Why White Liberals Need Donald Trump, Our Shadow Self
Fellow white people, let’s stop pretending that our guilt is a bad thing.
First published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, September 7, 2017. Updated February 7, 2020.
Donald Trump is far more than a president: Like Obama and Reagan before him, he’s an icon whose very person embodies a larger idea. To his loyal base, he’s the ultimate leader, the oracle who voices their own anger at being unheard, unseen, marginalized. They need him.
To white liberals, he’s evil incarnate. But liberals like me, who wouldn’t have voted for him in a million years — also need him.
We need someone to hate. He’s our shadow self — the person we least want to be. To the extent that we white liberals deny our shadow selves, racism, sexism, homo/transphobia, environmental depredation, and injustice will continue to find a foothold.
One aspect of Trump’s shadow was blatantly obvious to me during the presidential campaign. As a female sexual-trauma survivor, I was frightened by the brutal quality of his sexual boasts, by the way he “stalked” Hillary Clinton during a debate. I’m still frightened of it.
Yet when I look into the dark mirror that is Trump, I see aspects of myself I want to deny. Greed. Defensiveness. A strong tendency to talk over other people. Perhaps most important, during his tenure, I have never been more aware of my own subtle attitudes of racism. That conditioning goes deep. I wish I could have it surgically removed.
I grew up in the 1960s in a liberal Quaker family. It was also a family where racist attitudes leaked out. When I dated young Black men, my choice of partner was not well-received at home. Muttered racist remarks, which I failed to identify as such until I moved away from home, were an unquestioned backdrop to conversation.
Quakers have a long, illustrious history of peacefully resisting social injustice. Yet in their book Fit For Freedom, Not For Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice, Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye point out that while the nation’s earliest manifesto against slavery was written by Philadelphia Quakers, many decades passed before their governing body was willing to make this declaration official. Why? Some Quakers owned slaves, and virtually all of them benefited in some way from the economic fruits of slavery.
An activist friend once told me that the formation of the Black-power movement in the 1960s was spurred, in part, by the condescension of some white civil rights activists. This made instinctive sense to me. My family espoused progressive values — and contributed financially to the progressive causes. Yet I believe that those laudable contributions were fueled by my parents’ need to prove how nonracist they were. I’ve come to see this as an aspect of my inheritance. In a way, it’s not personal. No one can avoid being affected — and infected — by the attitudes that surrounded us as we grew up.
Today, we rightly decry violence against Muslims, against minorities and people of color, but we dare not be smug. Denial is dangerous. Denial leads to uneasy silence. To looking the other way. Ultimately, it can lead to escalating violence. Often, when we lash out at those we hate, we lash out at a projection — something we’re afraid we might find in our own hearts.
It can take more courage to examine one’s own heart than just about any other human endeavor. Like any well-meaning white liberal, I want to be a good person. But I also see myself in Trump — some part of me wants to point fingers and blame everyone else. It has been painful for me to see my own racism.
Yet the more I disown the shadow aspects of my soul, the tighter their grip. In her poem Unconditional, Jennifer Wellwood writes: “Each condition I flee from pursues me./ Each condition I embrace transforms me.” I can’t change something by pretending it doesn’t exist. The question is, how do I relate to my shadow?
Change begins when we cease blame-shifting and seek to understand the ways in which unrecognized fear can contribute to the escalation of violence. Trump is, literally, afraid of his own shadow. As a trauma survivor, I have spent a lifetime struggling with fears and shadows. My worst fear has been that I might be cut from the same violent cloth as my abusers. Yet, facing this has made me less afraid, more confident in speaking out. Trump may hold power — for now — but within his cowardice lie the seeds of his downfall.