Obama-ism Beats Trump-ism

But Trump-ism beats identity politics.

November 16, 2018

When a dangerous leader deploys the politics of division and demonizes groups of people you care about, it is so hard to resist choosing one side and responding in kind. But that’s exactly what’s required of social change agents in our particular era in history. 

I believe Donald Trump’s racism provides diversity progressives with a remarkable opportunity: to show what a better community looks like, and invite a larger group of people in.

The Trump approach is an “Us vs Them” battle of identities. Once those terms are accepted, diversity progressives lose. As Steve Bannon told The American Prospect, “The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em.”  

That’s why I think the identity politics oriented screeds that filled my Twitter feed after the midterm elections are so wrong-headed. I’m referring to tweets like this one: “It is imperative that white women talk to each other about white supremacy … Because y’all keep doing this shit. Spend the years leading up to 2020 figuring out how you will talk to each other cuz that’s the only way this will change.”

College educated white women voted 2-1 for Democratic House candidates over Republicans. That’s the largest margin in history. Is more talk of white supremacy really the best strategy for changing the minds of those who voted Republican? 

The great insight of James Baldwin is that racism is poison for white people, therefore it is healthy for them to be free from it.

The great insight of Dorothy Day is that you could build places where it is easier for people to be good.

The great insight of Martin Luther King Jr is that you could reformulate the American story as a liberation narrative for the people that the Founders enslaved.

The great achievement of Barack Obama is that you could win presidential elections with that story. 

What do the above have in common? An inspiring approach to building a diverse community, advanced by a remarkable leader.

We live in an era in which the economic winds are blowing against such an approach. The transition from an industrial economy to a knowledge society has hit large groups of Americans (rural, working class) especially hard, making them more susceptible to divisive “Us vs Them” identity politics. Thomas Edsall quotes the political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler from their new book Prius or Pickup.


“Members of Trump’s base are much more like the average American than are his staunchest opponents. A lot of Americans are susceptible to the kinds of rhetoric that won Trump the presidency: especially his appeals to people’s innate xenophobia and fears of threats both internal and external. The liberals, people of color, and traditional conservatives who are outraged by Trump’s comportment – these are the real outliers.”

Given this reality, how should diversity progressives engage the nation?

By rejecting the Trumpian terms of “Us vs Them” and instead advancing the strategy that the great Pauli Murray recommended, best formulated in this poem by Edward Markham:

          “He drew a circle that shut me out –

          Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

          But love and I had the wit to win:

          We drew a circle that drew him In!”  


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