(Law of) Identity Politics

The razor-sharp mind of David Brooks at work, in a column on the recent anti-Trump march on Washington, D.C.:

The biggest problem with identity politics is that its categories don’t explain what is going on now.

Two paragraphs later:

I loathed Trump’s inaugural: It offered a zero-sum, ethnically pure, backward-looking brutalistic nationalism. But it was a coherent vision, and he is rallying a true and fervent love of our home.

So either ethnicity is not a category of identity politics, or the concept of ethnicity is irrelevant to explaining a coherent vision based on a brutal, nationalist conception of ethnic purity.

Either way, rest assured: we can count on David Brooks to light the way in these dark times. Good to know.

2 thoughts on “(Law of) Identity Politics

  1. It’s interesting to see Brook’s endorsement of the “discipline of party politics” as a necessary means for channelling broader social movements. His criticisms about identity politics seem to fit into a larger “you need party establishments to actually get things done” stance – something that I think Trump has been able to sidestep when useful, and then take advantage of when it suits him.

    As I read Trump’s Inaugural speech, I can’t say I agree with the assessment that it is simply “zero-sum, ethnically pure, backward-looking brutalistic nationalism.” I’d say that the rhetoric is an attempt to overcome ethnicity and race, class (except for the elites targeted as the exploiters), gender, etc. through nationalism – offering that as something that wouldn’t be a zero-sum situation – as opposed to the past and present of division, which then would be zero-sum.

    And I suppose you can say that there are people for whom the inaugural was “rallying a true and fervent love of our home” – but again, I’d say that the speech was designed to put that forward as a key component of the nationalism advocated as a solution in the speech.

    I’d go further and say that the vision Trump’s speech – like many of his earlier speeches – sets out is a way of getting things done precisely by transcending party politics. That’s no entirely, of course, how things are actually getting done – and pretty fast – in the new administration, but it is how the speech portrays it.


    • I mostly agree with your reading of Trump’s speech as against Brooks’s interpretation of it. I was just interested in dumping on Brooks.

      On the day after Brooks’s column was published (January 25), The New York Times ran seven stories that seem like obvious counter-examples to his claims about the irrelevance of identity politics:

      (1) on Trump’s Mexican border wall,
      (2) on the controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline,
      (3) on Israel’s plans to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank,
      (4) on the timetable for Brexit,
      (5) on the rising right-wing populism of Dutch politics,
      (6) on the possibility of lawsuits against the Trump Administration’s decision to discontinue the civil rights initiatives of the Obama Justice Department, and
      (7) on Mexico’s considering the possibility of leaving NAFTA.

      To belabor the obvious: identity politics is central to all seven stories.

      (1) At least some of the support for the wall with Mexico is based on animus for Mexicans, itself based on affirming American-ness as an identity.
      (2) The Standing Rock Sioux oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline in part because they regard it as violating their tribal inheritance, which expresses tribal identity.
      (3) The Israeli settlement enterprise is an expression of Zionism, which is a paradigmatic instance of identity politics.
      (4) Brexit is an assertion of specifically British identity against a generalized European identity.
      (5) Dutch populism is in part a reaction to what’s perceived as the sullying influx of immigrants on Holland, and of the need to uphold Dutch identity in the face of that supposed threat.
      (6) The Obama civil rights initiatives were intended to oppose racism, which is a form of identity politics. And
      (7) Mexico’s desire to leave NAFTA is in part a reaction to American animus for Mexicans, expressing Mexican national identity.

      So Brooks’s claim that identity politics doesn’t “explain what’s going on now” seems pretty obtuse–unless he means that he has alternative accounts of (1)-(7), every one of which successfully explains away the references to identity politics. Which I doubt.

      I think you’re right to say that Brooks’s attempt to saddle Trump with advocacy of ethnic purity (at least in the Inaugural Speech) is a stretch. In fact, it flouts the text of the speech.

      It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.

      And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.

      That’s not a vision of ethnic purity.

      Instead of ethnicity, I would have focused on Trump’s refusal to recognize the just claims of non-citizens, including legal residents of the country:

      You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.

      Trump’s conviction overlooks the fact that the Constitution and government of the United States exist to protect the people of the United States, not just its citizens. The people of the United States include both its citizens and its non-citizen residents. Likewise, the Bill of Rights protects persons, not just citizens. Same with the Fourteenth Amendment. Since we need government to uphold constitutional rights, it’s false to say that government exists to serve citizens (whatever “the nation” exists to serve, and whatever “the nation” turns out to be). Government exists to serve (and/or protect) all of us. To put it bluntly, Trump speaks of citizens as though non-citizens counted for nothing: if you’re not a citizen, you don’t matter (unless, I suppose, you’re an embryonic or fetal non-citizen).

      Trump doesn’t put this in specifically ethnic terms himself, but he’s well aware of the fact that many would–and many do. The non-citizens that don’t count tend to be “ethnic.” So I think it’s fair to say that in a surreptitious way, Trump does feed specifically ethnic animosities. In valorizing citizenship (even in non-ethnic ways), but pointedly ignoring non-citizens, he exploits the xenophobia and nativism that brought him to power. It’s a clever balancing act, subtler than Brooks’s analysis would imply.

      I think Brooks is on stronger grounds in saddling Trump with a zero-sum vision, though I’d have put that differently, as well. The text of the speech makes clear that Trump regards American interests as fundamentally conflicting with, rather than harmonious with, the interests of other nations–especially in economic affairs. Hence the injunction to buy American and hire American. The relevant issue, as I see it, is not so much “zero sum vision” as conflicts of national interests.

      It’s worth reading his Executive Order on immigration in this light, by the way, with specific attention to how he uses the word “interest” throughout (e.g., Section 4, Section 5c, 5d, etc.). The word has no legal definition, and is used with maximal elasticity throughout the document. But its rhetorical purpose is obvious: it’s invoked as a semantic barrier against foreigners. If you’re foreign, you’re not an American citizen. If you’re not an American citizen, you’re a prima facie threat to our interests, and a legitimate object of intense suspicion. So prepare for some rought treatment. Brooks is right that there’s something brutal about that vision–though I doubt that we needed David Brooks to figure that out.


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