Today, George W. Bush made the case against the rise of Trumpism. I don’t doubt the fact that Bush is a genuine patriot deeply concerned about the state of our republic. While I could go into a “lying sack of shit” rant about the Iraq War, I’ll let that one go and focus on the rest of his conservative critique, especially one paragraph from the speech that is getting a great deal of attention.
“Our identity as a nation, unlike other nations, is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. This means that people from every race, religion, ethnicity can be full and equally American. It means that bigotry and white supremacy, in any form, is blasphemy against the American creed.”
These are sentiments that I share. I further believe that tribalism is deep in our genetic code as a survival mechanism. As our oldest ancestors roamed the African savannah, affinity with a group meant food, protection and procreation. America is an experiment in seeking to overcome our most base instincts and unify diverse peoples under an aspirational creed. The founders knew this and above all feared what they called faction. American institutions are designed to suppress faction by creating interdependent layers of power.
However, Bush, from the isolation of his home in Texas, has missed an emerging threat to the creed. It is right there in his choice of language. His understanding of the term “white supremacy” is dated. In the current swirl of the leftist academy, and raging on the Internet, is a virulent attempt to redefine “white supremacy” as an inherent evil based on the pigment of one’s skin. With no irony, many younger Americans see white supremacy as the inherent source of bigotry and the American creed as the institutionalization of oppression.
First, let’s be clear, any attempt on anyone’s part, especially a white man, to critique this semantic shift will be instantly discounted and declared as racism by advocates. The word racist, once reserved for the vilest creatures, is now tossed off with an amazing ease. At first, as a tactic, the use of the word to shock and instantly put an unassuming target on the defensive was effective. In my public service, I was told I was a racist both publicly and privately. In was meant to intimidate. It worked…briefly.
But a funny thing happens when a powerful word is used commonly. It loses its power. I have seen it applied in so many different ways directed at so many different people that now I am almost completely inured to its use. Remember the first time you heard the word fuck uttered in public? It caught you off guard. Now? I bet you barely notice. In fact, it seems weird when people don’t use the word.
For many Americans, those of us with accidental white skin pigment are now all white supremacists. That feels strange, doesn’t it? Until recently, everyone could agree that white supremacists are NAZIs or hooded Klu Klux Klan members. Nope, sorry George, I know whom you were trying to condemn but you are now one of them. I know you meant people like the “white nationalist” ass-wipe who is speaking on a Florida campus today. I know you mean Donald Trump and his henchmen.
So what happens when we can’t collectively agree on the terms used to identify the bad guys? We may have seen one of the possible outcomes. When you throw too wide a net, the fish rebel. How many swing voters identified with some of what Trump was selling but couldn’t get there until their neighbors, fellow church goers and friends were called “deplorables?” While “white supremacy” and “whiteness” are now a critique that has not yet peaked, the inflammatory ultimately becomes mundane. Anyone seen Marilyn Manson lately?
America has always been about the aspiration to very high ideas and the painfully slow striving to reach our goals. I hope we don’t give up.
George W. Bush gave an important speech. He is afraid. Me too. Division and tribalism when treated with religious fervor are genuine threats to our experiment. But I expect those who need to hear this message most will find comfortable excuses to ignore everything he said. Still….
“Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children, the only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”
He ain’t wrong.