As I stood in line for Donald Trump’s rally in Chicago last Friday, a young white man grumbled behind me that, “Don’t white lives matter too?”
Apparently, a Black Lives Matter T-shirt worn by a young woman walking past us had angered him.
His question is an outgrowth of lies such as “reverse racism” and complaints that asking white people not to use the word “n****r” is somehow “unfair” or “racist.” Alas, even in post-civil rights era Age of Obama America, infringements on white privilege are rarely tolerated.
Donald Trump knows his audience well and how best to pluck their strings of discontent. This ability has paid him great political dividends—now including Republican 2016 primary wins this week in Florida, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina.
Trump, the political confidence man, professional wrestling-inspired performance artist, gangster capitalist, proto-fascist and schoolyard bully is also a great salesman who deftly combines pitches for his water, steaks, wine, magazines and properties with extemporaneous campaign speeches.
Donald Trump is selling something else to his public as well.
He is a master merchant of white (right-wing) victimology.
The notion that white people are “victims” in the United States is absurd. As a group, white Americans have more wealth, income and other financial assets than all other racial groups combined. The Demos Group offers this blunt description of the massive nature of the race-wealth gap in the United States:
"White families hold 90 percent of the national wealth. Hispanic families hold 2.3 percent of the national wealth. Black families hold 2.6 percent of the national wealth."
This is not just a function of raw numbers, merit, ability or earned success. Since before the founding of the United States, wealth and other resources have been systematically transferred from people of color to whites both through official state policies as well as interpersonal plunder. White Americans also control every major social, political, economic and cultural institution in the country. While de jure racism and white supremacy have been largely eliminated in post-civil rights era America, white privilege is an enduring fixture, one that is maintained by systems of institutional racism and other unearned advantages.
And while Barack Obama may have been the United States’ first black president, he was hamstrung by a Republican Party in which racism and conservatism are now one and the same thing.
The “imperial presidency” is real; the power of the modern presidency is great; nevertheless, the Office of the Chief Executive of the United States in the Age of Obama could not overcome the stubborn recalcitrance of overt white bigotry and racially fueled anti-black partisanship.
A belief that “conservatives” are either “victims” or somehow “marginalized” in the United States is a gross and unfathomable fiction as well. Right-wing policies such as neoliberalism, austerity, the destruction of the social safety net, assault on the commons, an expanded punishing and punitive state, and a government that serves the interests of the 1 percent and the plutocrats before those of the general public constitute the day-to-day reality of life in late 20th and early 21st century American society. The policies advocated (and often enacted) by the Republican Party on matters such as the economy, gun control, public health and the environment do not reflect the will of the American people. Moreover, the United States’ changing racial and ethnic demography means that the Republican Party is dependent on an ever shrinking portion of the white public for support. Consequently, the Republican Party and movement conservatives are now using tactics like voter demobilization, “dark money” lobbying and interest groups, and anti-democratic means such as the courts to maintain electoral power and control.
These facts have little purchase or traction in the alternate reality created by Fox News and the broader right-wing disinformation echo chamber. For Donald Trump supporters and those others entombed within it, this is a world where white conservatives are “victims” at the mercy of some type of enemy Other—a cabal that now uses “political correctness” to “bully” and “marginalize” “real Americans” and the “silent majority.”
[The decades-long increase in levels of conservative-authoritarianism and social dominance behavior on the American right only serves to amplify the power of that narrative.]
There are many “victims” in this right-wing alternate reality. The other Republican candidates are neophyte journeymen in pandering to this public. By comparison, Donald Trump is an expert practitioner in white (right-wing) victimology.
He can list these supposed victims with great ease.
Trump believes that “Our police officers have been treated horribly.”
Donald Trump believes that Christians are “under siege” and “discriminated” against in the United States. He has said that, “The bigger issue is that Obama is waging a war against Christians in this country. Their religious liberty is at stake."
Trump also elaborated on the “War on Christians” narrative with the following promise:
It makes you less powerful than a man or woman walking up the street. You actually have less power, and yet if you look at it, I was talking to someone, we probably have 250 million, maybe even more, in terms of people, so we have more Christians than we have men or women in our country and we don’t have a lobby because they’re afraid to have a lobby because they don’t want to lose their tax status.
So I am going to work like hell to get rid of that prohibition and we’re going to have the strongest Christian lobby and it’s going to happen.
The United States military is weak, ISIS and other countries are bullying America, and no one respects America anymore.
Conservatives, and especially Trump’s supporters, are being picked on and treated unfairly by the media, “liberals,” “Bernie supporters” and groups such as Black Lives Matter.
According to Trump, at his rallies, "We have some protesters who are bad dudes…They have done bad things. They are swinging, They are really dangerous. We had a couple big strong powerful guys doing damage to people."
It is a given, that in his world, Donald Trump, the American Il Duce, strongman and narcissist is always the greatest victim of all.
As he recently told CNN about conservatives: "We are treated so unfairly, and I'm treated very unfairly."
On Twitter, Trump has said that the media is unfair to him: “I will be talking about my wonderful experience in Iowa and the simultaneous unfair treatment by the media-later in New Hampshire. Big crowd.”
