Today The New York Times ran a story emblazoned with a headline that proclaimed Steve Bannon, the President-elect’s right hand man, a “populist.” A sub-heading near the end of the article adds detail to this portrait, describing him as one who feels “anger at the elite,” a group to which he supposedly does not belong.
The word “populist” comes from the Latin word for “people.” (I don’t actually know Latin, but this is what google tells me). If you call a white supremacist like Steve Bannon a “populist,” then you are saying that you think only white people are “people.” Racists such as Bannon are the opposite of populists.
This confusion has deep roots. For example, historians and ordinary Americans alike remember Andrew Jackson’s 1824 election as the birth of populism and a triumph for the anti-establishment. But this view makes sense only if one perceives the Seminole Indians he helped to conquer, the Cherokee Indians he sent on a trail of tears, and the hundreds of black women, children, and men he owned as slaves as something other than “people.”
Of course we call Jackson “anti-establishment” as a result of what he did for “working class” white men. But in describing Jackson this way, we implicitly deem the power and privileges white male landowners exercised over their landless counterparts as more fundamental to US identity than white supremacy.
But even if we limit equality to the single civil right of voting–the one for which Jackson is most fondly remembered– we know right away that white supremacy plays a uniquely central role: black people did not secure the right to vote until 1964. And they began to lose it almost immediately afterwards. As Michelle Alexander notes, the distinctly anti-black era of mass incarceration has been disproportionately depriving black people of the right to vote since the 1970s. More recent voter suppression efforts keep even more black and Latino/a people from the polls.
Ultimately, a person who perpetuates, enables, or leaves white supremacy in place can never qualify as “anti-establishment” no matter what other movements they empower. White supremacy, specifically the enslavement of black people and the displacement of indigenous people, sits at the very center of the American “establishment.” People such as Bannon do not seek to tear down this country’s white supremacist foundations; they seek to re-establish them.
When we call people such as Bannon “anti-establishment,” we also flatter white supremacy’s very fragile ego. White supremacy has always conditioned white people to believe ourselves simultaneously “great” and uniquely imperiled. (See, for example, the way many white people believed the abolition of slavery the advent of their persecution.) We have always attempted to style ourselves as rightful rulers and odds-overcoming underdogs all at once.
The current wave of angst at “the elite” and commitment to white supremacy in fact goes back before even Jackson. Thomas Jefferson, albeit more effetely, too spoke of the evils of big banks and the virtues of “ordinary people.” He also championed anti-blackness. In fact, then as now, the two positions: defense of both white supremacy and “the common man” not only often coincided, they worked together. For example, during the Constitutional Convention, George Washington– a man who violently enslaved thousands of human beings– noted the “hypocrisy” of the anti-elitist, slaveholding, anti-federalists,
“It is a little strange that the men of large property in the South should be more afraid that the Constitution will produce an aristocracy or monarchy than the genuine, democratical people of the East.” (Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 267).
Put another way, the constitution was framed as a compromise between men who were relatively more suspicious of “democracy,” that is, the decentralization of political and economic power, but relatively less invested in preserving black slavery on the one hand, and men who much more adamantly favored both “democracy” and black slavery on the other. Men such as Alexander Hamilton who once suggested that the United States institute an “elective monarchy” were more likely to oppose slavery than those who railed against “elites.”*
If one listens to contemporary political rhetoric, the composition of these two teams should be impossible: we still insist that support for “working class whites,” even when authentic, somehow sits in tension with sincere commitment to white supremacy. We continue to believe this even though it has never been true.
This country’s history proves that there is nothing more indicative of belonging to “the establishment” than hating “elites” and loving white supremacy. In fact, in the United States, there has never been a better reason to hate the elites–whether the King of England, the federal government, or out of touch, ivory tower-dwelling professors –than for their perceived opposition to white supremacy.** Today as ever before, nothing has seemed more unfair to “ordinary white folks” than interfering with white supremacy.
*I do not intend to portray Hamilton as a racial hero. Although he may have personally opposed slavery, its existence did not trouble him too greatly, and he was more than happy to sacrifice its abolition for what he believed were many other greater goods. Put another way, he was very much undisturbed by anti-blackness.
** This does not of course mean that these figures or the institutions they represent actually ARE anti-racist. Although Southerners thought the King of England would take their slaves away, the British Empire was a major white supremacist power. Although Southerners feared the federal government’s power to first take their slaves away and then take their right to lynch and segregate black people away, the federal government also has perpetuated white supremacy, most notably through wars against indigenous peoples and through anti-black housing programs that super-charged Northern whites’ capacity to residentially exclude and ghettoize black people. And claims about “liberal bias” notwithstanding, the United States’ universities continue to be disproportionately white.