Analysis & Comment

Opinion | The Danger in White Moderates Setting Biden’s Agenda

The full contours of the postelection landscape are, as yet, unknown, but we’ve learned many important lessons already. Chief among them is that white Republicans will vote party over every other economic and social issue and that this will make it nearly impossible to govern.

A second-term President Trump would not even have tried to govern, but a President Biden must. And the centrist impulse that motivated Joe Biden’s campaign will look at vocal white Republican identitarianism as a warning against doing too much, too fast for the most vulnerable Americans. That would be exactly the wrong thing to do.

The moment calls for radical direct state response to public crisis — big government projects, direct aid, swelling rhetoric. The moderate/centrist impulse will be to do less, but to govern, a Biden administration will need to do more.

To start, a Biden administration with the will to govern must first display the will to call to account the egregious lawlessness of its predecessor. A true accounting would look like a swift, transparent punishment of those who looted the public trust, including Donald Trump.

The Trump administration’s ability to create shared delusions for millions of voters was aided and abetted by its flagrant attack on the social institutions that allow a plural society to cohere. Those in the Trump clan didn’t lie to cover up their looting. They were able to loot because they first created the lie.

Whether they would admit it or not, many Republican voters choose to accept the lies because the idea that our social institutions were so easily undermined is more terrifying. Restoring baseline trust in social institutions’ survivability, and not necessarily their fairness, is critical to the integrity of governance. A President Biden should pursue all available avenues of punishment. Only a transparent accounting of what exactly happened during the last four years would allow us to pivot to radical responsiveness.

Radical responsiveness simply means responding to the world as it is, as opposed to the way the Republican and right-wing machinery has pretended things are. Over 200,000 Americans are dead from a virus that this nation should have been able to contain. A national eviction moratorium ends on Dec. 31, and there is almost certainly going to be no help coming from a lame-duck president or Congress. We cannot move into a winter with this much need and expect the American people to consent to passive governance come Jan. 20.

Radical resistance would push economic stimulus to millions of Americans, slash bureaucratic red tape for health care during an unchecked public health crisis, shore up ailing school systems, and assure Americans that they won’t go hungry or lose their homes while we clean up the mess made by the White House’s last tenants. A multiracial resistance will have to push Congress and the new presidential administration to champion this necessary work. But if the administration does not begin with transparent accountability, a critical component of the resistance may not show up: the freshly radicalized white moderate.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris did not campaign on a reckoning or radical responsiveness, promising instead tepid incrementalism. Even if the Republicans maintain control of the Senate, which would surely be a roadblock to passing substantive policy, the Biden White House should set an early expectation that it will respond to the nation’s immediate economic crisis.

The political ease of incrementalism, and its promise of normalcy, will be the real test for the white moderates. In a racist, divided nation, multiracial coalitions are necessary to elicit the state’s empathy and move policy. Our collective well-being hinges on how much white moderates will show up when the most immediate threat to their personal interests are over. Under President Trump, the issue was whether white moderate resistance could survive violent suppression. Under a President Biden, the issue is whether a white resistance can resist its own self-interested inertia.

The stakes for all of us are high.

With the coronavirus entering what some scientists say could be its deadliest wave yet, all of our social institutions are buckling under the stress. This pandemic did not only unleash a nimble biological threat to public health, it also politicized common-sense public health measures.

We do not have the testing strategy that every reputable scientist tells us we will need to return to merely normal political sectarianism. The right lost faith in science when science resisted racist declarations. The left lost faith in scientists when the right turned them into political pawns. We cannot even trust the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose missteps in providing good guidance to the public reinforced conspiracy theories and eased the way for its delegitimization by this administration.

The Trump administration carried out that delegitimization primarily as a shield for the president’s outright corruption and Republican opportunity hoarding. Not only have the courts been stacked, but trust in the very idea that democratic governance is possible has been undermined.

In the wake, white racist violence has been mainstreamed. Organized and ad hoc white identitarian groups have killed college students, run over peaceful protesters, executed churchgoers, and performed rituals of public intimidation. Meanwhile, the F.B.I. warns that white nationalist loyalists and sympathizers have infiltrated all levels of law enforcement.

As often as we frame the decisions of Black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters as “identity politics,” white identity politics of the type that motivated some to vote for Mr. Trump this week deserves just as much attention. While partisanship has increased across the board, white Republicans who support Mr. Trump are more motivated by hatred of others than they are by affinity for other Republicans. This brand of identity politics has flourished in the shadows of distrust, economic precarity and vulnerability that Mr. Trump fomented and the pandemic worsens.

This new extremism is anything but benign. The consolidation of Republican identitarianism has also coarsened the texture of American public life, conjuring up the specter of violence. The trucks “coal rolling” through protesters join the armed teenager in fatigues who seeks to “police” the streets. Customers scream at the very frontline grocery workers we thank in big spectacles because they are required to wear masks. This coarsening extended to the presidential contest, encouraged by President Trump and mainstream Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio.

With no one able to trust the experts or willing to trust her own eyes, the pandemic rages on and no one is now working to cushion the country from the economic fallout that will surely last longer than the health crisis. Women have been pushed out of the formal labor force. Minority workers are overrepresented in the jobs that are not only the least secure but are suddenly now the most dangerous. White men, by and large, are just as anxious but not as vulnerable.

“White men are doing mostly fine without more economic relief from Washington, but just about everyone else is suffering,” said Olugbenga Ajilore, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress.

While this Congress found time for a moonlight madness sale on conservative Supreme Court appointees, it did not find the time to negotiate more support for renters, homeowners, small-business owners, unemployed workers, the elderly or the disabled. Without radical responsiveness to the material conditions faced by working Americans, no one should be allowed to govern without facing sustained protest and organized resistance.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.

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