4th November, 2021
By Umair Haque
It was a disastrous Tuesday night in America — not just for the Democrats, but for democracy. How did Glenn Youngkin win in Virginia? Hadn’t America learned anything from the Trump years? What just happened?
I’m going to pepper this essay with my story, about growing up in Virginia. It almost killed me. Before my parents brought me to Virginia, I was a bright, vivacious, funny, optimistic kid. After they did, I became depressed, anxious, terrified, because I understood, instinctively, on an animal level, that I was prey. It wasn’t just some kind of teenage feeling. I was abused and assaulted almost every day of my little life, and every adult in my life — teachers, coachers, counsellors, principals — let it, sometimes made it, happen, over and over again. Hunted, hated, despised, brutalized. Nobody should have to live that way. Welcome to Virginia, kid.
By now? I’ve lived all over the world, and I can safely say that Virginia, aka the American South, is the single most racist, hateful, and bigoted place I have ever lived. It was the single worst thing to happen to me, ever, period, to grow up in such a place. I only survived it because the gay community took care of me, seeing how incredibly wounded I was, even though I wasn’t gay, and, thank the stars, I escaped, a year later, to Canada. If I hadn’t? I really don’t know where I’d be today. If I’d be, today.
It did kill plenty of my friends, by the way, who weren’t as lucky as I was.
Why does that matter? Well, because. Do you know what Virginia really is? What the South really is? I do. And the economist in me, too, can tell you something about how societies collapse into Youngkinism, fascisim in khakis and fleece vests, hate with an aw-shucks grin, as parents erupt into a frenzy of supremacy. All that’s why, I guess…
I can safely say that Virginia, aka the American South, is the single most racist, hateful, and bigoted place I have ever lived. It was the single worst thing to happen to me, ever, period, to grow up in such a place
I’d been predicting privately to my friends in Virginia for many weeks that Youngkin was going to win. Yes, really. When they asked me why, I’d shrug and point to my recent essays on fascism, and how it was poised to resurge. They’d look at me like it couldn’t possibly happen. And here we are.
So how did Glenn Youngkin win? There are two ways to ask that question. One: how did the Democrats lose? Two, what did Youngkin do successfully? Let’s take each of those questions one by one.
The simple, grim fact is that Youngkin won by triggering the politics of white rage. How did I know that Youngkin was going to win? You could feel it. I’m in Virginia at the moment, back where I grew up. And it doesn’t feel right. You can literally feel the tension in the air. I walk my little puppy down the street across from my neighborhood. Suddenly, you cross a line into a working class area. And it’s peppered with Youngkin signs. Angrily. How can you raise a sign…angrily? Well, you can make a bigger one than the “Black Lives Matter” sign across the street. You can festoon every tree in your yard with pictures of Youngkin.
You could feel it in the air. The white rage. A lot of people won’t like me saying that. But it’s the truth, at least if you have experience with authoritarian collapse. There’s a certain feeling that sets in. A kind of hardening takes place. Neighbour begins to treat neighbour with contempt. That is exactly what I literally saw happening before my eyes. These were people who’d lived together, next door, for years, probably decades. And now they were having bitter conflicts waged with symbols. Today it’s signs — tomorrow, it’s guns. That’s how societies collapse.
If, like me, you’ve lived it before, then you could feel it in the air. The hate. You could see it on the faces of white Virginians. There’s a certain expression that comes over a social group before it resorts to authoritarianism and fascism. It somewhere between a smirk and a sneer. “You’re going to get yours, assh*le. We’re not going to put up with you anymore. We’re going to show you who’s boss.” You could literally see this expression on the faces of white Virginians — at least if you looked.
A certain frenzy comes over a society as it’s about to push the fascism button. The in-group, the pure and true, come alive. They rejoice with hate. They suddenly develop social bonds, where none existed before. Now they’re part of a tribe, united by resentment, vengeance, rage. You could feel — and see — that, too. If you happened to pass by a Youngkin rally, what would you see? Exactly the same expression as Trump used to produce, and still does. That wide-eyed adulation, the sense of being in the presence of a true demagogue, the magic trick of hate.
There is a hard truth that has to be faced right about now. White Virginians were seduced by demagoguery.
That’s a hard truth to face only if you don’t know your history. Virginia’s always been a racist hellhole. I can say that because, like I said, I grew up in Virginia. Don’t take it from me personally, though I can assure you that the racism, hate, and bigotry I experienced even as a little boy in Virginia, from everyone from my teachers to coaches to random strangers, was so incredible, so vitriolic, so omnipresent, that I was suicidal by the age of 14. I could tell you how I was assaulted brutally every day of my little life just for not being white — and every adult in my life laughed at me.
But forget about my story, which is the story of any minority. Just look at the facts. Virginia was one of the last states to properly desegregate. Virginia was home to the “Massive Resistance” — an historic push by white politicians to prevent desegregation. Virginia was also home to the Loving v Virginia case — where an “interracial” couple was arrested in 1967 for… getting married.
I was born just a few years later. I’m married to a beautiful and lovely lady today. A white one. Would we have been jailed for it then? Forcibly divorced? Separated at gunpoint?
