Sunday, July 24, 2016

Trump and the Decline of White America

So many white people...

I've spent the best part of the past year trying to figure out the Trump phenomenon. How does a man this manifestly incompetent, ignorant, and offensive command so much support in the United States in 2016? There is clearly a racial component, but what Trump speaks for is not 1950s racism. It's race-adjacent, but not strictly racist. The distinction is subtle but important.

Instead, what's happening is the death rattle of normative white culture--that is, the assumption that everything in society will be filtered through the cultural lens of the typical 55-year-old white male. It's not just that he will look out and mainly see white faces, it's that he will have his cultural values and preferences reflected back to him. In this way it's a kind of narcissism. Racism is directed outward--it's an attack on very real people. What Trumpies are experiencing is cultural dissonance, and it's personal and inward-looking. They're nostalgic, they express a longing for a time when they were "free" to think and behave without filter.

This is why Trump and his followers are so fixated on "political correctness." At the gross level, for the first time in American history, it's not mainstream to be racist, homophobic, and misogynist. All of these positions are reflective of a time when white, Christian culture was the national default. A long time ago it became uncool to voice these things publicly, but the were still minority views, marginalized positions. Racist, homophobic whites could still joke about fags and niggers in private and not offend people. In the last decade, these things became the majority view. Most Americans find these terms offensive, and anyone using them risks public scorn.

But it's more subtle than just bigotry. The world is confusing when norms change--when people say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Respect for Latino and black culture, for non-Christians, and for non-straights has become the majority view. Drop an n-bomb now, and you court censure in all but the most insular settings. Trumpies want the freedom to use whatever language is comfortable without being social pariahs. This is one of the lost "freedoms."

Of course, this is not a change politicians can affect. They're bigger social changes. It is employees in department stores that say Happy Holidays, not the guy at the DMV. Whites of a certain generation expect to be paid deference, but the world seems to be spiting them. In the America of 2016, it's fine to be gay or transsexual, Muslims and Jews are accorded respect, women are often the boss, and signs are in English and Spanish.

Trump constantly talks about weakness. "We're so weak, nobody respects us." This is a big theme for Trump. It has seemed an odd critique. Actually, we're stronger now than we have been twenty years--crime is down, unemployment is down, the economy is fine, we all have smart phones, and soon we'll all be watching TV on Oculus Rift. The weakness Trump has identified, though, has to do with this loss status. Who cares if you have an iPhone if everyone's calling you a racist all the time?

Trump's entire message is one of white restoration--there's basically nothing else there. He doesn't have policies per se, just vague promises that things will be great again. (Believe me.) Nonwhite America says, "what do you mean 'again,' white man?" For anyone who wasn't white and probably male, that normative culture was a terrible thing. (It's even possible for whites to see it as a terrible thing even though they benefited.) Good riddance.

A final irony about this election is that even the election itself is a last gasp example of normative whiteness. We have elevated and enlarged Trump's status because we always see things through the lens of whiteness. And he is indeed huge with whites. But he's never passed about 40-42% in the polls (the tightening has to do with Hillary's fall). I suspect most Americans think that he's dominating among poor voters. After all, big part of his message is predicated on jabbing the "elites," and this is how the media dutifully frames it. But of course he's not winning among the poor. He's winning among the poor whites. Overall, Hillary is doing way better among people earning less than $50,000. That white cultural view still has valence--there's still evidence of it all around--but it's receding.

This is why the Trump phenomenon contains a bright light at its core. The very existence of Trump demonstrates is that this view is dying. You only run on the platform of white restoration when something needs restoring. And not only is it not getting restored, it's going away. Trumpism isn't the spark of a new movement, it's the ember of a dying one. Thirty percent of the electorate is nonwhite, and that number grows each year. Nonwhites are being born at a faster rates than whites, and whites are dying at a faster rate than nonwhites. We will be a majority nonwhite country by 2044.

But even that fails to get at the truth of things. Culturally, we quit being a white country a while ago. Donald Trump is not going to change that.

1 comment:

debaser said...

Privilege, but "we" didn't do anything to deserve it.