Rhyme, Not Repetition

All that’s past isn’t necessarily present

Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Gage Skidmore/Flickr

When the Clock Broke: Con Men, Conspiracists, and How America Cracked Up in the Early 1990s by John Ganz; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 432 pp., $30

Five years ago, still struggling to explain Donald Trump’s political success, The New York Times alighted on the 1619 Project, by which one could view Trump’s election as merely one manifestation of the racism that, per the project, has always defined American life. Phrases such as white supremacy, systemic racism, and white privilege became conversational boilerplate, and to people of a certain cast of mind, it all suddenly seemed so obvious and simple.

John Ganz’s book is something of a 1990 Project: an attempt to locate the proximate origins of MAGA success in the combative and at times racially sordid right-wing fringe of the early 1990s. Foreshadowing abounds. Pat Buchanan demagogues the Mexican border and seems amused when a liberal protester gets roughed up at one of his rallies. David Duke tests the appeal of a bland-Klan platform. Samuel T. Francis, one of the far right’s deep thinkers, refers to mainstream conservatives as “losers.” Randy and Vicki Weaver, two heartland economic casualties susceptible to neo-Nazi blandishments, stand for well-armed, widespread, white Christian nationalism. Private sector impresario-turned-presidential candidate Ross Perot assures a recession-panicked and mostly white middle class that he alone can fix it. New York City Mayor David Dinkins’s appeal to racial transcendence only inflames the city’s white ethnic rabble, who are further roused by the cynical Rudy Giuliani (who succeeds the noble Dinkins in much the same way that Trump succeeded the dignified Barack Obama—i.e., rudely). A riot by off-duty NYPD officers brings to mind January 6. And so on.

As an analysis of right-wing culture-war pathologies in and of themselves, the book is often sharp and interesting. But the focus on racial resentment tells us far less about Trump’s rise than Ganz seems to realize. From the 2012 presidential election through the 2020 presidential election (a period encompassing two Trump candidacies and one Trump presidency), the Democratic margin of victory among the nonwhite working class decreased by 18 points, while its margin among college-educated whites increased by 16 points. The party dedicated to calling out white privilege in all its manifestations has increasingly become the party of privileged whites, while alienating the minorities it presumes to defend from right-wing racism. Recent polls suggest that this nonwhite rightward drift could be even more significant this election year, particularly among working-class Hispanics. (Not that Democrats are losing the nonwhite vote overall, of course. They merely risk losing enough of it to lose a general election.)

Some might remember when the Democratic Party was the party of organized labor and the working class, when—to touch on one hot-button issue—it was the party advocating for tighter border control. Complaining that Mexico was “exporting” its poverty and that “illegals” and “wetbacks” were being allowed into the country to take jobs, depress wages, and break strikes, United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez mobilized a UFW march on the border and was joined by civil-rights icon Ralph Abernathy and by Senator Walter Mondale, a titan of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and a future U.S. vice president. (Chavez received more general support from Coretta Scott King and Ethel Kennedy as well.) The UFW even set up a “wet line”—basically a southern border-cum-union picket line enforced by vigilante means, including physical violence. Was this all just xenophobia? Ugly nativism? Racism? (If so, it’s quite the rainbow coalition of racists.) Or was it something more complicated?

A person truly curious about the rise of populism and the rightward drift of the working class (not just the white working class) would do better to ponder, among other things, long-evolving labor and border policies and the legacy of NAFTA (which Bill Clinton signed over the objection of most members of his own party) than to devote a whole chapter and then some to the kooky and always inconsequential David Duke—however neatly Duke fits into today’s simple narrative of white racial resentment. It’s just possible things are more complicated even now.

The degree to which Duke and the Duke-adjacent haunt Ganz’s narrative brings to mind a scene from Joan Didion’s 1967 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” in which a group of revolutionary street-theater types in blackface and wielding toy nightsticks confront a young Black man, whom they try to goad (literally) out of his false consciousness, insulting the man’s intelligence and saying he should be angry at the cultural appropriation by the white trustafarians in their midst. (They’re all at an outdoor rock concert in San Francisco’s Panhandle.) But when Didion asks a teenage girl nearby what the political point of this taunting is, all the girl can answer, after turning the question over in her mind, is, “Maybe it’s some John Birch thing.” Such a person, Didion writes, is not so much engaged with society as “ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts.”

The most publicized self-doubt in the age of Trump—at least for many—is whether American society has ever really made a dime’s worth of racial progress. A corollary is the reflexive confidence with which those same many have put all unwanted developments down largely to ineradicable white racism, including the specter of a second Trump presidency and the much-bruited threat to democracy that such a presidency would entail. All the more astounding, therefore, is the irony that the greatest threat to democracy (as conceived by those who’ve wrapped themselves in the mantle of that abstraction this election season) might be nothing more—if trends hold—than the brown-skinned demos turning out and exercising their right to vote.

It has been 60 years since Freedom Summer, perhaps the last time the Democratic establishment (at least elements of it) had this much to fear from enfranchised nonwhites. That thought ought to be the despair of every white progressive. And yet, somewhere in Louisiana’s St. Tammany Parish, the former grand wizard himself might be cracking a wry smile and marveling at how things work out—though marveling for not quite the same reasons John Ganz spends so many pages imagining.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jon Zobenica lives in Carmel Valley, California. His writing has appeared in such publications as The Atlantic, Quillette, The New York Times Book Review, and the Scholar.


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