Even today, Virginia is super, super backward. It’s not West Virginia, no. But it’s close. Remember the alt-right, white nationalist march in Charlottesville? Yeah, that’s Virginia. Venture outside the metropolitan strongholds, and you’re taken back to a different era. There is no real integration in institutions or neighbourhoods. Minorities are treated with open suspicion and hostility. Virginia is a society that never really advanced, except maybe in the Northern part. But the rest of it?
So Youngkin came along, and triggered the politics of white rage. What on earth are white Americans so angry about? If you think about it, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. They’ve got the society they want. The very one they keep on voting for. Sure, they don’t have healthcare and retirement and decent education and any kind of social systems or public goods. But that’s the society white America wants. It’s the one they’ve been voting for not just since Reagan sold it to them, but long before that. The Democrats have never, ever won a majority of the white vote. Only the Republicans have.
So there white Americans are. Let me say it again. They’ve got the society they want. They. Nobody else wants that kind of society — a place denuded of public goods and social protections, where guns have more rights than women do. By and large, minorities don’t want to live in that kind of ultra-competitive, individualistic society — they want something more like Canada or Europe. White people have done what majorities do — they’ve made America in their image, it’s a place that represents their political preferences so totally that even the Democrats aren’t offering decent healthcare or education.
So what are they so angry about?
Well, to white America, equality looks like repression. Any advancement for minorities is treated with intense suspicion and hostility, precisely because white Americans are so used to being literally supreme that they’ve grown entitled to the privilege of supremacy. Let me give you a few examples to make the case clear. Apply to a job with a “foreign” sounding name, and good luck getting an interview. Black Americans are no better off economically than fifty years ago. America’s still a place that’s de facto segregated, whether geographically or economically or culturally.
So White Americans still enjoy huge, huge privileges. I don’t like the word “privilege.” But in the American case, we have to observe that it exists. My white friends in Virginia get headhunted like clockwork, every six months. My minority friends — who are far, far better educated? They never do. A white person can of course call the cops and get a minority killed just — snap — like that. But a minority calling the cops on a white person? Good luck risking your life, buddy. White America’s privilege can be observed in literally everything. The economy. Culture. Media. The arts. The sciences. Jobs. Just going to the store, or walking down the “wrong” street.
Now let’s come to Glenn Youngkin. How did he trigger white rage? By performing the classic demagogue’s magic trick. Those evil, dirty subhumans are the ones responsible for your woes! What woes are those? Well, in Virginia’s case, they’re twofold. Virginians were concerned about the economy — rightly so, because despite what pundits and the Dems say, the average American is still struggling. That struggle produces latent feelings of resentment and anger and anxiety which are just waiting to be triggered.
So how do you trigger those feelings? You turn around and blame them on a scapegoat. And here is where Glenn Youngkin turned into a proper demagogue. He told white Virginians that the anxiety they felt was about race. That if their children were educated about supremacy and slavery, that was wrong, because it demonised white people. And weren’t white people demonised enough already? After all, weren’t they struggling, in all those rural and working class towns? And there was affluent Northern Virginia — full of hated immigrants and foreigners. Full of gays and liberated women. Why, even a fool could see there was a connection between these two things. The average white Virginian was persecuted, and that was why they were struggling. Meanwhile, all those foreigners and immigrants prospered, because the average white Virginian was being persecuted by them.
How did this persecution take place? Well, Youngkin pointed affably to schools. They were teaching kids that white people were all evil! That the white race was a race of oppressors! And didn’t that make little Johnny evil? They were after your kids!
White Virginia went into a frenzy.
Like I said, you could see it if you walked down any suburban street. The Dems were shocked by Youngkin’s win because they don’t do things like that. But if they had, they’d see the bitter, weird sign wars I mentioned — ones often accompanied by proud school flags, too.
Youngkin called all this the assault of “critical race theory.” But that was all a fiction, a nonsense. Critical race theory isn’t taught in schools, to begin with. And even if it was, it begins by saying race does not actually exist. And yet isn’t that just the threat? After all, to say race doesn’t exist undermines the entire project of white supremacy — whose remnants so clearly linger in the bittersweet Virginia autumn.
Now, here I have to pause to say that the way that kids are being educated about race and slavery and supremacy can often be clumsy. I’ve heard of things like minority only days at school, or role plays where white kids have to take the role of aggressors. That’s not right. It’s foolish. It only makes the accusation of “reverse racism” seem true. Still, it’s just that, an accusation.
That is effectively how Youngkin won. He turned the election into a referendum on “reverse racism.” He told white Virginians they were the ones being discriminated against, demonized, scapegoated. That their kids were being harmed and hurt. That if they cried because they read books about slavery — which is the point of reading books about slavery — then those books should be banned.
Youngkin made it seem like white Virginia’s kids were being attacked and assaulted.
And who doesn’t want to protect their kids?
That’s why white Virginia went into a rage and a frenzy. Like I said, you could literally see it when you walked down a street, and saw a school flag right next to every Youngkin sign. What was that trying to say? Trying to tell you? We think our kids are under attack.
