Nikhil Pal Singh on Zoom

“A Punishing American Zeitgeist” | An Interview with Nikhil Pal Singh

The Drift

With Trump finally, dramatically out of office, the efforts to historicize his tenure have already begun. What is his legacy? How did we get here? What’s next?

Long an astute commentator on race, imperialism, and the history of American political struggle, Nikhil Pal Singh has been an essential scholarly voice amidst the chaos that defined the Trump era, and the online noise that continues even in his absence. Singh is a Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University, where he directs the NYU Prison Education Program. He is the author of Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (2004), which reframed the history of the American civil rights movement, tracing its long arc through the radical Black intellectual tradition of the 20th century. His 2017 book Race and America’s Long War linked domestic struggles for racial equality with the United States’s imperial ambitions and ongoing involvement in foreign wars. 

Over Zoom, we asked Singh what he makes of the political landscape — from Twitter wars to Trump’s “1776 Project” to the state of the Democratic Party and the GOP.

There’s a familiar liberal narrative of American history in which Trump is a profound rupture — and certainly many of us, maybe especially those of us who came to political consciousness during the Obama administration, experienced his election as a shock. But tell us the other story, the version where Trump did not come out of left field, but is interwoven with the threads of American history.

I don’t want to completely discount the idea that we are dealing with phenomena that depart from what we were used to. Trump is such a disorienting and disruptive figure, and he emerged in a moment of extreme disorientation and disruption running through the entire U.S. social formation and political regime. But in many ways, it has been a mistake to think of him as a discontinuity with the trajectory of the last 40 or 50 years of American politics.

We can think of that trajectory as beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the rise of Margaret Thatcher in England. These two figures consolidated a profound reorientation of government towards market-friendly, upwardly redistributionist, and highly punitive domestic policy, which in the U.S. includes mass incarceration. Trump bursts on the public scene in this period, emerging in New York City as a swaggering real estate developer and socialite in the 1980s, when he’s still nominally a Democrat, although he’s already a disruptive political figure.

He made what we might now see as a signature intervention after a terrible incident when a white woman was raped and brutally beaten in Central Park. Five black teenage boys, interrogated by the NYPD under extreme duress, confessed to the crime, and ended up going to jail for a long time. Trump put out a big ad in the New York newspapers calling for the execution of the five boys, who, as we found out recently, were innocent. It is telling that he began to consolidate his image as a public figure by latching onto a wave of racialized authoritarian politics and inviting a spectacle of public vengeance. 

The other thing that Trump does in the 1980s, which is significant and marks another type of consistency, is that he’s very hard on the issue of international trade and in particular, on the threat posed by Japan to U.S. primacy. He is already making noise claiming that what has been called “the liberal international order” does not serve the interests of the United States, and calling for an “America-first approach,” strongly tinged with anti-Asian xenophobia. Incidentally, Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s point man for the trade war with China, cut his teeth in a similar role within the Reagan Administration during these years. 

Another figure who rises in that moment, and who remains central within Trump’s orbit, is Rudy Giuliani, who became mayor of New York in the 1990s after, interestingly enough, leading a riot of mostly off-duty New York policemen on the steps of City Hall to protest the Dinkins administration’s plans for an all-civilian police review board. Talk about an echo. The police riot at City Hall launched Giuliani into the NYC Mayor’s office. There he was again before the riot at the Capitol on stage with Trump calling for a “trial by combat.”

The riot on the city hall steps in the 1990s helped Giuliani ride the wave of “law and order” into a highly successful and remunerative public career. “Giuliani time,” is an apocryphal phrase attributed to the Brooklyn police officers who brutally tortured Abner Louima in the bathroom of their precinct house. It captures a truth of those years in New York, ones littered with vicious incidents of police violence and targeted austerity imposed upon the city’s poor black and brown communities. A lot has changed since the 1980s and 1990s, but Trump and Giuliani have been remarkably consistent in the way they plotted their path through a punishing American zeitgeist. 

And finally what we have to pay attention to is what Trump actually did while he was president. There was a theater of cruelty in the Trump administration — around the border, around the wall, around detention. There was a willingness to break from prohibitions on overt racist utterances; rhetorical cruelty is part of the Trump repertoire. But in a sense, the greatest achievements of his administration were massive tax cuts for the wealthy, corporate tax cuts, and appointing conservative judges at every level of the court system — all longstanding conservative and GOP priorities. 

The government has been oriented, for the last fifty years, towards a tremendously unbalanced and unequal political economy and criminal punishment regime, one that arrested and locked up tens of millions, and that has now rendered more than 40 percent of the population one paycheck or medical emergency away from financial ruin. We have to ask big structural questions, and I think when we do, the idea of Trump’s exceptionalism is really put into perspective. He’s more a symptom of the kind of governing orientation that has led us to this point. 

