How Progressives Can End the Era of Mediocre White Men in Power

What enabled the right-wing to build ardent commitment at the grassroots level and expand Trump’s base? And what would it take for the Democratic Party to provide a clear vision for change and build a multicultural and multigenerational progressive coalition?

In the interview that follows, author, activist and culture critic Kevin Powell takes on these questions and more. Powell recently published his 13th book, My Mother, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and the Last Stand of the Angry White Man. As a public intellectual who focuses on the liberation of dispossessed people, Powell examines our culture of celebrity, the Democratic Party’s failures and the privilege that puts mediocre white men in power.

Eisa Ulen: When “45” [Donald Trump] was elected, many Black folk said that, since we survived slavery and segregation, we would surely survive Trump. Now that we are witnesses to state violence like the separation of families at the southern border, should we look to the past for strategies — or should we heave forward in new ways?

Kevin Powell: America was founded on racism, on racial terrorism, on various systems of oppression and discrimination, on violence, hate, division, so this is nothing new, this era of Donald Trump. If you are Black, any person of color, a woman, an LGBTQ person, a disabled person, an immigrant, a poor person or anyone who is not Christian…. The years of Ronald Reagan and both Bush presidencies were equally bad. Only difference is that Reagan and Bush father and son appeared to be nicer. I think folks are so caught up in the ugliness of the Trump persona that we often fail to pay attention to what is really happening with a wide range of laws, policies, voting rights and selection of judges at all levels. We need to stay woke, and we need to organize like never before. Because, as ever in America, this is about the struggle for real democracy and real freedom for all people, not the elite few.

Reagan was also similar to Trump in that he was a celebrity president. What is the impact of celebrity culture on our participatory democracy?

I recall Ronald Reagan vividly. His was a horrific and destructive presidency, but he was also just a figurehead for the elite in America. Donald Trump is no different. Does not matter if these folks were celebrities or not. What mattered with Reagan, and is the same with Trump, is that they have enough buzzwords that will appeal to the white voters who are deeply invested in racism, in white-skin privilege, who often vote against their own economic interests because they have been brainwashed to hate or dislike Black people, all people of color, women who know they are the equals to men, immigrants of all backgrounds, the disabled and the LGBTQ community. The celebrity culture of today is just a mask for style over substance, enthusiastic ignorance over facts.

Kevin Powell.
Kevin Powell.

I worked as a journalist covering both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2016. I came away from both knowing Donald Trump was going to win. Why? Because I have been to all 50 states in America — big cities, rural small towns, areas in between — and I know what the mindset is. The Republicans appeal to racism in coded language, to white nationalism in coded language, to the most limited understanding of what Christianity is, and they have made it “us versus them,” the old America versus the new America. Meanwhile, the Democrats have not had a real vision in a very long time.

I like Cynthia Nixon — current governor candidate in New York — a lot, and do not honestly care if she has ever held office before. She and I share a vision for a progressive, multicultural America where everyone has a fair shot. And as an activist, I have seen Cynthia on the ground for many years here in New York City doing the work. She did not just pop up. And no one should be penalized simply because they are famous or because they had a different career previously. Bill Bradley was a star basketball player who went on to become a distinguished United States senator. There are many examples of former well-known writers, artists — like Václav Havel, the late president of Czechoslovakia — who became political leaders. We can point to other examples in Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean.

What we should be appalled by is any leader, no matter who they are, who is simply not prepared in any way to lead. That is the issue. Like, where is your training, your knowledge of history, your travels to various places, your community organizing work, your understanding of economics, legislation and policy, technology, popular culture, current events? And what have you ever created that has been in service to others, not merely to profit yourself and the few? Those are my criteria for leadership — not whether someone is a celebrity. But do I want someone like Kim Kardashian speaking first or the loudest about the prison-industrial complex, when she is nowhere qualified like Michelle Alexander is? Absolutely not. That is the danger of celebrity culture, where folks are elevated to be spokespersons on various topics in place of those who have been on the ground doing the work consistently, without any spotlight at all. Honestly, the best thing most celebrities could and should do is shine a light on the folks doing the [grassroots] work. The March on Washington had many celebrities present in 1963. But it was clear who the women and men were who were the actual leaders. It certainly was not Marlon Brando or Harry Belafonte. It was folks like Fannie [Lou] Hamer and Dr. King. In these times, we’ve got it twisted, severely twisted, because of that naked obsession with all things celebrity.

How do elected officials who also have the history of an Al Franken maintain the dignity of the offices they hold given the sexual misconduct of their years in entertainment?

