In the spiral toward Fascism: White resentment and identity crisis

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.

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

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.

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore

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." 

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blue 

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blue 

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. 

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore 

Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore 

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. 

The 2017 List: 13 things to bring into the new year

With some truly depressing 2017 lists out there, I want to add a couple that might actually come in handy... or at least crack a smile.

Here is the Rebel With a Pen list of what to take with you when leaping into 2017:

  1. Chocolate
  2. A solar panel
  3. A manual for communicating with racists
  4. A Canadian passport or at least least a maple leaf bumper sticker
  5. Your entire library of books
  6. Wool socks
  7. A couple of 1960s protest albums
  8. Food stockpiles
  9. A bomb shelter
  10. Your family and near neighbors
  11. A first aid kit with extra bandages
  12. Your ability to laugh in the face of disaster
  13. Your generosity of spirit when it comes to people you might feel like judging

And with some of the bizarre wish lists out there, I figured that my brand of fantasy wouldn't seem far fetched at all. Here's my wish list for 2017:

  1. I wish Donald Trump would get on TV, laugh really loud and say, "Just kidding!" And then go back to his moocher lifestyle and leave us in peace.
  2. I wish everyone in the media would suddenly realize they should actually listen to scientists. Then science and climate discussions would be at the top of the news cycle all year long.
  3. I wish oil executives would realize the Indians own that land in North Dakota and that squeezing every last drop of oil out of the sand in Texas is not going to prolong their gluttonous lifestyle for very long anyway so they might as well start thinking about long-term survival.
  4. I wish my kids would wake up January 1 and realize that bickering defeats fun.
  5. I wish the next president would declare a new New Deal consisting of building solar panels to go on every roof and a light-rail system serving the entire country.
  6. I wish all the teenage ISIS fighters would get a deep hankering to go live with their mothers and watch TV until they're forty. 
  7. I wish all bombs, missiles and munitions as well as all guns not in a safe under lock and key would mysteriously disappear on January 1.
  8. I wish someone brilliant would invent a way for writers and artists to make a living at their craft.
  9. I wish Microsoft would go bankrupt and have to sell off all of its parts to independent programmers who want to make an honest living.
  10. I wish our society would begin taxing the use of natural resources instead of the labor of the working poor and the funds would be put toward educational opportunity, urban greenspaces, rural public transit and subsidies for high quality cottage industries. 
  11. I wish a benign virus would evolve and spread among humans which deactivates the part of the brain that categorizes according to skin color, speech pattern and the appearance of a person's eyes.

With those sweet and optimistic thoughts in mind, I wish you a very happy (and peaceful) new year!

Surviving the new reality

Rain drums on the roof as I write. I am on enforced rest. Doctor's orders. I could cry for joy over the rest, except that the eye surgeon has forbidden me to express intense emotions. 

But you get the idea. I don't feel sick but I'm supposed to stay inside, keep warm, not work much and be at peace. I know, I wish I could spread it around a little too.

The only downside of this is a feeling of vulnerability that comes with the isolation.  I hesitate to venture out much, even on-line. I am a bit breakable and the world has suddenly become doubly harsh.

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

I saw a post from an old work colleague about attacks against people of color in the US. I wrote in a quick reply of support and bittersweet humor. And instead of solidarity, my old office-mate lashed out at me, labeling me an "sheltered white expat." 

I instantly had the urge to fight back. I'm not one who takes things lying down or turns the other cheek. Sure, I'm white and I know better than many white people what privileges and protections that entails. I am highly aware when I meet police officers that I am wearing the backpack of white privilege--then and many other times. I also know that when any country is in the grip of fear that there is an understandable anger toward emigres--those who left, no matter how good their reasons. 

On the other hand, I'm also a person with a significant physical disability. I'm up against the wall in this too. My children are not white and they are newly naturalized citizens. Will we ever be able to go back to visit my home and family again? That is not an idle question in these post-election days. We are also in a country (the Czech Republic) that Donald Trump has pledged to put a military base in. We are isolated for the moment, but far from off the hook. 

Still, I bit my lip and said none of that. I know well the furious emotions raging in my colleague's post. I replied only to express more simple and direct support for her. I told her I am an ally and I understand her words. She and another friend continued to express anger and rejection toward me. There was no reconciliation. 

I am worried.

I'm saddened to lose a connection to someone I enjoy simply due to these terrible times. But I am even more worried by what this negative interaction among allies means for our people--the people of our country, citizens and non-citizens, all cultures and all backgrounds. We're stuck in this together, after all. 

My home county in Oregon reportedly voted 67 percent for Trump. There are people I call friends who did and likely even a few only moderately distant relatives. And if I cannot meet a friend who agrees with me in support and solidarity, if we are so divided that I am the enemy even when I am not across the political divide, how... oh gods, how will we live with those who really do hate and choose a hateful leader? 

