From John Michael Greer
[…] a few journalists have managed to get past the usual crass stereotypes, and talk about the actual reasons why so many voters have decided to back Donald Trump’s aspirations this year. I was startled to see a thoughtful article by Peggy Noonan along those lines in the Wall Street Journal, and even more astonished to see pieces making similar points in other media outlets—here’s an example,, and here’s another.
Mind you, none of the articles that I saw quite managed to grapple with the raw reality of the situation that’s driving so many wage-earning Americans to place their last remaining hopes for the future on Donald Trump. Even Noonan’s piece, though it’s better than most and makes an important point we’ll examine later, falls short. In her analysis, what’s wrong is that a privileged subset of Americans have been protected from the impacts of the last few decades of public policy, while the rest of us haven’t had that luxury. This is true, of course, but it considerably understates things. The class she’s talking about—the more affluent half or so of the salary class, to use the taxonomy I suggested in my post—hasn’t simply been protected from the troubles affecting other Americans. They’ve profited, directly and indirectly, from the policies that have plunged much of the wage class into impoverishment and misery, and their reliable response to any attempt to discuss that awkward detail shows tolerably clearly that a good many of them are well aware of it.
I’m thinking here, among many other examples along the same lines, of a revealing article earlier this year from a reporter who attended a feminist conference on sexism in the workplace. All the talk there was about how women in the salary class could improve their own prospects for promotion and the like. It so happened that the reporter’s sister works in a wage-class job, and she quite sensibly inquired whether the conference might spare a little time to discuss ways to improve prospects for women who don’t happen to belong to the salary class. Those of my readers who have seen discussions of this kind know exactly what happened next: a bit of visible discomfort, a few vaguely approving comments, and then a resumption of the previous subjects as though no one had made so embarrassing a suggestion.
It’s typical of the taboo that surrounds class prejudice in today’s industrial nations that not even the reporter mentioned the two most obvious points about this interchange. The first, of course, is that the line the feminists at the event drew between those women whose troubles with sexism were of interest to them, and those whose problems didn’t concern them in the least, was a class line. The second is that the women at the event had perfectly valid, if perfectly selfish, reasons for drawing that line. In order to improve the conditions of workers in those wage class industries that employ large numbers of women, after all, the women at the conference would themselves have had to pay more each month for daycare, hairstyling, fashionable clothing, and the like. Sisterhood may be powerful, as the slogans of an earlier era liked to claim, but it’s clearly not powerful enough to convince women in the salary class to inconvenience themselves for the benefit of women who don’t happen to share their privileged status.
To give the women at the conference credit, though, at least they didn’t start shouting about some other hot-button issue in the hope of distracting attention from an awkward question. That was the second thing relevant to my post that started happening the week after it went up. All at once, much of the American left responded to the rise of Donald Trump by insisting at the top of their lungs that the only reason, the only possible reason, that anyone at all supports the Trump campaign is that Trump is a racist and so are all his supporters.
It’s probably necessary to start by unpacking the dubious logic here, so that we can get past that and see what’s actually being said. Does Trump have racial prejudices? No doubt; most white Americans do. Do his followers share these same prejudices? Again, no doubt some of them do—not all his followers are white, after all, a point that the leftward end of the media has been desperately trying to obscure in recent weeks. Let’s assume for the sake of argument, though, that Trump and his followers do indeed share an assortment of racial bigotries. Does that fact, if it is a fact, prove that racism must by definition be the only thing that makes Trump appeal to his followers?
Of course it proves nothing of the kind. You could use the same flagrant illogic to insist that since Trump enjoys steak, and many of his followers share that taste, the people who follow him must be entirely motivated by hatred for vegetarians. Something that white Americans generally don’t discuss, though I’m told that most people of color are acutely aware of it, is that racial issues simply aren’t that important to white people in this country nowadays. The frantic and passionate defense of racial bigotry that typified the Jim Crow era is rare these days outside of the white-supremacist fringe. What has replaced it, by and large, are habits of thought and action that most white people consider to be no big deal—and you don’t get a mass movement going in the teeth of the political establishment by appealing to attitudes that the people who hold them consider to be no big deal.
Behind the shouts of “Racist!” directed at the Trump campaign by a great many affluent white liberals, rather, lies a rather different reality. Accusations of racism play a great many roles in contemporary American discourse—and of course the identification of actual racism is among these. When affluent white liberals make that accusation, on the other hand, far more often than not, it’s a dog whistle.
