MLK’s Soul in Trump’s Body

What if Martin Luther King took over for The Donald?

Donald Trump’s most reliable bloc of supporters are middle-aged working-class white men. As Ben Domenech argued at a recent Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “Blame the Elites for the rise of Donald Trump,” this group of older, blue-collar white guys haven’t necessarily had it easy these past few years. From Domenech’s opening statement:

There are today seven million men in prime working age who have dropped out of the labor force. That’s 15 percent. That’s higher than ever — than since the end of the Great Depression. There are millions more who know people personally experiencing this kind of pain as a brother, as an uncle, as a son. Moved from unemployment to disability, you will receive sufficient benefits to subsist, around $1,200 a month, which is enough to pay for the alcohol and the drugs that help you self-medicate.
Your life is essentially one marked by hopelessness, desperation and anxiety. You are statistically unlikely to ever re-enter the workforce and alone among all demographics the likelihood of suicide is rising for you. The things that make life not only endurable but happy are religious faith now lost to you, family which is fractured, community which is disintegrated, and work which you find hard to come by. The TV screen flickers with images of people living lives you could never hope to emulate. Your situation is bleak and while our soma today is better it is still not a replacement for the pursuit of happiness. Your tomorrows look dark, but the past, even the grimy parts of it, look like gold. And when a golden-haired man comes on TV, a man who represents a vision of what you might hope your life could be like, a man who is a traitor to his class, who defies the elites, who is rich and successful, who comes from the world of the elites but is strong enough to reject them and their lives and he tells you it’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault that your life is the way it is. He tells you it’s the fault of immigrants and bad trade deals and wasteful, pointless wars based on lies. He tells you the problem with the elites is not that they are too conservative or that they are too liberal, but that they are stupid and don’t care about you. He tells you with confidence that he alone can make everything great again and you listen. In the absence of the failures of the elites, could Donald Trump succeed? The answer is no. Our elite leadership class sowed the wind and Donald Trump is the whirlwind they’ve reaped.

Domenech and his debate partner Tim Carney won the debate, and their indictment of the elites was powerful and persuasive. Donald Trump has taken advantage of the downfall of the working class White Guy. He is a master of telling them it’s not their fault, that the elites are to blame for their dire circumstances. His presidential run has been fueled by this very message.

But what if Trump had an out-of-body experience, or more specifically, what if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s soul decided to possess Trump’s body, just for a little while? What would he say to the out-of-work, hurting, depressed, self-medicating White Guys Domenech so readily empathizes with?

Credit: Marc Nozell (Wikimedia Commons)

King/Trump might admit that things have gotten harder, he would be aware of some of the challenges working class white men are facing (Not that they hold a candle to the challenges and injustices facing working class black men in the 1960s. I repeat, the struggles of working class white men today pale in comparison with the struggles of black men). But he would also do something regular Trump won’t do: he would challenge his fellow old white guys to dig deep, to do better, to rise to the occasion. In what follows, I’ve taken the liberty of substituting “White Guy” for “The Negro” (and a few other contextual substitutions indicated by italics) that King addressed in a section of his 1958 book “Stride Toward Freedom.”

Dream with me:

“One point in the White Guy’s program should be a plan to improve his own economic lot. Through the establishment of credit unions, savings and loan associations, and cooperative enterprises the White Guy can greatly improve his own economic status. He must develop thrift and techniques of wise investment. He must not wait for the end of the lousy economy that lies at the basis of his own economic deprivation; he must act now to lift himself up by his own bootstraps.”

King/Trump would continue by challenging White Guys to exercise their civic duties:

“External resistance is not the only present barrier to White Guy voting. Apathy among the White Guys themselves is also a factor. Even where the polls are open to all, White Guys have shown themselves too slow to exercise their voting privileges. There must be a concerted effort on the part of White Guy leaders to arouse their people from their apathetic indifference to this obligation of citizenship. In the past, apathy was a moral failure. Today, it is a form of moral and political suicide.”

King/Trump would not hesitate to get personal with his core constituency:

“The constructive program ahead must include a vigorous attempt to improve the White Guy’s personal standards. It must be reiterated that the standards of the White Guy as a group lag behind not because of an inherent inferiority, but because of the fact that a relatively hopeless economic and cultural climate does exist. The ‘behavior deviants’ within the White Guy community stem from the economic deprivation, emotional frustration, and social isolation which are the inevitable concomitants of this hopeless economic and cultural climate. When the liberal elite man argues that the present economic reality should continue because of the White Man’s lagging standards, he fails to see that the standards lag because of this cultural and political climate.”

Here is where King/Trump gets really real:

“Yet White Guys must be honest enough to admit that our standards do often fall short. One of the sure signs of maturity is the ability to rise to the point of self-criticism. Whenever we are objects of criticism from the liberal elites, even though the criticism are maliciously directed and mixed with half-truths, we must pick out the elements of truth and make them the basis of creative reconstruction. We must not let the fact that we are victims of a rapidly changing world lull us into abrogating responsibility for our own lives.”

King/Trump might get this reaction.

King/Trump doesn’t shy away from details:

“Our disability rate is far too high. Our level of motivation is frequently far too low. Too often those of us who are in the middle class spend above our means, spend money on nonessentials and frivolities, and fail to give to serious causes, organizations, and educational institutions that so desperately need funds. We are too often loud and boisterous, and spend far too much on drink and drugs…even the most uneducated among us can have high morals. Through community agencies and religious institutions White Guy leaders must develop a positive program through which White Guy youth can become adjusted to urban living and improve their general level of behavior. Since living off the welfare state often grows out of a sense of futility and despair, White Guy parents must be urged to give their children the love, attention, and sense of belonging that a combination of a flagging economy and rapid cultural change deprives them of. By improving our standards here and now we will go a long way toward the arguments of the liberal elites.”

King/Trump’s closing remarks would hopefully drive the point home:

“This is a great hour for the White Guy. The challenge is here. To become the instruments of a great idea is a privilege that history gives only occasionally. Mick Jagger says ‘You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes well you might find, you get what you need.’ I hope this is possible. The spiritual power that the White Guy can radiate to the world comes from love, understanding, good will, and personal responsibility….Today the choice is no longer between personal responsibility and hopelessness. It is between personal responsibility and nonexistence. The White Guy may be God’s appeal to this age-an age drifting rapidly toward its doom. The eternal appeal takes the form of a warning: “All who take the government handout will perish by the government handout.”

Many angry White Guys would ignore King/Trump, they would resist his message, they would clamor for false prophets to sooth their itching ears, they would wonder where the good old scapegoating Trump had gone. But some would listen. Some would be inspired. And King/Trump’s courage would have made all the difference.

Unfortunately, we will all wake up tomorrow to find it was all a Dream.

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