At the time, the Capitol riot looked like a chance for the Republicans to break, at least outwardly, with Trump, but they haven’t fully seized on that opportunity. What do you make of the continued discussions about where Trumpism will go after Trump, or the Trump bifurcation of the Republican Party. Do you think he’s changed the party in any meaningful way?

The Capitol riot has reopened all of these questions about whether Trump was a harbinger of the “death of democracy,” or something that people call fascism, a thorough deformation of and deviation from what we think of as normal democratic politics. Those arguments were strengthened by this event, because it seemed to be a moment when everyone’s worst fears about Trump finally came to pass. If you ever needed definitive proof that you were dealing with an authoritarian figure willing to use violence to essentially overthrow the legitimate government or the legitimate process by which we govern ourselves, there was your evidence.

A lot of liberals and progressives have taken this and run with it, but we have to try to pick apart what actually happened. One of the strongest arguments against Trump as a harbinger of the death of our already anemic democracy is the one that points to his fundamental weakness and laziness: Trump was not ultimately interested in staffing the government with the kind of personnel who could pull the many levers that you would need to pull in order to pull off a coup. Even the judges that have been put into place by conservatives, including by Trump himself, over these last four years shot down every gambit he put before them to try and overturn the election.

We still have to think about what it means to get a crowd of that size willing to do what they did, which is a serious thing. I don’t want to minimize what happened. In relative terms, however, there was no significant mass mobilization against Trump’s defeat. This suggests that Trumpism remains civically thin, lacking durable associational force. By contrast, every powerful institution — from Congress to the Chamber of Commerce to Twitter and Facebook and the big financial donors and the big corporations — closed ranks very quickly and harshly against the rioters and the people who incited them. 

Of course, the one institution that has not done so is the GOP. But in many ways the GOP is now facing an existential crisis. It relies on counter-majoritarian institutions and strategies, whether it’s the Electoral College, the courts, voter suppression, and gerrymandering, to win national elections. One of the reasons Trump is such an interesting problem for them is that he is a popular figure. Trump actually did expand the Republican voter base, though not enough to override the counter-response from the Democratic Party, which also expanded the portion of the electorate that turned out for them in 2020. But the Republican Party can’t quite decide what to do next because they need the kind of figure who can mobilize people to turn out for rallies, to turn out to vote, and there’s no real Trump-like figure on the horizon.

Perhaps more than ever before, there’s a split within the party, between the Chamber of Commerce, country club types and the nationalist reactionaries and far right, conspiracy-minded elements. In 2020, wealthier suburbs that once voted Republican largely defected to the Democratic Party. Whether that defection is permanent is hard to say, but Trump-like figures and Trump-like politics are not likely to win those people back. But we haven’t talked about the ways the Democratic Party is also in trouble — that counterbalances things a little bit. 

Let’s talk about it. What is the predicament of the Democratic Party, and how important is electoralism at the moment?

If the Republican Party is the party of small business, regional elites, clustered around particular large-scale industries (mostly the kind that are now waning or under pressure, like the coal, oil, and natural gas industries), the Democratic Party is the party of Silicon Valley, international finance, urban professionals, and the service and retail working classes. The Democrats still represent more of the working and poor in this country, but it is a party that is mostly beholden to the interests of corporate and professional elites, so the challenge of crafting policy that can appeal across various constituencies of the party is significant.

How far in a redistributionist direction can the Democratic Party go? We’ve already seen Biden draw some lines around that. The most important indicator will be whether the Party leadership is willing to break with longstanding rules around the Senate filibuster that would allow them to push through a more ambitious redistributive agenda. It’s not clear whether large swaths of the party are actually interested in such an agenda, or that it would ultimately appeal to the upper-middle-class suburban voters that helped to tip the balance in the last election. So in a sense, we see similar sets of calculations that the Republican Party has to make in wrestling with a cross-class coalition. 

As a result, the Democratic Party is not an effective governing party. Or you might say that it is very effective at managing the promise of an appeal to a more redistributionist agenda and blaming its disappointment on the opposition. In this way, the inflation of the threat from the right becomes a way of disciplining the left. So, we’re stuck watching the two parties hand the baton back and forth to one another without a lot changing between successive regimes. You still have massive bipartisan support for huge defense budgets and hard limits to radically reforming anything else. You still have a basic comity when it comes to the governing priorities that keep this project called the United States limping along into the future. 

