It’s not at all surprising that an American revolt against the elites would come from a right-wing populist movement like Donald Trump’s. Americans often lack class consciousness and are, historically, deeply suspicious of anything that contains a shred of socialist thought. Although many poor Americans in fact receive government subsidies, there is a strong cultural taboo around admitting this. American society is founded on the idea of free economic mobility – the ability to realize oneself through hard work.
For the majority of people, however, this economic freedom of movement remains merely a dream. In fact, the U.S. economy has always been based on the exploitation of weak groups, from blacks during slavery to the massive army of low-educated workers who today staff McDonald’s fast food restaurants and Wal-Mart’s shopping centers at minimum wages and poor, if any, benefits. In the United States, some 47 million people, or nearly 15 percent of the population, live below the poverty line. Many of these people, who receive some form of welfare assistance to supplement their minimal wages, work in the retail sector. In reality, American taxpayers are subsidizing big business on a mass scale by compensating for the low wages of their employees. It is indeed a very cynical system, but most Americans don’t seem willing or able to make the connection.
The claim that the United States is a classless society or that class in America exclusively is based on financial resources is of course an absurdity. Just look at Trump, who despite his wealth never had access to the real American elite. For the longest time, he was seen as a clown, even by the leaders of the very party he was finally appointed to represent the presidential election. The Bush family, John McCain and others at the Republican top didn’t want to touch the man with a ten-foot pole. But the pressure from the conservative base became too strong and Trump went from being a ridiculed and lambasted candidate to becoming America’s 45th president.
One could view the election of Trump as evidence of a profound popular dissatisfaction with the way the elite has governed the country and the erosion of the middle class due to the impact of globalization. Most analysts seem to agree on such a picture. But it wasn’t the U.S. government that moved the factories to China, shut down the shops or raised the prices on food. No, it is free enterprise and pure greed – the kind of entrepreneurship that Trump per definition belongs to and has represented in the running of his own businesses – that has squeezed the middle class. But yes – the elites of both parties have allowed themselves to be corrupted by private business, so to the extent that someone came up with the brilliant idea that they should wear race car driver-style overalls with sponsor patches for everyone to see which companies they sold out to.
So, the question is, will the shrinking middle class and the growing underclass be better off with Trump? Or did he only make empty promises in order to get elected? We still don’t know the answer to that question. But it seems quite unlikely that the old industrial jobs will return, at least in any significant amount, especially in light of the growing automation of production. Revising the tax code so that American companies can rake home the profits they’re hiding abroad, which Trump has proposed, is not likely to bring positive change to poor or working class Americans. But perhaps he will make good on his promises to improve the U.S. infrastructure, like Roosevelt did with his New Deal. If there’s something that Donald Trump has said that actually corresponds with reality, it is that America’s airports, railway stations and freeways are more comparable to those in a developing country than the infrastructure we have in Western Europe.
If the American precariat had been able to remove their blinders, soberly analyze their own current situation and refrain from stabbing themselves in the back, they would naturally have had the good sense of making the Democrat Bernie Sanders their candidate. But it’s not just the economic conditions or an allergy to everything that remotely can be connected to socialist ideas, or the Clinton dynasty’s unethical maneuvering during the primaries, that brought Trump his victory. There’s a much more unpleasant explanation.
Americans vote with their hearts, no matter what their hearts may be hiding, and they have done so this time, too. Even if the economic effects of Donald Trump’s presidency thus far lay shrouded in the future, we can already notice some practical implications of the president-elect’s moral and ethical positions. Some six months before the election, American social commentator and critic Chris Hedges explained in an article on Truthdig.com what was happening:
“There are tens of millions of Americans, especially lower-class whites, rightfully enraged at what has been done to them, their families and their communities. They have risen up to reject the neoliberal policies and political correctness imposed on them by college-educated elites from both political parties: Lower-class whites are embracing an American fascism.”
Hedges continues to tell us that this fascism contains a fundamental component of freedom, a freedom much different from the one usually associated with the United States, namely the freedom to hate. To be free to hate Blacks, Hispanics, LGBT persons, foreigners, Muslims, intellectuals – well, everyone whose very existence is considered an affront to one’s crypto-fascist beliefs. While it is improbable that each and everyone who voted for Trump is a racist – some probably just wanted to “stir the pot” and send a strong message to the elites that they have failed – his election per definition constitutes a legitimization of hatred.
The media reports of hate crimes increasing exponentially since the election. They include swastikas sprayed on walls in conjunction with the word “Trump” and other racist graffiti; a Muslim woman threatened to be hanged from her veil; threats of lynchings at universities; racist signage, and Ku Klux Klan marches. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a foundation that works against racism, nearly 800 hate crimes were reported in the first ten days immediately following the election (compared to a total of 5,818 hate crimes reported in the United States in 2015). There’s no doubt: the racists are coming up for air after eight years of Barack Obama. Fear is again spreading among groups in the United States that are already vulnerable.
At my local watering hole, I meet the actor Joe (yes, I live in Los Angeles, so the profession is not entirely uncommon). As an African American, he fears what is to come. Will the police shoot more unarmed black people? Will the tide turn back to a time when it was perfectly okay with racist jokes and harassment in public? Joe makes an important point that in many ways illustrates the election of Donald Trump and the different standards that apply in American society:
“We blacks who came from slavery have always been criticized for not managing to pull ourselves out of poverty. Now, the so-called disenfranchised white working class in the rust belts elected Trump. But the question is, why haven’t they been able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps?”
The answer seems pretty clear:
Because the white working class expects to benefit from all the advantages that come with making up the traditionally dominant group in American society. Trump has given them the opportunity to regain their position as the self-righteous elite they feel they belong to, only by virtue of the color of their skin. The social edifice they saw as threatened or even compromised by a black president has now been reconquered.
Although Trump has toned down his rhetoric after the election and called for unity among all Americans, the damage has already been done. For the fact is, it’s the president-elect himself who has empowered the white masses to hate.
Hatred has now been legitimized by the Chief. No self-censorship or good manners required – if the president himself can humiliate blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and women, why shouldn’t any white American feel free to do the same?
Jonas Vesterbergis a Swedish author, translator and editor based in Los Angeles. His latest novel, THE ROCHE LIMIT, is available on Amazon.com or by clicking here.