But white Virginia’s kids are not under attack. They never have been. Like I said, growing up in Virginia was hell — absolute hell — for me, to the point I was suicidal after a decade of it. Could you take being literally assaulted every day, violently, with every adult in your life laughing and egging it on? The only reason I survived was because I escaped, by age 14, to nightclubs, where the gay community took care of a wounded, terrorised kid like me. That story is still going on today.
Nobody’s beating the hell out of white Virginia’s kids. But I can all but guarantee you that minority kids are still being abused, every single day, in most of those schools, and they can’t talk about it, because, well, who would they tell? And why would anything have changed? These jokers just voted for Youngkin. If anything, it’s worse now — American hate, fascism, supremacy — than when I was a teenager.
White Virginia’s kids are not under attack and never were. What did happen was an attempt to make them a little bit more empathic and wise and thoughtful and kind than their parents. It is the job of an education system to help kids become empathic and kind and thoughtful — not stay backwards, mired in hate, trapped in stupidity.
But of course supremacist parents want to transmit their values to their kids. That is how supremacy stays a system. “My dad told me to hate minorities. To insult, degrade, mock, hate, assault them. My teachers think it’s funny and cute when I do. That is how I became a little supremacist too. And now, twenty years later, I’m going to do the same thing to my kid.”
Who can stand in the way of that trainwreck? What do you when parents think little Johnny’s right to grow up as a hateful bigot is the most important thing in society? What do you do when a demagogue like Glenn Youngkin comes along and tells all those white parents that it’s “reverse racism” to make little Johnny cry because he’s becoming a better person than his parents? When all that erupts in a frenzy of white rage?
The sad truth is that you can’t do much. But you can do something.
That brings me to how the Dems lost Virginia. It wasn’t just about Virginia. It was about not having fought fascism. Not really, not well, and barely at all. Fighting fascism takes three things. A grand plan for social reconstruction, to address the economic woes making the social majority feel resentful and angry in the first place. A process of special justice, to bring the fascists to trial, and show there is real punishment for hate. And a legal and cultural process that is avowedly anti-hate, which tells society that is not OK to indulge in the politics of hate — even at a personal level.
The Democrats haven’t done any of that. They haven’t shown the slightest interest in doing any of that. They’ve been busy acting like fascism in America never happened. What did it take for Europe to recover from the Nazis? A Marshall Plan. The Dems can’t even get a minor-league social spending bill passed. They haven’t brought any of the top Trumpists to trial, much less in a Nuremberg type situation — and even the Jan 6th militias have gotten away with slaps on the wrist.
The Democrats have been acting like American fascism never happened. So here it is, happening all over again.
The Democrats are pretending like it’s not happening here. Like it never did. They’re turning a blind eye to the abused kid at school. They’re whistling and shrugging, like this is the way it always was, and the only way it could ever be. They won’t do what needs to be done, which is to change things, fast, to stand up for what’s right, to live up to the ideals of America.
I stopped believing in America’s ideals, fast. I’d laugh at saying the pledge of allegiance as a kid. Wouldn’t you, if you were being kicked in the throat every day by “real” Americans, who stood and said “liberty and justice for all”?
That’s what they think of as liberty and justice for all. White Virginians. They always have. I get the freedom to kick you in the throat, and you have the right to laugh through the blood in your mouth and thank me for it. Anything less? I’m the one under attack. My rights to abuse you are under threat — and isn’t that what freedom has always been?
Virginia. Well. It’s turning right back into what it always was. Much later, when I’d made it to Europe, and for the first time in my life, I felt free? I read a poem, by Bertolt Brecht. About being in exile.
He was against the Nazis, and they’d always hated him for it. I broke down crying every day for a week. I was in exile, too. I was hated by my society, too. “In the coming earthquakes I trust,” Brecht wrote. He knew the Nazis would win. He understood they would destroy everything he’d ever loved. He knew, too he couldn’t stop them. He was exiled.
I cried, because nobody had ever felt the way I felt before. That was exactly how I felt about America.
And then, ironically, Brecht wrote: “I won’t let my Virginia go bitter on me.” He meant his tobacco, and more than that. That he’d endure, despite exile, despite rejection, despite the fascists winning. That he had chosen decency and humanity and grace, even if it meant exile, the loneliness and pain of it. How else do you survive hate?
I cry, even today, when I read that poem. Because the hate of Virginia almost killed me. As a little kid. And it took minds like Brecht, who’d been there before me, to teach me the most elusive and difficult lesson of all. How to survive hate. How to survive a society that wants to kill you, and tries, over and over again every day.
My Virginia? It was always bitter. I’m completely unsurprised that Youngkin won, by being a mini-Trump, setting a trend. Do you even know what Virginia really is, I want to ask anyone who’s surprised by this? I don’t think you do.
It was always a lost cause. And so, if you ask me, is America.
*Umair Haque published this article in Medium. He is the Director of the London-based Havas Media Lab and heads Bubblegeneration, a strategy lab that helps discover strategic innovation