Muncie, Indiana. ‘Nobody speaks for the poor,’ says one resident. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
If there’s one thing that 200 years of slavery and 100 years of segregation did for African Americans, it was to temper their investment in the myth that the US is a meritocracy. The notion that if you worked hard and kept your nose clean, you would get on was always stymied by the grim realities of racial barriers. “America was never America to me,” wrote the Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes in 1935’s Let America Be America Again. “There’s never been equality for me / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free’.”
But, for many white Americans, the expectation that each year would be better than the next and each generation healthier and wealthier provided the core for optimism. However, with those assumptions being eroded, the mood is now more reminiscent of a post-colonial country. People are looking back for a sense of hope. Ask Trump voters when they would like to go back to if they wanted to make America great again and they will give you a date. Jeff Baxter wants to go back to the glow of the 60s, Ted to the 80s, others to the 50s and beyond.
There are, of course, many white Americans looking forward, fighting for their place in a more equal and just, multiracial future. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was killed while protesting against the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville when a car, allegedly driven by a neo-Nazi sympathiser, ploughed into the crowd. “She wanted equality,” her father, Mark Heyer, said. “And in this issue of the day of her passing, she wanted to put down hate.”
Her mother, Susan Bro, refused to take the president’s condolence call. “I’ve heard it said that the murder of my daughter was part of making America great,” Bro added. “The blood on the streets … is that what made America great? Attacking innocent people with a vehicle … is that what made America great?”
When American Renaissance, a white supremacist group straining to put a veneer of intellectualism and respectability on its bigotry, came to Montgomery Bell state park near Nashville in the summer, they were met by a crowd of mostly white protesters, chanting: “No Klan, no hate, no racists in our state.”
One told me that Trump’s election had shaken some white people out of their complacency. “We were asleep at the wheel,” she said. “We can no longer find comfort in silence. We have to dig up all the courage we have, to take a stand for what’s morally right.” On the journey back to Nashville I stopped at a secondhand shop on the roadside, selling Confederate paraphernalia, owned by Nikki who had a complicated relationship to the stars and bars. “I’m a proud southerner,” she said. “But you and I both know the [American] civil war’s basically about slavery,” she told me. “Thank God we lost, thank God … but it doesn’t mean that we still don’t wanna honour our dead.”
Trump did not create this anxiety nor this division. References to the civil war and the Klan illustrate for just how long white America has been riven by its sense of moral purpose and material privilege. What is new is that Trump has emboldened the bigots and channelled their thinking in a fashion not seen in modern times. A president who draws a moral equivalent between neo-Nazis and anti-fascist protesters, who baits black athletes and black journalists, brands Mexicans rapists and Muslims terrorists.
One of those to whom he has given confidence is Richard Spencer, the intellectually unimpressive, historically illiterate huckster who rallied the far right in Charlottesville. Spencer, who wants to create an “ethno-state” for white people, claims to have coined the term “alt-right” – a sanitised word for the extreme right. In July last year, Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, boasted that his website Breitbart News was a “platform for the alt-right”.
When I encountered Spencer at Montgomery Bell park, he emerged carrying a glass of what smelled like bourbon and an entourage of adoring bigots soon surrounded me in the car park. More odious troll than eloquent polemicist, he claimed, among other things, that Africans had benefited from white supremacy and that, despite having been banned from 26 European countries, Europe would always be more his home than mine. “If Africans had never existed, world history would be almost exactly the same as it is today,” he claimed. “Because we are the genius that drives it.” Like a vulture preying on the anxiety, and with few alternatives on offer – as much as people cited Trump as the problem, few offered Democrats as the solution – he felt confident.
“People are now aware of the term ‘alt-right’ … I don’t think Trump shares the ideal of the ethno-state … But he wouldn’t have run the campaign that he ran if he didn’t feel some sense of loss, that America has lost something,” he said.
He felt he was gaining influence. This was one of the few accurate things he actually said. And by far the most chilling.
Angry, White and American is on Channel 4 at 10pm on Thursday 9 November