While much has been made of Donald Trump’s bombastic style, his highly offensive commentary toward just about every identifiable group (strangely, sometimes even his own), and his irreverence for any type of “protocol” other than the one he happens to be proffering that day, I have been considering a slightly different aspect of his rise (and recent wins in state primaries). Since our nation’s inception, the corporate elites have been the shadow figures with respect to U.S. government, funding candidates and influencing policy via their economic power (e.g the Koch brothers today). Now however, via Trump’s candidacy, the White corporatocracy has brazenly stepped into the limelight. I was struck most by a sound bite of his I heard from South Carolina the day after he won New Hampshire where he was openly talking about his personal love of money and his unabashed greed, and that that is what has made him a success (hello Gordon Gecko). Apparently he has had his Scrooge awakening and now wants to turn all this into a means of serving this country – “I’m greedy. I love money. Now I want to be greedy for America.” Rather than be appalled, the folks at his rally stood and cheered.
Astonishing. Not because it’s the first time this has ever been said, (the White, imperial corporatocracy has been doing this all along) but rather for its public face. I wonder if this means that the corporatocracy has so much control as a result of Citizens United that they no longer think they need to pretend they are not running this country? Or, has the fact that they were bailed out with no repercussions after the 2008 crash while so many millions of Americans suffered made them feel invincible? Not sure, but something has changed such that the leaders and denizens of the White corporatocracy feel that they can unreservedly come out into the light. At one point several weeks ago Bloomberg said he would rush in and “save” us from the threat of Trump if it seemed he was winning. Again, astonishing – one corporate conglomerate is seemingly going to save us from another. Yes, a clash of the corporate titans has left the shadows and emerged as the WWF of politics right out in the open.
But my focus in this piece is not about Trump or Bloomberg. They have taken up too much ink, air and space already. I am more interested in and concerned about what Trump’s rise says about us. It’s less about the titans and far more about what this political moment reveals about the racial and economic underbelly of this country. More specifically, I’ve noticed four things.
“I’m rich…really rich”
When I was in my teens the television show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” was a hit because it let the rest of us peek into the lives of the very rich and fantasize about being them some day. The presentation of the show was not merely a “reporting out” but was always tinted with the theme of aspiration. In Robin Leach’s droll British accent I heard high praise after high praise for the various class markers that indicated not only affluence, but also one’s importance to our society. Horatio Alger was indeed alive and well in the mythic notion that we all can rise to this elite status if we are smart, work hard, and dream big. And I think Trump holds this strange promise to many poor and working class Whites around this country. They have been screwed, no doubt about it, but not by “the government” and its taxes and legislative spending. They have been dismissed and their value as workers in this country has been deeply diminished, but not by those on Pennsylvania Avenue. No, the unions that have for so long protected poor and working class people, the social benefits that have served as nets to catch the most economically vulnerable, and the very jobs that so many poor and working class folks have worked over the years have been decimated and destroyed by the 1%, either directly or by their political proxies. Either way, it was the prompting of the 1% that led to the tax changes in the Reagan era and the decimation of welfare in the Clinton era. And yet, the myth of meritocracy and the belief in one’s “bootstraps”, ideas deeply steeped in the lies of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism and then wrapped up in the conflation of democracy and capitalism, seem to obfuscate the reality that the 1% has never, ever in the history of this society been a friend of the working class. Poor and working class Whites seem to be voting for Trump because they think he has pulled himself up by his bootstraps, forgetting of course that he started in a place they will likely never, ever reach in their lifetime, and then stepped on countless others as he climbed. I’m not singling him out as some sort of pariah, that’s simply how this current economic system works for folks like him.
And so the promise of wealth, of one’s rise, of some measure of comfort and safety brought about by hard work in an economic system that is completely and utterly rigged still holds sway for these poor and working class Whites, and in the process the fiction of the “American Dream” as being open to everyone persists, despite the fact that it is still really just open to White, middle-class men. Thus, the public face of the corporatocracy and of Trump’s success as a Republican candidate tells us that 8 years after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the economic and racial myths of this country are greater than its reality. The desperation wrapped up in this is powerful and painful to watch, as is the inevitable devastation that will come to those White, working class folks when Trump destroys their access to health care, sells off their pubic lands for private development, lets the corporate sector take over even more of their “public” schools, continues the decimation of their unions, and further solidifies the barriers between the elites and the lives of these everyday folks.
“Make America Great Again”
Can you hear the strains of nostalgia as we start to harken back to the “good old days”? I can. In no uncertain terms this campaign slogan is about some very disconcerting racial dynamics and spells deep trouble for People of Color, Native peoples and White people working for racial justice. First, that language when coming from White folks with conservative leanings has always meant a reestablishment of the racial hierarchy in this country. Since Mr. Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, we have seen the public vitriol toward People of Color and Native peoples increase exponentially. Far from being some sort of post-racial utopia, President Obama’s two terms have signaled a deep and palpable panic on the part of the White establishment regarding their “rightful” place in the world. This is demonstrated most sharply by the KKK controversy with respect to Trump. His desire to return to times of “America’s greatness” is contingent upon the second class citizenry of People of Color and Native peoples such that White folks can have easier access to resources, opportunities, and economic, social and political safety. A perfect puppet of Reagan’s promises of a shining city on the hill (just before he waged “war on drugs” aka war on Black and Brown men), but with the gloves off.
