Last week’s Harvard faceoff between Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri produced one deeply revealing exchange. Before an elite, politically sophisticated audience, Palmieri claimed that if winning the election meant providing a “platform for white supremacists,” she was “proud to have lost”—and that she would “rather lose than win the way you guys did.” In her best Tess McGill accent, Conway retorted, “No you wouldn’t Jen, no you wouldn’t,” and then challenged Palmieri: “Are you going to look me in the face and tell me that I provided a platform for white supremacists?” Palmieri nodded yes.
The exchange was striking for the raw emotion on view between two middle-aged political professionals, women who had reached the top of their profession in career paths unlikely even a generation ago—but also because of the freight of the term “white supremacist,” which has become a surprising arena of contention, much like its more anodyne cousin, “alt-right.”
At one level, Palmieri’s purpose was plain enough: to trace a line from Steve Bannon’s casual comment last spring that the “alt-right” had a “platform” at Breitbart, to the fact that white nationalists and white supremacists do constitute a segment of the alt-right (though not of Breitbart), and connect both to the Trump campaign. The phrase “alt-right” is probably as imprecise as the term “socialist” might have been during any phase of the Cold War, spanning a range between campus anti-political-correctness rebels to hardcore white nationalists and play-acting neo-Nazis. One suspects that if the definition of “alt-right” congeals around the latter groups, as many liberals insist it should, it will disappear from common usage in the next year or so, simply because there are not that many hardcore white nationalists.
But Palmieri’s use of the term “white supremacist” to describe a victorious presidential campaign is interesting at another level, because it echoes an important shift in the term’s meaning. When I was growing up, white supremacist meant, first of all, those in the South who opposed equal rights for African-Americans: the right to vote, to swim in a public swimming pool, to enroll in the University of Mississippi. White supremacists may have ranged from openly terrorist to legally elected segregationists, but in terms of their beliefs, there was a very clear idea of what the term described. Internationally, apartheid rule in South Africa was a variant of white supremacy. So too was European colonialism, by then in its final throes. Even at that time there were complicating voices (such as Norman Podhoretz in his “My Negro Problem—and Ours”) suggesting that issues of ending white supremacy and racial integration would prove far more vexing than most of those working to end de jure segregation believed. But such doubts played no part in my (northern California, progressive) upbringing. In the 1960s, white supremacy was being brought to a welcome conclusion.
Suddenly, several decades later, the term has returned with a vengeance. Conor Friedersdorf explores its shifting meaning in The Atlantic, after discovering that Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum and Bernie Sanders were both charged were invoking white-supremacist arguments, Sanders by criticizing Democrats’ over-reliance on identity politics and Drum by defending him, in part by noting that the charge of “white supremacist” was in danger of becoming so broadly used as to become meaningless. The crux of Friedersdorf’s argument (which is substantial and nuanced) is that Drum was utilizing something very close to the standard dictionary definition of “white supremacism,” using the term the way I understood it in the 1960s. Friedersdorf noted that when that he asked six customers at a coffee shop on Manhattan’s notoriously progressive Upper West Side what they believed the term meant, they responded with something like the traditional definition.
But, he notes, the term has been revived and stretched out in the covens and crannies of left-wing academia. There we encounter a definition of white supremacism, drawing on “critical race theory,” in which the term can refer to a political or socioeconomic system where white people enjoy a structural advantages over other ethnic groups. The term no longer means hatred of non-white groups or any effort to discriminate against them. Basically it has been stretched to mean that almost any institution where whites predominate—race-neutral or not—is racist. Law enforcement is of course presumed to be white supremacist, because people of different races are arrested and convicted for committing crimes at different rates. But so are academic aptitude and achievement tests, which yield less than racially proportionate outcomes. So are classroom regulations, which result in racially disproportionate rates of students’ being disciplined. One suspects that science itself will be targeted eventually.
Not all of this is new: there was a lot of ideological anti-white hatred in the ’60s too. Susan Sontag, who probably changed her mind later on, once wrote that the white race was the cancer of human history. But there is now a web of intellectuals with tenure whose job, basically, is to reiterate and institutionalize in academia variations of Sontag’s argument.
In the past election, there were numerous signs of seepage of various kinds of race extremism into the presidential campaign. One could point, as countless commentators did, to the many instances of white nationalists’ embracing Donald Trump, and of his not always disavowing or denouncing them with the force and alacrity demanded by his opponents. But there were just as many signs of “critical race theory” seeping into Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It is evident in Jennifer Palmieri’s striking charge of “white supremacism”—unsupported by anything said by Donald Trump, or for that matter ever published on Breitbart, despite the tens of millions of words posted on that site.
One could see traces, or perhaps they should be called dog whistles, in Hillary Clinton’s own rhetoric. In January, she claimed it was a reality that police officers see black lives as “cheap.” In a February debate, she accused the state of Wisconsin of “really systemic racism” in education and employment. After five police officers were murdered in a Black Lives Matter protest in July, her bizarre response was to urge whites to “do a better job of listening” when blacks talk about the “seen and unseen barriers” they face every day. She then reminded voters that the murdered officers were, after all, “protecting a peaceful march”—seemingly to distinguish them from other, presumably less innocent, police officers. Hillary of course never went so far as to echo the protesters who explicitly celebrate the murder of white police officers, but her campaign had far more winks and nods to that species of rhetoric than Trump ever gave to white nationalists.
The United States is entering into period of demographic transformation, where whites, politically and demographically dominant for all of the nation’s history, will become a smaller majority, and perhaps then a plurality. Whether this transformation will be assimilative or anti-white, peaceful or violent, remains to be seen. Those in the upper reaches of the Democratic Party throwing around loose charges of “white supremacism” are certainly doing nothing to make it go smoothly.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.