President Trump has turned the intellectual elite on its head. Depending on one’s disposition, public intellectuals have assigned blame (or credit) for the bombastic blowhard President-who-would-be-king to: poor whites, upper class whites, the Hispanic voters who did not turn out, the Black voters who did not turn out more, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Berniebros, effete limousine liberals. The most recent iteration of this crisis in our public discourse is Mark Lilla’s condemnation of “identity politics”. Really good writers have already pointed out the flaws in Lilla’s argument. I will simply point out that he isn’t the only one advancing those flaws.
More important than Lilla is how woefully unprepared our public discourse is for articulating this President. The real crisis for professionally smart people who make a living setting the agenda of public discourse is how badly they predicted President Trump. For many, the instinct is to jettison all the multicultural experts who had become stylized interpreters of President Obama’s administration. In its place is a compulsive desire to tap into the “real” America: angry white voters. It is the exact wrong impulse. President Trump is not a refutation of identity politics; he is its logical ends. And, he isn’t just the manifestation of white anger. His election is a manifestation of white patriarchal middle class anxieties, Donald Trump’s presidency is one ripe for intersectionality.
Intersectionality is one of those academic ideas that has experienced popular culture legitimacy. It is part of that identity politics movement that authors like Mark Lilla disparage as inconsistent and the progressive Achille’s heel. On the right, intersectionality has become a slur. At least a dozen times a week a social media account with a MAGA slogan in its bio hurls “social justice warrior” and “intersectional feminist” at me with the heat of the n-word emblazoned on a thousand suns. In the bowels of white nationalist websites where an entirely new vocabulary has been created to identify, target, and delegitimize women and minorities, “intersectional feminist” has the patina of a hate word.
It is a strange thing. An academic theory, a way to understand our social world, has become shorthand for the deep-seated rage that white voters, perhaps especially men, feel at their perceived victimization. Some survey data find that a majority of white people think that the only real racism that exists anymore is racism against white people. For those who embody that grievance, intersectional feminism is slang for all that is wrong with U.S. culture.
That is why it is a most elegant twist of fate that few groups need intersectionality more than aggrieved white men and the professional intellectual class seeking to understand how they elected Donald Trump President of the United States of America.
At its core, intersectionality is about nuance and context. Intersectionality emerged out of black feminism, most notably from legal scholar Kimberle’ Crenshaw. But, the idea of intersectionality is as old as recorded histories of black women trying to understand their place in a world where racism, sexism, and classism are always operating at the same time in their public and private lives. Despite the popular culture caricatures of the theory’s original framing, intersectionality is not about identity. That is why people sound foolish using intersectionality and identity politics interchangeably. Intersectionality is a structural theory about processes and systems that make our identities mean something in different contexts.
Over time, the theory has had the kind of success that can make superstars of academics and enemies of their academic work. Intersectionality is a victim of that success. And, it is a victim of its own potential to reveal things that many people would rather not see. Like, Donald Trump, intersectionality is about making text of subtext. President Trump does not dance around his motivations for building a wall or threatening North Korea or revoking DACA. He is not nearly as inarticulate as the press lampoons him. His worldview is remarkably consistent and cohesive. He only renders as incomprehensible because our systems for chronicling politics and power assumes a level of subterfuge. Like covert sexism that dresses up misogyny as gentlemanly manners and racism parading about in a satin cloak of colorblindness, our political rhetoric is designed to obscure politics’ true motivations. Of course it is déclassé to grab a woman by her pussy or insist that Mexicans are rapists. But, the perfectly acceptable political rhetoric that it is fine to pay women less than men or use stereotypes to legally detain and arrest brown people is as egregious. Donald Trump’s only violation is being transparent.
That transparency has revealed a blind spot in our professional intellectual class. Because so many of that class emerge from the same culture of obfuscation from which comes our political culture they cannot violate the rules of rhetoric that make Trump politically bulletproof. When a small group of colleges, which enroll students from a select group of communities produces thinkers who are remarkably similar in breeding, training, and culture it is no wonder that our public intellectuals take for granted the assumptions of political rhetoric. It isn’t that our professional critics cannot see Donald Trump. It is that to render him as visible as he so clearly speaks is to say as much about our intellectual class as it says about Donald Trump.
In the academy, intersectionality was the antidote for that kind of white blindness. Intersectionality’s raison dêtre is to reveal the systems that organize our society. Intersectionality’s brilliance is that its fundamental contribution to how we view the world seems so common-sense once you have heard it: by focusing on the parts of the system that are most complex and where the people living it are the most vulnerable we understand the system best. Mark Lilla and others who critique this view of the body politic, reducing it to the caricature of “identity politics”, refuse to engage intersectionality’s most powerful empirical truth: we all have intersectional identities and all of them matter, if not all in the same way.
An intersectional analysis of the nation that elected Donald Trump president would not just focus on his whiteness or his maleness. It would not just understand his wealth and status. It would not look for the Rosetta stone in the Appalachian mountains or in the hearts and minds of white women in rural America. It would look at all of those identities, in context. An intersectional analysis of President Trump might reveal that his authoritarian performance centers an identity as American as apple pie and colonialism. It is a performance that is simultaneously at odds with what masculinity means when whiteness cannot anchor it to upward mobility and white women cannot reconcile their own stagnate mobility as mirroring that of black working class women. It might consider that white Latino voters have different identity politics than their darker and Afro-Latino kin who navigate vastly different aspirations for assimilation because the latter can pass for black. And, it might reveal that of all voters, the reliable Democratic voting block of middle class and working class black women most accurately read the socio-economic conditions that professional smart people missed.
We find ourselves at a crossroads. The more liberal among us are tempted to retreat to the great man histories, which were too male and white to begin with. Others scramble for singular explanations of Trumpism that reduce complex identities to static categories like poor, white, and rural. And, far too many of those on whom we rely to help us make sense of a complex world reject the very nuanced framework that could help them help us. The intersectional President who was elected as a rebuke of intersectionality is one of the best modern examples of why we need more intersectional feminists, not fewer.