I had initially dismissed Donald Trump as the random crazy person that Republicans rapidly fall in love and then out of love with during some stage of every election cycle. Pat Robertson, Sarah Palin and Rick Perry, please step up to the podium, in other words.
This still might be true, but I now think this analysis represented a lack of thought on my part. I believe Trump in particular, and the random crazy people from previous elections in general, reflect an enduring feature of what it means to be a white American and an ancient expression of what it means to be poor.
Take a deep breath because we’ve got a Kendrick Lamar rap song, the French Revolution, the Arab Spring and my own home-brew theory of identity to explain everything.
In a previous letter to Kendrick Lamar I explained why his white-bashing didn’t bother me. Primarily, I don’t care if Kendrick Lamar is mad at “my race” because “my race” doesn’t really mean anything to me. The reason whiteness doesn’t mean anything to me is because I have lots of better places to get an identity.
I have a good education and the opportunity for more education, so education is a way I can define myself. I have power over people and can expect to get more power as I age. Another nice way to define myself. I get to cavort with people from lots of countries. This means I can and do define myself as a cosmopolitan. These are all very nice, individually tailored justifications for my existence and I’m fond of them.
But not all white people have education or the opportunity for education. Many of them are powerless. Very few have the opportunity to travel in as many different circles as I do. How then are they to justify continued oxygen consumption?
That probably sounds brutal, but I strongly believe that question – that need to justify existence – burns deep in the heart of most people. I believe that failing to answer that question is tantamount to death, and I think there’s evidence to back me up on this.
The poor, the humble, the hopeless, it seems to me, look in the same places other impotent, pessimistic groups of people look – race, religion and patriotism.
Lacking any self-determined reason to exist, these people must grasp onto whatever community they happen to be born into. “I have no particular reason to exist as an individual, but I am still okay because I’m a part of the black community.” “I’m really not contributing anything to the world, but that’s okay because I was born into the true faith.” “I’m not likely to affect any change good or bad, but that’s okay because I’m a patriotic Chinese.” These are, to my privileged way of thinking, pretty lame excuses to exist. But then again, I am very privileged.
This brings me back to Kendrick Lamar because he is emblematic of the mainstream, center left to hard left of American society. He says things like “you (white people) hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture, you’re fuckin’ evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey, you vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me.”
In saying this, he’s basically a much more entertaining and colorful version of every newspaper article bemoaning white over-representation in the police forces, every news segment worrying about how to help black kids keep up with white students in elementary schools and every poster angsting over how much trouble foreign born Hispanics have in comparison to their white competitors. Each is, in its own way, restating the same idea. It is bad when white people succeed.
Once again, this doesn’t bother me because to me racial identity is a trashy, lame excuse for existence and I don’t care. But those white people with less secure identities, those whites who, like Kendrick Lamar, depend on racial identity to justify their lives, how do you think they react when a “proud monkey” rapper tells them that “you’re fucking evil?”
They might just say something like “to hell with your and your politically correct horseshit.” They might decide they are proud honkies. They might pick up their American flags and go to a Donald Trump rally.
In this sense Donald Trump is following in a long tradition, well trodden by revolutionaries since at least the Renaissance. He goes to the underprivileged and says “it is good when you succeed. You should be proud of yourselves and receive power from those who seek to oppress you. You deserve to be given primacy.”
He looks at those under-performing black and Hispanic populations and tells the proud whites that those minorities lag because they just kind of suck. Trump says that if Kendrick Lamar doesn’t want to be a loser, he should dump the ghetto thing and start acting like the white welders, delivery drivers and hair dressers cheering below his podium. He implies that if the immigrants weren’t such crappy people, they wouldn’t have to leave their alien lands in the first place.
More than anything, he tells these white people to believe in their own, inherent goodness. To blue collar whites – so universally cast as villains in our social narratives – this must be very sweet. Considering they don’t really profit from white privilege, they must feel a great deal of pathos when the Donald gives them permission to openly taste the sweet nectar of victimhood.
The Donald is very light on policy or ideology because those things simply aren’t important to his constituents. Trump is about identity and he embodies the hope, the desperate hope, that if we simply give power to a sufficiently moral identity group (blue collar whites, in this case), everything else will work itself out. It’s why Trump answers so many policy questions with “we’ll put the best people on it.”
I get it. I understand that life is not particularly good for blue collar white people right now. I can feel the frustration of being cast as villain all the time. I sympathize, truly and honestly, and I still hope Donald Trump’s campaign ends in the bottom of a smoking crater.
