Foucault famously proposed that biopolitics - the power to foster life, or allow it to die - tended to produce its own outside in the form of state racism: not only might life be allowed to die, but there might be those who must die, literally or metaphorically, so an inside “we” could live. That is, it is primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die” (Society must be Defended, 254). Note the subtle elision: there is life that is allowed to die, and then there is also life that must die. Thus, “if you want to live, they must die” (255) becomes the message. In other words, biopolitics produces two forms, almost simultaneously. Foucault is thinking of 1930s fascism, where (for example), the German emphasis on the health of the ethnically-German population was coupled with the extermination of European Jews.
But there’s an analogue, however imprecise, in the Presidential election last week. In it, we saw two versions of biopolitics. On the one hand, Clinton ran on a campaign of building a better life together, with a particular emphasis on fostering the lives of children and families. The Affordable Care Act would be improved. Paid leave for working parents. And so on. Even her negative ads against Trump emphasized the positive biopolitics: our children are watching. What kind of President do you want them to see? On the Trump side, we saw nothing but Herrenvolk biopolitics: Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans and women were taking over, making America not great. This had to stop. Law and Order. Our country is at its nadir, thanks to an ineffective, losing President who was probably born in deepest, darkest Kenya anyway. He also somehow founded ISIS, which by the way is winning. China is winning. Everyone but America is winning. But if we keep the Mexican rapists out, and all the Muslims, maybe something good can happen. We will be strong. We will win again. In Messianic tones that Masha Gessen reminds us (this piece is a must read) we should take very seriously, he proclaimed that “I alone” can save you. That almost none of that narrative was true became irrelevant, in the same haunted house in which Clinton’s email server somehow became a darker mark against her character than his many business failings, tax evasions, failures to pay subcontractors, etc.
Two version of biopolitics. In Foucauldian terms, Trump was advocating the return of state racism. At one level, this is an obvious point, given his endless racist rhetoric about Mexicans and Muslims in particular. But liberal commentators, including myself, have tried very hard to explain the Trump victory in other ways. I have decided it can’t be done. The Trump election is fundamentally about the maintenance of White Supremacy, something that women and people of color said a week ago.
Soft Racism trumps the Economy
There is a very tempting narrative, according to which Trump won because he spoke to downwardly mobile middle Americans. There is a lot of truth here: neoliberalism, with dismantling of the middle class, financialization of the economy, and transfer of social risk onto individuals, has been a catastrophe for anyone without a college degree, and increasingly for those with one. Somehow the doctrine survived the disastrous recession it caused in 2008, and the Clintons have generally represented neoliberal economic policy. Trump pointed directly to neoliberal trade deals like NAFTA as causal of people's misery, and if that’s not the entire story, it isn’t wrong either, even as the global trade order has profited him tremendously. And certainly those human stories of manufacturing jobs going overseas or to Mexico, as in the case of the Carrier plant in Indiana that Trump made a centerpiece of his campaign, need to be heard. And the gutting of the so-called “heartland” first by crystal meth (ironically, even the production of that has gone to Mexico: laws making it hard to get pseudoephedrine in the Midwest did cause fewer Americans to die in home-brew fires, but it shifted production to Mexican cartels) and now by opioids, is an urgent problem. That life expectancy in that demographic is declining is a tragedy. All of these are vitally important, and Clinton really didn’t say much about them.
This economic narrative might be necessary to explain the Trump vote, but it is not sufficient. Let’s begin with the fact that the median Trump voter makes more money than the median Hillary voter. Also, poor and precarious non-whites did not generally vote for Trump. On the other hand, well-to-do, college educated women in the Philadelphia suburbs, however, did vote for Trump, even though I’m sure they covered their daughters’ ears every time he opened his mouth. Voters in the heartland whose towns are thriving voted for Trump. David Mascriota makes the point about his part of Indiana:
It has little or nothing to do with economics. Studies demonstrated, in the Republican primary, that Trump supporters were actually wealthier than the constituencies for the Democratic candidates. Five Thirty Eight reported that the median household income among Trump supporters is $72,000 – not exactly the Joads. If “working-class angst” explains the rise of Donald Trump, why is that working-class black and Latino voters overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton? If the “white working class” feels “forgotten and left behind,” why do they hate President Obama, who extended health care to 20 million Americans, doubled funding for Pell grants, advocated for free community college, fought to raise the minimum wage, and signed the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau into law, helping to protect low-income home buyers from scam mortgages?
