Some people are saying that Trump is unusually bad because he is openly racist and white supremacist. There's a post up on Slate Star Codex accusing these people of "crying wolf," of overstating their case. I think Scott Alexander is overstating his own case.
The claim that Trump's a white supremacist is overstated.
What I took to be Scott's core point is that blatant right-wing hypocrisy around race is normal, and better than openly admitting racial animus:
And if you believe he’s lying, fine. Yet I notice that people accusing Trump of racism use the word “openly” like a tic. He’s never just “racist” or “white supremacist”. He’s always “openly racist” and “openly white supremacist”. Trump is openly racist, openly racist, openly racist, openly racist, openly racist, openly racist, openly racist. Trump is running on pure white supremacy, has thrown off the last pretense that his campaign is not about bigotry, has the slogan Make American Openly White Supremacist Again, is an openly white supremacist nominee, etc, etc, etc. And I’ve seen a few dozen articles like this where people say that “the bright side of a Trump victory is that finally America admitted its racism out in the open so nobody can pretend it’s not there anymore.”
This, I think, is the first level of crying wolf. What if, one day, there is a candidate who hates black people so much that he doesn’t go on a campaign stop to a traditionally black church in Detroit, talk about all of the contributions black people have made to America, promise to fight for black people, and say that his campaign is about opposing racism in all its forms? What if there’s a candidate who does something more like, say, go to a KKK meeting and say that black people are inferior and only whites are real Americans?
We might want to use words like “openly racist” or “openly white supremacist” to describe him. And at that point, nobody will listen, because we wasted “openly white supremacist” on the guy who tweets pictures of himself eating a taco on Cinco de Mayo while saying “I love Hispanics!”
This matches my vague subjective impression of what's going on, and it seems like a problem.
Why police these definitions?
I've heard people claim that the real definitions of racism and white supremacy refer to broader systems of oppression, not individual overt explicit endorsements of bigotry. This is what people mean by the terms in the context of critical race theory, they're valid and useful concepts, and it's fine if people want to extend existing concepts to express something new that they think is important. But the folk definitions of racism and white supremacy are the only ones people know about in many large subcultures. They carry a special urgency with their use.
Individual intent and overtness matter here because they make the difference between on the one hand perpetuating and serving existing structures of oppression, and on the other creating entirely new ones or restoring old ones that had been removed.
A while ago, our national government embarked on a campaign of cultural genocide, including but not limited to a literal war killing hundreds of thousands, against Southern White culture, because that culture permitted racial slavery. The war here is not a metaphor - they actually fought a war, with soldiers, and guns, and killing hundreds of thousands of people. They also had to stamp out terrorist resistance organizations such as Ku Klux Klan. The terrorism here is not a metaphor - the KKK literally murdered people to block efforts to erase their racially segregated folkways. This effort has had its problems, including millions of deaths, but it has at least managed to vastly reduce the incidence in this country of white people owning black people and wantonly tormenting them. I am glad that this progress has been made, and would be very enthusiastic about efforts to prevent backsliding.
(I believe the Germans have a related set of cultural taboos, for not entirely dissimilar reasons.)
This campaign is ongoing in the form of strong cultural taboos against explicitly, overtly organizing around the principle that white people are naturally superior and deserve to rule the other races. This has had the side benefit of making other forms of racial oppression more difficult, but the main benefit is to make it hard for anyone to organize around e.g. restoring slavery. "White supremacist" is a term that used to be reserved for persons and organizations that violated this taboo - for instance by mimicking the racial terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan or state-sponsored racial violence ideology of the Nazis. When people say, outside of a narrow activism or academic context, that someone is openly a white supremacist, it is extremely predictable that much of their audience will take them to mean this sort of thing.
Robin Hanson gives a more general explanation of why it's important to protect the integrity of terms that denote strong norm violations, if you endorse the norms:
Imagine that you manage a restaurant, and suddenly during the evening shift a middle-aged woman stands up, points to another diner, and yells “Murderer!” She loudly appeals to everyone to help her restrain and punish this supposed murderer. [...] When other diners are shy, she demands that you expel this murderer from your restaurant. She says that in a civilized society it is every good person’s duty to oppose murder, and explains her belief that her husband went to an early grave because this older man, her boss, worked him too hard. Sure her husband could have quit his job instead, but he just wasn’t that sort of person.
