In response to: “Trump and the Trumpists” (Vol. 3, No. 1).

To the editors:

Wolfgang Streeck’s article, “Trump and the Trumpists,” explains Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency as a cry for help by a dishonored white working class. In this, Streeck echoes the well-worn claims on the White Left in Europe and North America that disproportionate attention by neoliberal elites and middle classes in the 1980s and 1990s to the concerns of marginalized minority groups laid the ground for a new right-wing populism. The weakness of the arguments put forward by Streeck is evident in his reliance on unsubstantiated claims that dangerously echo those made by the far right and the so-called alt-right about migrants, refugees and racialized minorities; fake news is lent an acceptable veneer when repeated by venerable academics. More broadly, the poverty of the conclusions reached by Streeck is the result of a failure to place a critical analysis of race at the heart of mainstream scholarship. While, as the extensive writings of W. E. B. Du Bois make clear, this is by no means a new problem, it is increasingly urgent in a world more rapidly polarizing around issues of race, class, and the return of nationalist chauvinism.

In this letter,1 I shall first set Streeck’s argument in the context of pronouncements of a similar nature that place the blame for Trump’s victory at the door of a poorly defined identity politics. I shall then examine Streeck’s claims from a race-critical perspective, introducing some of the missing scholarship that impedes him from fully understanding the interplay between race and class. I shall then briefly raise concerns about Streeck’s repetition of some of the claims of the German far right, to back up his argument that the majority has been silenced by the purported elitist moralism of the neoliberal center left.

Misplacing Identity

At the core of Streeck’s article is the suggestion that Trumpism represents the victory of Weberian status groups over class interests. To win, Trump understood that “status groups with established market access”—the urban middle classes—oppose the interests of the “victims of deindustrialization” and provincials, with a program of elitist globalization and the identity politics that it mobilizes, cynically, it is presumed.

In Streeck’s world, cosmopolitan urban neoliberals are gleeful that Americans are “shortly to become a ‘minority in their own land,’” because they are unaffected by the pressures created by outsourcing and undercutting. If Streeck’s argument included a critique, for example, of the urban gentrification that squeezes long-term residents, many of them African-American or Latino, out of areas to which the middle classes are moving due to “ever-rising urban rents,” it would have provided the missing nuance. Instead, white (former) workers are pitted against those he sees merely as “a supply of low-skilled and low-paid service workers.” These are not people with class interests, but a “supply” for whom the justifiably resentful are traded by financiers, neoliberal politicians and, presumably, hipsters.

Trumpists, easily rallied by this resentment and the quest to regain national status, have Streeck’s sympathies as the real losers of the dissolution of class solidarity in the march to free market neoliberalism and “the forces of cultural modernization.” In a space emptied out by what he sees as the decline of the center left due to its embrace of globalization, Trump steps in to become the champion of class where all Clinton sees is status: “in an act of instinctive political genius, Trump made of class another, forgotten, dishonored status group.”

Streeck therefore sees Trump’s electoral win as a form of identity politics that fails to speak its name: what antiracists have rightly termed white identity politics.2 He echoes the countless arguments made, in the wake of the presidential elections, that a disproportionate liberal emphasis on identity and diversity laid the foundations for the rise of this new brand of identity politics coalescing around Trumpism. The poster child of the so-called alt-right, Richard Spencer himself endorses this view by branding the movement he leads an identity movement. Following the election, he said: “Alt-right is all about identity… And Donald Trump’s movement, whether [Trump strategist] Kellyanne Conway wants to admit it or not, was fundamentally about identity for white people.”3

Of course, commentators such as Streeck see themselves as at the opposite end of the political spectrum to the Spencers of this world. But both believe that the vote for Trump was a sign of whites fighting back. For Spencer this is good, for Streeck possibly bad, but understandable. Columbia University professor Mark Lilla’s New York Times article, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” makes a similar case.4 He is a little more benevolent towards diversity, paying lip service to what Ghassan Hage calls the niceties of cosmo-multiculturalism.5 However, his point hinges on the notion that a “moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity” stunts liberalism’s ability to govern, and obscures what he calls such “perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good.” Thus, Hillary Clinton’s insistence on appealing to “African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop,” to the exclusion of the white working class, in Lilla’s estimation is the result of the rise of moralism over politics. In this vision, the structuring effects of race and gender are reduced to “celebrations of difference” and are hence both apolitical and exclusivist.

