A white supremacist with money and nice clothes is still a white supremacist
On Oct. 25, a woman describing herself as "a lifelong Nordstrom customer" sent a letter to the Seattle-based retail giant.
"I find myself increasingly conflicted about supporting a store that carries any Trump brands," she wrote. "Ms. Ivanka Trump" — Donald Trump's daughter, and head of the Ivanka Trump lifestyle brand — "supports [her father's campaign] as a vocal surrogate and purports to represent [it]."
Throughout his campaign, the Republican presidential nominee has unleashed repeated derogatory attacks on minorities, the woman went on. Yet "Ms. Trump continues to defend [her father's run for the White House], and Nordstrom continues to defend her" by selling her products.
The letter was the latest entry in a weekslong boycott of Ivanka Trump's company. It has since grown into a nationwide effort to hit Trump's daughter, and most appealing spokesperson, where it hurts her most: her pocketbook.
But the boycott is also symbolic. By tying Ivanka's fashion brand to her dad's politics, demonstrators have cracked its glossy exterior and exposed what lies beneath: a person who has spent the last year and a half selling white supremacy to the American people.
It's hard to overstate the importance of someone like Ivanka to a racial grievance movement that relies on constant rebranding to broaden its appeal beyond the racist fringes of society. A major reason she's been successful as a proxy for white supremacist politics is that she doesn't intuitively look the part.
The same could be said for her father, Donald Trump, a reality TV star and businessman with a closet full of nice suits and Chinese-made ties. He lives in New York City, one of the most diverse metropolises in the world. That hate might come in so shiny a package is validating. It's helped him build a successful campaign atop calls to hoard the bounties of U.S. citizenship and the Constitution from Mexicans, Muslims and black people.
Ivanka, for her part, has used her boardroom-feminist appeal (and wardrobe) to peddle her father's message to a broader audience. At the start, it seemed an awkward fit. Trump's rise was fueled by a toxic miasma of vitriol and thinly veiled white supremacy, yet his stylish, cosmopolitan 35-year-old daughter has stood by him the whole time.
Ivanka was once seen as an outspoken advocate for women and working moms but has since defended the nominee against accusations of misogyny and racism on national TV. She gave a stirring speech at the Republican National Convention in July, arguing that Trump was the best person to lead the country.
The seeming paradox between Ivanka's support for her dad and the aura of professional, can-do modern femininity she exudes prompted Slate to wonder in March: "What is she doing helping her father?"
We should not be so surprised. History is full of polished, well-dressed white Americans whose air of respectability disguises the racism underlying their motives. Through her speeches, interviews and public appearances, Ivanka has worked to make a demagogue who enjoys the open support of the Ku Klux Klan and "alt-right" the next president of the United States.
By lending her classy, articulate, immaculately primped veneer to Trump's campaign, she has sought to make his bigoted message more palatable to the general public. She has "softened [his] edges," as the New Yorker put it in October.
It's a time-worn dynamic. To our detriment, many Americans have come to associate flagrant racism in the U.S. with white poverty and its optics. A poor, rural, trucker-hat-wearing "redneck" is more likely to set off our white supremacy alarm bells than a real estate billionaire with an NBC television contract.
But reality tells a different story. According to a working paper from Gallup published in September, white Trump supporters actually earn higher household incomes on average than whites as a whole — including those who oppose the GOP nominee — in addition to living in more racially segregated communities.
The takeaway is striking: Not only are white Trump supporters overwhelmingly racist and Islamophobic compared to their white counterparts, they also tend to earn higher household incomes. Our equation of racism with white poverty has conditioned us to become surprised when a well-groomed white person with money or nice clothes is racist or shills racist policies — as if white wealth and white racism were somehow at odds.
This should not be so. It was the white aristocracy of the antebellum South, after all, who encoded innate black inferiority to justify slavery and drive a wedge between enslaved blacks and poor whites. It was well-off white former slave owners like Nathan Bedford Forrest who built the Ku Klux Klan in the wake of the Civil War, dealing blow after blow to the progress of Reconstruction by terrorizing freed blacks to keep them from voting and running for political office.
It was the elected officials and strategists of the mid-20th century Republican Party who weaponized racist dog whistles and, over subsequent decades, worked to deprive black people of their right to vote.
"You start in 1954 by saying 'Nigger, nigger, nigger,'" said Lee Atwater, a Republican strategist who advised Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, in an infamous 1981 interview with political scientist Alexander Lamis. "By 1968 you can't say 'nigger.' That hurts you. It backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff and you get so abstract. Now you talk about cutting taxes, and these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites."
More recently, it was academic professionals like Charles Murray and Richard J. Hernnstein — shrouded in a cloak of Harvard-educated respectability — who rebranded the work of phrenologists from decades past. Together, they published The Bell Curve in 1994, a book rife with racist pseudoscience that argued, among other things, that black people were naturally less intelligent than white people.
Today, there are people like Richard Spencer — a Duke University Ph.D. dropout and outspoken white supremacist who spends his days holed up in the wealthy, white resort town of Whitefish, Montana, bemoaning the "endangerment" of the white race in the face of multiculturalism and immigration.
"Spencer has managed to seize on an extraordinary presidential election to give overt racism a new veneer of radical chic," wrote Mother Jones in an October profile. "In some ways he resembles an older generation of 'academic racists' ... who've long sought to professionalize a movement associated with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan."
What's extraordinary about Spencer, and many others like him, is how utterly unextraordinary he actually is. He grew up in a wealthy part of Dallas and attended St. Mark's School of Texas, described by Mother Jones as a bastion of "blue-blooded conservatism" (President George W. Bush's daughters attended its sister school, Hockaday.) He is a white supremacist, in word and deed. He promotes racist ideals through a sheen of conspicuous wealth, "dapper" suits and academic professionalism.
This is not new, and neither is it radical or chic. White supremacy has been an imperative of the white monied classes throughout U.S. history. We seem to be learning this fact anew during this election, which will be decided when American voters go to the polls on Tuesday. But we should not have forgotten this truth in the first place. It has been in front of us all along.