When Donald J. Trump spoke of "the forgotten men and the forgotten women" of America the morning after the election, I sensed instantly that he was dividing the country based on race.
There was plenty in his campaign to lead both supporters and opponents to the conclusion that his message is intended to separate people along racial lines. He often protested that he has "a great relationship with the blacks" or that he loves Hispanics. Yet he made statements describing Mexican immigrants as a group of criminals and rapists and he depicted black neighborhoods as unending hells of crime and poverty. He argued that a Hispanic-American judge shouldn’t hear a case involving Trump businesses simply because of the judge’s background.
A professor at the University of California Irvine by the name of Michael Tesler decided to take a statistical look at the racial trend of Trump's support in the summer of 2016. He compared the voting preferences of Republican primary voters in 2008, 2012 and 2016 with the voter's scores on a "racial resentment" survey. The study found that the more resentment against people of color a voter expressed, the more likely that voter was to vote for Trump in the primary. Interestingly these same voters had mostly voted for failed Republican primary contestants in 2008 and 2012. They had simmered with resentment and frustration because even the Republican nominees who lost to Barack Obama were unsatisfactory to this group.
Despite his protestations that he is "the least racist person," the terms and focus of Trumps speeches make it clear that there is a norm, which is white and Christian. Trump's repetitions of the slogans "America first!" and "Make America great again" are placed so as to imply white America.
It has become fashionable in intellectual circles to contend that support for Donald Trump stems primarily from economic, rather than racial, tension. Yet an analysis by USA Today's Brad Heath shows that Hilary Clinton lost most unexpectedly in counties where unemployment had fallen during the Obama administration. And now everything Trump actually does harms the working class and enriches a handful of the wealthiest.
If it was about class, Trump's appeal would be very thin indeed. His support comes primarily from the frustrations and identity crisis of a group that is defined both by race and by class--that is the white, mostly Christian core of small town and suburban America.
If we want to call this group "working class" we have to reassess the term. "Working class" tends to evoke images of coal miners and line operators, but that isn't the mainstay anymore. If you look at the income distribution graphs for the US, the "working class" could conceivably be considered everyone who is not in the bottom ten percent (the very poor) and not in the top ten percent (the extremely rich).
That gives you 80 percent of the nation, a group of people in which the top 10 percent is only ten times wealthier than than their poorest group members. That may sound like a big internal difference for a group, but in the scheme of things--when compared to the astronomical wealth of those Americans who are too wealthy to be in the group--this middle 80 percent really is a class in itself and largely they are people who actually work in one form or another for a living--thus working class.
And if you take that middle 80 percent and divide it by race, singling out the white Christian majority of it, you have the group targeted by Trump's message. They work, they struggle, they look at the boggling wealth of the wealthy and feel the fear and the siren's pull of the mostly non-white poor. They have been told in a myriad ways in recent years that they have no culture or that their culture is shallow and silly. They have been told that they once had a divine destiny, but that was deemed morally wrong and now they are not special, not ordained in any way. They live reasonably well but feel stifled and frustrated.
I doubt Trump or even his speech writers looked much into the historical references of the "forgotten men and forgotten women" phrase, but I did. The first widely known figure to use "the forgotten man" gimmick was William Graham Summer in 1883. Summer was a social Darwinist, meaning that he promoted the idea that survival of the fittest should dictate which humans get to survive to adulthood in society. It was kind of a precursor to eugenics I suppose, the idea that they could breed "better" humans by letting the weak die of hunger and disease.
In a speech titled "The Forgotton Man," Summer made a case that could easily have been a template for Trump's campaign strategy, claiming that hard-working people needed to be freed from the dead weight of useless poor people.
Summer divided society into the hard-working "forgotten man" type and the "nasty, shiftless, criminal, whining, crawling, and good-for-nothing people." The second category was supposed to be that bottom ten percent that Trump degrades as well, but like Trump, Summer inflated it to appear much larger and more threatening without actually including his target audience in it.
Since Summer's day, several American presidents have played with the rhetorical concept that there is some group of Americans who do not complain, who work hard quietly and ask nothing of society, a mythical deserving class. Reagan's "silent majority" was one of the more blatant but that never reached the level of Trump's appeal to white people in small towns and suburbs to see themselves as the unsung victims in society.
One world leader did go this far and built a fast-rising, brilliant and brutal regime based on exactly this concept. He started it with a book entitled in translation "My Struggle," which sought to teach his fellow white citizens to see themselves as wronged and to instill a righteous thirst for revolutionary vengeance.