I think any kind of public leader, be they elected to office or the head of a community organization, has a high responsibility to be honest, to be transparent, to have a spiritual and moral compass that guides their character. As an activist, I think about this daily, that if I claim to represent people, any people, the most honorable thing I can do is be honest with them, to be accountable and self-accountable, and to own my mistakes right away, not years later when they are exposed by someone else. Because part of being a leader is a willingness to grow, to evolve, to change, constantly. Like Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy did. That means grow and be self-accountable both publicly and privately. We are servants, the people do not serve us. Many of us, both progressive and conservative, got it backwards. I have found arrogance and elitism in all the political spectrums in America. When you think you are above the people, above the law, above criticism, that is when you fall, that is when you see the very public embarrassments of both Al Franken and Roy Moore, regardless of how vastly different they are.

Earlier, you said that you weren’t surprised when Trump won. I absolutely was surprised, partly because Clinton’s resume was far superior to his. What will protect us from the white male hetero privilege that puts mediocre white men in power?

When I say “angry white men,” I am speaking of both wealthy white males with power and privilege and working-class ones as well. Not all white males, but the ones who are so washed in racism that it consistently feeds their fear and hatred and policy and behavior and violence in various forms toward who I call “the others” throughout my book. Again, this is nothing new. We just need to look at how Native Americans, Africans, women, poor whites of all ethnic groups, were treated at the so-called founding of this country’s history. This is a constantly recycled theme. When white racist Democrats became terrified of the very small victories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, they began the migration over to the Republican Party in droves. We saw that with the “law-and-order” campaign and victory of Richard Nixon in 1968. Ironically, the same working-class whites that Bobby Kennedy, a progressive, was building a bridge to before his assassination in that same year of 1968, are the same very working-class whites that Dems allowed the Republicans to seize. So by the time Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, the modern-day angry white male was born, and here we are, nearly 40 years later, still very much in the midst of that movement.

That conservative movement has been so powerful that even Bill Clinton in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 all ran as basically middle-of-the-road Democrats, afraid of coming off as too progressive, as too liberal. Both Bill and Barack won because we were coming off eight years or more of awful, reactionary Republican leadership. But if we are honest, neither Bill [nor] Barack was visionary in the way that, say Teddy Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt were with their presidencies, or even in the way Lyndon B. Johnson was. Not even close.

Meanwhile, the right wing has been consistent, again, for nearly 40 years with its agenda, and Donald Trump, mediocre or not, was the best person to carry that agenda forward. We are getting distracted by his anger, his rhetoric, I would even say the Russian collusion matter, because what does it truly matter now? He and Pence are in the White House, and that is not going to change for at least another two years. And even if Trump were forced to resign or was impeached, we still have the horror of Mike Pence. So their mission was accomplished regardless.

These right-wingers continue to pick judges at all levels, change or erase laws and anything that points back toward straight, white male power and privilege. The real vision, as I say all the time, has to be a progressive and multicultural and multigenerational coalition. It is that coalition that put Barack into the White House, but there was no real follow-up to build on that historic victory. So the endgame became putting someone in office, making history, not shifting the landscape for years to come.

That is what the Democrats are missing, so we make a huge mistake believing that politics will deliver us to the Promised Land. No, we must look to American history. The abolitionists, the various women’s movements, the civil rights movement, the various labor movements, the many movements for the rights of the disabled and the LGBTQ communities. That is when real change happens, then it bubbles up to the elected officials, not the other way around. Even the right-wing Republicans, if we really study the conservative movement, borrowed many of their tactics from the civil rights era. That is a fact. So, to me, the only way white male power and privilege shifts and changes is if we begin to understand, again, we must organize. And, second, that this work is on various levels, not just politics. Politics is sensational, glamorous. I know this, I ran for Congress [in 2006, 2008 and 2010], and way more folks in that space supported me than they ever have in my work as a grassroots activist. But the grassroots activist work is actually far more necessary, far more important, where the foundations are laid. Politics should just be one tool in the toolbox, not the entire toolbox.

Is there a way to engage angry white men so that they don’t take a last stand against your vision of a more progressive future?

I actually work with white men, at times, who openly are opposed to everything I stand for as a progressive human being. So I am in the business of being a bridge-builder, even when there is great resistance. In my past lives, I would have just cursed racist white people out and kept it moving. But in these chapters of my life, I talk, I share, I listen, even where we do not agree at all. Be they progressives or conservatives is pretty irrelevant to me, because some of the biggest racists I have ever met in my life are progressive whites right here in my beloved New York City.

What matters to me now, more than ever, if you, a self-identified white person, truly care about the present and future of America, of this world, is what kind of compassionate human being and ally are you going to be to the folks who are the victims of the power and privilege you benefit from simply because of the color of your skin? That is their work, not mine.

Well-meaning white sisters and brothers cannot expect Black people or other people of color to do that work for them. We already carry a heavy burden every single day, simply because of who we are. It would be like asking women to end sexism, when we men are the ones who benefit from the domination of women and girls. We’ve got to make an effort to understand this deep in our souls. We must. We have no other choice.