Let's take a moment to forget that Trump even exists. 

Sigh. Now doesn't that feel better? 

But wait a minute. There's a problem. We've made Trump disappear but we haven't made the many people who vehemently support him disappear. Sure, we can say they are a minority, as few as 20 percent of the nation and not even most of the voters. But they are enough and we have to live with them, Trump or no Trump.

I have always felt this because of where I grew up, far from the cosmopolitan and high-thinking coasts. I love visiting Portland, Seattle, New York or Francisco for precisely this reason. Our bubble of acceptance and freedom feels so good. 

But we forget that this is not all of the nation at our peril. We ignore rage at our peril. We belittle politically incorrect antagonism at our peril. We've seen that now.

I know it is hard to think about surviving the next four years. But we will... most of us at least. And here is how I propose to do it:

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

  • If there is a registry for Muslims, get on it. I'll be a Muslim on paper.  If we're all on the list, the list will have no teeth.
  • Talk to Trump supporters. Really talk and listen. Listen to what motivates them, what they are upset about. Share your thoughts with respect and without contempt.  They are people and most people are susceptible to change, even if slow change.
  • Promote facts, everywhere, over and over again. The media will not help, so we have to do it. Talk about facts, post them, remember them, make lists. Don't let up about climate change.
  • Explain white privilege, primarily if you're white. Explain it again and again and again until you're sick of it and then explain it to more people. There is no way we're as sick of explaining it as Black, Hispanic and Native American people are.
  • Talk to the person no one is talking to at a gathering. Invite the disabled colleague or classmate to whatever. Connect. 
  • Make your circle bigger. Whatever it is you can give easily, put it in. Got a neighbor with younger kids who could use some of your nicer used clothes? Got extra veggies from the garden? Got wood or materials or whatever? Buy less, trade more, reuse more. Gain your security from community.
  • Take care of your own basic needs with as little resources as possible. Reduce plastics and fossil fuels in whatever ways you can. And remember you'll do more and better if you're rested, healthy and fed. Don't wait to be taken care of. Stand strong, think ahead, link arms.

My hope is with you. 

She said it in 2016

My predictions for the next four... or ten years

I don't particularly want to be political on my blog, but this election was a call to all of us. It is past time we look at how this happened.

I know you're probably sick of politics at the moment. Frankly, so am I. It all seems too depressing and also confusing. It feels like talking about it does nothing but dig us into despair and negativity.

Here's the thing though. I have seen every part of this coming. When I was in my twenties and organizing international anti-war protests and one of my best friends was from Syria, I shocked her by predicting that her country was next. I could have been a bit more gentle about my horribly accurate prediction, but I saw the writing on the wall--wiggly, magnifying-glass eyes or no. 

A year ago, I also predicted Trump as president. I was confused all winter and spring about why people thought there was any contest in the Republican primary. I never had a moment's doubt about the Republican nominee.

Creative Commons image by Joseph Delgadillo

Creative Commons image by Joseph Delgadillo

Still if Donald Trump wasn't here, it would be someone else. This year or next time. This moment was a long time coming. I say that because I understand on a gut level the frustrations and alienation that led many Trump supporters to support him and to accept and even wallow in such hateful and bigoted statements, as well as to applaud irrational and extremely vague economic proposals. 

I am from Oregon, but the eastern, rural, Christian, conservative part of Oregon. My family were weirdos there with our internationalist, counterculture and often leftist thinking. But still. I understand Trump supporters. Partly because I grew up near them. Partly because I share their most basic root frustrations.

No, of course, I don't agree with them on everything or support Trump. But when you look under the racism, bigotry, fear-mongering and undefined-corporate economic concepts, you find people who feel disenfranchised because they never had anyone to vote FOR. They always had to choose the lesser of evils in a broken two-party system in which candidates never talk about the real issues.

Social media changed that this time; that, and Donald Trump's private media empire.. Let's face it. This election was not about who looked better or who had better speech writers and snazzier campaign ads as it often has been. This election, for the first time in my life, was about issues. It's sad that it was about racism, fear of foreigners and taxes for poor people, but there were real issues raised, issues that were previously taboo. 

Trump supporters in the parts of the US that I know well--that terrifying red swath through the middle of the country--are people struggling with the same root fury I have felt for years. But they were struggling with much less access to information and education, struggling in a society that never let the world (I mean the world beyond US borders) in.

Clinton supporters I know are out on social media right now bemoaning the election of Trump and yet repeating the very strange conviction that "America is still the best deal on earth," as if most of Europe, parts of the Middle East and good parts of Asia didn't have better education, health care, standards of living and just about everything else. Barack Obama convened congressional debates on health care early in his presidency and would not allow members of Congress who supported European-style single-payer health care to even participate in the debate.