The only way the Democratic Party will ever be able to launch a truly ambitious agenda is to galvanize a substantial majority of the country in a landslide electoral victory — so 60 senators and a 30, 40, or 50 vote margin in Congress as well as the presidency. The last time they held both houses of Congress and the presidency with narrow majorities, they squandered their advantage, catering to a chimera of bi-partisanship, and caving to the self-limiting demands for fiscal responsibility.

The Biden agenda may end up being more ambitious than the Obama agenda was, because there is a clearer sense now of the need for a more radically redistributionist set of policies, and the need to address the climate emergency. The pandemic has also changed the conversation around public health and what is required to build a durable, supportive public health infrastructure. But is the Democratic Party in its current form adequate to those challenges? That I’m much less sure about. I think we’re going to see them once again stymied by Republican tactics and by their own timidity in the face of those tactics, as well as their own divided loyalties — their own inability to choose between their wealthy constituents and what they claim to be the deeper core values which have defined the Democratic Party since the Great Depression but which were cast aside beginning in the 1990s under Clinton.

You’re very online, and you use Twitter to great effect as a venue for public debate and discussion about history and current events. Banning Trump from Twitter, regulating Twitter, “cancel culture” — the platform is at the heart of so many conversations. What do you make of it all?

I think the conversation about cancel culture is very distorted for the most part. There have been some celebrated online instances of the quote-unquote “woke mob” going after people, and a lot of people have made a lot of hay with that kind of argument. I think it’s a lot more multi-dimensional than that. For example, there has been no more powerful weapon in contemporary cancellation dynamics than “anti-Semitism,” a charge weaponized by people like Bari Weiss to attempt to have professors fired, and later to super-charge her career as a champion of free speech. One needs a bit more cynical realism here.

One of the biggest mistakes I see online is people who think cancellation has a specific political valence. The model for cancellation in United States history is McCarthyism — the idea that if you held certain positions as a leftist, you could not be safely employed, especially in government, media, journalism, and academia, fields where you might help shape public opinion. That’s where the debate rests: Who gets to shape public opinion? Is there a conformity of opinion that’s now being imposed by cancellation mobs? I’m doubtful.

I think banning Trump from Twitter for a temporary period made certain sense in the context of how he was spreading disinformation and inflaming people in a particular moment. The old adage that you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater could be applied. I don’t know that Trump should have a lifetime ban from social media platforms. The bigger challenge, of course, is who decides? Who is the arbitrator? We lack any sense that there are fair arbitrators. We lack any sense that we can actually arrive at a procedure for coming up with fair arbitrators. 

Ideally, our government would develop procedures by which we could regulate the tech platforms with an eye to maintaining freedom of speech, protecting privacy and against incitement and disinformation, and balancing some robust concept of the public good. There is no reason to trust the big tech companies to do this. I think there are many reasons to be very, very nervous about their capacities to now assert powers of regulation in addition to the monopoly powers they already hold, in the name of emergency. We will very quickly find that these powers are being used against us (as they have been since 9/11). But we are in a new world, and nobody yet really knows how to deal with it. 

A context for all of this is that we have been largely inured or habituated to what I would call the macro-aggressions we are now subjected to: extreme wealth polarization, declining living standards, declining life expectancy, heavy surveillance, substantial erosions of our capacities to ensure collective flourishing. And we have no clear way forward. So in these large-scale ways, we’ve become almost dulled and fatalistic, in the sense that we expect decline. We expect a future that is worse than our present. 

Meanwhile, we’ve become more and more sensitized to the microscopic and frankly minor forms of abuse that are given watchful attention. The upsurge of trainings around sexual harassment or around white privilege are examples of these controlling tendencies and administrative approaches, and I don’t think they can attain the goals that they set (i.e., social justice), because they suffer from an elite skew.

We’re sort of caught between a type of progressive conformism on the one hand, one that speaks a language of inclusion and diversity, and on the other hand, a reckless right-wing vision of freedom, understood as the impunity to do whatever you want under terms of protected wealth and status, damn the consequences. And between those two poles we’ve grown massively unbalanced, with a tremendous sensitivity to microaggression and a dullness to macro-aggression. We’ve become utterly stymied in our ability to collectively formulate responses to this condition that can envision what Roberto Unger calls “deep freedom,” one that comes from people’s basic needs being met, but then also leaves them alone to be different, to have different points of view, to have different ways of associating, to have freedom to develop their talents, and to have thoughts that may be proscribed, when they are not materially harmful to others.

