Doug McAdam

The Surreal Present in Historical Context: Another Perspective on Othering & Belonging

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By: Sara Grossman

Contrary to popular narrative, Donald Trump himself is not root of our problem, Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam told attendees at the second day of the 2017 Othering & Belonging conference in a keynote entitled “The Surreal Present in Historical Context: Another Perspective on Othering & Belonging.”

“The divisions Trump embodies are not new,” he continued. “And we can't lose that historical perspective.”

McAdam, an expert on race in the US, social movements, and “contentious politics,” warned the audience that it would be both dangerous and short-sighted to see Trump’s rhetoric as something novel in American politics. Rather, he said, these tactics are merely extreme versions of what the Republican Party has been utilizing for decades—namely coded messaging and dog-whistle suggestions on how Americans of color, who have suffered under the weight of both sanctioned and unsanctioned discrimination since the founding of the United States—are somehow less deserving than their white counterparts.

“Trump is not unique, just the most extreme version of what we've seen recently,” McAdam said.

McAdam began his explanation with a brief contextualization on the political divisions we see today: the increasingly diverse coasts tending strongly Democratic, while the more homogenous South and Midwest remain firmly with the Republican Party. He noted that the Democrats were not traditionally supportive of civil rights, but were pushed that direction under enormous pressure from social movements and concerted organizing—namely the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which demanded that the government work to address the US’s egregious social, economic, and political inequalities, as well as ongoing violence against people of color. The Democrats, led by President Lyndon B. Johnson, ultimately pushed through strong legislation in support of civil rights—and as a result lost its traditional base: the Deep South, which lashed out fiercely against the perceived attack on its ingrained social order.

The Surreal Present in Historical Context, a Keynote Address by Doug McAdam

This white backlash might not be traditionally thought of as a social movement, McAdam said, but it very much was one. Richard Nixon, the Republican president who came to power after Johnson, seized influence by heavily exploiting the racial fears and anxieties brought on by the Democrat’s increased support for communities of color. And it was Nixon who first wielded a potent narrative around underserved “takers” stealing from the “makers”—with a strong racial undertone suggesting that African Americans and other minority groups were the “takers” and hardworking whites were the “makers.” In other words, social welfare programs such as those championed by the Democrats ultimately came to be viewed as “government overreach” into the lives of ordinary (read: white) Americans who were just trying to feed their families. Of course, when this “governmental overreach” had helped lift up struggling white Americans during the Great Depression, it was widely popular and praised as hugely successful public policy.

GOP politicians like Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Rick Santorum, and now Donald Trump  “all used strategic narrative to divide America between the deserving and undeserving,” McAdam said. Trump, who has warned of “Bad Hombres” and “rapists” coming in from Mexico, is merely a more overt player in the racial politics game.

In a discussion with McAdam after his short address, Haas Institute Director john a. powell noted that the common GOP refrain that low taxes are good for Americans is inherently racialized, as these very taxes fund social services that often support low income Americans of color—the “takers.” The very programs that have sought to help address the entrenched race- and class-based inequalities upon which this nation was founded, such as welfare, food stamps, or affirmative action legislation, have been attacked as giving to those who are “unworthy” of opportunity or support.

Moving on to the present day, powell noted that “Trump ran an identity-based campaign on white ethnic identity”—where “making America great again” signified a return to a time when Black Americans and other communities of color were relegated to the status of secondary citizens. When America was “great,” for whom was it actually “great” for?

“Trump created a coherent cohesive white identity, but we have not created a coherent Progressive identity,” he added.

McAdam agreed, but added that the Republican Party benefits from an easier organizing task with homogenous groups—conservative white Americans who seek to protect their social and economic hegemony in US society. “But there’s no reason the Left can't form an unstoppable coalition, despite differences,” he said.

While the problem of the GOP’s reliance on racial anxiety to enact policy is clear, McAdam said, the largest challenge to fully addressing the root of this problem is divisions within the opposition itself. Although Trump's Others greatly outnumber those who embrace him, it has become too easy to Other each other in seeking to acknowledge differences among us, he observed.

“When we talk about suffering, it becomes a competition. We all got it bad!” powell added. “We need to hear each other's stories, discover a new story, a better story, for all of us.”

Trump’s election demonstrates that it’s not just about having the numbers—”it’s about who is the better organizer,” powell said. The trick, both speakers agreed, is in engaging with systems and institutions in a sustained and strategic way, just as the Tea Party did when Barack Obama was president. McAdam noted that the Tea Party found remarkable success in consistently engaging with electoral politics and the local Republican party to move the party in a more extreme direction.

McAdam concluded that Progressives should learn from these organizing successes and recognize that progress often happens locally and via structural changes. Merely having one man in office—or a few protests—is simply not enough for widespread, tangible, and transformative change.


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