And we are surprised that many Americans lack information and their frustration turns to bigotry?

If we limit choices to two parties which officially predetermine which issues can be brought up in televised debates, if we keep our school system focused on our own country's history and political system alone, if we allow news media to be controlled by a few naturally self-interested corporations, if we allow corporations to run almost every aspect of our society, we should not be surprised at the results.

Yes, this election was real democracy (except for the part about Bernie Sanders, the candidate with the most vehement supporters, being artificially cut out). This election reflects the frustration and lack of choice and the segregation of information that is rampant in our society.

Don't blame Trump. And don't blame Trump supporters. There are reasons for this.

As for Bernie Sanders, he is the only political candidate I have ever fully supported. That is primarily because I have known and closely watched him for twenty-odd years and I am convinced he was the real deal. I loved those months when Sanders looked like hope, but deep down I feared that the leadership of the parties would never stand for it. I also predicted that the next president would be a Republican. Sanders made me wonder for a while there because of the unpredictable influence of social media, but that was really only wishful thinking, given the impact of corporate media.

Where do all my predictions and statements about society come from? I am not a pollster or even a media junkie. I have been accused of almost never watching the news lately.  But I do keep up and follow important events. I observe the emotions of groups of people. My original profession was journalism and I was most known for drawing out the views of all sides in controversies. I heard out the fears of Czech Neo-Nazis and then walked across the street to a Romani ghetto and heard that side of the issue.

It isn't so much about knowing facts and polls, as it is about listening to people.

So, I have a few things to say in 2016 that I don't think you will want to believe. That's fine. I'm going to say them anyway and in four or five years, I'm going to dig this post out again and check how I did.

  1. Trump will be very bad for us and life will go on. Most of us will live and I will probably not be homeless in four years.
  2. Trump supporters will be told that their economic woes and feeling of disenfranchisement is not improving because of foreigners, Black people, the very poor (including people with disabilities) and other groups they should be against. For that reason, they probably will not be disillusioned with Trump as fast as we would hope.
  3. But their underlying frustrations, which stem from a lack of true choice in US politics and the heavily consumerist, corporate-led society, will remain unsatisfied. Unless something in the media changes radically, most Americans will continue to confuse the systems of corporations with the concept of "big government."
  4. Climate change is the most important threat to our survival. Extreme authoritarian religious groups are the other major threat--be they fundamentalist churches in the US or Islamic extremism (i.e. Trump or ISIS).
  5. Putin is not nearly as bad as Trump. He is in power and will generally stay there. If he has to imprison a few journalists to stay in power or keep his picked successor in power, he will, but he will use intelligent international and military strategies that are good for Russia and only incidentally good or bad for anyone else. His main concerns are what is good for Russia and his power in Russia.
  6. There will be other extremist groups that look like ISIS. There will be many refugees. There will be famine and huge waves of millions of refugees within ten years. Europe will build walls against them. And the US will shut down immigration from those areas.
  7. Climate change will not produce very many Hollywood-worthy disaster moments. Oh, there will be ever worse hurricanes, but mostly the dry lands will get drier. Violence will become more and more "normal." Resources will be more and more stretched. Life will become harder slowly enough that most people will not realize that much of the hardship is caused by climate change. But for the next ten years at least, we will keep struggling on. 
  8. History books will one day remember that a very important and dire world event happened in November of 2016 and it will have to do with the Dakota Access Pipeline and the many other pipelines being laid for frantic fossil fuel projects, not the election. I'm serious. In the long-run, that will probably be more historically important and our generation will look back and wonder why we were so distracted and didn't see it. 
  9. And after all that, I predict we'll still be here in 2030. I think life will be hard and we'll look back on this as a time with simpler problems and easier decisions. Our kids will not understand why we couldn't do better. But we will not live in a post-apocalyptic world. We will live in a stressful daily grind in which resources are limited and the cost of poverty is very high in terms of disease and mortality. There will never be a moment--more than now at least--when we can say the apocalypse has come. 

And we'll have to deal with all of that sooner or later. The sooner we start to take it seriously the better prepared we'll be.. 

Now is the time to put your energy into what you believe. Now is the time for solar panels, for learning self sufficiency and for building local communities. Now is the time for preparing for hard times and making sure we have the skills to survive.

This is the time to be serious and think hard about what we spend our time and money on. Is it TV and Facebook or is it learning to grow food and overcome antibiotic resistant bacteria with complex natural compounds? Is it buying another new car or is it about putting twenty percent of your income into one thing that might make a long-term difference.

This isn't about a catastrophe scenario. This is about right now. Live what you believe. If what you believe is not consumerism and TV (i.e. supporting corporations), then don't do it. There is much to be done.