The last point brings us back to what we mean by harm. We’ve become very oriented towards harm, but I think that some of the progressive discourses of harm management use minor harms to assert power rather than to achieve justice or restitution, let alone to contribute to something that I would call collective flourishing. At the same time, what I am calling the elite skew that frames a logic of cancellation actually means that macro-aggressions mostly go unpunished. The well-heeled perpetrators — those most responsible for big risk and big ruin, like war and financial crisis — fail upwards. Meanwhile, smaller players face personal ruin and disproportionate punishment for small risks, badly taken. Cancellation thrives in a culture and economy in which wealth, legacy powers, and institutions are protected and the threshold of disposability for everyone else is exceedingly low.

You touched on the ongoing wars that the U.S. is involved in, and frustratingly little public attention was paid to foreign policy and the forever wars during the Trump administration. What’s next for American foreign policy? What will Biden do? What should leftist foreign policy priorities be? 

There’s no question that from the left, we need to continue to push a foreign policy of restraint as regards military action, a foreign policy that prioritizes the possibilities of producing more robust international cooperation when it comes to the major threats and challenges of our time, whether it’s climate change or nuclear proliferation or migration and refugee emergencies. 

The people who have said that Trump was a departure, in the sense of rejecting a vision of American primacy, have a point. Trump really wasn’t interested in big wars, which is not to say that he wouldn’t have become interested if he had been pushed by events and political circumstances. He continued many small wars and police actions, and he put the United States on a path to greater likelihood of a big war in the Middle East with the withdrawal from the Iran deal, which must be restored. His was certainly a bellicose administration, using the language of “America first,” and maintaining the idea of a kind of military pre-eminence that could strike anyone anywhere. 

Trump established conflict with China on a more bipartisan basis. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. governing elites have been in search of a new strategic algorithm for maintaining dominance and primacy. It seems that they are now settling on the Chinese threat to “our way of life,” which may prove to be Trump’s most lasting (and noxious) legacy. Given China’s immense size, civilizational history, global economic importance, and military power, this approach is not likely to be effective or constructive and should be opposed by the left.  

It’ll be interesting to see what Biden does. There are nation-states that the United States is closely allied with that are genuinely bad actors in their region and in the world, like Saudi Arabia, which has created untold amounts of carnage in Yemen, and Israel, which practices occupation and apartheid with respect to Palestinians. They should be cut off from access to American military hardware, and there should be non-military pressure placed on these countries to reform. I think there are figures in the Biden administration who are inclined towards the idea that the United States can now rebuild international alliances, and be once again at the helm in global leadership, but I think that ship has sailed. There’s not going to be a simple restoration of American international leadership, and the United States is going to have to figure out how to play well with others, while focusing on the immense challenges of domestic reform.

What do you think of “The 1619 Project,” and Trump’s rebuttal in the form of the “1776 Report.” The central question here, of whether to center race and slavery in an understanding of U.S. history, relates significantly to your work, and several historians have taken issue with the project. What do you think of the project and the conversation that surrounds it? 

Identifying race and slavery as central dimensions of the history of the United States has been something that many of us have been arguing for in academic scholarship for more than 25 years. Now, journalism has caught up with it, and there’s an important public record that has been established with “The 1619 Project” that can be debated productively, in terms of how we measure the impact and significance of slavery in shaping every aspect of American society from its form of government to its economy, to its forms of popular politics and popular culture, to its conceptions of what it means to be human. 

I don’t think we’ve gotten the argument right yet; it’s an ongoing conversation. The one claim of “The 1619 Project” that it really got taken to task for, and which they kind of modified later, was the idea that the American Revolution was primarily fought to preserve slavery. Historians really pushed back on that. Slavery was a compromise that allowed the colonies to unite in an antagonistic way. There was a strong antislavery current running through the founding, just as there was a strong pro-slavery current running through the founding. And you can’t give short shrift to that anti-slavery current if you’re going to get the story right, and you can’t give short shrift to what that anti-slavery current meant going forward, because it was central to the fact that we have had a sustained conflict and discussion about what racial justice means in this country.

It would be mistaken to say that the racist side of the argument has been monolithic and predominant throughout. It has also been contested, challenged, and in some ways overcome and forced to adapt and modify itself. Historian Barbara Fields recounts something essential she learned from her mentor C. Vann Woodward: the question of white supremacy in the United States has always been “which whites should be supreme.” Neither Fields nor Woodward denies the force of white supremacy, but they ask for attention to its practices and disparate impacts, something Du Bois understood as well. White supremacy was also about the disfranchisement of poor whites in the South. It sowed division in the lower classes so that they wouldn’t challenge white elites, who essentially controlled most of the resources, information, capital, and land in the South during the period of the ascendancy of white supremacy.

