Donald Trump is back at it, taking his political vaudeville to campaign rallies from Texas to Wisconsin to Florida. “I’m winning!” he recently crowed to supporters at Montana’s Rimrock Auto Arena. To boot, impeaching him would turn the U.S. “into a third world country,” he complained. Twitching his face between a snarl and pout, Trump pivoted from bully to martyr on script. With his grab bag of physical flairs and verbal tics, Trump is upending America’s whole idea of “acting white.”
The racist assumption that conflates education, erudition and worldliness with whiteness has eroded, thanks in part, to the last occupant of the Oval Office, who is black and embodied all of the above. Trump, by contrast, enacts his ethnicity in a way that renounces the kind of thinking, speaking, problem-solving and personal conduct that Americans once perceived as quintessentially white. Indeed, the template for “acting white” is changing before our very eyes.
When I came of age, a black teenager, I was mocked by black and white students for supposedly acting white. My speech, the books I carried between my AP English and history classes, working hard, loving my teachers, speaking well (in two languages), reporting for the high school newspaper, sitting for the SATs: All were used to ridicule me with the racial slur of acting white.
Years later, I found myself smudging off my makeup before a mirror in the Fox News green room. I’d just appeared on a heated, live debate about public spending for “city people.” (I later quit appearing on the network.) As I stared at my dark mug and wiped foundation from my forehead and cheeks, I had a realization: My TV opponents had perfected a new form of white-acting that was so different from the behavior that caused ridicule for schoolkids like me. I call it white minstrelsy.
White minstrelsy spurns good sportsmanship, refined logic, noblesse oblige, bona fide achievement. It is Trump performing before cheering supporters, mocking Christine Blasey Ford, demanding his opponents be locked up, encouraging supporters to punch protesters, or upbraiding journalists in the West Wing.
From Reconstruction to the Jazz Age and into the 1950s, white and black entertainers applied thick slabs of burnt cork or shoe polish to blacken their faces, in order to perform black caricatures. These minstrels pranced about the stage and screen, singing, dancing, shucking, jiving. This would help define the meaning of blackness for many white Americans, especially those who had no direct contact with actual blacks, by isolation or by choice. Sniveling, cowering, conniving-but-contented servants: Minstrelsy helped reinforce our country’s ideas about blacks, with social ramifications big and small.
On Fox News and at political rallies Trump and his disciples get before the spotlight and perform their festering white minstrelsy. “God made the races and he’s the greatest racist ever,” says Russell Walker, who is running for statehouse in North Carolina. “What we need to do is bitch-slap the Republican Party,” says ousted Trump advisor Steve Bannon. “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” says Iowa Rep. Steve King. ”It’s very Biblical to enforce the law,” says Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. When she steps down, audiences might miss Sanders’ tour de force briefings, including when she justified forced government separation of migrant children from their parents — her lip-curled smirks, unholstered sarcasm, dishonest “common sense,” all preeminent gestures of whiteface.
From the coasts to the prairies, a spate of political candidates is also amplifying the president’s mode of acting white: Kris Kobach, Ron DeSantis, Corey Stewart and others. Whether or not each man wins his competition this November, the Trump style of white-acting is rather insidious in its power and it is on the rise.
White minstrelsy is ordinary and ubiquitous yet jarring and spectacular, just like blackface was. From its reliance on frenetic exaggeration to its coarse, everyman humor, today’s white minstrelsy has haunting similarities to black minstrelsy of the past, as well as telling differences. These raw, often bombastic performances insidiously define for the rest of us, more and more, what it means to act white.
To be sure, Trump or candidates doing Trumpist whiteface do not credibly portray for many white Americans what it means to act white. It’s not necessarily your brother’s understanding of your family’s whiteness. It’s not the overwhelming whiteness of being of Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” or frat boys who snowboard and wear flip-flops in December. No, it’s not Mister Rogers, either, whom I watched gleefully as a child. The way he ambled down his steps, spoke to the camera, sporting his modest, undyed coif, his sensible cardigan, Mister Rogers — a Republican Presbyterian it turns out — appeared to me to be the whitest-acting man on the planet.
In that Protestant Anglo tradition, self-esteem comes from doing estimable acts, helping others. Acting white in the true republican sense means treating all people with tact and humility. You don’t grovel before anyone, you don’t tear them down. Your self-respect derives from honoring others people’s. A republican society is in service to all citizens, so a leader and the people’s conduct is meant to be mutually uplifting. Corrupt, self-aggrandizing, selfish, Trump is the opposite of republican white-acting.
My deep personal and professional relationships keep me in conversation with accomplished white people, including real estate moguls, tech-industry Magellans, Pulitzer-nominated novelists, exceptional nonprofit leaders and innovative educators. Most oppose all of Trump’s policies. Some support his tax cuts or tariffs. But what seems to infuriate such accomplished white people is how a president, at this pivotal moment in the nation’s history, and such a tender juncture in white people’s demographic evolution, is degrading their race’s reputation. If whiteness were a brand, Trump is doing it severe, lasting damage. An elephant in the conversation goes unspoken: A major reason Trump makes fair-minded white people so nauseated is that he actively undermines the most hopeful models of acting white, precisely at the wrong time.
Trump’s whiteface vaudeville has consumed the conservative movement and the GOP. Like the damage Al Jolson inflicted by playing a caricatured perception of blackness, Trumpist whiteface seduces so many Americans to embrace it as routine fun. Trump and others, however, breed a victimhood that masks a deadly menace. Shilled as entertainment, it goes unrecognized for what it is: a backward, plundering template of whiteness made palatable and everyday.