This is the second in a series examining the building of Trump’s wall between reality and ideology. See Part One, on Anti-Intellectualism, here.
Last time I discussed the role of anti-intellectualism in the formation of the first brick in Trump’s wall. In this post, I will examine racial resentment and the anger over identity politics as another key ingredient in the brick of the liberal backlash.
No one likes to be called a racist. Well, most people don’t anyway. I suppose there are members of sects of society who are quite proud of their racism. But, most people don’t like to be called racist, or to be considered racist. The truth is, most Americans interact with racism everyday. For many, this racism is lazy and casual, for others it is violent and oppressive. For nearly everyone, however, this racism is institutional. This is the type of racism that is ingrained at a deep level in American society. It can be found in lopsided punitive measures where people of color are sentenced to jail time when a white person is given probation for the same crime or indiscretion. It can be found in our corporations and our schools. Indeed, recognizing this institutional racism is the foundation of the conversation about white privilege.
Over the course of American history, many attempts have been made to level the playing field between whites and people of color. Some of these attempts have been more successful than others. But with each new advancement in civil rights, there has been an equal and opposite reaction among other, mostly white, elements of society. The election of Abraham Lincoln, who was himself a white supremacist, though he happened to think that owning a person was a step too far, triggered the Civil War. Yes, there were other factors that contributed to the war, but his election was the match to the powder keg. Voting rights for African-Americans was met with the Jim Crow era. Brown v. Board of Education was met with widespread resistance. The promise of the end of segregation sparked one of the most well known and oft-talked about political realignments in American political history. Johnson’s Great Society was responded to with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and so on.
But racial resentment isn’t just being mad that minorities are gaining access to the same rights and privileges as whites. For many, civil rights is a seriously misunderstood issue. For everyone who is legitimately upset that they have to share a drinking fountain, there are many more who don’t understand that the slow march of progress is about granting equal footing, not giving more rights to others or taking away rights from whites. But this is the core of what drives racial resentment.
During last year’s campaign, Hillary Clinton spoke of expanding voting rights. For those in the know, this was about protecting the right to vote as guaranteed by the Constitution. It was about fighting against illegal operations at the state level that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for certain groups of voters to cast a ballot. Most of those groups are, to be polite about it, not white men. Incidentally, most of those groups are also statistically more likely to vote for someone other than a Republican candidate. But, to listen to the right on this matter, one would think that Clinton was proposing to take voting rights away from white men, and to give voting rights to people who don’t even live here, let alone are citizens – natural born or otherwise.
This theme shows up a lot in this area. Pledging to implement legislation that protects the rights of marginalized groups is almost always met with people who stamp their feet and declare that it isn’t fair that those other groups are getting more rights. Ignoring the fact that protecting existing rights doesn’t actually grant new rights, maybe these same people should be concerned about protecting their own rights. If they are uncomfortable with a law that protects the rights of a racial minority, specifically, perhaps they should demand a law that protects the rights of all people. But, they don’t feel that they need to do that. Why? Because they feel that protecting the rights of others is itself an attack on their own rights. The mind boggles.
As with anti-intellectualism, the problem of racial resentment is nothing new, and it didn’t just come to being in the last election cycle; although one could argue that it was dialed all the way up to eleven. Jonathon Knuckey wrote in 2005* that racial resentment became a significant predictor of partisanship in the 1994 and 2000 elections. In his paper, he outlines that racial resentment is “anti-black prejudice that views blacks as being at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder … as a result of not meeting the values embodied by the ‘protestant work ethic’ of self-reliance, hard work, obedience and discipline.” To put it simply, racial resentment, that is the idea that African-Americans are disproportionately reaping benefits from the government that they did not earn and have no right to, became a strong indicator for support for the Republican Party in the mid 1990s and the 2000 election.
With the election of Barack Obama in 2008 (and the reelection in 2012), this resentment grew. Much of the opposition to Obama began even before he was elected, and culminated in a resurgence of dog-whistle politics from the right – when they were being covert about it. Obama was hung in effigy, he was referred to by racial slurs, his wife was described as an “ape in heels,” and so many, many more. Indeed, polling on his policies suggests that many Americans actually favored his ideas, but when his name was attached to them, the support did a 180 from many white conservatives. To this day, the Affordable Care Act remains relatively popular, while Obamacare is derided heavily by white respondents.
Newsflash: they are the same thing.
Racial resentment was long bubbling under the surface, but reached a fever pitch during the Obama era. The Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, is regarded by many Republicans as a terror group. This is despite the fact that their message is simply that black lives matter. It is not that only black lives matter, or that white lives don’t matter. The “too” is implied, though rarely inferred. Opposition to Obama and his policy positions often revolved around his alleged otherness, and not the substance of the policy positions themselves. I distinctly remember a large amount of concern that a black man in the White House would spell the end of white superiority in America. This is a view that was not only advanced by fervent racists, but even by casual and lazy racists.
And so it grew. It was no longer seen, rightly, as equal opportunity or equal footing, but as a usurpation. This did not stop with race, either. Identity politics, as it is often so derisively called by opponents, also seemed to grow in the Obama era. And, it was met with an equal and opposite reaction.
Under the Obama administration, there was a push to acknowledge and extend the rights of other marginalized groups. Hispanics saw a new devotion to the protection of their rights. LGBTQ groups saw their rights grow and new protections put in place at the federal level. At the same time, those protections and advancements in equality were attacked and undermined at the state level. For many in the opposition, the view was that liberal politicians had sold them out, sold out their economic concerns, in place of pandering to marginalized groups that to them, deserved to be marginalized.
To these, mostly white, mostly straight, and mostly uneducated voters, the liberals had gone mad, and were trying to undermine America, their America, by extending the promise of freedom and protection to people that they did not feel deserved it. And, much of this change happened quickly. In eight years the country had elected a black man to the White House, had guaranteed marriage equality, and was working to protect basic day to day rights of transgendered individuals. When you add in the fact that this was a smart, intelligent, measured, well spoken and well read black man; and that he was doing these things, or at least overseeing them, it became too much.
A core part of this racial resentment and identity politics was that it made these other voters feel impotent, for one reason or another. This of course, could not stand. For these voters, rights are a zero sum issue. If another group gains rights, or at least the protection of those rights that was already implicit, than it must mean, to them, that they were losing rights. In reality, this isn’t true. No one loses their rights just because someone else gains the same rights they have always enjoyed. No one loses opportunity just because someone else gains that same opportunity. But, without a clear understanding of how a functional democracy is supposed to work, it is only to be expected that some would feel this way.
Decades of anti-intellectualist campaigning, coupled with a growing resentment of the fulfillment of the promise of equality – completely misunderstood by many that already enjoyed it, forged the first bricks in the wall between reality and ideology. With the promise of an opportunity to lay those bricks, and cement them in place, Trump was off and running.
Next time, I begin to look at the multifaceted issue of fear, and how it breeds an acceptance of authoritarianism.
*Racial Resentment and the Changing Partisanship of Southern Whites