A 74-year-old reality TV star ex-President is apparently the most dangerous man in America. Nothing is more important than keeping Donald Trump out of politics and off Twitter and surveilling or jailing his extremist supporters.
At least, liberals and Democrats seem to feel that way. Mr. Trump has millions of followers who strongly disagree. They see him as someone who stood up for regular people like them, who resisted the ongoing de-industrialization of America, who wanted them to be Great Again.
I live in San Francisco and am a lifelong radical, so most of my friends are in the “Trump bad” camp. Some celebrated for days when Biden was announced as the winner.
These friends supported Impeachment I and Impeachment II. They think Trump is a monster and his supporters are idiots, or else they’re racist, white-supremacist, proto-fascists who can’t be reasoned with.
And most people on the Right think similar things about progressives. Meanwhile, the capitalist system is pushing the 99% into poverty and a sense of despair which contributes to riots from Capitol Hill to Portland and cities in-between, as we saw last summer. Marginalized people are becoming more desperate, but we are too divided by race and politics to create effective movements for change. This division is killing us.
Rather than scorning Trump’s supporters, could we try treating them as potential class allies? They’re not going away. If we try to connect with them, we might find they have commonalities with us and important strengths and perspective to add to a movement.
“But they’re racist!”
We constantly hear that Trump voters are motivated by racism, but a Washington Post story reported that 60% of Capitol Hill rioters on January 6, 2021 were economically distressed. Not impoverished, ‘Where is my next meal coming from?’ kind of distressed, but with histories of bankruptcies and foreclosures, and “a sense of backsliding, of a loss of societal position.”
According to Web journalist Krystal Ball. “They feel they’re under siege. Trump saw their pain, saw their trauma, and exploited it.”
No doubt some Trump supporters have racist ideas, as do most people who grew up in America. With his attacks on immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists,” Trump has gathered many racist fans. Maybe some are out-and-out neo-Confederates or neo-Nazis. Most of them, though, are people with whom we can and should try to cooperate.
In an article on Mint Press News, Chris Hedges cited the Rev. Will Campbell, a white preacher in Mississippi who marched in civil rights protests and sit-ins, while serving as chaplain to his local Ku Klux Klan chapter.
Hedges writes that, “Campbell recognized that KKK racism, while evil, was not as bad as a capitalist system that perpetuated the economic misery that pushed Blacks into destitution and whites into the ranks of violent, racist organizations.”
Fascism starts with a betrayed middle class
In her book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson explains how middle-class downward mobility powered the rise of fascism in 20th Century Germany and Italy. When people who “are on the lowest rung of the dominant caste,” start losing their precarious hold on middle-class life, they can be turned against those below them. They will support and carry out the oppressive programs of the people above them.
That analysis describes many Trump voters. For years now, as the economy decays, struggling “white” people in the US have been driven to hang on to a belief in being “white” and “American” (in the upper caste as Wilkerson puts it.) If you were in the right caste, you were superior; you were OK.
Politicians have long exploited this dynamic. In 1960, President Lyndon Baines Johnson said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Now that false sense of superiority and security has been taken away. With COVID-19 and exploding inequality, America is sinking into poverty and chaos. At the same time, mass movements are challenging racism. To stay ahead of the people’s rising discontent, corporate media’s story line has changed. After 150 years of denying systemic racism existed, elites in politics and media identify white racism as the cause of all our problems.
Beyond charges of racism, many white people justly feel liberal ‘elites’ look down on them and despise their values. Just as Black Americans have been portrayed as violent and lazy, less-educated whites have been portrayed on sitcoms and movies for the last 50 years as prejudiced, ignorant buffoons.
For these reasons, white middle class and working class people are angry and afraid, but who will they take it out on? The rulers are very well aware of this situation and doing all they can to ensure self-identified whites take their fear out on the lower caste. Hence Make America Great Again, which often looks like make White great again.
Keeping us divided
The oligarchs rely for their continued power on dividing the working class. While Trumpians hear on Fox News and sources further to the right that America’s evils are caused by immigrants, liberals, environmentalists, and Black welfare recipients, progressives hear on CNN and NPR that all their problems are caused by white racists. Corporate greed is never the problem; we are each other’s problem.
Even Wilkerson’s book, despite its brilliant scholarship, blames Trump’s popularity on white caste solidarity, which most would call racism. Maintaining caste dominance, she says, outweighed things like health care, so white voters chose Trump.
Except, nobody was offering health care in 2016 or 2020. Clinton and Biden offered only war and austerity with a more diverse set of rulers. If Democrats had wanted to win, polls consistently showed healthcare advocate Bernie Sanders clobbering Trump. People wanted real change, and when the Democrats refused to offer them that choice, many chose the man who at least pretended he cared about them and promised to ‘drain the swamp.’ Although Biden managed to squeak through, there was no groundswell of support for him.
It’s our choice
Liberals and Leftists, particularly progressives of color, are being presented with a choice. Do we ally with the neoliberal police state that is grinding us down and locking us up, in order to gain protection from right wing racists who may or may not be an actual threat? Do we focus on building a movement to stop the Trumpian right?
Or do we take another path? We can reach out to people like those who have supported Trump. Many of their class interests are far closer to ours than our interests are to Biden’s wing of the Democratic party. Hedges says, “We must grasp that our enemy is not someone who is politically incorrect, even racist, but the corporations and a failed political and judicial system that sacrifices people, as well as the planet, on the altar of profit…Racial justice cannot be achieved without economic justice..”
It won’t be easy to connect. We tend to live in separate neighborhoods and separate social media echo chambers, so may rarely interact with each other. Because we have far different information sources, there will be misunderstandings at every step. Some Trump followers’ racist beliefs and attitudes are closer to the surface than those of liberals and progressives, though as MLK pointed out, liberals’ racism can be a bigger roadblock to progress. But racism doesn’t define Trump supporters. They are not “domestic terrorists,” “insurrectionists,” or, with a few exceptions, white supremacists, no matter how often the media uses those labels.
Few Trump supporters are KKK, but the process will still be dangerous. We’re talking about breaking down some of the barriers Black Panther organizer Fred Hampton was breaking in Chicago in the 60s, uniting poor youth of different races, and the FBI assassinated him for it.
The FBI and the CIA haven’t stopped killing activists, and they are currently allied with liberal elites in demonizing Trump and his supporters. They are inviting Leftists and liberals to join them. We are told that we have a choice between the FBI and the Proud Boys, and while there may be other choices, we should never, ever ally with the FBI. Trump supporters are people, too, mostly working class people. Radicals should seek to connect with them.
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