Will you expel this customer as requested? Probably not. Yes there is a plausible meaning of the word “murder” that applies, but the accused must satisfy a narrower meaning for such an appeal to move you. In this post I will suggest that we take a similar restricted attitude toward “racism” in politics. [...]
While many arguments appeal to self-interest and shared loyalties, others demand priority because of norm violations. The claim is that whatever other different interests we may have and pursue, it is essential that we set those aside to coordinate to punish key norm violations. And since many of these norms are, for various reasons, not enforced by formal law, we depend on other good people and organizations to respond to such moral calls to action.
[...] But in the last half century in the West, preferences against “racism” have risen to at least near the level of moral norms. (We have related feelings on “sexism” and other “isms” but in this post I’ll focus on racism for concreteness.) Whatever else we may disagree on, we are told, we must coordinate to oppose racists, boycotting their businesses and drumming them out of public office. Which could make sense if enough of us agree strongly enough to make this a priority, and if we share an effective way to collectively identify such violations.
One problem, however, is that our commonly used concepts of “racism” seem more appropriate to ordinary conversation and persuasion than to usefully enforceable strong norms and law. Some favor concepts where most everyone is at least a bit racist, and others concepts based on hard-to-observe dispositions. But while such concepts may be useful in ordinary conversation or academic analysis, they are poorly suited for enforcing strong norms and law.
For example, many today claim that Trump is clearly racist, and invoke a shared norm against racism in their appeal for everyone to oppose Trump. No good person, they suggest, should cooperate in any way with Trump or his supporters. [...]
But as Scott Alexander recently tried to argue, the evidence offered for Trump racism doesn’t yet seem sufficient to hold up in a legal court, not at least if that court used a “racism” concept of the sort law prefers. If your concept of “racist” applies to a third of the population, or requires a subjective summing up of everything you’ve ever heard about the accused, it just won’t do for law.
Yes, people are trying Trump in a court of public opinion, not in a court of law. But my whole point here is that there is a continuum of cases, and we should hold a higher more-restrictive more-law-like standard for enforcing strong norms than we should in ordinary conversation and persuasion. Higher standards are also needed for larger more varied communities, when there are stronger possibilities of bias and corruption, and when the enforcing audience pays less attention to its job. So we should be a lot more careful with who we call “racist” than who we call “hot” or “smart”, for example. For those later judgements, which are not the basis of calls to enforcement of shared strong norms, it is more okay to just use your judgement based on everything you’ve heard.
In short, we as a society have a choice. We can reserve the term "racist" - or the term "white supremacist" - for people who have clearly violated a strong norm and must be strongly punished, or we can use them in ways that are hard to demonstrate and plausibly apply to a very large share of the population. We can't stably have both.
If someone is having a hard time getting people upset about systems of oppression - probably in large part because many Americans do not have this concept - it is understandable that they are motivated to use terms people already know enough to get upset about, such as "racism" or "white supremacy," instead of doing the hard and often unrewarding work of trying to explain to someone that they too are complicit in oppression. But the boost is often not because of a boost in true understanding. It's because the user has accepted the cost of making people believe untrue things, in order to get them to do the desired thing. This is the case no matter whether there was intent to deceive - it's a response to an incentive to deceive, not one that comes from intent to inform accurately.
Whatever it is that Donald Trump is and does, I think it would be very bad news for justice around race if, for instance, the electoral college substituted David Duke in his place. That's because David Duke is a - what? What's the word that's left for the sort of person who is quite literally willing to openly, publicly endorse and organize around the explicit proposition that white people are better and therefore ought to rule?
None of this is a denial that very real racism exists and is a real problem for many people, in both the folk and critical race theory senses. But I only have words to describe why it's especially worrying that Trump has been unusually tolerant of overt racism and supported by overtly racist people and organizations, by clearly distinguishing these from structural and covert forms of racism.