So it’s a more complicated picture. “The 1619 Project” also gives limited scope to what may have been the more important reason that the American Revolution was fought: land hunger. The settler colonial aspect is a crucial part of the story that we need to tell if we’re going to understand not only the founding but also the tributaries of that founding into the present — questions of expansion, militarism, the place of the United States in the world, where our borders begin and where they end.

The American founders believed “extending the sphere,” as James Madison put it, was the key to democracy because it would allow individual men, small-holders, to make their fortunes without forming destabilizing factions that would challenge the prerogatives of concentrated wealth and power. Greg Grandin’s The End of Myth, which won the Pulitzer Prize this past year, is a wonderful account of this long history. Our history is not just a history of black and white, or of slavery and freedom. It’s also a history of expansion, empire, and migration — and these are part of the multifaceted story of race, nation, citizenship, and belonging that we need to understand and incorporate if we’re going to have a full picture of the complexities we experience today. “The 1619 Project,” in trying to imagine “a new founding” and a story that extends from slavery to freedom, and through a black freedom struggle, is telling a partial truth, but it’s not telling a truth that encompasses all of these other things. And it’s not encompassing some of the complexities within what’s now often projected as a kind of a monolithic whiteness. That whiteness was always absorbing new subjects, including some that were once thought of as non-white themselves, and unstably managing class divisions that have run through the polity.

You’ve called it a paradox that “non-transformative racial diversification is surest proof of racism’s vestigial character” in liberal institutions, “up to and including electing a black President.” We’ve seen this kind of pressure for outward diversity continue to mount — and now we have our first Black, female Vice President. What are the present dangers of this continued substitution of certain markers of diversity for substantive change?  

We exist in a world now where racial diversity is heralded as a value by every significant institution, from the university to major corporations to government. The Trump administration didn’t agree with this view. That was one of the things that made them seem so disruptive. They were very happy to have a room full of white men, with very few women and people of color, presiding over everything. But recall Trump’s GOP predecessor George W. Bush had one of the most diverse administrations that you’ve ever seen presiding over all kinds of nasty things. Alberto Gonzales, who is Mexican American, was the attorney general. Viet Dinh, who is Vietnamese American, basically wrote the Patriot Act. Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Advisor, was one of the main architects of the war in Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to sell the war to the world at the United Nations. Office of Legal Counsel, John Yoo, who is Korean American, was an author of the torture memos, authorizing some of the war’s notable atrocities. 

In the post-Civil Rights era, elite institutions began to recognize that in order to more effectively manage and govern the polity, you needed to better reflect the composition of the polity in racial and ethnic terms. This was a liberal achievement, if you will. Affirmative action has been one of its signature policies. This is not a new thing, and it has been periodically contested since the 1970s, but now it has again become a source of polarization, and the Republican Party has aligned itself against it. 

But battles around diversity are generally being fought in intra-elite contexts and spaces. So when people talk about racial justice, they’re thinking about it from a top-down perspective. How do I make this well-heeled institution more diverse? That’s fine for what it’s worth, but racial justice is not really, in that iteration, having a great impact on the legions of men and women who are now laboring at Amazon, or delivering our food, or working as health care, domestic, or homecare workers, or coming out of prison, or being put into prison. And what racial justice means for those people is a question that has languished. It’s languished because ultimately the questions of racial justice for people on the bottom end of the political and economic spectrum are not divorced from questions of economic justice. This doesn’t mean that people don’t face racism (in policing, in health care) but it also means — and the empirical evidence bears this out — that there is a convergence in the circumstances of the poor across racial lines, in life expectancy, in health conditions, in incarceration and criminal justice involvement, in employment levels, in precarity, all the way down the line.

I do sometimes think we talk about racial justice in a monolithic way, as if it’s just about whiteness and white supremacy rather than about which whites are supreme, and under what conditions for the majority of us. We lose sight of that. Again, white supremacy has always contained division and complexity along class, regional, educational, and economic lines. And these divisions, to get back to where we started in this conversation, have been growing and widening over the last 50 years of intensifying market-dependency.

Maybe the core feature of fascism, shared with the Jim Crow that Nazi jurists notably admired, is what G.M. Tamás has called the “transformation of [nation-state] citizenship into a non-universal privilege.” In the United States, this has always been the work of “whiteness,” but it has also been the work of wealth, and unless we begin to grasp the ways these are braided, but also not identical procedures, we will never see the entire picture. White supremacy relied upon Black, Indigenous, migrant subjugation to generally deform possibilities of democratic participation and egalitarian distribution. This does not mean that people hailed by this type of politics are innocent, but it also does not mean they are forever lost or inured to forms of solidarity that divest from illusions of white supremacy for the broader horizons and greater joys of common filiation and struggle.