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Republicans attack "woke banks" to remind you they’re a party of hate
It's white identity politics.
By Noah Berlatsky
Woke books. Woke Democrats. Woke corporations. Woke colleges, of course. And now … (drumroll, hushed suspense) … woke banks!
The GOP’s response to the failure of Silicon Valley Bank has been to try to paint the halls of finance as a bastion of decadent leftism, and themselves as virile populists fighting for the virtuous little guy. It’s a particularly naked example of the socialism of fools — the effort to frame capitalism’s cruelties as an imposition by marginalized people. Classically, that bigotry is directed at Jews, but in the US it often also includes Black people and LGBT people.
The Republican effort to retool as populists isn’t likely to fool anyone. Their rhetoric is often trapped in the right-wing media bubble and rarely escapes to influence actual policy. “Woke banks” is less the slogan of a populist uprising, fascist or otherwise, and more a numbing reiteration of bigotry tied to the news cycle for the faithful. It also serves as a convenient distraction from discussing issues like the 2018 banking deregulation signed into law by President Trump and the role it may have played in the sudden demise of SVB and Signature Bank.
The GOP remains a minoritarian party cosplaying as a majority. Which doesn’t make it harmless. It’s just dangerous in a slightly different way.
Woke isn’t hard to define. It’s a racial slur.
“Woke is something that’s very hard to define,” anti-woke talking head Bethany Mandel asserted this week, after trying and failing to define it in a disaster of an interview that quickly went viral.
As per usual for the right, though, she was essentially lying. “Woke” isn’t that complicated a concept. It started as a phrase used by Black people. “Stay woke” meant “be aware of the deceptions and tactics used to enforce racism.” People on the right like Mandel then appropriated it as a racist, bigoted dogwhistle. “Woke” for the right is simply a slur or a smear, which means, “this thing I’m attacking is associated with Black and marginalized people, but if I said that directly people would know I am a bigot.”
So when House Oversight Chair James Comer says that the recently failed Silicon Valley Bank was a “woke bank,” he’s trying to smear the bank by associating it with Black and marginalized people — and smearing Black and marginalized people for being associated with the bank.
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Comer elaborates on the slur and tries to justify it by pointing out that Silicon Valley Bank made some boilerplate diversity statements and hired some people who weren’t Christian cishet white men. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made a similar argument on Fox: “This bank, they’re so concerned with DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] and politics and all kinds of stuff, I think that really diverted from them focusing on their core mission.”
Even more blatantly, the Wall Street Journal ran a vile op-ed by Andy Kessler in which he blamed SVB’s failure on their board having 45 percent women representation, and including a Black person, an LGBT person, and two veterans.
“I’m not saying 12 white men would have avoided this mess, but the company may have been distracted by diversity demands,” he concludes.
The percentage of women and Black people on the board are still below their representation in the population, but anyone other than cishet white male non-veterans are suspect, according to Kessler.
Who falls for this?
The truth, of course, is that SVB was run by president and CEO Gary Becker — notably a white man — who successfully lobbied President Trump (also a white man) to roll back regulations designed to prevent bank failures. In 2015, more than 80 percent of Wall Street executives were white, and more than two-thirds were male. Despite much touted diversity efforts, investment bankers remain 76 percent male. They’re also 66 percent white — Asians make up another 12 percent, Latinos 11.5 percent, and Black people only 5.5 percent.
It's hard to imagine that there’s a broad public constituency for rabid attacks on the very mild efforts to diversify bank executives. The average Fox viewer is not an angry white male bank executive enraged about losing his job to a minority. As an effort to appeal to populist sentiment, it all seems pretty weak. Are Comer and DeSantis and the Wall Street Journal really trying to create a populist groundswell, or are they just saying “woke” because they need to say something, and so default to slurs?
The truth is that attacking “wokeness,” in any context, isn’t a very effective tactic. A recent USA Today/Ipsos poll found that 56 percent of Americans defined woke as “to be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices.” Only 39 percent agreed with the definition “to be overly politically correct and police others’ words” — the formulation the right uses because they can’t say that they just use it as a slur.