I should probably explain that last phrase for the benefit of those of my readers who don’t speak fluent Internet. A dog whistle, in online jargon, is a turn of phrase or a trope that expresses some form of bigotry while giving the bigot plausible deniability. During the civil rights movement, for example, the phrase “states’ rights” was a classic dog whistle; the rights actually under discussion amounted to the right of white Southerners to impose racial discrimination on their black neighbors, but the White Citizens Council spokesmen who waxed rhapsodic about states’ rights never had to say that in so many words. That there were, and are, serious issues about the balance of power between states and the federal government that have nothing do with race, and thus got roundly ignored by both sides of the struggle, is just one more irony in a situation that had no shortage of them already.
In the same way, the word “racist” in the mouths of the pundits and politicians who have been applying it so liberally to the Trump campaign is a dog whistle for something they don’t want to talk about in so many words. What they mean by it, of course, is “wage class American.”
That’s extremely common. Consider the recent standoff in Oregon between militia members and federal officials. While that was ongoing, wags in the blogosphere and the hip end of the media started referring to the militia members as “Y’all-Qaeda.” Attentive readers may have noted that none of the militia members came from the South—the only part of the United States where “y’all” is the usual second person plural pronoun. To the best of my knowledge, all of them came from the dryland West, where “y’all” is no more common than it is on the streets of Manhattan or Vancouver. Why, then, did the label catch on so quickly and get the predictable sneering laughter of the salary class?
It spread so quickly and got that laugh because most members of the salary class in the United States love to apply a specific stereotype to the entire American wage class. You know that stereotype as well as I do, dear reader. It’s a fat, pink-faced, gap-toothed Southern good ol’ boy in jeans and a greasy T-shirt, watching a NASCAR race on television from a broken-down sofa, with one hand stuffed elbow deep into a bag of Cheez Doodles, the other fondling a shotgun, a Confederate flag patch on his baseball cap and a Klan outfit in the bedroom closet. As a description of wage-earning Americans in general, that stereotype is as crass, as bigoted, and as politically motivated as any of the racial and sexual stereotypes that so many people these days are ready to denounce—but if you mention this, the kind of affluent white liberals who would sooner impale themselves on their own designer corkscrews than mention African-Americans and watermelons in the same paragraph will insist at the top of their lungs that it’s not a stereotype, it’s the way “those people” really are.
Those of my readers who don’t happen to know any people from the salary class, and so haven’t had the opportunity to hear the kind of hate speech they like to use for the wage class, might want to pick up the latest edition of the National Review, and read a really remarkable diatribe by Kevin Williamson—it’s behind a paywall, but here’s a sample. The motive force behind this tantrum was the fact that many people in the Republican party’s grassroots base are voting in their own best interests, and thus for Trump, rather than falling into line and doing what they’re told by their soi-disant betters. The very idea! It’s a fine display of over-the-top classist bigotry, as well as a first-rate example of the way that so many people in the salary class like to insist that poverty is always and only the fault of the poor.
May I please be frank? The reason that millions of Americans have had their standard of living hammered for forty years, while the most affluent twenty per cent have become even more affluent, is no mystery. What happened was that corporate interests in this country, aided and abetted by a bipartisan consensus in government and cheered on by the great majority of the salary class, stripped the US economy of living wage jobs by offshoring most of America’s industrial economy, on the one hand, and flooding the domestic job market with millions of legal and illegal immigrants on the other.
That’s why a family living on one average full-time wage in 1966 could afford a home, a car, three square meals a day, and the other necessities and comforts of an ordinary American lifestyle, while a family with one average full time wage in most US cities today is living on the street. None of that happened by accident; no acts of God were responsible; no inexplicable moral collapse swept over the American wage class and made them incapable of embracing all those imaginary opportunities that salary class pundits like to babble about. That change was brought about, rather, by specific, easily identifiable policies. As a result, all things considered, blaming the American poor for the poverty that has been imposed on them by policies promoted by the affluent is the precise economic equivalent of blaming rape victims for the actions of rapists.
In both cases, please note, blaming the victim makes a convenient substitute for talking about who’s actually responsible, who benefits from the current state of affairs, and what the real issues are. When that conversation is one that people who have a privileged role in shaping public discourse desperately don’t want to have, blaming the victim is an effective diversionary tactic, and accordingly it gets much use in the US media these days. There are, after all, plenty of things that the people who shape public discourse in today’s America don’t want to talk about. The fact that the policies pushed by those same shapers of opinion have driven millions of American families into poverty and misery isn’t the most unmentionable of these things, as it happens. The most unmentionable of the things that don’t get discussed is the fact that those policies have failed.
