What's at Stake in the "War on Woke"
They're All (Still) Like That
On Sunday, The New York Times published a long article about the Claremont Institute’s anti-Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion campaign, which included a large number of internal emails sent within that organization. If you are not familiar, Claremont is a right-wing think tank that always seems to turn up at the center of the right’s most pernicious efforts, from providing the insane “Flight 93 election” case for Trump’s election to attempting to cook up the legal theories of Trump’s attempted coup. In the past, I’ve gone so far as to characterize Claremont as essentially a conspiracy against the United States and called them “The Plotters Against America.”
Now, we get a view into the character of the conspirators with some of their private correspondence. Unsurprisingly, they sound like extremely nasty people. I don’t like to talk about “hate” in politics often, because it’s too psychologizing and the discourse around tends to elicits sentimentalized responses to political questions, like pleas for greater tolerance and understanding. But it’s worthwhile to remember that what’s animating these efforts are not just ideas or an aggrieved sense of fairness, but burning, passionate contempt for women and minorities. They want to see these people humiliated, re-subordinated, and pushed from high-status roles they believe should be reserved for whites. The efforts of these think tanks—the article also has correspondence with a member of the putatively center-right Manhattan Institute who was collaborating with Claremont—is to translate the vulgar language of bigotry into respectable sounding, abstract ideas that can appeal to constituencies that don’t share the same passionate hatreds or are just squeamish about sounding like a Klansman in public. (A more popular version of this is the new trend online of blaming everything that goes wrong in public on “DEI hiring”—this is just a more socially acceptable way of complaining about “goddamn n*****s.”)
I think one email exchange, which doesn’t deal directly with race, featuring the charming Heather Mac Donald, really highlights what’s going at core here:
Last spring, Ms. Mac Donald emailed some of the same people about news reports that a boyfriend of Mr. Thiel — nominally their ally in the rising “national conservatism” movement — had committed suicide after a confrontation with Mr. Thiel’s husband at a party. Calling the episode “a scandal,” she opined that gay men “are much more prone” to extramarital affairs “on the empirical basis of testosterone unchecked by female modesty.” She added mockingly that a friend had once tried to convince her “how wonderful Thiel’s ‘husband’ was.”
And here is the text of an email—
“Some female over the last year or so, eager to show her openmindedness, was crowing to me about how wonderful Thiel's "husband" was, making them out to be the most proper couple.
I wonder if he will feel any shame in public. Probably not.”
Now, readers of this newsletter will know my sympathy for Mr. Thiel is quite limited, but I think this callous and cruel way of speaking about even putative friends and allies is highly revealing. This casual dehumanization is de rigeur : note how she does not say “some woman” but “some female” and theorizes casually about testosterone levels as the determining factor. If you speak at any length to contemporary right wingers, this crude biological determinism pretty quickly emerges. All of their humanistic blather about tradition is just thin cover, papering over the fact that they view humanity as if it were in a specimen-box or a petri dish. Race is just one aspect:, but on every issue from gender to sexual expression, they view mankind in all its manifestations as a primordial slime mold that just seeks to expand and dominate.
One other thing the Times article makes clear is that the right-wing war on woke and DEI is radical. I mean this in the literal sense: they want to go to the radix, the roots, of what they feel the issue is. It does not intend to stop at the forms of political correctness you might find annoying or even the academic programs that seem stupid or counterproductive: its real target is full citizenship and social participation for Blacks and other minorities. This is apparent when you look at the more high-brow and clearsighted right-wingers’ accounts, like Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties and Richard Hanania’s The Origins of Woke: Civil Rights Law, Corporate America, and the Triumph of Identity Politics. Both of these books situate the rise of “woke-ism” in the Civil Rights Acts and their subsequent amendments and administrative enforcements. As Hanania writes, “Woke Institutions is Just Civil Rights Law.” (This also partly explains the right-wing obsession with Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality, beyond looking for convenient catch alls for what they oppose: these are both theories that come out of legal scholarship and directly influence legal argumentation.) What these people think is that all the big institutions of American life—government, media, corporations—constitute a vast conspiracy against white people. Their end goal is to dismantle the Civil Rights infrastructure and to reimpose de facto segregation: They want whites on top again — baasskaap.
For now, corporate America has by and large embraced DEI efforts out of aself-interest, to avoid legal liability. But how long will that last? Back in 1990 and 1991, Congress was trying to get an updated Civil Rights Act passed that would expand worker protections for workplace discrimination after the conservative Supreme Court had curtailed them. It wasn’t just Pat Buchanan and David Duke who were against it, but also a consortium of business groups that included the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. They just thought that the legal claims would be too onerous. As NBC reports, capital is now quickly adjusting itself to the idea of a Trump presidency after some half-hearted opposition. Wall Street chiefs now “view Donald Trump by and large as benign to somewhat beneficial to the economy and business.” Then there are the big capitalists who are explicitly anti-woke, like Sacks, Thiel, and Musk. Maybe, with the political landscape shifting, corporate America will decide to just call it quits on diversity, or, at least, curtail their efforts in that direction.
I encourage you to read Sam Adler-Bell’s piece on the potential staffing of a new Trump administration. It will likely increase its bureaucratic acumen this time around. The last time, even with all of Trump’s deficits of organization and focus, the administration was remarkably effective at wielding the executive to roll back federal regulation in favor of big business. Calling his presidency a “hostile takeover,” the authors of the book Trump, the Administrative Presidency, and Federalism, remark that it “pushed the envelope of executive action to unprecedented levels in the annals of the administrative presidency.” What would a second Trump presidency look like? One thing that’s likely is a full-scale assault on Civil Rights enforcement and regulation. It’s one issue that could potentially unite the business side of the coalition with the racist mob.