Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Notes on Gerardo Marti's American Blindspot: Race, Class, Religion, and the Trump Presidency

I recently read Gerardo Marti's American Blindspot: Race, Class, Religion, and the Trump Presidency (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), and would like to share some thoughts about that book with you. A key insight of Marti's book is that, in looking at Donald Trump, we Americans are looking in a mirror and seeing our own faces. It is not, as many in the media have wanted to imagine, a fluke that he seized the White House in 2016, riding significant backlash against the nation's first African-American president to do so. This outcome is consistent with ugly currents long present in American history — from the outset of the nation, in fact — that many Americans appear determined not to see.

The Trump phenomenon is a revelation to us about ourselves, not about Trump, who is the mirror in which we are seeing the faces of a shocking number of our fellow citizens — seeing what they have really believed and hoped for all along (p. 1)*:

As my friend Wendell Griffen writes in an essay posted today at the Baptist News Global site,

The harsh truth is that our present crisis is not merely due to Trump's pathological presidency and its wickedness. We are here because we refused to know the truth about this nation. We refused to tell the truth to one another about this country's unjust beginning and unjust conduct from that beginning. We rejected truth-telling prophets. Trump's presidency is the harvest we are reaping.

I read that compelling passage this morning just after I had read the following in Susan Neiman's powerful new book Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019):

While systematic racism infects processes and affects lives all over America, Southern awareness of history makes it impossible to ignore. Moreover, the influence of the South on American political culture is disproportionate to the size of the region. Focusing on the Deep South is not a matter of ignoring the rest of the country, but of holding a magnifying glass to it (p. 18).

Susan Neiman grew up in the American South during the Civil Rights era, as I did. Unlike me, she is Jewish, and she saw the struggles for African-American rights in Atlanta through the lens of her own marginalization as a Jew. Living and teaching in Germany for many years has convinced her that Americans could, if they chose, learn from the willingness of Germans to face their demonic history in the Holocaust period — and how that history is rooted in the deeper history of unacknowledged anti-semitic racism for many centuries.

As I read that passage from Susan Neiman side by side with  Wendell Griffen's essay, I could not avoid wondering if we Americans will ever be willing to face the history that has brought us the moral monstrosity now occupying the White House, in whom we see our own faces if we're willing to look. Like Neiman, Gerardo Marti, who teaches at Davidson College in North Carolina, has his finger on the pulse of the American South, and, in particular, on white evangelical culture. A significant insight of his book is how out of touch the mainstream media of the U.S. have been with the intersecting currents of racism, religion, and economics that yielded Donald Trump to us — currents long present in American culture, but which the media and other major American institutions have chosen to ignore.

Marti probes the spectacular failure of the mainstream media in 2016 (and even now) to understand the religion factor that drives support for Donald Trump. The mainstream media have never really wanted to get religion in the U.S., for two reasons:

1. They serve interest groups who do not want to know or admit how complicit they are in using religious hostilities and racial bigotries to secure their tax cuts.

2. Mainstream media reporting about religious issues has usually been, with conspicuous exceptions, ill-informed. But as the passage from Marti's book below (p. 209) demonstrates, sociologists have not had their eyes closed to the extent to which white evangelicalism is driving the Trump phenomenon, and may very well carry this person to the White House again in 2020 — with the active complicity of white Catholics and the more than half of white Christians across the board who elected him in 2016:

As Marti notes (p. 23),  due to the historical blindness of too many American citizens about the interface of racism, economics, and religion in the U.S., a large number of us remain oblivious to the reasons Trump won in 2016 — and as a result, the right-wing movement he represents continues to go unchecked:

Marti shows (p. 8) how the Obama presidency elicited a racist backlash among white Americans and especially white evangelicals, reviving deep racist currents that have existed in the US from its foundation, for which white Christianity has long been a choice vehicle:

As Marti points out (p. 153), the racial animus against President Obama that propelled Donald Trump to the White House with remarkable percentages of support from white Christians and white evangelicals in particular should have come as no surprise, if we had paid attention to who voted for Obama and who was appalled at his election:

The media missed much of this because they were determined to read the Tea Party rebellion against the Obama presidency as an economic rebellion, when, as Robert P. Jones has shown us with exhaustive documentation in his The End of White Christian America (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016), the Tea Party and white evangelicalism were joined at the hip: the Tea Party was heavily comprised of white evangelicals — a point Marti makes here and elsewhere (p. 64):

