written by Valerie Morales
National elections lack mythology. They are not a referendum on policy, nor are they a theology test, or a course in morality. National elections are an emotional exercise adults force upon themselves every four years and then, afterwards, they whine about the results over drinks at the neighboring watering hole.
The citizens who vote in presidential elections, and 40% do not, vote because they are afraid of losing what they have accumulated. They fear losing their place in line. Or, they are angry at what they have already lost.
In the case of the Trump voter who self-identifies as a victim of culture, the currency of whiteness is what is lost. It has been diminished in a diverse society that has expanded racial interests and shifted away from entitled ones. Anger at the loss is potent and feral. It is easy to understand then their embrace of an old man. Needy and vulnerable, an impulsive sexist who lovingly celebrates racial intolerance comes calling for a date. It was a perfect storm.
But it wasn’t a shift, despite the rhetoric. White fear and racial loathing have an alliance. They are the immoral authority of national elections that talented political consultants like Lee Atwater manipulate for white comfort. Atwater was responsible for racial anxiety when Michael Dukakis was running for president in 1988. Liberal Dukakis took credit for his state’s mostly glowing record of crime and punishment. And then Willie Horton was thrown in his face thanks to Atwater.
Willie Horton was a low-life who robbed a gas station. After the 17 year old attendant handed over the money in cooperation, Horton stabbed him 19 times. He stuffed the body into a trash can and was sentenced to life without parole. But on Dukakis’ watch, Horton was allowed to participate in the weekend furlough program. On furlough, Horton raped a white woman and knifed her boyfriend. He became a political prop for the GOP to solidify the point you can’t have mercy for black men. You cannot be kind to them. You cannot extend benefits. They will rape your white daughters. The GOP pounded the message over and over again. It was subliminal racism steeped in slave history meant to stoke and exaggerate white fear. It worked beautifully in a climate of racial suspicion. George Bush Sr. won the presidency.
A few years later, in the race for North Carolina Senator, incumbent Jesse Helms found himself in a pickle. His opponent was Harvey Gantt, an eloquent and gifted architect and politician who flourished in Charlotte and was now spreading his message to the entire state, despite the institutional systems in place to block him. Gantt was trying to become the first black Senator since Reconstruction to represent the South and he was gaining a lot of attention, white support, and enthusiasm. But the Helms campaign had a trick up their sleeve, a political ad that changed the arc of the race.
The ad lacked grace, on purpose. It implied black men were intent on stealing a white man’s job, for which they were unqualified. There was no subliminal message ala Willie Horton. The voice over for the ad sermonized, “You needed the job. You were the most qualified. But they had to give it to a minority.” The ad was brilliantly effective. Harvey Gantt was diminished.
When economist Anne Case wrote “there are two Americas” she meant there are two white Americas. The seen. And the unseen. The have stuff folk. And the struggling. The struggling was the target of Jesse Helms ad about white jobs disappearing. Donald Trump has stepped into the Helms footprints quite callously.
Anne Case’s research showed that white men and white women without college degrees are dying faster than any other demographic. The dying are the Trump target. While Case attributed their dying to suicide and opioid addiction, Trump is being allegorical. White people are dying in the culture. They are not important. They don’t create anything anymore. They are not the heroes. They have been betrayed.
What the 2016 election proved is that whiteness is more than complimentary, it is a sword. It can put a president in office. Secondarily, whiteness is narcissistic. It has empathy only for itself, pretending that no other group has ever felt betrayed. It is self-absorption at an exponential level.
It feels like a riddle that the descendants of slaves who have suffered terrorism hardship and barbarism are living longer than the great grandchildren of their oppressors. But the tentacles of white fragility require helplessness when entitlement erodes. White men and women are stuck, bitter, and unforgiving.