It's fine for people to use the activist/academic term if they actually use the activist/academic term. But the connotation of "racism is contemptible, white supremacy is horrific and to be resisted at all costs" comes from our taboos against folk-defined racism and white supremacy, not from any shared intuitions about the other concepts using the same names.
The size of the usage problem is exaggerated.
It would be a problem if people were regularly jumping to use the term "openly white supremacist" in cases that violated the folk definition, especially in a form where the Gricean maxim of relevance would suggest that someone's using the older folk definition. It would be a problem if people were repeatedly "crying wolf" by claiming that each new Republican candidate was an openly racist radical departure from a past of only veiled racism. But I'm not persuaded by Scott's argument that this is happening a lot. Let's look at his examples again:
Yet I notice that people accusing Trump of racism use the word “openly” like a tic. He’s never just “racist” or “white supremacist”. He’s always “openly racist” and “openly white supremacist”. Trump is openly racist, openly racist, openly racist, openly racist, openly racist, openly racist, openly racist. Trump is running on pure white supremacy, has thrown off the last pretense that his campaign is not about bigotry, has the slogan Make American Openly White Supremacist Again, is an openly white supremacist nominee, etc, etc, etc. And I’ve seen a few dozen articles like this where people say that “the bright side of a Trump victory is that finally America admitted its racism out in the open so nobody can pretend it’s not there anymore.”
I bothered to follow the links. Here's what they show:
- A student in a "town hall" style meeting asked Republican congressional leader Paul Ryan how he can justify Republican support of "somebody who is openly racist and has said Islamophobic statements, wants to shut down our borders." For context, as the article says, "Ryan, who last month characterized Trump’s racist attack on a Latino federal judge as 'the textbook definition of a racist comment,' didn’t back away from that criticism." (Trump had said that the judge was unfit to judge a case affecting Trump because the US-born judge was "Mexican".) I don't think Paul Ryan is hysterically leaping to unjustified accusations of open racism, and I don't think that it's an unreasonable off-the-cuff gloss on "openly makes racist comments" to say "is openly racist."
- An article about the Washington Redskins' name (widely considered a racial slur term for descendants of the pre-European inhabitants of the US) calls Trump "the most openly racist major-party candidate of our lifetime." This is very clearly not "crying wolf," in the sense that it's obviously not claiming that Trump is a radical departure from prior major-party presidential candidates, just that he's especially bad for one in living memory.
- An article claims that Trump is a racist, listing the standard litany of specific evidence (which makes it clear what they mean by racist), and saves the term "openly racist" for his anti-immigrant rhetoric. This seems like an exaggeration.
- An article about Trump mentions behavior by Ronald Reagan, claiming that it "acknowledged that once again it was okay to be openly racist and the Republican Party was embarking on a campaign to roll back the political and economic advances of African Americans under the guise of ‘freedom’ and ‘supply side economics.’” This is the opposite of crying wolf.
- An article titled "There’s No More Denying It: Trump Is Openly Racist" gives the specific example of his criticism of a judge's Latino ancestry.
- The article about a student asking Paul Ryan a question is linked a second time.
- A letter to the editor says: "A fair statement of the G.O.P.’s position would be this: We’re sad that our chosen candidate expresses himself in an openly racist manner. But we still want our racist candidate to become America’s next president. So we urge Donald Trump to keep his racist views to himself for now."
- An article accuses Trump's campaign of "running on pure white supremacy" and his supporters of comprising millions of white supremacists who are newly emboldened to openly proclaim their bigotry. This seems like a clear case of crying wolf.
- An article titled "Trump Throws Off the Last Pretense That His Campaign Is Not About Bigotry" justifies that claim by pointing to Trump's open affinity for Nigel Farage, key promoter of Brexit. This does not in fact seem like Trump abandoned the pretense of not being racist, so I count it as a case of crying wolf.
- An article parodies Trump's campaign slogan as "Make America Openly White Supremacist Again.” This seems like crying wolf, but is not obviously meant seriously. It does explicitly acknowledge that Trump is trying to create the impression that he likes African-Americans and they like him, which is a clear acknowledgement of the limits of the applicability of "openly."