Far from being an economic rebellion, the Tea Party movement was driven by an exclusionary impulse shared by white evangelicals: this rebellion was all about Tea Partiers-cum-white evangelicals defining themselves, and especially heterosexual white males, as "real" Americans — and the rest of us as lesser and as outsiders. This is what Make America Great and "I want my country back" fundamentally mean  (p. 166):

As Marti stresses, 

According to historian Darren Dochuk, Tea Party observers have radically underestimated the white evangelical support that buttressed the movement. By 2011, white evangelicals had come to be "driven by a theology of small government, free enterprise, family values, and Christian patriotism, and backed by a phalanx of politically charged churches, corporations, and action committees." As Dochuk writes, this "late Tea Partyism has come into focus as principally a revitalized evangelical conservatism." 
Among white evangelicals, the Tea Party did not constitute extremist positions, but rather elevated the values they saw neglected yet sorely needed today. Similarly, David Campbell and Robert Putnam also find religion to be central to the Tea Party; alongside their Republicanism, they want to see religion play a prominent role role in politics" (pp. 168-9, citing Dochuk, "Tea-Party America and the Born-Again Politics of the Religious Right," New Labor Forum 21,1 [2012], pp. 15, 17; and Campbell and Putnam, "Crashing the Tea Party," NY Times, 16 Aug. 2011).

In the Obama presidency, the Tea Party rebellion and the rebellion of white evangelicals coalesced in shared outrage that an African-American man had been elected president, and demonstrated pronounced determination to reform America along exclusionary white Christian lines, with Donald Trump as the result (p. 171):

As Marti notes, Donald Trump appeals to white evangelicals because they read him (correctly so) as reflecting toxic strands that have long been part of American culture, for which white Christianity has also long been a carrier (p. 14):

Not only do Trump's attacks on immigrants not offend the Christian convictions of white evangelicals, but, in fact, they play to those convictions (p. 21):

When all is said and done, Trump's election reflects a powerful movement to maintain the status quo of privilege and familiar prejudices, and all of this has been made possible by sentiments embedded in the racial, economic, and religious history of the US (p. 22-3):

And all of this applies not merely to white men: white women have shown themselves perfectly willing to uphold a racist, patriarchal social order in voting for Donald Trump: white women bear strong responsibility for helping to place him in the White House: 

White women had a fundamental role in building this new, more combative Christian right. Their attitudes and political viewpoints came as a reaction to social change. It would seem that white evangelical women would’ve been deeply offended by Trump’s multiple marriages, documented and highly public infidelities, and, most famously, the Access Hollywood tape released in 2016 of a dialogue between television host Billy Bush and Donald Trump: 
Trump: You know I’m automatically attracted to be beautiful women—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. 
Bush: Whatever you want. 
Trump: Grab ‘em by the p**sy. You can do anything. 
Yet data show that a majority of white evangelical women voted for Trump. Moreover, the higher their church attendance, the more likely they were to vote for Trump….

Though it has seemed ironic to many observers, media ones in particular, that white evangelicals would idolize a man whose shortcomings when it comes to religiously inspired behavior are so evident, white evangelicals adulate Donald Trump because they are confident that he shares their values (p. 211):

In supporting Donald Trump, white evangelicals are neither obscuring nor ignoring their religious convictions (p. 213):

It is because they see Donald Trump as a defender of evangelical orthodoxy that white evangelicals have been eager to sacralize him and his presidency — a point Marti makes as he reflects about why a picture of Trump with Jesus Christ hovering over his shoulder went viral online early in the Trump presidency (p. 218):

If you imagine Marti is exaggerating here, see this tweet from two days ago:

What white evangelicals like above all about Trump is that he provides them with the wherewithal to function as a powerful minority intent on exercising control of the minority by coercive means (p. 220):

And see also this passage on that same theme (p. 226):

An important aspect of Marti's book is his recognition that the marriage between white American Christianity, in particular, white evangelicalism, and capitalism has a deep history in American culture, and is not some new aspect of the Trump era. On this point, see the following (p. 7):

And see also this passage (p. 115):

In the final analysis, the lavish support of white evangelicals and those in the top economic brackets of American society for Donald Trump is all about power (pp. 253-254):

* Clicking the text images will make them enlarge.

The photo of the cover of Gerardo Marti's book is from its Goodreads page.

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