Kayfabe U.S.A.

White Americans have long been on the receiving end of social and cultural cudgels, bludgeoned by a world that has declared them the seed bearers of original sin from which all manner of evil fruits grow. But their grievances are all too often stoked by a Republican Party that is happy to play to whites’ anger without offering real and lasting solutions. 

Donald Trump is one of the most prominent and recent examples of a politician who channeled white grievance on his road to elected office without addressing the problem once he got there. His rise was interpreted as a form of political backlash to the Barack Obama years, which tossed gasoline on the flames of racial tension. Trump’s hard rhetoric on immigration and his support for the preservation of historical monuments and markers in the face of left-wing iconoclasm were perceived as examples of his signaling to politically and culturally beleaguered white Americans that he was their ally. “Not in generations has a sitting president so overtly declared himself the candidate of white America,” wrote Peter Baker for The New York Times in September 2020.

However, though Trump sent signals that titillated certain corners of the right and sent chills down the spines of the left, he was, in the end, no less a hustler than Al Sharpton. Trump spoke to the grievances of white Americans. He gestured to them on the hustings, but not much more than that. In a way, he followed an example set by Ronald Reagan.

The Gipper’s domestic mandate was to reverse the utopian excesses of the day, which included nascent concerns about antiwhite racism. “More than any other modern U.S. president, it was Ronald Reagan who cultivated the concept of so-called reverse discrimination,” academics Justin Gomer and Christopher Petrella wrote in a 2017 Washington Post article. “How the Reagan administration stoked fears of anti-white racism.” Reverse discrimination, they wrote,

emerged in the 1970s as a backlash against affirmative action in public schooling as court-ordered busing grew throughout the country. During these years, a growing number of white Americans came to believe civil rights programs and policies had outstretched their original intent and had turned whites into the victims of racial discrimination.

Of course, those beliefs were valid. Race was the revolutionary engine of the era from which civil rights emerged. Every societal upheaval needs villains, and whites were deemed to fill the role, whether they fully understood it at the time or not. 

Efforts to ameliorate racial conflict culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which empowered the federal government in ways not imagined until then. Overnight, a new bureaucracy emerged with the power to enforce what essentially became a second constitution focused on anti-discrimination, at odds with the one ratified in 1788.

It also gave rise to the bulldozer of political correctness, which found one of its earliest targets in WLBT, a television station based in Jackson, Mississippi. WLBT largely ignored the civil rights movement in its programming. It became the subject of a courtroom battle after United Church of Christ activists complained to the Federal Communications Commission about the station’s purported bias. The activists ultimately prevailed, resulting in the FCC revoking WLBT’s license and granting control of the station to a majority black-owned group. This case, wrote author Kay Mills, “put broadcasters in the South, and indeed around the nation, on notice that they needed to hire more minorities and provide fairer coverage of the entire community, not just the white community.”

Reagan vowed to stop affirmative action, defund LBJ’s Great Society welfare programs, and trim the size of the federal government with the stroke of a pen. But when he discovered that “to do any of those things would have struck at the very foundations of desegregation,” he balked, as Christopher Caldwell wrote in The Age of Entitlement. It worked out anyway for Republicans and Democrats, who “managed to agitate and inspire their voting and fundraising bases for decades by pretending he had,” Caldwell added. 

Reaganomics was a kind of détente that added to the perception of a Republican triumph. Affirmative action could be “made palatable to white voters only if they could be offered compensating advantages,” Caldwell wrote. “A government that was going to make an overwhelming majority of voters pay the cost of affirmative action had to keep unemployment low, home values rising, and living standards high.” 

But beneath the surface, the left’s power structures were fundamentally unharmed by Reaganism. Reagan’s signing of a federal Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday into law in 1983, in retrospect, was symbolic of the victory of the second constitutional order over the first. For many white Americans, wrote Caldwell, it “marked not the end but the beginning of shame, of an official culture that cast their country’s history as one of oppression, and its ideals of liberty as hypocrisies.”

All this is to say nothing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, Reagan’s answer to the migrant crisis of his day. 

