Something Thomas Frank published in the Guardian this week rings true to my own overarching theory about what is truly behind the huge success of the Trump movement. Yes Trump is a white racist who unashamedly appeals to other white racists. Yes, many evangelicals have whole-heartedly climbed on his lily-white bandwagon, even to the dismay and befuddlement of many of those same white evangelical Christians. Yes, the Republican Party and its joined-at-the-hip ally, American evangelicalism, are reaping a harvest of cancerous bitterness sown in their ugly and unethical war against every measure of progress in the areas of civil and human rights in 20th century America. But there is something larger and more consequential happening here that is not simply explained, even in the plethora of public comments about why evangelicals support Trump, by appealing to the reality of racism alone. Frank brings to the discussion the undeniably powerful recognition that large portions of white America now fear that their future will continue to be marked by crippling and marginalizing economic decline. I would add that this painful economic reality is forcing white America, for the first time in our nation’s history, to respond to the thoroughgoing experience of economic, political, and religious minoritization.
So yes, there is a racial backdrop to this movement that Trump is leading. Take a look at any photo of a Trump rally and you will see a sea of white. However, there is something going on that is more than just a revival of traditional commitments to white supremacy. We must not fail to see the bigger picture if we are understand the wave of white fear that that Trump is so skillfully and adroitly riding. This fear, masked by a sometimes openly raging anger directed toward an array of minorities, is the fear of a white majority that is thoroughly panicked by the awareness that it is on a slow but inevitable march from a majority to a minority status in American society. The Trump phenomenon is a warning shot that says, “We will not go gently or quietly into the night that we perceive as belonging to a disempowered, disestablished, and economically marginalized white minority.”
Here is what Trumps legions are truly afraid of. At the risk of putting words in their mouths, this is the hope, as I would phrase it, they have placed in him. “We know, in spite of our best efforts, which have always worked, at least up until now, that we are losing our place of power, prosperity, privilege, and prominence in this society. We can see that we are well on our way to becoming a minority. We fear retribution and persecution. Even more, we fear poverty that we assume will accompany our new status. We know how we have treated America’s minorities and our greatest fear is that there is a coming Karmic level of justice that will demand that we be treated by the minorities-come-majority just as we have treated them. We fear our very survival is at stake. Among all of the candidates, Trump promises to stop this march to minority status. He will close the borders to Hispanics and Muslims and stop the rising tide of diversity that threatens our hallowed and protected place of eternal privilege. He is perhaps our last ‘great white hope.’ Only he among the candidates offers to save us from the consequences of an America we have created and which is now is being turned against us, an America where we are no longer the majority. Only he promises to “Make (White) America Great Again.”
For those of us who do not fear a multicultural/multiethnic/multi-faith America this mindset is incomprehensible. We believe that this evolving society is much better than this and that the dividing forces of discrimination can and must be once and for all left behind. We have faith in African-Americans who have generation after generation born their abuse and persecutions with dignity and grace. We know the true character of the Hispanic masses that have found their salvation in this place. We know Muslims who love this country even more than we do. We admire and welcome them. We do not fear them. We also know Hispanics and African Americans who they can teach us the necessary lessons of adjustment that we have thus far failed to learn. They are not a threat. They are our allies, not our adversaries. They will tutor us, if we invite and are open to them, about how to be a healthy, humane, and included part of this larger society’s future. We believe that a democracy founded on the absolutes of equality and justice for all serves us all, including those of us who are white. There has to be a better way for the Trumpites to adjust to the realities of who we are going to be as a nation. We have hope for all, including them.
You may say, “Look, white America controls so much of the wealth, so much of state and federal governments are under their thumb. All of our religious and secular institutions have been and still do continue to serve their interests first. Such a profound sense of disempowerment and disenfranchisement seems to be so ridiculously absurd in 21st century America.” You may ask, “And why is the white America Trump represents so angry at Washington, in spite of the fact that white America still enjoys a remarkably consolidated hold on our political and legal systems? What is it that their religious leaders and political representatives at federal and state levels have been unable to deliver to them that angers them to the point of burning it all down?” It is the inability of their leaders to secure the impossible guarantee that they will continue to enjoy the privilege of majority status that frightens and angers them. Every progressive advance only serves to remind them that their status of dominance is imperiled. They would do much better, many of us conclude, if they stopped demanding that their politicians and religious leaders do the impossible for them.
Frank reminds us that the sense of many white Americans, that they are increasingly on the short end of the stick when it comes of a declining share of the American economic pie, is not simply just a matter of delusion. Here they are not succumbing to an irrational sense of paranoia. They would do well, however, to stop listening to and to being so easily directed by billionaires like Trump who are committed to hoarding wealth and to carving out their own personal safety net to protect them from the realities of minoritization.