The president of the United States is a larger than life figure. As seen with George H.W. Bush, this is even more true in death.
This article was originally published at Salon
The senior President Bush, who died last week, is now the subject of hagiographies that depict him as humble, kind and decent: A leader and man whose life was committed to public service, an exemplary human being and role model of civility in an ugly and tumultuously partisan America.
In the age of Donald Trump, George Herbert Walker Bush has taken on new significance. It can appear as if for every way that Trump befouls the presidency and the White House, the elder Bush elevated it.
Bush’s critics have refused to play along with that script, instead highlighting the late president’s many shortcomings. These include the race-baiting of the infamous 1988 “Willie Horton” campaign ad, lack of empathy for AIDS victims, efforts to restrict women’s reproductive rights, the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, usurping the Constitution in the Iran-Contra scandal, fueling the racist and classist “War on Drugs,” defaming the family, personal character and patriotism of Bill Clinton and others who opposed him, and providing cover and support for human rights abuses and crimes in Latin America, the Middle East and other parts of the world.
But some observers have chosen to see something else in the George H.W. Bush’s life.
Writing at the New York Times, resident right-wing provocateur and troll Ross Douthat sees in George H.W. Bush a scion of whiteness, a royal heir to a WASP culture that Douthat believes can heal America’s wounds and make a better future by looking to the past.
In “Why We Miss the WASPs,” Douthat describes “Bush nostalgia” as:
a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more — a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.
Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.
Douthat’s argument is built on less than a foundation of sand or mud. It floats on swamp gas. His claim of a decline in WASP culture is based on a fictionalized version of benign whiteness and noblesse oblige. This is the worst sort of nostalgia.
Here are The facts.
According to the Census Bureau, just over 60 percent of Americans are classified as “non-Hispanic white.” Around 80 percent of members of Congress are white. All presidents except one have been white. On a state level, 92 percent of governors are white and 85 percent of state legislators are white. The CEOs of the Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies are almost all white. Since before the founding of America and through to the present, white people have controlled every major social, political, and cultural institution in the country.
Perhaps Douthat and others who worship WASP elites as the rightful leaders of the country believe that group to be great stewards of American prosperity?
The facts again are unkind. During the last few decades (and centuries) of their leadership wealth and income inequality have skyrocketed. Americans’ lifespans are decreasing, loneliness has increased and “deaths of despair” — largely referring to suicide, drug overdose and alcohol-related disease — are ravaging many parts of America.
How does this WASP leadership class share its power and influence to the betterment of society?
They do not. Like other elites, Douthat’s beloved WASP caste largely protects its own power and social capital. It hoards opportunities and resources within its exclusive clubs, neighborhoods, schools, places of employment and other social institutions.
This myth of a great white Anglo-Saxon leadership class is also sustained by a culture where the very powerful — especially rich white conservative Christian men — are rarely if ever punished for their crimes and other failings.
Writing at the Baffler, Jim Newell explains how this culture of WASP entitlement and superiority is reinforced at elite institutions like Harvard University:
It’s not as though Harvard lacks for alums whom the institution should be ashamed to be associated with, or who have befouled “the public perception of integrity in higher education.” …
There was former Harvard President, Treasury Secretary, and deregulator extraordinaire Larry Summers; there was Summers’s predecessor at Treasury and mentor in the intricate art of fucking up global economies of weaker nations for no good reason, Robert Rubin (AB ’60 and member of the Corporation, Harvard’s governing body); there was the CEO of America’s most ruthless megabank (“the smart ones,” in financial expert circles), Lloyd Blankfein (AB ’75, JD ’78); and then there were approximately 100 percent of the other key figures who engineered this wholly preventable near-reversion to the state of nature — all Crimson men with at least one tour of duty.
The university offers no protest as these apocalypse machinists drop John Harvard’s name in their pursuit of sinecures atop whatever remaining elite institutions and systems they have yet to destroy; instead, it covers them with laurels and showers them with money.
But Douthat does something special in “Why We Miss the WASPs.” He takes a silent aspect of conservatism in post-civil rights America and chooses to say it loud and clear. The “white” in WASP is then followed by: “we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.” Then Douthat continues:
So if some of the elder Bush’s mourners wish we still had a WASP establishment, their desire probably reflects a belated realization that certain of the old establishment’s vices were inherent to any elite, that meritocracy creates its own forms of exclusion — and that the WASPs had virtues that their successors have failed to inherit or revive.
Those virtues included a spirit of noblesse oblige and personal austerity and piety that went beyond the thank-you notes and boat shoes and prep school chapel going — a spirit that trained the most privileged children for service, not just success, that sent men like Bush into combat alongside the sons of farmers and mechanics in the same way that it sent missionaries and diplomats abroad in the service of their churches and their country.
The WASP virtues also included a cosmopolitanism that was often more authentic than our own performative variety — a cosmopolitanism that coexisted with white man’s burden racism but also sometimes transcended it, because for every Brahmin bigot there was an Arabist or China hand or Hispanophile who understood the non-American world better than some of today’s shallow multiculturalists.