Nowhere in either Lilla or Streeck is it possible to imagine that the concerns of African-Americans, Latinos, LGBTIQ people and women are the concerns of the working class. We might well ask who is playing identity politics now in a world in which, according to white academics such as Streeck or Lilla, the ranks of the working class exclude its actual members, who in the U.S. are mainly Black and Latino, with an overwhelming number of women bulking up the numbers of the working poor.6

It is far from new to blame the liberal left for its own demise. For example, in the case of France, where eleven million people voted for the leader of the fascist Front National in the recent presidential elections, Pierre-André Taguieff argued as early as 1995 that the antiracist left was responsible for giving the right a new language of identity. In his 1995 book, La Force du prejugé, Taguieff proposed that the success enjoyed by so-called cultural racism in the late 1980s, as seen in the growing support for the Front National, was the fault of antiracists, and a cultural relativism spawned by anti-colonialists such as Frantz Fanon and those inspired by him, whom he dismissed as “Third Worldists.”7 In an egregious misreading of Fanon’s nuanced stance on the politics of negritude, Taguieff is nevertheless able to characterize an antiracist worldview, not as a fight against the continuing local and global unequal structuring effects of what Aníbal Quijano has called the coloniality of power,8 but as the “communitarian” demands of anti-Republican, anti-secular, and thus anti-egalitarian minorities.

Since the time of Taguieff’s writing, and especially since Brexit and Trump’s election, it has become commonplace among many Leftists in Europe and North America—although their increasingly narrow sense of who is included within their ranks is notable—to blame the minoritized for the Left’s electoral failures. In a view of power which effectively turns its operations on its head, the perspective promoted by writers such as Streeck or Lilla see racialized, queer, disabled people and women as powerful enough to strangle progressive politics. While elements of the critique of identity politics unveil the cynicism of the manipulation of diversity by elites,9 Streeck’s inattention to the politics of antiracism makes it appear to him that the sole purpose of this was to shut down critiques from the farther left. More than anything else, the rise of culturalism, as Paul Gilroy showed in the case of the U.K.,10 had the effect of silencing criticism of the inextricable relationships among race, gender and class which reproduce inequality and oppression—in particular, disproportionate rates of incarceration—among generation after generation of poor, racialized people, women and transgender people in particular. A critique of identity politics requires historicizing the conditions under which they emerged, during a struggle that radicalized a generation, after the disappointments and insufficiencies of civil rights began to be felt.11 Identity—as a euphemism for race, whose continued power is in its transformation from a taxonomical system of power into a facsimile of culture—was a vehicle for displacing a fight in which class and race interests were related, rather than opposed.

Class and Whiteness

Streeck’s analysis of Trump’s electoral victory is based on an empirical failure to adequately describe class in America. Class is wholly racialized, and whiteness continues to structure economics as a form of property, as Cheryl Harris has explained.12 Curiously for an economist, this history, which places whiteness squarely in the realm of political economy, eludes Streeck. For him, members of the white middle class, because of their higher class and economic status, are unconcerned by competition from outsourced or migrant labor, and happily endorse Hillary Clinton’s rejection of Trump voters as deplorables. They thus foist the interests of status groups “defined by color, gender, national origin, sexual identification and the like” onto society at large, reducing most Americans to a cowed and “silenced majority.”

Streeck bases these ideas on the unfounded proposition that most Trump voters were white “victims of the deindustrialized center of the country.” But data released by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute shows that most financially-troubled voters among the white working class preferred Clinton to Trump.13 It was what they call cultural anxiety, over issues such as immigration, and not economic pressures, that brought Trump to victory.14 Yet Streeck’s primary concern is to convince us that a center left, enamored of globalization and cosmopolitanism, and too ready to champion the rights of racialized and otherwise marginalized minorities (“Transgendered restrooms infuriated everyone except those seeking access to them,” mocks Streeck) was responsible for the rise of a new class politics in the form of Trumpism. The center left has reaped what it has sown by abandoning “the demobilized working class” in favor of “ever new minorities” who, he claims, were discovered “by experts and politicians.”