He then notes that Griffith, Indiana went from disaster to prosperity under Obama: “Griffith, like Elkhart, Indiana, went from borderline bankruptcy to commercial triumph during the eight years of the Obama administration. In a lengthy profile of Elkhart, the New York Times revealed that when Obama took office in 2009, the unemployment rate was nearly 20 percent. Now it is at 3 percent, but the town solidly supported Trump, even resorting to taunting the Latino members of a visiting high school basketball team with chants of “Build the Wall.”.” And yet the town, including thriving small business-people, voted for Trump. Mascriota continues, explaining the “soft racism” at play:
The soft racist gets along with his black and Latino coworkers, waves to the Arab neighbors, and gives a friendly greeting to the parents of color at his child’s school, but all the while he feels that America is his country. The virtue of his whiteness gives him ownership. Should a black president, or a Black Lives Matter protest, or a Latino presence in his neighborhood threaten his sense of entitlement, superiority and authority, he feels resentful, even hateful. Outwardly, the white soft racist treats people of color as if they are equal, but she actually believes that they are inferior — less worthy of liberty, opportunity and protection under the law.
Most black and Latino Americans suspect as much, and they don’t need a white millennial to tell them the news, but I would say that what I have heard from white neighbors, family members and coworkers confirms your worst suspicions. Now they have exposed their racism, no matter how soft, to the entire world, because a vote for Trump expresses, at a minimum, tolerance for bigotry, xenophobia and misogyny. The best defense available to a Trump voter, among a wide range of pathetic options, is to claim that he or she voted for Trump despite his disrespect of Hispanics, Muslims, the disabled, African-Americans and women. Tolerance translates to the cold message: “Because your suffering and exclusion do not affect me, I’m going to vote for the guy who will cut my taxes, nominate anti-abortion Supreme Court justices, and isn’t a woman who used a private email server.”
Tolerance, of course, as Wendy Brown demonstrated, is a dangerous discourse because it enacts the very hierarchical relation that it disavows: for me to say that “I tolerate you” is to say that “I am willing to put up with you, despite your being damaging to me.” Tolerance is a word applied to disease, or the ability of automobile parts to withstand excessive heat. It is a word that implies the ability of a superior organism to withstand attack from a lesser. Trump showed the ugly underside of tolerance: it’s much better not to have to tolerate something.
Further, a growing set of empirical data supports the conclusion that white anxieties about people of color taking their jobs and other unearned privileges was a very strong predictor of a Trump vote (again, economic precarity was a never as good a predictor). As Jamelle Bouie put it, “with his tirades against nonwhites and foreign others, [Trump] reopened the argument. In effect, he gave white voters a choice: They could continue down the path of multiracial democracy—which coincided with the end of an order in which white workers were the first priority of national leaders—or they could reject it in favor of someone who offered that presumptive treatment.” They chose the latter. Media narratives have pointed the blame at lower than expected minority turnout, but as Samantha Bee truculently noted, the clear problem was that white voters voted for Trump (“how many times do we expect black people to build our country for us?” she asked bitterly). Undoubtedly sexism and misogyny played a significant part in the results, too. But that’s always been part of the equation as well.