Apparently, even Fox News is “unfair” to Donald Trump: “Fox has been treating me very unfairly & I have therefore decided that I won't be doing any more Fox shows for the foreseeable future.”
“His people” are victims too: “We are treated so unfairly, and I'm treated very unfairly.”
Empirical reality cannot be easily reconciled with such delusions.
America’s police are part of a racist and classist system that discriminates against and unfairly punishes black Americans, people of color, the poor, the mentally ill and other marginalized groups. America’s police operate with little oversight and are rarely held accountable for their brutality and acts of extrajudicial murder and violence. America’s police are so out of control that there is no reliable accounting of how many people they kill each year.
The dangers of police work are greatly exaggerated. Most important, policing is one of the few jobs where a person with a high school education can receive a veritable license to kill and a lifetime pension upon retirement.
The “war on Christians” is a talking-point that fattens the wallets of Fox News, the right-wing news entertainment machine, and the Christian right. In the era of Hobby Lobby and restrictions on women’s reproductive rights, Christian theocrats and dominionists such as Ted Cruz exercise an undo amount of influence in a secular democracy where church and state are to be separate from one another. And it is not “Christians” who are being threatened with enemies lists and bans on their coming to (and staying in) America—these are punishments advocated against Muslims and Muslim-Americans by Donald Trump and an overwhelming majority of Republican voters.
The United States military is not “bullied” or “disrespected” by its enemies. The United States maintains approximately 800 bases in 80 countries. America’s special operations forces are estimated to be active in 135 countries. The United States has overthrown at least 14 governments by military or paramilitary force in the last 100 or so years. The United States military is the most powerful such force on the planet Earth. Its budget is greater than that of the next seven countries combined.
As I witnessed firsthand at Trump’s Chicago rally, it is his supporters who attack protesters and not the other way around: The Trumpeteers are authoritarian bullies. Moreover, it is Donald Trump and not the peaceful protesters at his rallies who advocate violence against their political enemies and publicly yearn for the “good old days” when “disrupters” would be “carried out on stretchers.”
Donald Trump’s momentum continues largely unabated because the unfettered and naked politics of white victimology, white racial resentment, nativism and bigotry are driving his popularity. This strategy would have limited utility if large swaths of the white American people did not in fact believe that they were somehow “victims” in the post-civil rights era and the Age of Obama.
If the following data is predictive of voting in the primary and general 2016 presidential election, the well of Donald Trump’s support may be much deeper than the mainstream pundit and chattering classes are willing to admit.
Harvard University’s Michael Norton has found that white Americans believe that racism against them is a greater problem than racism against Bblack Americans.
An increasing number of white Americans believe that “racism” is a “zero sum” game that they are “losing.”
White working-, lower- and solidly middle-class Americans are less hopeful about their futures as compared to blacks and Hispanics in the same cohort. The Atlantic explains this as:
A poll this spring by the Pew Economic Mobility Project underscored how minorities and whites see their divergent economic trajectories. Whites earning between $25,000 and $75,000 per year were more than twice as likely as blacks in the same income range--and nearly twice as likely as Latinos--to say they had already achieved the American Dream. Some three in five working-class blacks and Latinos say they haven't yet reached that dream but that they expect to in their lifetimes. Just over one in three whites say the same. A majority of Latinos and a plurality of African-Americans say they expect to be making enough money 10 years from now to live the lifestyle they desire. A majority of whites say they don't expect to be there.
Working-class whites, in other words, are already more prosperous and secure than working-class minorities, but they're less optimistic because they don't believe they're climbing anymore--they're simply trying to hold on to what they've got. Whites today seem to think that the middle-class security their parents and grandparents achieved may be crumbling beneath them. Minorities seem ready to accept the idea that their ascent, while steeper at the moment, will nevertheless deliver them to the middle class someday.
White people are the most privileged group in American society, yet they somehow feel the least hopeful about their futures.
New research by Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler has shown that “old-fashioned” Jim Crow era racism has increased among Republicans to the point where it now predicts party identification.
Of course, individuals who happen to be “white” can be victims in America. Like all people, they can suffer ill fortune outside of their control, lose their jobs and homes because of a broken economy, be on the receiving end of violent and other types of crime, and the other unfortunate events of life. The same can be said of conservatives. However, neither white people nor conservatives are subjected to systemic disadvantage in American society because of their group membership or political affiliation. In reality, the opposite it true. “Whiteness” maximizes one’s life chance in the United States and the West. Contemporary “conservatism” is an ideology that is catered to and sustained by the news media and other elite actors at a level much beyond its merit or worth as defined by either contributing to the common good or the popularity of its policy prescriptions among the American public.
There is a perverse irony in the popularity of Donald Trump and his cultlike following among the “Trumpeteers” and other authoritarians who have flocked to his banner. Donald Trump is a member of a plutocrat class that has both created and profited from the economic immiseration, global flows of trade and capital, destruction of unions, wealth inequality, social and financial stagnation, and other diminished life opportunities in the United States. For the white working and lower middle classes, the Donald Trumps of the world should be their natural enemy. But, white victimology politics--and its components of racism and nativism--blinds too many white folks to their own long-term economic and political self-interest. This is an old story of the color line and class in American life and politics. The Donald Trump phenomenon is but one more chapter in a long, tedious and frustrating story.