In Streeck’s disconnected world, the real working class is white. Race, gender, and sexuality are then not only illegitimate bases upon which to mobilize, but those subjected to these categories of stratification do not really exist until they are conjured up by elites in the service of market fundamentalism. He thus closes the door in the face of racialized people who, it is intimated, can never belong to the working class because they place organic status interests over organized class ones. Streeck fundamentally mischaracterizes race if he sees it as a form of status—a “home-grown social community”—opposed to class. Rather, race should be understood as a technology of power that, particularly in the U.S.A., due to the foundational nature of slavery, reproduces economic inequality generation after generation.15

Streeck is evidently not familiar with race-critical literature. He would do well to read Cheryl Harris, W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, or Cedric Robinson to understand that an analysis which separates race from class is an incomplete one. A lack of interest in the racialization of class creates the caricatures upon which Streeck relies, according to which a focus on race deflects from the more serious politics of class, and is thus a technique of elite rule. In fact, race and class structure each other in myriad complex ways. So while the growth of a Black middle class in the latter half of the twentieth century meant that individual Blacks in the U.S. could become less economically constrained than their forebears, there has been a parallel and exponential increase in the ranks of poor African-Americans.16

As Aldon Morris has shown in his book on the exclusion of Du Bois from the sociological canon,17 there has been much invested in creating an analytical separation between Black and White sociology, as though the former had nothing to offer the latter.18 In fact, as Green and Smith note in their discussion of Du Bois’s contribution to the analysis of both race and class, the dominant structural-functionalist approach in mainstream American sociology was inadequate for “explaining race and class oppression in the post-bellum South and today.”19 What Du Bois, from The Philadelphia Negro (1899) to Black Reconstruction in America (1935), demonstrated is that “race and class are not, as some have argued, opposed to each other in his work, but are clearly analyzed in terms of their shift in relative weight as explanatory concepts.”20

Thus, the problem of seeing class-based and identity politics as opposed—as exemplified by Streeck’s article, but certainly not confined to it—is due to a lack of attention to the materialism of analyses, such as those of Du Bois, that ground race in class and vice-versa. Race and gender are not taken seriously as major axes of power in capitalist societies, but rather caricatured as diversions, as witnessed in this footnote:

The contrast between identity politics and class struggle in the widest sense, be it through trade unions or at the ballot box, is that in class struggle solidarity is mobilized in the service of your own interests whereas in identity politics it means sacrificing for the interests of groups of others. Identity-political altruism may therefore come more easily to the economically better placed. To those not belonging to their group, it may appear like egoistic interests camouflaged as charity—for example if the urban middle classes, economically dependent on a rich supply of cheap service labor, favor open borders for immigration.

Being pro-migration is mere elitism in a version of events which fails to see what Du Bois knew, that a true understanding of global processes required understanding “the relationship of the darker to the lighter races of the world.”21 In other words, antiracism is not a bourgeois project, but a struggle for justice in a world still reaping the structural constraints of colonialism of which globalization is the latest iteration.

Fake News

What Streeck then presents, paradoxically, is a racialized argument about deindustrialized whites restored by Trump to the honor of being a class. For Streeck, moralism is the new terrain of class vs. status animosity. Globalization breeds a new “morality of equal access” for all, thus erasing what he calls traditional solidarity within the nation. Streeck echoes the argument put forward by David Goodhart, in his 2004 article, “Too Diverse?”22 which earned him the label of “liberal Powellite,”23 evoking the British anti-immigration politician of the 1960s, Enoch Powell. Like Goodhart, Streeck argues that marketization generates empathy for all except one’s neighbors. In other words, we no longer put our own before the rest of the world. What this binary and methodologically-nationalist vision of the world misses, of course, is what David Roediger points out in his review of Joan Williams’s book, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, the fact that “most working-class people do not vote. Still more neglected is the reality that many millions of workers are disenfranchised by their status as undocumented people, felons, and transients.”24 We gain nothing by advancing an empirically-partial and race-blind vision of who the working class is.