Those numbers are significantly worse for the right than party ID, which in 2021 was 46 percent Democratic and 43 percent Republican. In other words, attacking “woke” banks is messaging that is likely to backfire even with some Republicans, and is almost calculated to push some fence-sitters towards the Democrats.
The GOP’s attack on “woke banks” is meant as an exercise in populist rhetoric, aligning Republicans with normal people against shadowy elites — elites who just happen to be marginalized people. Historically, this is a familiar playbook for right populists. The Nazis, most famously, claimed that Jews were a powerful international cabal conspiring against Aryan power and virtue.
However, scholar Claudia Koonz argues, Hitler’s success as a populist wasn’t (just) predicated on the conspiratorial rhetoric. He built his popular reputation as a man of the people through pushing policies that were actually popular, including large government spending to fight unemployment and a sweeping expansion of pension and health care benefits. The attack on “elites” was buttressed by material improvements for many Germans. Hitler then leveraged the political capital he’d built to launch wars and expand his campaigns of discrimination into sweeping, horrific genocides.
As Koonz points out, Republicans in comparison have been notably unwilling to embrace policies that comport with their populist mouth noises. Writing in August 2021, she notes, “President Trump defaulted on his economic populism and, instead, delivered a tax bonanza for the super-rich and bungled his response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the thrall of super-wealthy donors, most Republicans in Congress reject Biden’s infrastructure program, which is supported by 83 percent of Americans, as well as higher corporate taxes to pay for it, supported by 66 percent of Americans.”
The GOP hasn’t gotten notably more canny in the intervening year and a half. They’re currently waging an all-out assault on Biden’s effort to cancel some student debt, even though the policy is supported by 63 percent of Americans. They refused to help renew the Expanded Child Tax Credit, which had 59 percent public support and raised millions of children out of poverty. They oppose raising taxes on billionaires, one of the most consistently popular positions in American politics.
Instead of pushing popular economic policies, Republicans have doubled down on extremely unpopular assaults on marginalized people. DeSantis’ six-week abortion ban is opposed by 75 percent of people in conservative Florida.
Railing against “wokeness” is white identity politics
DeSantis cruised to victory last November in Florida despite his unpopular agenda, of course. But he’s the exception that proves the rule. Republicans have been losing elections. Still, thanks to an electoral map tilted wildly in their favor, they can manage enough victories to block popular legislation and prevent Democrats from delivering for their constituents. If you can’t and won’t do popular things yourself, you can at least prevent Democrats from doing them. Then, when people are angry and frustrated that they are crushed by student debt, or that their children are in poverty, or that billionaire gamblers are callously destroying the economy, you can sneer at “wokeness”.
That’s not a great electoral strategy. But it may be good enough. The Republican anti-woke rhetoric isn’t going to sweep them into office on a wave of populist fury. But dogwhistle appeals to white identity can rally the faithful enough to win on an unbalanced playing field if you get just a little lucky.
When the Republicans attack “woke” banks, they’re not trying to build a populist consensus. They’re just assuring their base that they are still, no matter what happens, the party of hate.
Russia downs US drone in new escalation
By Sarah Hurst
This is a guest post by Sarah Hurst, author of The Russia Report, who I’ve previously interviewed for this newsletter. Sarah does a great job providing weekly English-language rundowns of big stories from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, so please subscribe to her newsletter by clicking here!
A Russian Su-27 fighter jet downed a US MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday in a collision that has been shown in a video published by the US Department of Defense. Two Russian jets dumped fuel on the drone, and one jet struck the drone’s propellor, forcing it to crash land in the sea.
A single MQ-9 drone costs roughly $56.5 million. The jets were flying in a “reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner,” US Air Forces Europe & Air Forces Africa Cmdr Gen. James Hecker said.
“Our MQ-9 aircraft was conducting routine operations in international airspace when it was intercepted and hit by a Russian aircraft, resulting in a crash and complete loss of the MQ-9,” he continued. “This unsafe and unprofessional act by the Russians nearly caused both aircraft to crash.”
The incident followed a pattern of dangerous actions by Russian pilots over international airspace, Gen. Hecker added.
Russia’s ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov called on Washington to stop “hostile” flights near his country’s border.
“We consider any action with the use of US weaponry as openly hostile,” he said.
Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Ukraine, and Turkey as well as Russia have Black Sea coasts. The Kremlin presumably calculated that it could bring down a US drone with minimal consequences while proving its military strength in the region.
Both leading GOP presidential contenders embrace anti-anti-Putinism
The drone incident comes as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis inflamed the debate about US support for Ukraine by telling Fox News host and Kremlin sympathizer Tucker Carlson that the Biden administration’s “blank check” (as he called it) for Ukraine “distracts from our country’s most pressing challenges.”
DeSantis was one of six possible 2024 GOP presidential candidates to answer a Ukraine questionnaire from Carlson.
“We cannot prioritize intervention in an escalating foreign war over the defense of our own homeland, especially as tens of thousands of Americans are dying every year from narcotics smuggled across our open border and our weapons arsenals critical for our own security are rapidly being depleted,” DeSantis wrote.
Donald Trump’s sentiments about the cost of the war were similar.
“Start by telling Europe that they must pay at least equal to what the US is paying to help Ukraine. They must also pay us, retroactively, the difference,” the former president told Carlson in his response, continuing:
At a staggering 125 Billion Dollars, we are paying 4 to 5 times more, and this fight is far more important for Europe than it is for the US. Next, tell Ukraine that there will be little more money coming from us, UNLESS RUSSIA CONTINUES TO PROSECUTE THE WAR. The President must meet with each side, then both sides together, and quickly work out a deal. This can be easily done if conducted by the right President. Both sides are weary and ready to make a deal. The meetings should start immediately, there is no time to spare. The death and destruction MUST END NOW! Properly executed, this terrible and tragic War, a War that never should have started in the first place, will come to a speedy end. GOD BLESS AMERICA!!!
Possibly the most bonkers Republican, conspiracy theorist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, said on the Real America’s Voice internet channel, “We’re paying for a war, a proxy war with Russia, when I’ve never seen Putin actually show in any detail his plans to invade Europe. No one has shown me that, so I don’t believe the lies that I’m being told about this, you know, but we have a real war that has been declared on America, and they’re killing over 300 people a day, and that’s being waged by the Mexican cartels.”
The type of anti-anti-Putinism being embraced by the MAGA wing of the GOP (including DeSantis) doesn’t speak for the whole Republican Party, however. Sen. Lindsey Graham offered a more traditional Republican viewpoint in a Twitter thread in which he proclaimed, “those who believe that Russia’s unprovoked and barbaric invasion of Ukraine is not a priority for the United States” are “missing a lot.”
Graham’s thread continued:
Ukraine willingly gave up their nuclear weapons in 1994 in exchange for Russia’s recognition of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, which included Crimea. Putin is openly saying that his long-term goal is to recreate the old Russian empire, and he has no intention of stopping in Ukraine.
The last time someone in Europe claimed the land of others, and tried to take it by force of arms, was Adolf Hitler’s attempt to build a Third Reich. Those who miscalculated Hitler’s intentions paved the way for a wider war and missed many opportunities to stop him early on. Now is not the time to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Kremlin strategists, meanwhile, are reportedly preparing for Vladimir Putin to receive an official turnout and percentage of the vote in the 2024 “election” that’s higher than the 67.5 percent and 77.5 percent he allegedly received respectively in 2018, facing fake opposition from the late Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Communist Pavel Grudinin, with Alexei Navalny banned from running after he attempted to do so.
Dangerous actions such as the attack on the drone are likely to increase in the run-up to the US election next year, as Russia already knows well how it can exploit democratic divisions. And Putin will be working as hard as possible to keep his Republican allies on side. The drama is far from over.
Check out my podcast with Brian Tyler Cohen
In case you missed it yesterday, the third episode of my new podcast features an interview with Brian Tyler Cohen. You can watch our discussion about US politics, right-wing media, and what it was like for Brian to travel to the White House and interview President Biden below. (Click here for the audio-only version.)
If you missed the first two episodes, you can check out my conversations with Ron Filipkowski and Marisa Kabas by clicking on their names, and feel free to share the show with friends. Please subscribe to my YouTube page and to the Aaron Rupar Show wherever you get your podcasts, and if you’re feeling extra generous, leave a glowing review on iTunes.
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That’s it for this week
I’ll be back with more Monday. Until then, have a great weekend.