates.” Make America Great Again can be assumed to be about the former kind of greatness, and it was always a promise that greatness meant this long era of inequality. Inequality is the central platform of the right and Trumpism.

    One of this country’s urgent problems is that the police too often perpetrate this arrangement as they persecute and sometimes murder the innocent and let the guilty go. Last summer we saw the biggest protests in American history in response to the police public suffocation unto death of George Floyd for an allegation of a minor nonviolent crime, and then we saw police across the country treat the exercise of the first-amendment right of the people peaceably to assemble as a crime too, and assault those protestors. And, sometimes, smile upon their attackers—after white teenager Kyle Rittenhouse killed two people with a semiautomatic weapon at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he walked back toward the police who had been chummy with him and his heavily armed right-wing racist cohort with the confidence. The New York Times reported, “Mr. Rittenhouse walks with his hands up toward the police vehicles. Bystanders call out to the officers that he had just shot people. The police drive by him without stopping.” Trump had said he could get away with shooting someone on Fifth Avenue; the teen who killed two people at close range had to turn himself in in another state, and huge sums of money were donated for his defense. His crime was made possible in part by the loosening of gun laws that have made it possible for mostly white mostly men to carry weapons of war into the supermarket and to protests—and into Michigan’s state house, among other places, guns here being an easy symbol of white male power that too readily turns into the actual power to take lives. (In 2014, a white policeman shot and killed twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who was Black, for holding a toy gun.)

    There are no identity politics more passionate (and sulky) than straight white Christian-identified male politics.

    It is notable that among the many flags—Confederate, American, Don’t Tread on Me snake flags—at the protest was a thin blue line flag—a pro-police flag. The grizzled man who posed with his feet up on what was said to be House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s desk had raised money for the police in his part of Arkansas last year. He posed for the cameras after he left the building with a document he had stolen, confident about his fate after going on the record as a burglar. The epithet “God give me the confidence of a mediocre white man” has mostly been used for milder circumstances, but the confidence—in their own rightness as they assaulted the symbolic center of the elected government as that government was engaged in the solemn process of confirming the choice of the voters—was stunning. Of course if there was no electoral college—an institution created to amplify the white men who enslaved Black people, Trump would never have become president in 2016, and in 2020, the Biden victory would have been affirmed and unshakeable months ago, but one of the rites of the creaky old process designed for an 18th-century 13-state nation exist was underway when the invasion transpired. You could argue that it’s because Trump won the presidency while losing by three million votes last time that he felt entitled to keep it after losing by seven million votes.

    The last four years have brought into sharper focus for those who were not yet sufficiently focused that these identity politics are corrosive to those who are most invested in them and devastating for those who are marginalized and persecuted by them. And despite the fact that the right likes to rail against identity politics, our job now as we leave the regressive Age of Trump behind is to dismantle the dominance of the identity politics that have shaped this nation from who holds power at the top to who is presumed innocent or guilty in the smallest exchanges. Right-wingers are now claiming that the violence and destruction in the capitol was perpetrated by Antifa. It makes sense, in their logic, if you can have a fake outcome to an election because you always win, so you can be innocent and someone else guilty of a crime you and yours perpetrated in public.

    Rape is an act that demonstrates the perpetrator’s infinite impunity to consequences and the victim’s infinite lack of rights; it reaffirms and celebrates the world order that rapists want, and societies that let them get away with it help perpetrate rape and rapists. The riot was something akin to it: it was a defense of mediocre white men to have whatever they want and also an exercise of that right. For the rest of us, they made the case that the struggle for equality, including equality of accountability, is as urgent as ever.

    We saw in barely more than 24 hours the best and worst of national electoral politics, in the Georgia senate victories of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff Tuesday night and the Trumpian frat-party beer-blast biker-riot-style coup attempt Wednesday afternoon. We have seen a victory earned in the best way, through long and brilliant organizing and voting rights protection and voter turnout—and two inspiring and idealistic candidates, one Black, one Jewish (and here I might mention that one of the white men inside the capitol was wearing a pro-genocide, pro-Nazi “Camp Auschwitz” shirt). And we have seen the attempt to steal a victory, a long campaign of lies and coercions culminating in outright violence disrupting the legislative branch in one of its most solemn and essential moments. The power of nonviolence as participatory democracy, the power of violence as a disruption of that participatory democracy. In the long run, the former prevailed, but the damage wrought by the latter says everything about what this country has been and why it must change. As the crook-in-chief is ushered off stage in thirteen days, we can begin again to get to work on it.


    Author’s note, February, 2021: The analysis in the pieces I wrote in the immediate aftermath of 1/6 was drawn from early reporting and documentation suggesting that the Capitol police did not take the threat seriously beforehand and were unduly friendly toward the attackers as the coup attempt unfolded. Later reporting and footage demonstrates how they were denied requested assistance by Trump-aligned officials, notably by extraordinary restrictions placed on the National Guard by the Pentagon, and that many officers fought valiantly for hours in a brutal conflict, in which well over a hundred Capitol police were injured. The apparent friendliness in some cases may have been the response of overwhelmed defenders, though in others questions remain. The underlying problems of unequal treatment under the law and white-supremacist threats and violence being ignored and dismissed for decades remains.

    Rebecca Solnit
    Rebecca Solnit
    Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of twenty-five books on feminism, environmental and urban history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and catastrophe. She co-edited the 2023 anthology Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility. Her other books include Orwell’s Roses; Recollections of My Nonexistence; Hope in the Dark; Men Explain Things to Me; A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster; and A Field Guide to Getting Lost. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she writes regularly for the Guardian, serves on the board of the climate group Oil Change International, and in 2022 launched the climate project Not Too Late (nottoolateclimate.com).

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