A friend of mine, like thousands of others and not without reason, says that Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election through ‘fraud, manipulation and outright lies.’ Others say it was a simple case of racism. Still others blame Hillary Clinton for running the wrong type of campaign—or for simply being Hillary Clinton. All of these may be contributing factors, but the truth, I suspect, is quite a bit more complicated.
After all, millions of people did vote for him. All of the excuses for Trump’s victory aside, the question remains, why?
The answer, I think, has a lot to do with these line from a 1934 Cole Porter song (based on original lyrics by Robert Fletcher), “I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences/Don’t fence me in.” That’s a real American attitude, one that has survived for centuries and that has lost no strength.
A huge percentage of Americans, perhaps somewhat equal to the number who voted for Trump (though that may just be coincidence), has long been feeling hemmed in by American politics, social policy and economics—and, until Trump came along, felt they had no outlet for their frustrations. They felt they had lost their voice in an America now dominated by a new type of special interests, by groups with particular identities different from that of the umbrella ‘white’ identity of what was once ‘most’ Americans. They felt fenced in by ideas and beliefs far removed from what they had grown up with.
Some of these feeling have validity. Others do not. Some of them have been enhanced by unscrupulous politicians and media exploiters.
Three of the many of these are (1) outrage at being told they have ‘white privilege,’ (2) disdain for those who try to constrain expression through promotion of ‘political correctness,’ and (3) anger at people who try to emasculate their traditions, who engage in, among other things, the ‘war on Christmas.’
There are others, all with varying degrees of validity. All arising outside of their own cultural base in the small towns and rural areas beyond the American East and West Coasts. All alien to the American ‘heartland.’ These three, though, are fairly representative and comprise a worthy starting point for those outside of the conservative Trump base in any struggle to understand the resentments that led to his political triumph.
‘White privilege’ was a poor choice of words from the very start as the title of Peggy McIntosh’s 1987 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” It immediately put white people on the defensive, especially when added to the argument that there is nothing white people can do about it. For people descended from generations of poor and exploited farmers in the deep South, from Okies whose very presence brought out law officers in California, from the factory workers who had left Appalachia for the cities of Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and more and who had re-established lives among groups of people (including the other whites) who wanted nothing to do with them, the phrase wiped away the difficulties they and their ancestors had faced ever since the older colonists turned their noses up at them when they arrived from Ulster Plantation in the 18th century. No matter how true its claims, it insults them and the struggles of their families and their ancestors.
No matter the accuracy of McIntosh’s list, there was no way the concept, certainly not under that ‘white privilege’ designator, was going to get a hearing in white America. Over the past 30 years, the phrase has become an irritant to many who hear it, rejected on the face of it. To make matters worse, it has been used against white Americans by others whose lives are even more laden with privilege than theirs, people who come from classes much more privileged than lower-middle and poor white American do.
Esme Choonara and Yuri Prasad, in “What’s Wrong with Privilege Theory?” (International Socialism, April 2, 2004) describe the ‘privilege theory’ that grew out of the ‘white privilege’ concept, itself a child of the ‘identity politics’ that preceded it by a decade or two:
At the heart of privilege theory is the idea that oppression works through a series of unearned advantages enjoyed by those who do not suffer a particular oppression. So all men, white people or straight people, for example, will gain privileges that come from not facing sexism, racism or homophobia. The beneficiary of these privileges may be completely unaware of them—in fact much emphasis among privilege theorists is on what they would describe as “making privilege visible”—alerting people to the unearned advantages they may take for granted. Similarly individuals do not choose whether or not to have these “privileges”—they are automatically bestowed by virtue of someone’s race, gender, sexuality and so on….
Identity politics essentially argued that only those who experience something can really understand it or be relied upon to challenge it. Privilege theory largely accepts this premise, but in many ways is the flip side of this framework—focusing not on the oppressed, but on the supposed “privileged” oppressor.
