It is important to get out of the digital architectures in which we live so much of our lives- the Gmail inbox, our recurrent webpages, the unreality of typed words on synthetic screens. There is a tremulous thrill in getting in a car, pulling out of the city whose rhythms one knows by heart, and heading out on an open road, prepared to be surprised by different cultural spaces.
In this spirit, I recently took a road trip to Pennsylvania. The state, it turned out, was an entirely appropriate one to visit in the context of the 2016 presidential election. It possesses two progressive urban centers, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, both of which contain elite universities, major art galleries, LGTB friendly neighborhoods, and Democratic political machines. The state also contains a vast swath of Republican red countryside. Driving through the small towns dotted around the Allegheny Mountains, one encounters barn churches, wood-creaked homes, and Christian crosses looming perilously over freeways.
But it was one particular symbol that has stayed with me. Driving about twenty minutes outside of Warren, PA, I saw a confederate flag hanging off the veranda of a white-colonial clapboard. The flag burned incandescent in the spring day: red, white, and blue vaulted around a chained cross. I tried to focus on the bucolic greenery around me, but the flag’s colors would not cease dancing in my head.
What, I wondered, would drive someone to place such an object on their veranda, announcing to every passerby that this was the symbol they wanted to wrap one’s home in? After the Charleston massacre, surely nobody could delude themselves into thinking that the flag wasn’t a symbol of racial hatred. Of course, it shouldn’t have taken a mass shooting to reinforce the historical ideas that have been associated with the flag: the militant protection of slavery as an economic and social system.
So what message, I wondered, did that person want to send by placing the flag on his home? Did they want to announce to the world that they believed in white supremacy? Or did they frame their cause in more benign terms- as a fight for state’s rights, a resistance to the tyranny of federalism, the desire to live free according to nothing but one’s own code?
It seemed odd that a scant hundred miles away there was one of the world’s leading educational institutions, the University of Pittsburgh, which no doubt contains numerous scholars of post-colonialism, race, and gender who would be appalled by the Confederate symbol.
And yet, over nearby mountains, there lay another world, one in which confederate flags are entirely appropriate as domestic furnishing. If such symbols were thought to be safely tucked away into the extreme wings of American politics- found only on rural doorsteps and nowhere else- we are now in a time when reaction is back in fashion. As Donald Trump storms his way to power, fueled by the xenophobic anger of a white lower-class left behind by globalization, we need to reflect on racism as the structuring unconscious of American politics, a psychic mode that permeates everything, even when (or especially when) it is publicly disavowed.
Republican elites long ago tolerated such racism in their party, a crucial part of the Southern Strategy by which leaders sought the support of rural voters by appealing to their historical grievances. What resulted was an exchange of a most warped kind: the rural middle-class supported neoliberal economic policies that were antithetical to their interests in return for party elites vigorously advocating their “cultural issues,” which revolved around their opposition to abortion, secularism, and the sexual revolution. Now the masses have taken over the nominating process, and they have no interest in a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-centric world.
Behind the sacred Republican tenets of states’ rights and local empowerment, hasn’t there always been a festering nostalgia for a day when races did not mix, when jobs for whites were plentiful and secure, when a melange of languages and colors did not fill our social worlds? Is this festering nativism not the very force that has pushed so many voters to support Donald Trump?
We can only hope, as polls show, that Clinton will beat Trump soundly, and that cultural pluralism will be affirmed once and for all as the grounding concept of American life. Yet in the months to come we will be subject to a daily barrage of sexism, race baiting, and xenophobia. As we endure this tumult, which is as much an effect as it is a cause of the daily media churn, let us never accept Trump as a normal development in the political course of things. We cannot normalize racism, which is what anyone who supports Trump will be doing. The Nevertrump movement goes beyond mere policy debates. To say Nevertrump is to refuse to normalize what Trump represents- his racism, sexism, xenophobia, and authoritarian sympathies. These bar him from respectability. Now and always.
Unfortunately, what we will see in upcoming months are Republican elites walking back their previous denunciations of Trump, rationalizing this with references to the “disaster” that a Clinton administration will bring to the country. As all politicians do, they will seek to get as close as possible to the center of power, which means to get as close as possible to Trump, who is a little Napoleon of his own making.
This is a defining moment in American history. Sides must be chosen. You are either for a 21st century of diversity, pluralism, and mutual care, or for a long 19th century of protectionism, racial segregation, and tribal animosity. There can be no middle ground. All Republicans who cooperate with Trump will be remembered as moral delinquents in a time of cultural crisis. At the very moment racism needs to be openly rejected, they will make peace with it, reinforcing rather then combating the primal trauma of their nation.
As for the family who decided to put the confederate flag on their doorstep, one can only wonder: why have the ideals of racial pluralism, economic equality, and mutual care not penetrated into the rural townships of Pennsylvania? Why has the toxic mix of Christianity, spatial isolation, and economic stagnation resulted in a culture that would embrace racist symbols?
America could be a beacon of cultural pluralism for the world: Forte Greene and San Mateo, Echo Park and Flushing, creolized spaces of invention and acceptance writ large for all the world to see. This America could be particularly important for intellectuals in political spaces such as Russia and China, who struggle daily against political authoritarianism as a limit on both thought and action.
Instead, vast swaths of America still grounds itself in a white Christianity whose foundations go back to the time when it was legal to own human beings as property. Why, America, has your Enlightenment project been only ever so partial, ever so regional, ever so fragile? For in no Enlightened country can their ever be confederate flags on people’s doorsteps, or Donald Trump in political office.
Now is the time to re-affirm, vigorously and defiantly: Never Trump.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.
Photo of Confederate Flag Courtesy: (Kristopher Radder / Reformer Staff)