Saturday, September 8, 2018

On Trump and "dumb southerners"

A recent New York Times story reveals that Trump once used the term "dumb southerners" to refer to the Georgia-based relatives of his then-wife, Marla Maples.  Here's an excerpt from the story by Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman, "'I Don't Talk that Way,' Trump Says.  Except When He Does," quoting Jeane MacIntosh, former deputy editor of the New York Post gossip column, "Page 6": 
Ms. MacIntosh had called Mr. Trump one day in May 1997 to ask him about a tip she had received that his second wife, Marla Maples, had purchased two gold Lexus cars and that he had made her return them. 
“He said, ‘I have something better for you,’” Ms. MacIntosh recalled in an interview on Wednesday. If she dropped that story, he said, he would give her bigger news — that he planned to divorce Ms. Maples. When Ms. MacIntosh pressed him on why, he “essentially blamed her family,” she said, referring to Ms. Maples’s Georgia-based relatives. 
“Are you old enough to remember the show ‘The Beverly Hillbillies?’” he asked Ms. MacIntosh. 
She replied yes, and Mr. Trump laughed and said, “That’s exactly her family, except they came to New York City instead of Beverly Hills.” Ms. MacIntosh added, “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said she was constantly surrounded ‘by an entourage of dumb Southerners.’” He even adopted a fake southern accent to mimic Ms. Maples’s mother, Ms. MacIntosh said.
Northerners ridiculing Southerners is, of course, old news.  I've written about it most recently here.  But coming from President Trump, these words and attitudes become political news because he has relied so heavily on southern white voters to put him in power. 

The incident reminds me of a time early in my teaching career when a student who had grown up in greater New York City approached me about five weeks into the semester and said something like this, "You know, Professor Pruitt, we didn't think you were very smart at the beginning of the semester, because of your accent and such.  But you really have quite a vocabulary, and we've changed our assessment of you."  Gee, thanks!  At least that student had remained open to changing her assessment over the course of those early weeks.   

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The white supremacist narrative of the North American Free Trade Agreement

Last week, President Trump announced a preliminary bilateral trade agreement with Mexico, making good on one of his campaign promises to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The general consensus seems to be that most of NAFTA will remain in place with some modernizing changes, including new trade rules on auto manufacturing, intellectual property, and labor rights. While the overall wisdoms of the agreement are far beyond my grasp of economic policy, it is interesting to consider why NAFTA has proved to be such a galvanizing issue for Trump’s base. One possible explanation is the white supremacist narrative that frames NAFTA as a concession to foreigners and an active harm towards the white working class.

A persuasive view to many Americans is that more free trade means more globalization, which in turn means less jobs for U.S. workers and more jobs for foreign workers. Adherence to this narrative was particularly strong in the Trump coalition. Among those who agreed that the effect of international trade was to take away U.S. jobs in CNN’s exit polling data, 64% were Trump voters, compared to only 32% of Clinton voters.

However, protectionism alone is race-neutral and enjoys broad support among progressive union-backers and conservative nationalists alike. My theory is that the link between NAFTA and white supremacy* is completed when support for renegotiation of NAFTA becomes an expression of white discomfort with non-white and specifically Mexican immigration and participation in labor markets, a link that is actively supported by President Trump.

One data point that supports this theory is that those who have an unfavorable view of Mexico are much more likely to oppose NAFTA. Only 50% of those who oppose NAFTA have a favorable view of Mexico as opposed to 81% among those who support NAFTA. This data is even more persuasive when one considers that that nine out of ten Americans have a favorable view of Canada, a significantly whiter country, regardless of their support for NAFTA.  

Support for NAFTA also breaks down along racial lines, with 66% of Hispanics and 59% of African-Americans agreeing that NAFTA is good for the U.S., while only 46% of non-Hispanic whites agree. Though a more directed survey and further disaggregation to specifically target the white working class would be helpful, this data indicates that opposition to NAFTA is highly correlated to negative views on Mexico.

Trump also actively panders to white supremacy in his characterizations of NAFTA, by specifically directing criticism towards Mexico and imagining NAFTA as a national humiliation of white America. For example:

In these tweets, Trump intentionally draws a link between NAFTA and unauthorized immigration, even though the connection is tenuous at best. Trump frequently describes NAFTA as being the carrot for the stick of his anti-immigrant policies, such as the border wall. It is also clear that Trump’s opposition to NAFTA is really about Mexico and not white-dominated Canada. Of all of his tweets about NAFTA that singled out a specific country, Trump directed six of them at Mexico, while only one was directed at Canada.

To Trump, NAFTA is a source of national humiliation, and he uses dramatic terms like “disaster”, “devastation”, or “pathetic” to describe the agreement. Although not specifically directed towards NAFTA, Trump also described another trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as a “continuing rape of our country” (emphasis added). Describing free trade agreements with non-white countries as “rape” draws a rhetorical closeness between his dog-whistles on free trade policies with his more patently white supremacist remarks that Mexicans were rapists.

Humiliation and violation of the white race by non-whites and foreigners is a typical narrative pushed by white supremacists in the past. Trump wants his supporters to believe that his political opponents past support of NAFTA was a contribution to the humiliation of America’s white working class and an abdication to Mexico’s dual threats of competition in the labor market and increasing influence in traditionally white-dominated American society. The message is simple: support for NAFTA is a betrayal of the white working class to foreigners, and opposition is a reaffirmation of America as a white country.

To the long suffering white working class, this rhetoric could be appealing because it allows them to place blame squarely upon Mexicans, when the reality of their predicament may very well be that they “died the death of a thousand cuts” due to globalization, weakening of unions, deregulation, deindustrialization, technological development, and many other factors. All this makes one question whether Trump’s statement that there was "no political necessity to keep Canada in the new NAFTA deal" is actually a comment on the negotiations. It may just be that Trump is telling the world that he considers his duty to the white supremacists among his supporters as fully met after he has vanquished his non-white foes in negotiations.

None of this is to say that there are not valid complaints about NAFTA from the white working class that lack any twinge of white supremacy. For example, for the white working class in the auto industry, the update is arguably a welcome change to the shifts in manufacturing that occurred under the original NAFTA, and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) labor union described the negotiations as “on track”.

However, what we should be concerned with is whether white working-class opposition to NAFTA is for principled reasons that have to do with job-growth and a strong economy, or if opposition is influenced by white supremacy and animus towards Mexicans. We all have a special interest in ensuring that our economic policy is guided by sound consideration of  strategy and not white supremacy. A good starting point would be better data that examines this question more significantly as it pertains to the white working class and also more broader recognition of how Trump’s rhetoric is based on white supremacist attitudes.


I use the word "white supremacy" because efforts to preserve white supremacy are the reason that the American racial hierarchy persists.