Future historians will find it ridiculous, but the response to a few hundred white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia will be the trigger for a realignment of American politics. Polite opinion, which includes Establishment political leaders, corporate CEOs, religious leaders of virtually all denominations, the universities and the press, abhor Donald Trump for his alleged moral equivalence between the Charlottesville neo-Nazis and the demonstrators who opposed them. Trump did no such thing, but he did something less pardonable altogether: He split the country along the fracture line of political correctness.
We are in terra incognita for American politics, and predictions are unreliable especially when they concern the future. Nonetheless I believe that the storm of opprobrium that broke upon Donald Trump this week will dissipate, and when the dust settles, the United States will have a different political alignment. Trump’s populism will split both the Republican and Democratic parties, with consequences we can barely begin to imagine. Waving the bloody shirt of Charlottesville will have unintended consequences. I do not know what the president was thinking, but I think his seemingly spontaneous wrangle with the press at his August 15 New York press conference was carefully gauged.
The economic and social condition of African Americans deteriorated sharply under the Obama Administration, and future prospects are grim. Black political leaders have been unable to suggest practical solutions, and instead propose symbolic ones, for example, destroying monuments to the defeated Confederacy of slave-holding states. In fact, black Americans want to keep the monuments to their old oppressors, by a margin of 44%-40% in a recent poll (white Americans want to keep them by a margin of 65%-25%). Although black leaders from the Congressional Black Caucus to the radical Black Lives Matter movement have made the Confederate monuments a wedge issue, there is no enthusiasm for Taliban tactics against relics of American history.
What Trump actually said in his contentious August 15 press conference is that a lot of “good people” wanted to preserve Confederate statues, a point he reiterated in subsequent social media statements. While he denounced the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, who numbered no more than 500 and got the worst of it from armed-and-armored counter-demonstrators, he indicated his sympathy with the citizens of Charlottesville who opposed their City Council’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In other words, Trump took a position that Americans support by a roughly two-to-one majority. Trump observed that founding fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson also were slave-owners: should their monuments be toppled like Robert E. Lee’s? “Where do you stop?,” he asked the press corps.
Trump violated the Prime Directive of Political Correctness, namely, to accept the most extreme demands of aggrieved minorities as the norm, and to identify any opposition to these demands with the worst sort of extremists. Black Americans are in anguish, and their prospects are deteriorating. Seventy-three percent of black children will be raised without a father in the home, already a handicap. Although American universities admit black students at roughly the same rate as white students, only 40% of black male students graduate within four years of matriculation. The gap between black and white wages has widened from 18% in 1979 to 27% in 2015, probably because high-paying jobs available to blacks have disappeared, mainly in manufacturing. The fragile condition of black families and the low graduation rate for black male university students set a downward trajectory.
There is nothing that major corporates can or want to do about this, but they feel obliged to keep the social peace by making symbolic concession. That is the root of political correctness: it is palliative care for segments of the population who are figuratively and sometimes literally dying. When the president praised the motives of some who want to preserve Confederate monuments and criticized the violence practiced by some on the Left, the press and most civic leaders complained of “moral equivalence.” That follows the axiom of political correctness that anyone who disagrees with me is Hitler. Because some defenders of Confederate monuments like Hitler, like some of the Charlottesville demonstrators, political correctness concludes that anyone who wants to preserve Confederate monuments likes Hitler, too. And if you don’t denounce everyone who wants to preserve Confederate monuments, it means that you like Hitler, too.
Nothing short of the ritual denunciations we associate with Maoist criticism and self-criticism sessions during the Cultural Revolution, or the witch trials of Europe’s late middle ages, will cleanse you. The difference is that the common people of the Middle Ages believed in witches, and believed in the authority of their priests. The common people of the United States do not believe in political correctness, and do not believe much that the media or their leaders say.
Universities and corporations hire the graduates of gender and race studies programs to staff their Human Resource departments, and compel their employees to attend seminars on race, gender, and sexual-orientation sensitivity training. So much of polite society is caught up in this mechanism of ideological reinforcement as to make any other regime unthinkable. Large corporations declare their devotion to diversity, while the relative position of blacks in the US workforce deteriorates.
Trump’s refusal to accept the prevailing ideological regime threatens the equilibrium of corporate governance. Many of the corporate CEOs who reluctantly joined Trump’s two advisory councils on technology and manufacturing quit over his alleged “moral equivalence.” Trump will respond by pivoting towards the working-class base of the Democratic Party, which has seen no growth in real wages for the past 20 years, and blame fat cat corporations who get rich by giving the store away to China. He will appeal to their traditional enthusiasm for trade protection and immigration curbs. The kind of voters who put Trump over the top last November in Wisconsin and Michigan will support him, along with a surprising large number of black voters, if his plan works out.
White House strategist Steve Bannon signaled the shift in a remarkably frank interview with The American Prospect, a journal that has long advocated traditional Democratic economic policies. Bannon reached out to editor Robert Kuttner and spelled out his game plan, particularly regarding China.
“To me,” Bannon said, “the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, ten years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”
Bannon’s plan of attack includes: a complaint under Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act against Chinese coercion of technology transfers from American corporations doing business there, and follow-up complaints against steel and aluminum dumping. “We’re going to run the tables on these guys. We’ve come to the conclusion that they’re in an economic war and they’re crushing us.”
“Coercion of technology transfers” is the decisive issue that Bannon wants to pursue, according to a senior White House official. China wants to dominate high-tech manufacturing, including a $50 billion program to build its own semiconductor manufacturing operations during the next decade, and it demands that Western companies trade their know-how for access to the enormous Chinese market. China now buys 75% of the world’s semiconductors, and it is hard for Western companies to turn down Chinese terms. If the US government intervenes to prevent technology transfers, the tech sector will object furiously.
Unfortunately for US tech companies, the advisory councils through which President Trump invited them to express their views were terminated this week, because many of their CEOs decided that Trump had stepped past the boundary line of acceptable behavior. Trump has the option to blame them for the problems of working-class Americans, and use regulatory measures to stop their tech deals with China.
Trump will reach out to Democratic voters who are alienated from a leadership that has devoted most of its energy to a radical social agenda instead of bread-and-butter solutions, and he will appear to a majority of his own party. I do not know whether he will succeed; if he does, the self-inflicted wounds to the erstwhile arbiters of American opinion will be fatal.