- An article refers to Trump as an openly white supremacist nominee. This seems like crying wolf.
- An article calls Trump "an egotistical racist misogynist" and says that this finally exposes America's racism plainly. This seems unclear to the point of some exaggeration, but is not a clear case of crying wolf.
Many of these examples are plainly using "openly racist" to mean, openly making comments that the author considered clearly motivated by or calculated to appeal to racist sentiments. If you're especially attached to a particularly narrow definition of racist, whereby you're only racist against Latinos if you explicitly say "Latinos are worse than white people," than I can see why you'd object to this. But, it's clear in context what people mean by the word, if you read them with any charity at all, and they're clearly making justified claims about specific individual conduct.
On "white supremacist," the "crying wolf" case is a little clearer, and I think people really do seem to be conflating the narrow folk definition, which violates a taboo, with the critical race theory, which if you apply it consistently, applies to every past president, including Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Barack Hussein Obama.
I think that Scott perceives "racist" as denoting the object of a strong taboo, and concludes from this that the claims being made about Trump's behavior are way too strong. I, on the other hand, think the taboo around "being racist" is in the process of collapsing as the category expands, and the specific claims made are mostly accurate.
On the other hand, the term "white supremacist" seems like it's still attached to substantial taboos, and we should - to the extent to which we value this taboo - be careful about only using it when we have clear strong evidence, or qualifying it accordingly.
Trump is unusually worrying on race
Even if it's clear - which I'm not sure it is - that Trump hasn't violated cultural taboos around race, it's worth noting that it's still actually true that he's more worrying on race than past presidential candidates. Some examples:
- I do hear, from many public figures such as journalists, that they used to receive no anti-semitic harassment, and now they get lots. Not dogwhistley anti-"global elites" stuff; I'm talking about die-in-an-oven stuff. When combined with the sheriff star incident, and more broadly Trump's pattern of retweeting neo-Nazi propaganda, this is legitimately at least a little worrying, and reflects at least a little on Trump and the sorts of people he's appealing to.
- Trump rose to genuine political prominence as an early proponent of the birther movement spreading unjustified doubt that our first black president was born in this country.
- Trump's very close advisor Bannon, head of Breitbart News (which gives a platform to some bigoted alt-right stuff) argued that it's a problem that so many Silicon Valley CEOs are of Asian ancestry, though to Trump's credit he disagreed. Breitbart News has also provided a platform to alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos.
- Trump's announcement speech crudely stereotyped Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. He didn't literally say that they're all or mostly criminals (aside from unauthorized entry), but he strongly implied it: "They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
- White supremacists seem especially excited about Trump even if the reverse isn't as obvious. David Duke, famously a former KKK leader, expressed enthusiasm about Trump. Contra Scott's claim that there was no endorsement, Duke said that he supported his candidacy. Nor does he always support the Republican - he was against Romney. On election night, he tweeted, "This is one of the most exciting nights of my life -> make no mistake about it, our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump!"
I think that what's really going on here is hard to articulate because in the US, political coalitions are masked by the apparent continuity of the two major US political parties.
Many countries with proportional representation have a party with extreme views that gets something like 10% of the vote consistently, but is widely considered politically toxic, so that any governing coalition has to sometimes-awkwardly route around them in order not to be in a coalition with them. Sometimes this party is Communist. Sometimes it's for fascism or racial purity.
What's happened in the US is not the analogue of the majority leader openly professing the views of the toxic minority. What's happened is that the governing coalition has included this minority.
Trump is, unambiguously, unusually tolerant of open bigots in the form of the alt-right. He panders to them in ways that are more thinly veiled than usual. He retweets their propaganda when it's favorable to him. He relies on close advisors who have given them a platform. This is a genuinely new and disturbing development. But let's be clear on what's happening. It's not that the governing party is now overtly organizing on the principle of white supremacy. It's that the governing party is no longer enforcing the taboo against this.