Donald Trump isn’t the white man cometh. The loss of working class income and relevancy is structural; societies change on their own for a myriad of cross cultural and economic reasons. What is static is the consequence. Marginalized because of labor fluctuations, the working class white family is stressed and many are broke. It has created depression, sorrow, despair, anger, abuse (to the self and those they love) and listlessness. They have lost their superiority over those beneath them, those wretched people of color. It is a breeding ground for hate with a singular target.
In 2016, Donald Trump notoriously slandered segments of the electorate in order to boost poll numbers. He boasted about how he wanted to create policies to roll back the clock. Nostalgia is romantic but rarely delivers on its promise.
His voters haven’t left him and never will because where are they to go? They want to shrink the world until white superiority is affirmed as a national value. Trump and his handlers are patriarchally keen and so for the next 15 months it will be more like his rollout in Orlando. Look at the world as enemies. Black enemies. Immigrant enemies. Abortion enemies. Obama the hero enemies. Lying media enemies. It creates a marriage of hostility and anxiety. For all of us. Which is the point. Afraid people vote recklessly.
According to a recent Suffolk University/USA Today poll, Trump would squeak by a Democrat candidate 40–37%, if the election were held today. It’s important to note that 14% were undecided and 9% interested in a third party candidate. Nevertheless, it is evidence that the nativism campaign Trump launched four years ago is still resonating, despite Trump not being able to deliver to his working class base much of what he promised.
He didn’t get rid of Obamacare. He didn’t bring back coal. Most of his voters didn’t get much in the tax break. Factories are still closing. Dreamers are still here. Whiteness didn’t have its return to glory. 1950’s America is still in the history books. And immigration policy has failed. Everything Trump promised blew up in his face.
In a season of lies and exaggerations and false modesty, the most pressing problem for the president, besides his creepiness, is that his opponents have paid attention and are educated on what whiteness wants from their leaders and frankly, who they want. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have their own working class white base.
Recently, Biden applauded the segregationists who he was able to work with on legislation. He was talking about Herman Talmadge of Georgia and Mississippi’s own James Eastland. It was the night before Juneteenth- the celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation- when Biden curiously propped himself up for breaking bread with racists. Eastland referred to blacks as an inferior race and Talmadge was against civil rights legislation and school integration.
The only reason for Biden to invoke their names and to remind us he is white enough to not be called “boy” was to remind us he is white enough to not be called “boy”. It resonated poorly with blacks in his own party who have wounds and dead family because Southern racists called them “boy” then swung them from a tree. Biden refused to walk his comments back which potently aligned him, in the moment, with Donald Trump. African Americans: middle finger up.
White people, as a monolith, have adapted and embraced the institutional structures that practice racism and create burdens. They are complicit in their own comfort and dissonance and ignore racial pain until pain is upon them. Then they are driven to create penalties for us and benefits for them. Hate has always been their weapon when things get a little dicey on the home and work front. Though incompatible with the morality they spew at us, hate is their savior. Lynching hate. Mass incarceration hate. Redlining hate. Gentrification hate. Police brutality hate. But the question that will be answered after the election numbers are tallied up and made sense of: will whiteness as an individualistic issue have the same kinetic vroom to put Trump back in office?
It is a zero sum game. Trump desperately needs his sycophants to still believe they are in decline, and that education doesn’t matter, and that more children are white than brown, and that getting rid of abortion will save white babies, and that kneeling athletes matter, and that the manufacturing world will make a comeback, and that a wall will deter desperate immigrants from their dream.
Trump’s base has been in a beautiful romance with him, but four years later the anger that began the marriage is harder to oxygenate. It makes Trump more dangerous as he provokes and prods and tosses pejoratives and pretends he can create a world that doesn’t exist.
He can’t change structures but can get us into war. He’s a lame duck in Congress. His daughter has accomplished nothing to sublimate a father who hates a variety of racial groups.
Nevertheless, in 2016 Trump provided a template and a path. His we so white we so sorrowful sermon will be repeated with vigor but from the other side. Democrats were listening too and 2020 is coming sooner than you think. Donald Trump has whiteness on his side. But so do the Democrats.