Many years ago I served as a teaching assistant for the political philosopher Francis Beckwith. As we talked and spent time together, I learned some of his habits of speech. One thing he would often do was to analyze an argument and then say “what’s doing the work in the argument is . . .” It seems to me that in the Trump/AOC Squad controversy we have a misconception of what’s doing the work.
The AOC Squad, featuring Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, function as a bloc on the left who agree on a highly critical view of American politics and culture. In essence, they believe the United States is extremely unjust, reparations for slavery are appropriate, socialism is a good guide for economic policy, a green new deal is needed, etc.
Donald Trump responded to them in a ham-fisted and offensive way by encouraging them to go back to their original countries and fix what is broken there. The problem, of course, is that they are American citizens who have been elected to the U.S. Congress. Clearly, he is mistaken or is not mistaken, but is rather trying to offend or whip up negative sentiment against them.
So far, so good. But here is the problem. The president’s remarks, which I agree are offensive and mistaken, have also been repeatedly characterized as racist. So many people I respect and consider guides for my own thinking call these remarks racist.
The use of racism as a critique here doesn’t sit well. It is a crumb in the sheets. It is the tinnitus in the ear. What’s doing the work here? Is it really race?
Let’s perform a thought experiment. Imagine that we had members of the U.S. Congress who were ethnically identifiable as Swedish and Norwegian. Imagine they had names that fit the bill and that they cultivated the identification by way of critique of U.S. cowboy capitalism and militarism. And let’s imagine they, too, were highly critical of President Trump and promised his impeachment.
Let us further imagine that this Bjornsson and Thorsdottir drew exactly the same rebuke from the president or something like it. “Go back to your stupid socialist countries and your minimal world influence. Go back to being irrelevant and useless. You love Scandinavia so much, go back there.”
Viewing the scene, would you conclude that racism was doing the work in Trump’s offensive remarks? I don’t think you would. I think you would conclude that Trump’s hatred of the Scandinavian view of national priorities and his anger at being criticized were doing the work. But you couldn’t say racism, could you? Of course not, it’s a white on white drive by rhetorical shooting.
But in the other aspects, the situation is basically the same. What we have is not the operation of racism, but the operation of jingoism, nativism, and Donald Trump’s own sensitivity to being criticized. I have a hard time understanding why the emphasis is so firmly on the color of the people involved.
Now, I know that many people will be shaking their heads and saying that I’m clueless, but I invite analysis of what I’ve suggested. I agree 100% that what the president said is wrong. I just disagree with why it is wrong. I don’t think racism is essential to the complaint. I suspect racism is the frame we use because it is bombastic and because we largely agree on the heinousness of it. If you are a political opponent of the president, you would rather charge him with racism than jingoism or being thin-skinned. It just resonates so much more strongly.
But again, what’s doing the work?