Revolutions are never pleasant. Smashing the old order cannot happen without blood, it cannot happen without crushing the innocent and it cannot occur without reprisal. However, some revolutions are nastier than others and the level of nastiness seems to primarily depend on how many poor, marginalized people are involved.
The American Revolution, while it had delights such as nailing loyalists to their front porches and massacring neutral Indians, was relatively tame. The British mostly treated the rebels with humanity and the rebels mostly honored the rules of war with regard to the red coats. Civilians were, aside from some occasional terrorism, mostly safe. Courts continued to function, laws were mostly observed, the levers of power were mostly operated by people of sound mental states. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in this relatively gentle revolution the urban poor, to the limited extent they existed, and the oppressed slaves, who were numerous but impotent, had almost nothing to say.
Likewise the South African Revolution against white, Boer domination was nice by the standards of revolutions. Sure, the Mandela’s ANC depended to a large degree on assassinations and terrorism and certainly, the Boers were the people behind the whole Apartheid apparatus, but by the standards of revolutions, things were relatively civil. Victory saw very little in the way of reprisal and South Africa became a sort of nice place to live. I think it’s very likely this is the case both because the ANC pointedly rejected identity politics and because its membership was overwhelmingly middle or upper class.
By contrast, the French Revolution was a nearly decade long orgy of violence, conspiracy and massacre. Mobs roamed the streets and executed thousands of people for crimes such as “living in Lyon,” “retreating in the face of vastly superior enemies,” “not being enthusiastic enough about the massacre of conservatives,” “not being enthusiastic enough about the massacre of liberals” and, my personal favorite, “not being happy enough to sell all the things in your store at huge losses.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that the greatest power in the French Revolution fell into the hands of peasants and urban poor who were clearly more worried about revenge and justice than fancy pants notions like rule of law. Time and again, the Paris poor brushed aside principle because, to them, being a poor Parisian was the definition of goodness.
The Arab Spring has seen similar catastrophes. Egypt immediately fell into ethnic strife and despotism. Libyans sodomized Qaddafi to death with a Bowie knife and then watched as the freedom fighters from ISIS engaged in wars of extermination with the left overs from Qaddafi’s secret police, literal barbarians and “moderate” Islamists. Then there’s the depressing fact that Syria exists. Altogether the Arab Winter has killed a quarter million people and created the world’s largest refugee crisis. As you can probably guess, the poor and oppressed loom large and everybody’s very concerned with simplistic religious and ethnic identities while more or less ignoring their rapidly fading democratic principles. That is because, to these factions, being Sunni or Shi’ite or Tuareg or whatever else is the definition of goodness.
It would be nice to think that those who suffer the most injustice would, given power, remember those injustices and then achieve something higher. They don’t. Who better to remember the horrors of slavery than slaves? (Lots of people, unfortunately.) Who better to oppose despots than those victimized by despotism? (Almost everyone, actually.) After all, in our times, weakness is a sign of moral goodness and power is bad, so it makes sense.
One of the things about being poor is that you run out of time to indulge in things like history, economics or science. It’s hard to remember calculus when you spend every waking moment trying to feed your wife and seven children. People somehow forget to study Adam Smith or read Thomas Jefferson when 80 hour workweeks and crushing debts loom over every moment. The tragedy of your poverty is that, should you ever get power, you are very, very unlikely to any idea on how to use it constructively. You are likely to make ruinous, insane decisions like the Paris radicals. You are likely to re-enslave yourself to the despots, as the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring have.
But while you are ill-prepared to wield power constructively, your oppression will have keenly acquainted you with resentments. Indeed, my own experience being broke ass poor acquainted me with nothing so much as the desire to see my enemies burn. Trust me when I say you would not have wanted to be anywhere near a powerful version of myself 10 years ago. It’s only after escaping poverty and reflecting for the better part of a decade that I’ve become even remotely qualified for operating the levers of power.
I don’t think my experience was unique. If you are a French peasant, you can see the ease and luxury of your noble lords every time you walk home. If you are a Trump supporter, you can watch as hated foreigners and (mostly theoretical) multi-generational welfare leaches take your tax money. You spit as intellectuals and academics describe your children’s success as unimportant, unfortunate or wrong. You burn with resentment and fury when you open a textbook and see that every single evil or stupid character is a blue collar white just like yourself.
You will combine this resentment and ignorance with an identity based on your birth. You will just know that goodness springs naturally from people who like you have whiteness, poverty, Muslimhood or whatever. Goodness and your birth identity will become the same thing in your mind. And in this, you will become a glimmering instrument of destruction.
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