Race, Class, and Media: An Impromptu Education on the 2016 Election

It has been busy but a fantastic week in the Ivory Tower. I’ve met some amazing scholars and had some really enlightening conversations. As the week draws to a close, I’ve begun to see it as a bit of an impromptu grad seminar with some interesting themes emerging that help me better see the 2016 Election.

Monday I had lunch with Nicole Hemmer after Purdue’s political history seminar and we got to chat more about her new book Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics and its connections to the current political climate. The role of media and the debates over media ethics, and questions of fair coverage (e.g. the fairness doctrine) are so fascinating as it applies to conservative media. She breaks its history into multiple periods, and tracks it rise. We see how conservatives have an almost anti-establishment dogma, even when they are the establishment, which has intensified the rightward turn and played out in conservative media. It has become a constant race to be the most anti-establishment figure, for some, which is why we’ve had things like the Tea Party. There is a lot at play there, but it definitely is a huge influence and helps shape conservatism as it rises to power and seeks to maintain power. And I think the ways media does these things are crucial for understanding modern political conversations and “how” we can get someone like Trump doing what he’s doing.

Next, on Wednesday Ibram X. Kendi, was on campus talking about his new book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and afterwards I joined him for dinner where the conversation continued. In his book (and his talk) he highlights how racist ideas and racial policies work hand-in-hand to re-inscribe racist views, pointing out that there is an interesting producer-consumer dynamic at play. He also outlines various types of racial ideas, such as segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist. The goal is to embrace anti-racist views, but the politics and policies of the previous forms continue to linger, and re-inscribe themselves through things like faulty thinking, self-perpetuating data that is misunderstood, and other things. Policy, in many ways, seems to be at heart of the matter, and creating an anti-racist world requires changing the policies (which requires disrupting and altering systems of power). He offers a few ways on how to do this, but generally, it requires convincing folks that anti-racism is in their best interest so that they will support and advocate for anti-racist policies.

Last night, my grad colleague Wes Bishop invited me to participate in a discussion of Nancy Isenberg’s new book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America at a local bookstore downtown and with the general public. It was a wonderful conversation and so much fun to talk history with *real* people. Questions of class often get overlooked or folded into debates over race and racism. Isenberg’s book helps us look at how class has functioned and its role within the power structure of American society asserting (poor) whiteness along the lines of other racial categories. We see quite a bit anxiety within these relations  and the tenuous nature of class as an identity that seems to be more assigned from the top (in Isenberg’s view) than embraced or created from below. Elites use the “white trash” as both a coalition they ran rely on and a scapegoat they can blame. My understanding of this book is still rudimentary as I have not finished reading it, but in relation to Kendi’s book, I begin to see more clearly how class ideas are crucial for understanding power and policy (of course, any good Marxist would tell you that), but also it seems that the “white trash” operate as a tool of a power doing some of the dirty work that elites don’t want to do (and not just in terms of creating wealth).

 Just prior to the book discussion, I read Timothy Lombardo‘s fantastic blog post on Tropics of Meta, “New Right, Far Right, Alt-Right? Donald Trump and the Historiography of Conservatism.” We chatted briefly about it on Twitter, but he argues the whole conservatism historiography has been a tad flawed, and we need to understand how the alt and extreme right have been tacitly nurtured by mainstream conservatism, even if not wholly embraced until now. It’s a really interesting read, and I think it helps get at how and why extreme ideas and logical ideas have gotten spliced together allowing so many Trump supporters to be rational people with some what crazy views. This is an issue I have been thinking about quite a bit. My Aunt is a proud Tump supporter. She is a well-educated, fairly wealthy, business owner and not an anti-establishment type (though she is anti-Obama and anti-Hillary). She doesn’t fit the Trump supporter stereotype. So it has been puzzling to me to understand how she can be a smart, rational conservative, yet become so seduced by Trumpism. I think Tim is right. There’s something within the history and rise of conservatism that has nurtured and spliced together rational and logical views with extreme views, normalizing them. Historians need to dig deeper to better understand that process.

 I list these events not to brag about how lucky I am to meet amazing people or how engaged I am with new scholarship (fact is, I’ve barely read any of these books so maybe I am just writing non-sense). Rather, I list the events because they have helped me rethink and better understand much of the current dynamic at play with Trump and the election. Media, race, whiteness, and our pre-conceived views/understanding of conservatism all factor into how we try to make sense of it. I hope my short synopses help show some of these connection (even though I didn’t  explicitly draw them out in this post). I won’t say that I had a big “Ah-Ha” moment this week, but the juxtaposition of all of these things in my schedule have helped me see some of the larger trends and understand a bit more of the nuance. I’d encourage everyone intrigued by these various elements to take a look at some of these books or essays to dig a little bit deeper.

It’s not common that my weekly schedule arranges itself as an impromptu grad seminar/meet-and-greet, but damn, this week was fun. I’m lucky to be where I am.

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