Power, Privilege, and White America’s Confidence in Donald Trump
As the conventions end and the campaigns grind on, more and more journalists are releasing articles where they try to figure out just who these Trump voters are. In what universe do these strange creatures live that could put their trust in an openly racist, misogynistic, islamophobic demagogue? I hear this chorus of disbelief from progressive friends who cannot seem to fathom that there are enough people out there to elect Donald Trump as the next President of the United States. The problem is that they are wrong, and this constant fascination and borderline exotification of white Americans who are supporting Trump encourages the continued dismissal of the implications of his candidacy and what it means for our country.
The rise of Trump’s campaign represents the subtle and subconscious revolt of a white America that is seeing its historical power challenged. When we (white, male, cisgender people) have lived our entire lives without fear of being targeted by police and where the education, justice, and employment systems work in our favor, the act of making our society more equitable feels like a net loss of power and privilege because it is. Creating a more equitable and just society requires challenging the institutions that have benefitted one race over another. There is something changing in our country when the anti-racist movement targets implicit and systematic biases, as much as it targets explicit expressions of racism. It forces us as white Americans to acknowledge the internal biases we hold and that our systems have been structured in a way to benefit us and not people of color.
As its activists know, Black Lives Matter does not mean that white lives don’t matter, rather, it is the rallying call for eliminating systematic racism in our institutions and society. It is the acknowledgement that white lives have always mattered, that not all Americans have shared in that prosperity and privilege, and that now is the time to make meaningful change. However, for white Americans who have seen their rural communities become more impoverished, who have lost manufacturing jobs to outsourcing, and whose blue collar jobs no longer pay a living wage nor offer benefits because their unions have been crushed, it is not surprising that talk of privilege can be angering. It is this anger that Donald Trump is harnessing more than anything else.
Trump offers clear and simple villains to blame for the struggle of the white middle and working class (everyone from immigrants and liberals, to Muslims and Latinx people) and offers a clear narrative of his unique ability to magically return us to this illusory time of white rural prosperity. Where Black Lives Matter attempts to convince white Americans to confront our privilege and all of our subconscious biases, Donald Trump tells us to embrace them. Donald Trump is validating this anger not by encouraging solidarity among disadvantaged groups, but by pitting them against each other.
This is why this election is so important. We are not witnessing a competition between two different worldviews as we do in most presidential elections. We are seeing the fracturing of our country along racial and educational lines like never before. One need only look at the polling data to see that Donald Trump is crushing Hillary Clinton among non college educated whites, while they are tied among college educated white voters. White people with less privilege are frustrated with being told to acknowledge their privilege, and Donald Trump has emerged as their champion.
I truly believe that white people in poverty, black people in poverty, and latinx people in poverty have more in common than not. Acknowledging your own privilege does not invalidate your experiences of marginalization. People of all backgrounds struggle with starvation wages, terrible schools concentrated in poor neighborhoods, trade deals that appear to only benefit corporations by making it easier to outsource jobs, and so much more. Unfortunately, these common struggles have been overpowered by fear, racism, and nostalgia for a time of monochromatic prosperity that never existed.
This election has enormous stakes for our country. It’s not just about taxes, foreign policy, and the temperament to lead; it is about the identity of our nation. Whether we will do the hard work that will build bridges between us, or whether will will scapegoat others and put up walls of division and hatred remains to be seen.