Not overstating things is hard
When I first read Scott's post, I wanted to respond to the effect that I thought he was missing a bunch of fairly credible evidence that Trump's unusually worrying about race. I wanted to argue that Scott had left out some important claims that were narrower and much more solid than the ones he was attacking. I would have just left a comment to that effect but there was no comments section to the post. So I wrote a standalone Facebook post making that criticism, and giving the example of anti-Semitic harassment of journalists.
I was worried that a post doing nothing but making that particular criticism would create the false impression that I thought I was thereby refuting Scott's main point, or showing that I thought it was irrelevant, or something. So I tried to qualify my criticism with a statement that I thought the overall gist was in the right direction, coupled with a qualifier on the qualifier, stating that I hadn't read the post carefully yet. Ironically, I overstated my qualifier (or at least created the false impression I was endorsing points I hadn't meant to endorse), exactly what I was accusing Scott of doing, and what he was accusing others of doing. Apparently, not overstating things is really hard!
People took me to be endorsing the claim that Trump not only isn't personally an overt white supremacist, but that Trump isn't especially worrying on race. In fairness to them, another of the bloggers named Scott A linked the post, saying, "The only people who will think Trump is a racist going forward are people who haven’t read this article."
To avoid this sort of illusion of transparency problem in the future, I'm going to try to avoid saying "I agree" without specifying the things I think the other person is saying that I agree with. In that spirit, here's what I really think, which I think largely overlaps with what I take to be Scott's main point: we should avoid stating or implying that Trump has directly violated a strong taboo, when what he has actually done is to socially tolerate and openly cooperate with people who have violated that strong taboo.
This point can be made without implying that everyone who calls Trump "openly racist" is making the problem worse, or that anyone worried that Trump will be worse than usual on racial issues is irrationally panicked.
Not overstating things is important
I think that Scott's post is pointing to a real, urgent, basic problem; casual acceptance of exaggerations or blatantly false claims, because they point vaguely in the same direction as some true important claims, means that I can't trust my epistemic environment. Many of the "openly racist" examples did not have this problem - but the "white supremacist" examples did.
If someone tells me "person X is a white supremacist" - even someone who'd never lie to me about a literal fact they've observed firsthand - then I know that at some point someone in the game of telephone they're a part of saw a mention of person X in proximity to something that seems sorta racist - but I don't actually know whether person X is a white supremacist.
And if I ask or search for details, I get snowed with a bunch of made-up claims, and I can't even assume that the presence of a bunch of made-up claims is evidence that the underlying claim is false. Because people do this even when the claim is actually true. So all I know is that my interlocutor's subculture wants me to label person X as a white supremacist, I don't know why.
I had to wade through a bunch of plausibly just made-up or normal-for-the-right-wing stuff about Bannon before I found Bannon actually saying something unambiguously in favor of racial discrimination / ethnic homogeneity. When I posted about this on Facebook, I got criticism for nitpicking about the use of the word "openly" - but no one bothered to look at any examples and argue that "openly" had in fact been used correctly - even though in many cases it was.
I think that this is a symptom of an even deeper problem. Remember when Microsoft unveiled a Twitter chatbot that learned from conversations, and it quickly became openly racist? Well, we've basically made that racist Twitter chatbot president and are about to let it make cabinet appointments and give it access to the nuclear football. If what you're worried about there is that the chatbot's racist, you're much more optimistic than I am.
(Note: Trump is not literally a chatbot. He's got *some* real opinions as far as I can tell. But it's unclear how many, and he mostly seems to be directly optimizing for getting attention. I am not highly confident that the model in this comment is true; I am highly confident that it's worth seriously considering.)
Separately I think Scott is pointing to a different but related real urgent problem, which is that a large share of the population has seemingly accepted the norm that words are for manipulating your allies, not for honestly informing them, which has eroded trust to the point where half the country voted for the damn chatbot because it's at least not got enough impulse control to have a secret agenda.
Keep your eye on the ball. In the short run, resistance against further erosion of the fabric of the Republic may be tactically appropriate. But for the long run, we need a strategy that deals with the underlying problem.