Facts that disturb certainties are put to one side in the aim of making an argument about the loss of white working-class honor and its promised revival by Trump as an unlikely working-class champion (if not hero). To support his arguments, Streeck claims in a footnote that German social-security recipients are aggrieved by the entitlements received by refugees and asylum seekers that, he claims, “are often much higher, making them feel abandoned by their government in favor of strangers.” A small amount of research reveals this statement to have no basis in fact; a single German welfare claimant receives almost four times more per month than an asylum seeker.25 Streeck demonstrates the degree to which parts of the White Left in Europe and the U.S. is ready to reproduce the propaganda of the Right. Unfounded arguments about inequality in the welfare system are peddled by the anti-immigration far right, enflaming social media and creating real danger for Black and Brown people, refugees or not, on the ground.

Streeck, as a leftist critic of capitalism, is not enamored of Trump. Trump, he says “is, after all, an expression of the crisis, not its solution.” But what is the crisis that Streeck means? The overriding impression on reading his essay is that it is what has been called a “crisis of multiculturalism.” As Gavan Titley and I wrote in 2011,26 this fabricated crisis is not that reified notions of cultural homogeneity have been thrust upon minoritized groups by policy makers in the effort of quelling antiracist struggle. Rather, the problem with multiculturalism is a problem of, as Goodhart directly claims, “too much diversity.” The old left, of which Streeck is a representative par excellence, does not wish to relinquish its power to define who is the legitimate agent of change. And so it tightens the boundaries around whiteness, while rejecting attempts at more encompassing and representative visions of who works and who is exploited.

We are at a time when manipulation of facts by the mainstream Right—both politicians and the media—shapes the politics of the extreme right. The bibliographic compendium of the Utøya killer, Anders Behring Breivik, for example, contained many titles from mainstream sources. Rhetoric that a relatively short time ago would have been considered beyond the pale, targeting Muslims, refugees, migrants, transgender people, and increasingly even Jews, is now free-flowing in the mainstream. In the face of this, it is incumbent upon social scientists to ground their observations in what Africana philosopher Lewis Gordon calls more truthful accounts.27 The stakes of not doing so are high.

Alana Lentin

Wolfgang Streeck replies:

If an argument is misunderstood, or mostly misunderstood, usually not only one side is to blame. Alana Lentin’s comment tells me that I should have been (even) more careful putting in writing what I tried to say. What is an innocent empirical observation in one discourse causes a scandal in another. I am not blaming the victims of racism, or of any other -ism for that matter. The thrust of my essay was to point out the failure of the center left, not just in the United States, to do exactly what Lentin, I believe, like me, feels to be its historical duty: to find a language, a political formula that encompasses and unites the concerns of, if you want, dishonored status and exploited class. Instead we get status politics with, and for, ever-smaller groups, in the hope that this will hide the utter cluelessness in the face of a capitalism in systemic decline of what used to be social democracy and New Dealism. I do believe that there were moments when even in the United States class and race might have joined forces, like at the end of the 1960s. That they did not cost all of us dearly, I suggest, far beyond the United States. A worrying question is whether such an opportunity will come again. Racism, unfortunately, is a long-standing condition in the politics of the United States—but why should it have produced a Trump only now? And why so many Trump-like characters in other countries, with their own versions of racism? Will it be possible to reverse the degeneration of class politics into identity politics, without suppressing the very good reasons behind the ideologically de-classed claims of those whose interests seem to be the only ones worth attending to for the (neo-) liberal liberals? Reading Lentin, I sometimes feel that we strongly agree that this is the question that matters, although for whatever reason she seems unable or unwilling to say so. On German welfare-state provisions, I wrote “often much higher”, and that is certainly true and probably has to be so (as in the case of the seventy thousand “unaccompanied minors” currently applying for asylum). But this was only a footnote and the subject deserves more extended treatment.

Alana Lentin is Associate Professor in Cultural and Social Analysis at Western Sydney University.

Wolfgang Streeck is Director Emeritus and Professor at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne.

