Opinion | White House

Trump blasts 'critical race theory' but is America's most dangerous critical theorist

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

As demonstrations over race and policing swept America this summer, "critical race theory" - the ideology underpinning much of the protest movement - became the subject of intense debate.

Conservatives have pilloried its excesses. President Trump called it "un-American" and banned federal agencies from promoting its tenets. Critical race theorists, for their part, remain undeterred.

But there is an enormous irony here. Despite his relentless attacks, Donald Trump is America's most influential critical theorist. Indeed, he owes much of his political success to this arcane (and often painfully academic) philosophy.

More importantly, Trump's skillful manipulation of critical theory is extraordinarily dangerous; not simply because it erodes trust in core democratic institutions, but also because it can have deadly consequences.

Critical theory, in short, is all about power: who has it, who does not and - most importantly - how power is maintained.

According to critical theorists, those in positions of power shape society, institutions and culture to sustain their power, generally at the expense of marginalized groups. As a result, the theory goes, systemic inequalities are perpetuated - wittingly and unwittingly - by ordinary citizens and society alike.

Critical theory holds that "oppressed" groups can only achieve equality by exposing and confronting the mechanisms that uphold the status quo. True to its name, existing power structures can only be defeated through continuous criticism and critique of society and culture.

This is why, for example, many critical race theorists favor defunding or abolishing the police, an institution perceived as perpetuating racial inequality.

But when it comes to relentless criticism of powerful institutions, Donald Trump is in a league of his own. More importantly, Trump's political ascent is Critical Theory 101.

Four decades ago, the American middle class was thriving. Wages were high, education, housing and health care were affordable and millions of Americans enjoyed robust social mobility. Life, in other words, was good.

In the ensuing years, the mass outsourcing of jobs, soaring costs, crumbling communities and the collapse of families ravaged much of what is now Trump country.

This sudden and catastrophic decline fueled an epidemic of opioid and alcohol-fueled suicides. White men without college degrees - a significant part of Trump's base - have been hit the hardest by this alarming trend.

It should come as little surprise that millions of marginalized Americans - sick, poor and justifiably angry - were eager to blame someone for the destruction of their once-prosperous livelihoods.

Enter Trump. To millions of white, blue-collar Americans, his relentless criticism of powerful "globalist" and "multiculturalist" elites - straight out of a critical theory textbook - exposed the hidden power structures responsible for the disintegration of their families, communities and livelihoods.

Trump's attacks on the establishment resonated with millions of marginalized, downtrodden Americans who were primed to discount and discredit anything that "liberal elites" sought to foist upon them.

Climate change? A lie dreamt up by a cabal of powerful "globalists."

The news media? Nonsense peddled by wealthy liberal elites.

Coronavirus? A Chinese, "Democrat" or CDC hoax to undermine Trump's reelection.

Make no mistake: Such rejection of objective truth and reality as products of powerful forces intent on maximizing power is peak critical theory.

More importantly, Trump's embrace of critical theory now has deadly consequences.

Take, for example, the president and his allies' claims that America's public health professionals and the CDC are deliberately sabotaging his reelection campaign.

Such attacks, once again, are textbook critical theory: Trump is "exposing" power structures - public health institutions are particularly influential amid a historic pandemic - bent on undermining him.

But this is where things get extraordinarily dangerous.

Thanks to the president's constant "critical" attacks on medical experts, millions of Americans are more likely to ignore public health guidance that saves lives. Indeed, coronavirus cases are at staggering levels in Trump-voting states. Meanwhile, the U.S. death rate is surging compared to many other industrialized countries.

In much the same vein, America's critical theorist-in-chief relentlessly criticizes the media.

But Trump's attacks on the press - grounded in claims that he is the victim of journalists determined to undermine his presidency - have contributed to the obliteration of Americans' trust in the media.

The danger is obvious: America's Founding Fathers viewed a free and unfettered press as indispensable to democracy.

Ultimately, the supreme irony of Trump's embrace of critical theory is that it is a fantastic con.

While Trump blamed Democrats and a mythical cabal of "globalists" for the mass outsourcing of American jobs, Republicans were the unabashed "free traders" who voted overwhelmingly in favor of shipping jobs abroad. Similarly, the "globalists" are actually America's top 1 percent - a group of people not unlike Trump.

More importantly, extreme inequality, stagnant wages, dwindling employment benefits, soaring health care costs and the destruction of unions - all of which devastated Trump's white, blue-collar base - are largely products of Republicans' embrace of extreme free market and catastrophic "trickle down" tax policies. The economic destruction, to the tune of $50 trillion, wrought on the American middle class over the last 45 years is staggering.

To be sure, critical theory can foster enormously positive, transformational outcomes. Relentless critiques of monarchy and the Catholic Church - two powerful, oppressive institutions of a bygone time - spurred the Enlightenment, the single greatest achievement of critical theory.

But by now it should be obvious that President Trump's embrace of critical theory is not only deceitful, it is also dangerous.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.

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