Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have reached such a fraught point in their campaigns that they’ve taken accusing one another of America’s unpardonable sin: Racism. The broadcast news outlets are all delightedly agog. This is understandable. Nothing sells better in America than accusations of racial preference. It’s a near certainty that Barack Obama was elected president by people desperate to avoid the third rail of American political discourse. In today’s America you can’t be counted among the socially acceptable if you acknowledge the tiniest preference for your race over another. That’s why a person of color, the light-skinned, well-spoken Obama, was just the ticket in 2008 and again in 2012. He let those who voted for him off the racial hook. In one way this turned out to be a blessing. Both John McCain and Mitt Romney were and are in the Neocon orbit. As such, they would surely have mired us in more Middle Eastern wars.
Still, isn’t it odd that the charge of racism should be so potent? After all, nearly everyone in our nation shares this vice: white, black, brown, yellow. Most of us for most of our lives prefer to be with our own kind. And yet to say so earns one a sentence on the scaffold of public excoriation, humiliated by having a Scarlet R emblazoned on one’s breast.
Aren’t we supposed to have the right of free association? Not, it seems, in public and corporate life. Nor are we free to speak as we please. There’s an unforgiving linguistic etiquette to be observed with regard to race. ABC newsreader Amy Robach discovered this last week when she referred to blacks as colored people. Her media counterparts pounced immediately expressing their heart-felt dismay. Robach swiftly apologized for her egregious violation. She had slipped, she explained. She had meant, of course, to say people of color. This locution, as everyone knows, makes all the difference.
We Americans have been notably cowed by our increasingly ramrod racial etiquette. Make a faux pas, suggest a racial or ethnic preference however mild and you might lose your standing among your peers along with your job. This is true even though they nearly all harbor their own, shall we say, racial velleities, living in neighborhoods homogenous with their own kind and class. This is evident even in a city as diverse as New York. Walk from block to block in the Big Apple and you’ll encounter enclaves of astonishingly similar complexions and material acquisition from Chinatown, to Little Italy, to black Harlem, to Dominican Washington heights, to Irish Woodside. Few in the middle class speak openly about this, of course, preferring to go along with the polite pretense that ethnic and racial preferences no longer exist. Only members of the lower class will acknowledge the facts. Having so much less to lose, they’re largely exempt from the etiquette in force. Perversely, this exemption enables them—or to be more precise—their self-appointed community organizers to use the etiquette regnant among the middle class to shame its members. It's a species of moral jiujitsu guaranteed to extract more support in the form of public funding that somehow flows into the hands of the organizers who, with a great deal of hypocritical posturing, disguise their own material affluence relative to those they presume to represent. Hey, folks, it’s just politics.
Politicians at all levels and all times have been masters of hypocrisy. I’ve always wondered how they can keep it up. You have to suppose they're not being self-consciously hypocritical, that they've retained their childhood ability to believe in their own lies. It's a species of Orwell's double think: you simultaneously believe and not believe what you’re saying. Now, you have to admit this is an extraordinary facility, but I can’t help thinking it must come at a hideous cost. Whenever in public, it’s successful practitioners must be "on," so to speak. Maybe I'm jealous. Those who have this ability —let's call it shamelessness—prosper mightily in our supposedly egalitarian America. They’re even acknowledged as our betters. People who can look others in the eye and without wincing tell the most self-serving lies are relatively rare. Take for instance, the Clintons’ unwavering ability to tell us that their Clinton Foundation is a purely public-spirited operation despite its obvious trading on the influence of its principals to acquire both money and power. At least, Trump owns up to his past predatory practices. He’s cheerfully admitted that when he promises to save the economy from insider manipulation, he can do so because he has been one of the insiders himself and knows their practices.
The truth is, neither Clinton nor Trump cares all that much about the little people of whatever complexion. What they care about foremost is wielding power. This is their elixir, their aphrodisiac, their obsession. It drives them to do whatever it takes to acquire it and hold onto it, including a bit of trampling on whomever is in their way.
I sometimes think it would be a relief to drop pretenses and return to being ruled by an aristocracy, one that doesn't bother to simulate a slavish concern for the lower orders but rather makes reasoned decisions about how to direct the state, one of which would be how to preserve the well-being of all classes, including the hoi polloi.
George McCartney, a professor of English at St. John's College, is film editor for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition (Transaction).