  1. I would like to thank Stefanie Boulila, Christiane Carri and ProAsyl for their assistance in providing background research on the German social security system. 
  2. Eric Knowles and Linda Tropp, “The Rise of White Identity Politics,” New Republic, October 28, 2016. 
  3. Paul Hunter, “Trump the ‘First Step’ Toward Identity Politics: Richard Spencer,” CBC News, January 18, 2017. 
  4. Mark Lilla, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” The New York Times, November 18, 2016. 
  5. Ghassan Hage, Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for hope in a shrinking society (Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press, 2003). 
  6. Maria Shriver, “The Female Face of Poverty,” The Atlantic, January 8, 2014. 
  7. Alana Lentin, “Replacing ‘Race,’ Historicizing ‘Culture’ in Multiculturalism,” Patterns of Prejudice 39, no. 4 (2005): 379–96. 
  8. Anibal Quijano, “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America,” Nepentla: Views From the South 1, no. 3 (2000): 533–80. 
  9. Davina Cooper, Challenging Diversity: Rethinking Equality and the Value of Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). 
  10. Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (London: Unwin Hyman, 1987). 
  11.  George Yúdice, The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era (Duke University Press, 2003). 
  12. Cheryl Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (1993): 1,707–91. 
  13. Emily Green, “It Was Cultural Anxiety That Drove White, Working-Class Voters to Trump,” The Atlantic, May 9, 2017. 
  14. It is important to remember that Clinton and not Trump won the popular vote and that the latter’s victory was in great part due to the historically-discriminatory nature of the U.S. electoral college well explained by Mark Joseph Stern in his article: “The Electoral College Is an Instrument of White Supremacy—and Sexism,” Slate, November 11, 2016. 
  15. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1935). 
  16. William Wilson, “The Declining Significance of Race: Revisited & Revised,” Daedalus 140, no. 2 (2011): 55–69. 
  17. Aldon Morris, The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. DuBois and the Birth of Modern Sociology (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2015). 
  18. Joyce Ladner, ed., The Death of White Sociology: Essays on Race and Culture (Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press, 1998). 
  19. Dan Green and Earl Smith, “W. E. B. DuBois and the Concepts of Race and Class,” Phylon 44, no. 4 (1983): 262–72, 268. 
  20. Dan Green and Earl Smith, “W. E. B. DuBois and the Concepts of Race and Class,” Phylon 44, no. 4 (1983): 262–72, 271. 
  21. Herbert Aptheker, “Some Unpublished Writings of W. E. B. DuBois,” Freedomways 5 (1965): 103–28. 
  22. David Goodhart, “Too Diverse?Prospect Magazine, February 20, 2004. 
  23. Jonathan Freedland, “The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart – A Liberal’s Rightwing Turn on Immigration,” The Guardian, March 22, 2017. 
  24. David Roediger, “Who’s Afraid of the White Working Class?: On Joan C. Williams’s ‘White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America,’” LA Review of Books, May 17, 2017. 
  25. For details of the law concerning social security benefits for Germans and those concerning social security benefits for refugees in Germany see the following two pages on the website of the Bundesministerium der Justiz und für Verbraucherschutz: “Sozialgesetzbuch (SGB) Zweites Buch (II) - Grundsicherung für Arbeitsuchende - (Artikel 1 des Gesetzes vom 24. Dezember 2003, BGBl. I S. 2954) § 20 Regelbedarf zur Sicherung des Lebensunterhalts” and “Asylbewerberleistungsgesetz (AsylbLG) § 3 Grundleistungen.” See also the following article, which analyses the myth that asylum seekers receive more welfare payments than Germans: Von Kira Pieper, “Leben in Saus und Braus? So viel bekommt ein Flüchtling wirklich,” n-tv, May 11, 2016. The following article reveals that entitlements for refugees are set to be reduced: “Hartz-IV-Bezieher erhalten mehr, Flüchtlinge weniger Geld,” Berliner Morgenpost, September 21, 2016. 
  26. Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley, The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age (London: Zed Books, 2011). 
  27. Lewis Gordon, “Black Existence in Philosophy of Culture,” Diogenes 59, no. 3-4 (2014): 96–105.