Does Trump endorse all of this? Well, he said it, though he said a lot of things and I suspect he said things he figured would get him elected without thought to too much else. But his racist comments date back to the 1980s, and included his repeated invocations of the racist birther narrative about Obama. He certainly seems to think women are objects. His supporters on the far right have interpreted his victory as the chance to bring violence down upon the heads of non-whites. As of this writing Trump hasn’t denounced this violence or urged his followers to try to behave like adult members of civil society; instead, he’s installed Steve Bannon (of Breitbart, the alt-right news site) into an important position in his transition team, and sent Kellyanne Conway to inform the world that the real problem is that Obama and Clinton really need to get the anti-Trump protestors to calm down. Collectively, this seems like as clear a signal that abusing minorities is ok in his book as he could send, without outright saying it in so many words. Trump’s entire campaign has been a dog whistle to alt-right racists; when they then show up and harass, assault and murder people of color, the soft racists pat themselves on the back and say: “see, we’re not racist! Look what horrible things the racists are doing!”
Racism is also a structural factor of the American state system, and always has been. It got baked in long before biopower became ascendant (which is a topic for a different post, how biopower and juridical power work together to enforce a racist status quo. Another discussion that needs to be had is about how Trump will administer racism by disempowering parts of the administrative state, and will use the judicial apparatus to allow every effort to impede reproductive rights for women to succeed. But not to encourage women to have more babies for the health of the polis, the plausible biopolitical answer, but to punish them for having sex. For evidence on this, see anything about VP-Elect Pence’s record in Indiana). What do I mean by structural racism? I mean that the constitutional order as we have it was founded on white supremacy. It doesn't matter how many times Trump said the election was rigged against him. The actual rigging goes the other way, and not just in voter suppression efforts. Let’s just indicate the most immediately-relevant structural features: the electoral college. It is too easy to say that the founders were actually afraid of democracy. The only explanation that holds water, as Akhil Reed Amar (who knows more about constitutional history than most of the rest of us put together) is that it was designed to protect slave owning states:
“So what's the real answer? In my view, it's slavery. In a direct election system, the South would have lost every time because a huge percentage of its population was slaves, and slaves couldn't vote. But an Electoral College allows states to count slaves, albeit at a discount (the three-fifths clause), and that's what gave the South the inside track in presidential elections. “And thus it's no surprise that eight of the first nine presidential races were won by a Virginian. (Virginia was the most populous state at the time, and had a massive slave population that boosted its electoral vote count.)””
Indeed, even a brief look at the Constitution suggests that the bargain struck was to over-represent rural, slave-owning states and under-represent urban states which did not depend on slavery. The most obvious example is that slaves counted as 3/5 of a person for calculating representation in congress (and thus in the electoral college), in spite of being treated as chattel property the entire rest of the time. This Faustian bargain was struck to get the Southern states to sign on in the first place, something they weren’t going to do without tilting the entire system in their favor. If there’s a better example of structural racism, I can’t think of it.
In that sense the electoral college has functioned exactly as intended: urban elites and those in cosmopolitan areas and non-whites voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, who secured a majority of the total votes cast. But the electoral college is decisively for Trump. This is twice in twenty years that the electoral college has overruled the majority of those who cast votes. This sort of thing is what Mark Graber, in a book that everyone should be compelled to read, calls “constitutional evil.” Graber makes that point that while we find the Dred Scott decision abhorrent, that as a matter of law and constitutional interpretation when it was decided, it was good law. The problem lay elsewhere, and was deeper: the Constitution itself was the problem, not its interpreters.
Intertwining Racism and the Economy
The Fourteenth Amendment changed a lot of that, in theory, but the backlash after the Civil War ended up establishing Jim Crow. After the Civil Rights movement, we have a New Jim Crow (in Michelle Alexander’s phrasing) premised on the mass incarceration (and resulting permanent disenfranchisement) of non-white citizens; as both Alexander and Dell McWhorter argue, the entire strategy for keeping poor whites loyal to the existing order was to say “at least you’re not black.” The election of a black president radically challenged that order, and that he was to be followed by a woman who promised to continue many of his policies - well, that was too much. And so everything comes together: a system that has deliberately stacked the deck against people of color, a social order premised on using racial resentments to keep poor whites in line, and the soft racism of feeling one’s ownership of the country challenged lined up to hand the presidency to a demagogue who has himself made a lot of promises that he can't keep.