To many white Americans, this meant they were blamed for something they knew nothing about and had no control over—and unfairly so. It also seemed to disparage their own struggles, some of which were—and are—momentous. And, of course, it leads to angry reactions, like this from David Marcus, in “Privilege Theory Destroys the American Ideal of Equality” (The Federalist, March 10, 2015):
Make no mistake, privilege theory is a fierce and effective threat to basic American values. Privilege theory is the means by which equality, enshrined (albeit imperfectly) in the Declaration of Independence as the cornerstone of our nation, is turned on its head. Under privilege theory, we and our speech are no longer equal, even in theory. While previous generations of liberals longed for a day when people’s contributions and ideas were not judged on the basis of their skin color, privilege theorists insist that they must be.
The baggage that comes with whiteness, Marcus argues, cannot be overcome within a milieu of belief in precedent ‘white privilege’ that rips to shreds the idea that all are created equal. That he is wrong in this doesn’t matter. Nor does the fact that he tiptoes around the fact that there never has been any real equality of any sort in America, also avoiding that ‘privilege theory’ does not create inequality, merely exposing it. The anger he expresses, however, is very real to millions of white Americans when told they have special privileges not available to others… especially after years of programs like Affirmative Action that seem to give priority, even privilege, to others.
It should be emphasized that anger over the way many whites saw ‘white privilege’ used against them came from the fact that the concept was imposed on them. They were not asked to participate in discussion of privilege, merely vilified (or so they see it) for privilege they could do nothing about. ‘White privilege,’ in their eyes, is something created for the political ends of others.
‘White privilege,’ of course, also carries the weight of race, and race is a topic many white Americans have felt taken from them since the start of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s. Even this, many complain, sometimes seems to be turned against them. Robin DiAngelo, in “White Fragility” (International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3, No 3, 2011), writes of “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” The defensiveness, many whites would argue, is a natural reaction to attack, not to racial stress. Yet DiAngelo writes:
Talking directly about white power and privilege, in addition to providing much needed information and shared definitions, is also in itself a powerful interruption of common (and oppressive) discursive patterns around race. At the same time, white people often need to reflect upon racial information and be allowed to make connections between the information and their own lives…. White Fragility doesn’t always manifest in overt ways; silence and withdrawal are also functions of fragility. Who speaks, who doesn’t speak, when, for how long, and with what emotional valence are all keys to understanding the relational patterns that hold oppression in place. Viewing white anger, defensiveness, silence, and withdrawal in response to issues of race through the framework of White Fragility may help frame the problem as an issue of stamina-building, and thereby guide our interventions accordingly.
Whites can easily find that attitude offensive or, at least, smug—even if expressed by other whites. They might say they are only silent because they are not allowed to express their own feelings without immediately being accused of racism. Ben Morris puts his finger on this in “The Myth of White Fragility and How Social Justice Warriors Fail To Understand Their Critics” (Human Development Project, April 14, 2016):
DiAngelo dismisses any and all aversion to the far leftist discussion of race as examples of white people reacting angrily and defensive. Because white people don’t need to think about their race, any and all comment regarding racial issues is privileged, arrogant, and entitled. White people have been brainwashed and are too stupid to realize their judgement of individuals instead of demographics is “a kind of blindness.”
The blindness, the whites under attack might say, is on the part of their leftwing critics. They would agree with Dennis Prager, who asks, in “The Fallacy of ‘White Privilege” (The National Review, February 16, 2016):
So then why all this left-wing talk about white privilege?
The major reason is in order to portray blacks as victims. This achieves two huge goals for the Left — one political, the other philosophical.
The political goal is to ensure that blacks continue to view America as racist. The Left knows that the only way to retain political power in America is to perpetuate the belief among black Americans that their primary problem is white racism. Only then will blacks continue to regard the Left and the Democrats as indispensable.
That this is utter poppycock is of no matter. The fact of a divide represented by the phrase ‘white privilege,’ however, is. And it is not simply an attempt at a false equivalency to say that the fault lies as much in the communities of the left in their disdain for much of white America as in the racism of the right.
Trump has become white America’s revenge on those they believe have been battering them over the very fact of their whiteness. He empowers them to brush aside such depictions and to feel good ‘once again’ about their own selves and culture.