In November 1980, a Gallup poll found that 91 percent of the public wanted the government to “make an all-out effort to stop” illegal immigration. A memo dated May 1981 from David Hiller, a special assistant to Reagan’s attorney general,
 stated that restrictionist “sentiment among the public has deepened as a result of the recent arrival of 165,000 Cubans and Haitians into south Florida.” Reagan’s solution was a piece of legislation that offered immigration enforcement in exchange for a limited amnesty. It failed so spectacularly that a then-saner New York Times denounced it for enabling “one of the most extensive immigration frauds ever perpetrated” against the United States. Roughly 3 million illegal immigrants obtained amnesty, many through falsified applications. 

Trump has mirrored Reagan in many respects, but he has signaled more directly to white grievances than any other president in our time. That’s not to say the issues Trump tapped into to propel him to the White House are exclusively “white issues,” but they are key concerns for white people, particularly those without college degrees. An analysis by Washington Post reporter Jeff Guo found that Trump performed the best in 2016 in counties where white people were dying the fastest, mainly due to deaths of despair from alcohol, drugs, and suicide—the human cost of white working-class displacement by mass immigration and globalization. 

Trump campaigned as a tribune of the white working class. But in practice, he governed, more or less, as a conventional Republican whose policies worked against the people he claimed to champion, and even undermined the social safety net upon which they relied.

“I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican, and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid,” Trump told the Daily Signal in 2015. A CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll in 2016 found two-thirds of white working-class Americans think the federal government doesn’t do enough to help people like them. Trump’s breaking the party line, then, was a relief. But by 2020, he was moving to cut social safety net programs. He pulled the same trick again during the recent primary, attacking his rivals for threatening to undermine these programs before turning around and floating cuts after the GOP race was over.

As president, Trump repeatedly vowed but failed to execute mass deportations of illegal immigrants, a signature promise on his keystone issue. On June 17, 2019, for instance, he tweeted that within one week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement would begin “removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States.” It never happened. Instead, interior enforcement—removals of illegal immigrants from inside the country—collapsed to the lowest levels since George W. Bush. “In 2020, the removal of illegal immigrants from the interior of the United States was the lowest as an absolute number and as a share of the illegal immigration population since ICE was created in 2003,” an analysis by the Cato Institute concluded.

In an interview last year with The Blaze, Ken Cuccinelli, who served as Trump’s Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, revealed that his former boss “was not enthusiastic or aggressive about deporting people and the numbers speak for themselves.” Cuccinelli noted that “deportations went at a faster pace in the Obama administration than they did in the Trump administration,” and added that Trump regularly “called off ICE operations” because he was “extremely sensitive” about being perceived as mean. 

Presumably, that’s also why nothing came of Trump’s 2016 promise to fully implement the E-Verify program that requires employers to check the immigration status of their employees, which he said during his campaign he would enforce to “the fullest extent possible.” E-Verify vanished from his agenda after he was elected. Immigration hawks took note. “President Trump’s new budget retreats on his campaign promise to require all U.S. businesses to use E-Verify to check their new hires, signaling the White House’s surrender on one of the best tools to shut down the jobs magnet that spurs illegal immigration,” The Washington Times reported in February 2020.

Rather than delivering mass deportations, Trump’s administration spent its final days preparing the ground for an amnesty that essentially would have been a repeat of Reagan’s 1986 folly. The second night of the Republican National Convention even featured a naturalization ceremony presided over by Trump, as if to hint that  a dovish shift on immigration was just around the corner. 

The list of Trump’s about-faces is even longer than I’ve outlined here, which, I admit, is typical for virtually every other American politician. But where does all this leave white Americans? They are mostly between a rock and a hard place, between leftists who exploit resentment against them, and conservatives who exploit their concerns but do nothing to address them. The behavior of the latter mirrors, to some degree, what the Democratic Party has done with its nonwhite constituents. But Democrats at least have a better record of rewarding and defending their allies.

Or perhaps a better model for understanding our moment is “kayfabe.” It’s a term used in professional wrestling for the portrayal of staged events as “real,” sort of like the Japanese concept of kabuki. Like Japanese theater, kayfabe utilizes an ever-intensifying set of competitions, rivalries, and dramatic gimmicks to deceive and enthrall the masses, to make them forget the people on stage aren’t really enemies, but just putting on a show for the crowd. ◆

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.