Second, this language has also always signaled an increase in the use of violence to enforce that racialized social order. As such, I think we can expect under Mr. Trump greater support for policing tactics that have inflamed racial tensions across the country, a greater acceptance of torture tactics for those deemed enemies of the state, and a rolling back of any institutional policies that seek to rectify this nation’s four centuries of racial oppression. The dismantling of Section IV of the Voting Rights Act will be nothing in comparison to what Mr. Trump, and more likely his appointees, will proffer in hopes of creating an America that looks decidedly Whiter in all the halls of power. Thus, we can see that the very notion of making this nation great again is contingent on the maintenance of the deeply racist and profoundly exploitative racialized policies of this nation’s history. As Trump calls upon his followers to remember what this nation used to be like, we who believe in racial justice must call out the deeply rooted racial oppression that those historic and current realities are based on. Far from making this nation great, our long-standing racist history has been a blight and ultimately will serve as one of the sources of the end of this great society, not its salvation.
“I want to be greedy for America”
In conjunction with the heightened centering of a White dominant hierarchy, Trump’s desire to be greedy for America also signals a period of U.S. imperialism and unilateral militarism abroad. Trump’s initial inflammatory comments about Mexicans coming into the U.S. were a harbinger of his overall ideology of U.S. entitlement. He is one step beyond the Bush doctrine (if there’s a 1% threat) and feels that there doesn’t even need to be a physical threat to take action against another nation, there simply needs to be an economic or political opportunity for the U.S., and that is sufficient grounds for a hostile takeover. Thus those who favor militaristic approaches over diplomacy of any kind will favor his bomb first and ask questions later approach. In the 2008 election John McCain made a problematic “joke” where he conflated the song “Barbara Ann” with the bombing of Iran. It was largely panned in the media but also created a bit of a distance with Republican voters. Now, 8 years later, throngs of White folks do not seem to mind Trump’s assertion of empire via military and economic imperialism. Again, as above, when fear drives a young nation such as ours, a nation with a lot of firepower, it can be a very dangerous equation for the rest of the world. Those who thought George W. Bush’s notions of U.S. unilateralism were extreme have not seen anything until Trump gets elected and ushers in an era of uber-neo-colonial foreign policy rooted in racist reactivity to what he deems (as do his followers) as a “weak” Obama and a tepid U.S. foreign policy. In particular, economically, politically and militarily vulnerable nations (often nations that have high numbers of poor folks or People of Color who have been run roughshod over due to Western colonialism) will be no obstacle to Trump if his administration deems them desirable to the United States’ interests. Again, this is not new in terms of U.S. foreign policy, what is new is the brazen way in which it is publicly stated and in which the White corporatocracy feels immune to its contestation. In a moment where the planet needs to come closer together to address global climate change, massive refugee issues, deep and heavily interconnected economic issues, and the threat of violence in a range of manifestations, it is striking that the Teddy-Roosevelt-on-steroids notion of “carry a big stick” appeals to the followers of Trump. In exactly the moment when we need to act like one among many, Trump’s message says “isolate and dominate.”
I’m a fighter
While I do not know if Trump has uttered these exact words, he certainly packages himself as a fighter for those who have been mistreated by our government, by other nations, by “terrorists”, and by “special interests” who are bringing America down. I was talking to my colleague, Marie, about this the other night and she noted how powerful that “fight” response is in terms of Trump’s words and actions and how it seems to resonate so deeply with folks who see themselves as having reason to fight. Through the combined lenses of racial justice and somatic experiencing, the response of the collective nervous system of Whiteness in this society could actually be an indicator that things are truly changing for us, albeit on some slow, tectonic level. After all, a fight response is not usually brought forth unless there is some powerful threat. In Marie’s words, brown folks are increasingly “here” and demanding change, change which threatens four centuries of White hegemony and power. It is possible, therefore, to see Trump’s rise as an indicator that the White power structure is not only being threatened as stated above, but that it perceives its entire life as coming to an end, perhaps because it is? Maybe the rise of Trump is the beginning of the end of the legacy of Whiteness? It seems less likely that it also signals the end of the corporatocracy, but it might mean that now that it is out in the light a bit more, it is more vulnerable. Before we celebrate, however, remember that when White people (and especially White rich people) get deeply scared good things rarely happen, which is perhaps one way to understand the blatant racism and violence that Trump’s followers often attach to his campaign, his message, and what they imagine his presidency to be. Nevertheless, if I understand the possible indicators of Trump’s rise and appeal, it can serve as a motivation to dig even deeper into the fight for racial and economic justice because we are, in fact, winning this long struggle.
Sadly, while I hear and see plenty of coverage of Donald Trump, I do not hear much in the way of conversation about the mirror Trump is holding up for us as a nation. Liberals (and progressives?) mock him on SNL, Colbert and Conan and yet at the same time we keep grabbing the popcorn and pulling up a chair to watch him and those who follow him. In true White liberal fashion we disparage those at his rallies and suggest that they are not as intelligent, or we simply dismiss them because they are “angry White people” (as if somehow dismissal has ever disarmed and disabused White people of their destructive capacity and power). But, what we are not doing is noticing that the Trump phenomenon is saying something critically important about us as a nation. One could say it is our last gasp as a young, immature, and power-hungry nation who is used to getting its way; or, that it is the final stand of the historic and current regime of conflated class, race and gender dynamics. This is an optimistic view, and one I would sign up for, if I saw that there were numbers, voices and wisdom back of them. Instead, what I see more of is the kind of twin reaction of disbelief that he made it this far and elitist cynicism that Trump will never make it to the presidency and so why worry. This, to me, seems like a substantial misunderstanding of what the private face of the White corporatocracy coming into the public eye actually means. For our sake, and for this nation’s sake, I hope that those of us who care about social justice take a much deeper look, enact a stronger stand, and launch a more vocal and relentless response to Trump and more importantly to his followers lest we find ourselves turning back the clock and wondering how we got here.