The worst kind of oppression is not the kind that breaks a man’s back, but the kind that breaks his spirit. And the only way to break a man’s spirit is to arbitrarily change the rules of survival. In a free and fair society, the primary rule of survival has traditionally been that hard work equals success. But in spite of the narrative, the rules of survival in the United States do not always subscribe to this pure formula. Unless you are born equipped with a great many inherited advantages like access to higher education, healthcare, and a childhood free from debilitating misery, hard work won’t be enough.
The formula for success needs recalibration but not by employing old-school bootstrap mythologies or with collectivist ideologies, and not with religious revivals, but with a concrete plan that is fortified with a massively appealing narrative that all Americans can get behind.
Many Americans are hoping that President-elect Joe Biden will be the one with that plan. But this hope has been dampened by the disappointment many Americans felt at the large turnout for Donald Trump.
How is it that a man who has weaponized the federal government to his own advantage and continues to ingratiate himself to white supremacists and far-right groups, fanning the flames of racial animosity, still inspire support?
Nothing New Under the Sun
In a piece published on October 5th, 1967, Tom Wicker of the New York Times describes such historical moments as a backlash against racial progress and as nothing more than white resentment, usually expressed in a choice between candidates.
However, it’s not 1967 anymore and many Americans are in the midst of an anti-racism revolution. Many had expectations that we would see a much stronger electoral repudiation of the man whose political brand was launched by attacking the legitimacy of the first black president’s birth certificate and of retweeting white supremacists. A man who has lied with impunity and traffics in conspiracy theories. We have reason to be alarmed that despite his racist rhetoric he still enjoys substantial support.
Trump was effective at tapping into the false perception that people of color and immigrants are the cause of the working-class people’s pain. And rather than interrogate the system that has allowed for the income gap to grow to such astronomical levels, his audience found comfort in the populist rhetoric of this reality TV star who has proven himself to be anything but real. Donald Trump supporters have enveloped themselves in an ideological bubble designed to shield them from objective truth and from social and political reality. They have developed a selective perception and only see the things that reinforce their shared fantasy.
Of course, not all Trump supporters are racist. But it is no consolation that they have either overlooked his moral failings or have decided to look the other way. It’s no consolation that they find refreshment in the thought of a “benevolent dictator” who promises to restore their pride and to fulfill some primitive need to ascribe moral significance to their tribal identity.
He signaled to his supporters that he feels their pain, the pain of white resentment. And he has conditioned them to expect chaos and pain as a precondition to their spiritual and financial healing. He has reframed their grievances within the context of some grandiose fable that makes them feel more vital and significant than they have felt in a long while. Of Course, Trump has not really delivered anything in the way of actual leadership or guidance and he has caused incalculable damage, but they won’t hold it against him because he is offering them a narrative. A narrative in which their suffering is not in vain, but part of a big picture that casts them as the hero in this story of life. He’s a false prophet and a Charlatan, but by the time they discover this, the misery and chaos he will have created on the outside will mirror the one they are feeling on the inside. And subconsciously, that in and of itself is a kind of psychological relief; A redemption of sorts.