Notice that for Douthat, the first-person plural, as in “our own performative variety,” describes white people of a certain educational and class background. In his view, America’s multiracial democracy and by implication nonwhite people — especially African-Americans, given the country’s history of white-on-black chattel slavery — are defective and inferior, incapable by virtue of either biology and culture or some mix of the two of being equal participants in a proper democracy.
Conservatives and others invested in Douthat’s fantasies of Whiteness and America’s idealized past treat history like a buffet where they pick the good and tasty morsels and leave aside anything they find distasteful and unpleasant. Consequently, racism, sexism, bigotry against gays and lesbians, nativism, violence, anti-Semitism and other socially pathological behavior is largely ignored except as footnotes to a story of WASP goodness and American triumph, rather than as key elements in how White America and WASP power was created and sustained.
The reality is that the WASP power Douthat remembers longingly was enriched by Jim and Jane Crow, redlining, housing segregation and other white supremacist public policies, as well as by informal day-to-day practices. On a basic level, “sundown towns” and other exclusive all-white communities were a way of stealing and expanding white wealth at the literal expense of nonwhites.
It was not just the stereotypical white rabble which ran amok, killing and terrorizing black Americans after the Civil War and through to the middle of the 20th century. The white Anglo-Saxon elites whom Douthat idolizes participated in, encouraged, legitimated and profited from racial terrorism against black Americans and other nonwhites.
Doctors, lawyers, bankers and other members of “polite” white society were members of the Ku Klux Klan. This was especially true during the height of that terrorist group’s power in the 1920s.
At the Atlantic, Joshua Rothman explains:
Typical [Klan] members were neither wealthy and powerful nor impoverished and dispossessed. Rather, they were middle-class white American men and their families: small-business owners and salesmen, ministers and professors, clerks and farmers, doctors and lawyers. …
Klan members showed up in churches on Sunday mornings to donate money and they ran charity drives. They threw Christmas parties for orphans and raised money to build Protestant-only hospitals. They made efforts to fight supposed Catholic influence in public schools by donating American flags and Bibles. They created special Klan rites for wedding ceremonies, christenings, and funerals. They ran candidates for hundreds of state and local offices, and Americans elected countless Klan members as mayors, school-board and city-council members, sheriffs, and state legislators. Klan officeholders in particularly prominent and powerful positions included Governors Edward Jackson of Indiana and Clifford Walker of Georgia, as well as U.S. Senators Earle Mayfield of Texas and Rice Means of Colorado.
For every Klansman who joined for the opportunity to bully, threaten, and beat blacks, immigrants, and adulterers, there were dozens attracted by these sorts of avenues for communal and civic engagement, for forging business and political connections to other middle-class white people, and for the chance to be publicly proud of being white, Protestant, and a native-born American.
The power of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants worked not just through direct overt violence but through the (attempted) humiliation of nonwhites as well.
In one of the most obvious examples, Douthat’s “good” WASPs employed nonwhites as their nurses, maids, butlers and drivers.
Black Pullman porters — some of whom were attorneys, doctors and engineers denied their dreams and social standing by America’s version of apartheid — took care of white people on trains, playing the anonymous role of the black servant “George” while ensuring that white passengers did not have a care in the world. WASP benevolence took the form of a few coins or a pat on the shoulder (or head) for a job well done.
From the end of slavery to the present, black maids, washerwomen, servants and other laborers were given hand-me-down clothes and leftover food as gestures of white benevolence. This was true not just in the Jim Crow South but all over the United States. These same black women and girls were also targets for sexual assault by white men who assumed, often correctly, that they could commit acts of sexual violence with impunity.
More often than not, white women and girls in those WASP households were not the natural allies of black and brown women. They could be as cruel as their husbands, fathers, brothers or sons.
The history of the global color line is also the history of resistance and fighting for a more equal and real American democracy. Black maids and washerwomen and those “men named George” were leaders and soldiers in the civil rights movement. White America and its WASP leaders convinced themselves that the “happy” and/or stoic black mask was real; the arrogance of the white gaze blinded them to the fire and rage beneath.
Paul Laurence Dunbar channeled this is in his poem “We Wear the Mask”:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
The resistance struggles and social movements that have sought to force American democracy to live up to its potential is one of the many gifts that black people and other nonwhites have given to America. These successes of black and brown people and their white allies forged an America that is more dynamic, prosperous, innovative and free for all people than had it remained a country of, for, and by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
Douthat is not alone in his white supremacist yearnings: one of the most important social science research studies in recent memory shows that white Americans — especially Republicans and Trump voters — are willing to jettison democracy to preserve white privilege and white dominance in America.
Douthat and other conservatives of his ilk claim to reject Trumpism. But on a fundamental level they share the same racist and authoritarian yearnings. Ultimately, it is Trump’s style and presentation which is the problem for the Douthats of the world. They prefer their white supremacy polite, gracious and properly attired for cocktails at the club, rather than as MAGA-hat-wearing “deplorables.”