While discussing politics under and after President Trump’s time in office, E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and columnist for The Washington Post, pulled out his iPhone to play a song that Michael Franti & Spearhead released during Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. It opens with an infectious, reggae beat that leads to the first lines: “Yes, yes, yes, it's time / Y’all come together, uh-uh.” Dionne, wearing steel wire frame glasses and a red tie tucked into a navy wool vest over a sky blue dress shirt, bopped along.
Dionne, who spoke at the University Monday evening on a new book he co-authored, “One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet-Deported,” is an optimist living in dark times.
In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Dionne discussed the unique threat that Trump poses, which was the impetus for co-writing his book. Dionne cited Trump’s predilection for authoritarianism — evident in his praise of strongmen such as Putin and Duterte and his infamous declaration “I alone can fix it” in his inaugural speech; his refusal to cut business ties or release his tax returns; and the ethnonationalism that has fueled and sustained his ascendancy to power.
“A candidate for president who begins his campaign by saying that Mexican immigrants are rapists, who says the two sides in Charlottesville are equivalent, you can go down a long list,” Dionne said.
The journalist criticized mainstream political discourse that has posited identity politics and the white working class as two separate and inimical political camps — a false dichotomy, in his opinion. Both sides have merits, he conceded, but neither sufficiently respond to the problem at hand.
He argued that belonging to a “white working class” background is a form of identity politics.
“The white working class is an identity just like another form of identity,” he said. “Secondly, I think there is a legitimate argument made particularly by African-American and Latinos, that if you look at the whole working class, a very large segment of the working class is African-American and Latino.”
On the other hand, he acknowledged that those critical of identity politics have put their finger on the necessity of generating a “broader civic politics.”
“In our book, we talk about ‘E Pluribus Unum’ — out of many, one,” said Dionne. “That assumes both plurality and unity. I think that has always been the challenge of America, which is, how do you create a genuine sense of national unity while recognizing that we are a county of particularisms?”
The basis for unity, Dionne argued, must come from a renewed politics of equality and commitment to a common good. African-Americans, white working class folks, women, and LGBT+ people, he explained, all are making the same demand: to be recognized as human beings possessing equal worth and dignity.
The key is to validate the particular identities while simultaneously acknowledging the necessity of working towards a common good.
“A genuinely intersectional politics recognizes that all these identities have legitimacy, but we are also looking for some kind of common good out of those particularities,” he said. “A politics of a common good linked to a politics of equality is what we’re looking for.”
Dionne harkened back to the 2008 Obama campaign as momentary realization of this hope. Not only did Obama win the African-American and Latino votes by huge margins, but about 57 percent of his voters were white, he said. While ultimately a transient triumph, Dionne insisted that the campaign showed Americans that multi-racial democracy was possible.
“It isn’t a crazy thing to hope for. That was only eight years ago,” he said.
Citing a recent on the collapse of racial liberalism, he admitted that the current racial politics, which can be framed shorthand as between white nationalism and Black Lives Matter, has exposed the limits of an “older kind of racial liberalism.”
The correction to racial liberalism, according to Dionne, needs to debunk a belief in meritocracy in fixing problems and acknowledge that the structures of racism reach far deeper than most liberals would like to admit.
Yet, Dionne remains full of hope. He cited Martin Luther King, Jr., one of his heroes, for the way he combined “an uncompromising militancy with a deep belief in the possibility of converting adversaries.”
This deep hope in conversion, in changing the other side’s mind and ultimately working together, underlies Dionne’s optimism in the future.
“I’m not willing to give up on the notion of multi-racial political coalitions,” he said. “I don’t believe that the interests of white people and the people of color are always and entirely in conflict. I think we have to find commonalities. I think we have been presented with a series of challenges that we have to grapple with. It’s harder than we hoped to pull this off. On the other hand, there’s no alternative.”
His hope relies most ardently upon a profound belief and trust in young people.
“A lot of people talk about the millennial generation as highly individualistic, as obsessed with careers and the like, and I have a very different view of your generation. I view you as a much more communitarian and social justice social justice generation,” Dionne said.
The members of his generation growing up in the radical ’60s and ’70s, he argued, were often exaggerated as radical, when in fact, they were deeply fractured and less united in their progressivism as millennials seem to be now.
“You are the most liberal or progressive generation since the New Deal generation by the surveys. You’re also the most diverse generation in our history. That is part of your progressivism — your diversity,” said Dionne. “Hopelessness is useless, but I also think hopelessness is unjustified.”