The complete results of last Tuesday’s election are still trickling in and some major questions—such as which party will control the House—remain, but one thing is clear: the much-predicted “red wave” failed to materialize. Boston Review’s co editor-in-chief Deborah Chasman spoke with historian and BR contributing editor Robin D. G. Kelley about how to interpret the results, why emergent fascism remains a threat, and what it will take to defeat the far right.
Deb Chasman: While many races still haven’t been called and the Georgia Senate race is going to a run-off, the prediction of a “red wave” turned out to be wrong. After Trump’s victory in 2016 you wrote of “the rewhitening of America,” channeling Cedric Robinson. But you were also very clear that this condition isn’t inevitable. Racial regimes are fragile, products of class power; they can be fought. Are we seeing hints of Trumpism’s fragility in these election results?
Robin Kelley: Every racial regime in the United States is an expression of class power. Trumpism has always been fragile because its ideological foundations are based on the deceptions Cedric identified in Forgeries of Memory and Meaning (2007): the myths of white patrimony, patriotism, nationalism, non-white inferiority, shored up by exploited and oppressed white people who believe they will one day get a larger share of the pie. This is the basis of the real “fake news” that drove millions to the polls to vote for J. D. Vance, Ron Johnson, Kari Lake, and Herschel Walker.
But these myths have to be opposed. Even if Lake and Walker lose, their strong showing proves, in Cedric’s words, that the deception “still serves.” I understand why many are happy that the Democrats were not clobbered; it is important that the basic protection of reproductive rights sailed to victory in many states. But that was not the result of a sudden, rapid diminishing support for emergent fascism or some wholesale abandonment of Trumpist ideas (which, by the way, are not really Trump’s but have circulated for decades). It was the result of all the hard work and mobilizing to get out Democratic votes, to resist voter suppression at every turn, to raise money, to outmaneuver the right. This is why all of these races were so close—every single one—and in some cases led to significant losses.
There was a red wave of a kind, in other words, but it resembled the “red shirts” of the post-Reconstruction South—the white supremacist organization that used terror to keep Black people and all Republicans from the polls to ensure Democratic victories. This time it took the form of gun-toting right-wing groups supposedly providing “election security” at the polls in Arizona; of Florida passing sweeping legislation to suppress the vote, forcing newly enfranchised formerly incarcerated people to pay back all fees, fines, and restitution costs associated with their conviction before they could register, and then arresting people for supposedly voting illegally; of Georgia enacting the so-called Election Integrity Act, which reduced the number and limited accessibility of absentee ballot drop boxes and imposed new ID requirements on requesting those ballots, among other things. There are many more examples.
It is precisely because racial regimes are always fragile, however—built on deception and mystification—that force is often required. Suppressing the vote by any means necessary has always been a requirement for advancing the “rewhitening” of America.
DC: What do you make of J. D. Vance’s victory in Ohio? Some liberals—the kind who praised his book Hillbilly Elegy—seem shocked by his transformation from never-Trumper to Trump ally.
RK: If some liberals thought the book was great, that’s an indication of their bankrupt ideas. All my work is a critique of liberalism. Everyone I know sharply critiqued the book for its racial and class politics—that is to say, his clear contempt for poor white people and promotion of a politics of responsibility, not too different from the ongoing attack on poor Black people. No one should have been surprised.
DC: Looking beyond electoral politics, your work has always centered the role of social movements. What kind of insurgency is needed today, and where do you see the greatest possibilities?
RK: I’m not prone to predicting anything, but at least two things are clear. First, fascism is still a threat, despite some very important global victories (including the election of Lula in Brazil and Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez in Colombia). Fascism never disappears because people come to their senses; it must be resisted and defeated.
Second, the resurgence of the labor movement—more attentive to the intersections of race, gender, disability, and climate catastrophe than ever—represents the most powerful insurgency against the ravages of racial capitalism. I’m thinking about the new leadership of SEIU and their Unions for All campaign, the organizing efforts of workers at Starbucks, Amazon, and Chipotle, the powerful leadership of National Nurses United. There are plenty of other examples, too. Today’s labor movement is young, dynamic, anti-fascist, militant, and willing to build alliances with many social justice organizations fighting the expanding carceral and security regime, war, the deportation regime, and a U.S. foreign policy that advances a neoliberal free trade agenda at the expense of all workers. This work is essential.