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Derrick Z. Jackson

Make America great again? Here’s what W.E.B. Du Bois thought

W.E.B. Du BoisHulton Archive/Getty Images

To understand Donald Trump’s election as president, it is useful to remember the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin. Trump won on the nostalgic slogan of “Make America Great Again.” The word “great” had particular meaning for Du Bois, who wrote in 1920 that it was easy for leaders to make people believe that “every great deed the world ever did was a white man’s deed.”

Baldwin seconded that in 1964, observing that white superiority made it so difficult for white men to share power with people of color that they instead “set up in themselves a fantastic system of evasions, denials, and justifications,” a system which destroys “their grasp of reality, which is another way of saying their moral sense.”


There is no better way to put it when Trump can win the White House in 2016 with a system of racist rants, misogyny, bullying, and walling off the nation from brown and Muslim immigration. The election cannot be about the economy when a majority of white Americans who claim to be economically forgotten entrust the Oval Office to a billionaire with a record of multiple bankruptcies, one who has denied the public his tax returns. Not to mention a Republican Party that bequeathed a recession to President Obama.

Of course many economic problems remain, but somehow, angry white voters are conveniently oblivious to the fact that unemployment under Obama was cut by half. And it’s not like black people stole their jobs for eight years — black unemployment remains double that of white Americans.

This election was really about white Americans having such cold feet about the new America represented by Obama and the possibility of the first woman president that they chose the hottest head possible to pour kerosene onto smoldering resentment.

A Pew poll last summer found that a minority of Trump supporters thought diversity made America a better place to live while a majority wanted American Muslims to be subject to higher security scrutiny. According to a PRRI survey just before the election, 72 percent of Trump voters said American society and our way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s, an era where white privilege was protected by discrimination and segregation.


True to Baldwin’s observation, Trump voters displayed little grasp of reality in the CNN election exit poll. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton made serious missteps, such as calling half of Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables.” But at the end of the day, she still scored much higher than Trump in the exit polls as being the best to handle the economy and foreign policy and in three of four categories regarding which candidate quality mattered most: experience, judgment, and “cares about me.”

Yet Trump won on “can bring change.”

Change meant that Clinton received an even smaller percentage of the white vote — 37 percent — than Obama ever did. Clinton’s gender and Trump’s boasting about grabbing vaginas meant nothing against the sentiments whipped up by Trump. White women went for Trump 53-43 percent.

White noncollege women voted for Trump by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, and Trump nearly split the vote among white female college graduates. Such graduates voted for Clinton in some battleground states such as Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, but went overwhelmingly for Trump in the battlegrounds of Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida. There was also no evidence of gender defections by Republican women — 89 percent of them voted for Trump.


And any assumptions that white millennials are predisposed to vote for a diverse America are premature. In 2008, Obama beat John McCain by 10 percentage points among white voters 18-to-29 years old. Tuesday night, Trump won that segment by 5 percentage points.

Du Bois said the identity of whiteness confers “ownership of the earth forever and ever.” No one knows what economic or foreign policy chaos we may get from a Trump presidency, but it is almost certain that white privilege will be protected for decades, since Trump will probably appoint Supreme Court justices predisposed against legal remedies for racial, gender, gay, and economic equality. It is almost as certain he will give us a Justice Department blind to injustice.

Trump’s voters knew this. Of the respondents who told CNN that the Supreme Court was the most important factor in their vote, the majority voted for Trump. In the face of abundant videotaped evidence of police brutality, 74 percent of Trump voters think the nation’s criminal justice system is fair.

Du Bois would not have to change a word in observing how Trump and his supporters “strut and shout and threaten, crouching as they clutch at rags of facts and fancies to hide their nakedness.” An egregious system of denial is about to occupy the White House, on the promise that white people will own America forever.


Derrick Z. Jackson is a Globe contributing columnist and a climate and energy fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He can be reached at jackson@globe.com.