Related to ‘white privilege’ and ‘white fragility’ in the eyes of many white Americans on the right is the concept of ‘political correctness.’ To them, it is an attempt to control conversation and thought, moving them into prescribed channels and making certain phrases and avenues of inquiry verboten. Here, too, Trump has become a welcome antidote. He allows them to express all of the opinions that they thought had been banished under this mythical (to others, if not to them) ‘political correctness’ or PC. Mark Danner, in “The Real Trump” (The New York Review of Books, December 22, 2016) catalogues some of these:
“The others” do not work. They are the free-riders on the system, courtesy of the corrupt elite who put in place and then perpetuate programs to support them, in return for which those “others” supply the votes to keep them in power. And most of those others, it doesn’t need to be said—it can’t be said because of that damn “political correctness” that cloaks and stifles us like a blanket—have darker faces and many of them come from somewhere else.
But Trump isn’t afraid to say it. That he shocks the political class was from the start the heart of his appeal. It says he won’t be intimidated, he won’t back down. With his fancy suits and huge plane and helicopter, he is the cock of the walk, a big swinging dick who doesn’t give a damn, who says what he pleases and won’t sell out to the elite—and this is the elite in the broadest sense: the people who run our government, those who write the news stories and the editorials, those who produce the television programs and the movies.
It is this that has made Trump a hero to that part of America which flocks to his rallies and checks off his name in the voting booth. He represents a freedom that they have not felt they had in decades, a freedom from the perceived oppression by the liberal establishment that they feel has been running the United States throughout their lifetime—since the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, if you need to ask.
The pent-up anger Trump has released is quite real, even if misplaced.
Even if it has been created by media organizations manipulating their emotions for their own profit and political gain, as the ‘war on Christmas,’ among others, has been created and promoted by Fox News. As Dan Cassino, in “How Fox News Created the War on Christmas” (Harvard Business Review, December 9, 2016) writes:
The argument that saying “Happy Holidays” is the spear tip of a concerted secularization plot may seem like a stretch, but it seems to have been accepted by many Americans….
Among individuals who say they seldom go to church, watching Fox News increases the likelihood of agreeing that there’s a war on Christmas by five points; among those who say they never go to church, the difference is 10 points. In effect, watching Fox News makes less religious people as concerned about secularization as those who go to church frequently. It seems that the rhetorical strategy employed by Fox News commentators has worked. By making the “war on Christmas” just one front in a general political conflict, Fox News has made its viewers, even those who normally wouldn’t be worried about religious issues, more likely to accept the war’s existence.
The absolute inanity of this claim of a ‘war’ left many who were supposedly waging it flatfooted. Yet many Fox News viewers took it seriously, to the extent of finding offensive in a kind ‘happy holidays’ offered by someone simply wanted to be inclusive of as many religions as possible.
The ‘war on Christmas’ is but one of the campaigns used by rightwing media to keep their viewers and listeners in line and the profits rolling in. There have been many others, often with more pernicious consequences than a new care in what phrase is used to wish the best in December (a sort of rightwing PC, come to think of it), though the rightwing media has consistently refused to take any responsibility for the effects of their propaganda.
Robert Dear, for example, the rightwing terrorist who killed three at Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado in 2015, according to Amanda Robb (“The Making of an American Terrorist,” The New Republic, December 15, 2016), was radicalized through rightwing media and an informal online process of search and affinity:
In fact, as I learned from hours of speaking with Dear, the narratives he learned from Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones and Bill O’Reilly and countless far-right web sites meshed perfectly with his paranoid delusions, misogynist beliefs, and violent fantasies. The right-wing media didn’t just tell him what he wanted to hear. They brought authority and detail to a world he was convinced was tormenting him. They were his shelter and his inspiration, his only real community.
“I’m a loner,” Dear told me. “I don’t talk to any-one. I just found this stuff searching web sites. What the real truth is.”
Loner? Many other Americans now believe this ‘real truth.’
Seeing this development, Trump quickly found ways of taking advantage of it, making himself the champion of all of those feeling oppressed by charges of ‘white privilege,’ by demands for abiding by PC requirements, and challenged by the ‘war on Christmas’—and so much more.
Though much of these feelings are misplaced, they are quire real. Their impact on American politics is changing the nation.
To what extent, only time will tell.