It really is as simple as that. The policies we’re talking about—lavish handouts for corporations and the rich, punitive austerity schemes for the poor, endless wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, malign neglect of domestic infrastructure, and deer-in-the-headlights blank looks or vacuous sound bites in response to climate change and the other consequences of our frankly moronic maltreatment of the biosphere that keeps us all alive—were supposed to bring prosperity to the United States and its allies and stability to the world. They haven’t done that, they won’t do that, and with whatever respect is due to the supporters of Hillary Clinton, four more years of those same policies won’t change that fact. The difficulty here is simply that no one in the political establishment, and precious few in the salary class in general, are willing to recognize that failure, much less learn its obvious lessons or notice the ghastly burdens that those policies have imposed on the majorities who have been forced to carry the costs.
Here, though, we’re in territory that has been well mapped out in advance by one of the historians who have helped guide the project of this blog since its inception. In his magisterial twelve-volume A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee explored in unforgiving detail the processes by which societies fail. Some civilizations, he notes, are overwhelmed by forces outside their control, but this isn’t the usual cause of death marked on history’s obituaries. Far more often than not, rather, societies that go skidding down the well-worn route marked “Decline and Fall” still have plenty of resources available to meet the crises that overwhelm them and plenty of options that could have saved the day—but those resources aren’t put to constructive use and those options never get considered.
This happens, in turn, because the political elites of those failed societies lose the ability to notice that the policies they want to follow don’t happen to work. The leadership of a rising civilization pays close attention to the outcomes of its policies and discards those that don’t work. The leadership of a falling civilization prefers to redefine “success” as “following the approved policies” rather than “yielding the preferred outcomes,” and concentrates on insulating itself from the consequences of its mistakes rather than recognizing the mistakes and dealing with their consequences. The lessons of failure are never learned, and so the costs of failure mount up until they can no longer be ignored.
This is where Peggy Noonan’s division of the current population into “protected” and “unprotected” classes has something useful to offer. Members of the protected class—in today’s America, as already noted, this is above all the more affluent half or so of the salary class—live within a bubble that screens them from any contact with the increasingly impoverished and immiserated majority. As far as they can see, everything’s fine; all their friends are prospering, and so are they; spin-doctored news stories and carefully massaged statistics churned out by government offices insist that nothing could possibly be wrong. They go from gated residential community to office tower to exclusive restaurant to high-end resort and back again, and the thought that it might be useful once in a while to step outside the bubble and go see what conditions are like in the rest of the country would scare the bejesus out of them if it ever occurred to them at all.
In a rising civilization, as Toynbee points out, the political elite wins the loyalty and respect of the rest of the population by recognizing problems and then solving them. In a falling civilization, by contrast, the political elite forfeits the loyalty and respect of the rest of the population by creating problems and then ignoring them. That’s what lies behind the crisis of legitimacy that occurs so often in the twilight years of a society in decline—and that, in turn, is the deeper phenomenon that lies behind the meteoric rise of Donald Trump. If a society’s officially sanctioned leaders can’t lead, won’t follow, and aren’t willing to get out of the way, sooner or later people are going to start looking for a way to shove them through history’s exit turnstile, by whatever means turn out to be necessary.
Thus if Trump loses the election in November, that doesn’t mean that the threat to the status quo is over—far from it. If Hillary Clinton becomes president, we can count on four more years of the same failed and feckless policies, which she’s backed to the hilt throughout her political career, and thus four more years in which millions of Americans outside the narrow circle of affluence will be driven deeper into poverty and misery, while being told by the grinning scarecrows of officialdom that everything is just fine. That’s not a recipe for social stability; those who make peaceful change impossible, it’s been pointed out, make violent change inevitable. What’s more, Trump has already shown every ambitious demagogue in the country exactly how to build a mass following, and he’s also shown a great many wage-earning Americans that there can be alternatives to an intolerable status quo.
No matter how loudly today’s establishment insists that the policies it favors are the only thinkable options, the spiraling failure of those policies, and the appalling costs they impose on people outside the bubble of privilege, guarantee that sooner or later the unthinkable will become the inescapable. That’s the real news of this election season: the end of ordinary politics, and the first stirrings of an era of convulsive change that will leave little of today’s conventional wisdom intact.