Baldwin Explains White Supremacists

White supremacists in Charlottesville


To understand the psychology of the white supremacists who descended upon Charlottesville over the weekend, killing Heather Heyer and wounding 19 others, James Baldwin’s short story “Going To Meet the Man” (1965) is a good place to start. One begins to understand their irrational hatred and their attraction to violence.

The protagonist in the story is a white police chief who has come close to killing a non-violent protester—the man refused to stop singing Civil Rights songs—and who now finds himself unable to fall asleep. He is also unable to “get it up” and is experiencing severe self-doubts.

As he replays the events of the day, he thinks of other African Americans, some of them children, who have not been according him the respect he is accustomed to. As a result, he senses that the entire world is falling apart.

His memories then take him back to a moment of absolute certainty. When he was a little boy, his parents took him to a brutal lynching that involved castration and burning as well as hanging. He remembers the cathartic joy his family and the community experienced at the event. The memory brings his manhood back and he is finally able to make love to his wife.

The story makes clear how many white Americans have relied, for their self worth, on the belief that they were superior to African Americans. It’s as though that dependency has been baked into their DNA. Many of these people felt emasculated by the election of Barack Obama, just as the police chief feels emasculated by the marchers who will no longer show him the deference he once received. The chief rages at these marchers and at the government that backs them up. He feels alone and isolated.

To be sure, he is aware of others out there who think as he does, but at the moment they have retreated into silence, as though they are conspirators in a crime who must keep their mouths shut. Here’s how Baldwin describes the community:

They rarely mentioned anything not directly related to the [race] war that they were fighting, but this had failed to establish between them the unspoken communication of soldiers during a war. Each man, in the thrilling silence which sped outward from their exchanges, their laughter, and their anecdotes, seemed wrestling in various degrees of darkness, with a secret which he could not articulate to himself, and which however directly it related to the war, related yet surely to his privacy and his past. … They felt themselves mysteriously set at naught as no longer entering into the real concerns of other people—while here they were, outnumbered, fighting to save the civilized world. They had thought that people would care—people didn’t care; not enough, anyway, to help them. It would have been a help, really, or at least a relief, even to have been forced to surrender. Thus they had lost, probably forever, their old and easy connection with each other.

Donald Trump has given such people a born again feeling, the relief that comes when you can openly step once again into your old hatreds. Having felt solitary for so long (although Rush Limbaugh and Fox News have provided some comfort), they are now discovering “their old and easy connection with each other.” No longer must they waste away in silence.

Last September I compared Trump’s extremist followers to Sin and Death in Paradise Loss. Although they are a universe apart from Satan, at the moment when he succeeds in corrupting Adam and Eve they feel a thrill. Sin knows that their moment has come:

Methinks I feel new strength within me rise,
Wings growing, and Dominion giv’n me large
Beyond this Deep; whatever draws me on, 
Or sympathy, or some connatural force
Powerful at greatest distance to unite
With secret amity things of like kind
By secretest conveyance.

As I wrote at the time, just as the fascist right is taking its cue from Trump, so Sin takes her cue from Satan. She will figure out how to make her way across the great gulf of Chaos and Night because of the “felt attraction”:

Nor can I miss the way, so strongly drawn
By this new felt attraction and instinct.

Trump has given these people a new confidence. They no longer feel bottled up within themselves and are journeying back to relevance.

In Baldwin’s story, the key moment in the lynching occurs when a man reaches up and castrates the corpse of the victim. It’s one of those scapegoat moments that brings the entire community together. To understand the resurgence of the far right, think about the exhilaration people felt, first at Trump rallies and now in Charlottesville and elsewhere. Barack Obama is no longer there to humiliate them, the hated Other is being exorcised, and their moment has arrived.

As Baldwin puts it, “Something bubbled up in him, his nature again returned to him.”

What we are witnessing is not rational. It operates at a primal level.

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