That was, of course, Adolf Hitler. And while I'm sure,. you've probably seen Trump compared to Hitler so many times in the past few months that you find this predictable and even boring, I want to call your focused attention to something that is NOT merely a rhetorical comparison, using exaggerated connections.
I have been watching the reactions of white Americans and others of similar Caucasian-Christian background around the world with growing unease.
A year ago, it was a dull throbbing drumbeat, occasionally mentioned but generally ignored. Since the election it has been steadily ramping up. That is the modern concept of white people as silent social victims. And it is not limited to the United States.
Last year I might have seen a comment along the lines of, "You say 'prejudice' but you're just virtue signalling," once every week or so. Now a day doesn't go by when I don't run across some version of the argument: "So called 'white privilege' is an quitter's excuse. When you get right down to it everyone has some sort of disadvantage. The only question is who tries harder."
The trend is easily observable both on-line and in the real world. Even my ESL students in a small Bohemian backwater have heard the arguments and some nod along with them and say that Trump has finally allowed people to say "what everyone was thinking all along."
On a few occasions, I joined one of these discussions and laid out the host of facts demonstrating that white privilege is alive and well. I cited statistics showing systematic disadvantages that still plague people of color. I gave my own personal experience as a white woman with a significant disability. I have experienced both sides of the privilege paradigm. I know what it is like to not have the privileges of others. And I have seen white privilege work even for me in many situations, including when I fervently wished it wouldn't.
I never see any indication that my reasoned arguments sway anyone who has already fallen under the spell of this rhetoric. And I rarely go to the mat over it anymore, though I do make a point of speaking up against it. The eventual exhausted silence of people who know better is one of the the things this kind of propaganda counts on.
But the other thing it counts on is our lack of understanding for the identity crisis of the white working class. I am certainly not going to subscribe to a doctrine that says they are the victims of the past fifty years of domination by mythical "liberals" and people of color grabbing all the hard-earned spoils. But they do have grievances against the corporate-tilted economy which leave them vulnerable to scapegoating propaganda.
Across the board, that middle 80 percent of Americans have lost wealth and income in recent decades. Even the top bracket-the 80th to 90th percentile of the US economy, the people just poorer than the top ten percent of all Americans--has declined in wealth. Their financial strength has seeped toward the wealthiest ten percent.
To say this may seem like whining. The top half of this middle 80 percent is not suffering terribly in material terms. They have large homes, on average several vehicles, security, travel, health care, college education...
Why would they complain?
Because their fortunes are declining, not growing and the American ethos is all about growth and making sure one's children have it better and easier than the current generation. And for decades that has clearly been impossible for the middle 80 percent... especially for those who are white.
Why do I say "especially for those who were white?" Again, I'm not talking about the poor white victims.
The white people were in that middle 80 percent and they lost ground. But with the growth of populations of color as well as civil rights laws and expanded educational opportunities for two generations, some people of color have seen improvement in their circumstances over the past few decades. Not the majority of people of color, but a few.. It isn't improvement of their wealth bracket but rather that some individuals have climbed the ladder of wealth brackets to take their places along side those white members who were already there.
White people did not lose ground to people of color. The white middle 80 percent lost ground to the white top 10 percent. But if you're living in a suburb where you can't see the top 10 percent and you can see the newly well-off black people next door as well as your own slowly eroding security, it is easy to draw the wrong conclusions.
Add to that several harsh generation gaps that have cut white Americans off from cultural roots and created a sense of empty identity. Pile on top the misinterpretation of integrated history to be a litany of white collective guilt. And there is a recipe for resentment, anger and frustration that we are now seeing rise like an unstoppable chemical reaction between baking soda and vinegar.
Trump has been elected and some have taken his election as a sign that it is now more possible to vent racial resentments. But instead of releasing tension this has only intensified the tenor of the frustration. In the end, we may find that Trump is the least of our worries and that a much greater danger threatens the nation and the rest of the western world.
In the study of ethnic conflicts around the world, it has becomeclear that violence between ordinary people stems most often from the resentment of a privileged portion of the society when it sees its monopoly on power slipping. According to a paper in World Politics in 2010, a statistical analysis of 157 cases of ethnic violence--including that in Chad, Lebanon and the Balkans in the 1990s--showed that the decline of privileged groups is highly correlated to extreme violence.
Most unfortunately Trump is only a symptom of a disease--one that has spread well beyond the borders of the United States. It is past time, we acknowledged this. Simple suppression of racial tension and resentment will likely result in a more explosive reaction. It will take much more to avert violence and strengthen our open, multi-racial society to meet the challenges of climate change and resource shift.
It is time to listen to one another. It is time to seek allies across racial lines. If Trump and his ilk wish to divide us by race, that is the first thing we must resist.