Who’s conning whom in Donald Trump’s America

Voting for Trump was not voting for a con man; rather, it was a strategic action to maintain a fragile privilege.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump greets a worker as he tours a Carrier factory with Greg Hayes, CEO of United Technologies (L) in Indianapolis
President-elect Donald Trump greets a worker as he tours a Carrier factory with Greg Hayes, CEO of United Technologies, left, in Indianapolis, Indiana, on December 1 [Reuters]

It was fitting that the most important struggle on the eve of the now-historic presidential election was the battle for Standing Rock. Even more than the Movement for Black Lives, the conflict between Native Americans and toxic corporations and their government allies (including President-elect Donald Trump) symbolises the ruined promises and outright lies that have always defined the United States’ treatment of its most violated and vulnerable inhabitants.

Many progressives have criticised working and middle-class Trump voters for being “conned” or “scammed” by a someone who will not (and in fact could not) deliver on his promises of white economic and political renewal.

But I think Trump voters are, in fact, a lot smarter than they’re being given credit, and that’s even scarier. A large share of the working and middle-class voters who have turned to Trump, in fact, see the world precisely as it is – stacked against them.

They realise that the promises of Democrats going back to Bill Clinton to help them adapt to the neoliberal global order whose basic contours and structures cannot be changed have proved empty.

Racial resentment

Despite shepherding an unprecedented economic recovery after the disastrous George W Bush years, the Obama administration failed to end the state of constant precarity in which so many Americans are forced to live.

For many historically oppressed groups, like African Americans and Latinos, whose lives have always been precarious, the economic improvement was undeniable and largely appreciated.

But for whites, who historically have felt entitled to far more secure lives, whatever improvements he managed to bring did not address the core economic and cultural insecurities that have come to dominate their lives (and can be traced, among other things, in the massive opioid epidemic and suicides among white Americans).

That Republican obstructionism, rather his own lack of interest or concern, is the chief reason for this failure is irrelevant. The reality is that there was a clear rise in “racial resentment“, among the millions of white Americans who previously supported Barack Obama, that was clearly transferred to his anointed successor, Hillary Clinton.

Trump's white legions understand that unless there is a radically new political order they are simply never going to achieve a level of prosperity and security under neoliberal capitalism as they did under the post-War corporate welfare state.


Its roots lie in the realisation by many working/middle-class whites that they’ve been put in a classic zero-sum situation: a global and US political economy that is never going to produce the kinds of jobs and lives for which they’ve long felt entitled, while at the same time other groups see improvements in their situations relative to historic white power and privilege.

And so, when Trump gave them a choice between an ersatz multiracial democracy in which they are increasingly disadvantaged and a return to the order and stability of white primacy, they made a logical choice: if the pie isn’t going to get any bigger (and in fact, is in some ways shrinking) then the only way they can keep, never mind increase, their share, is to make sure others get less.

If Trump can install two to four Supreme Court justices who will back such an agenda with the full force of the constitution, their superiority will be assured for decades, even after the demographic balance tips away from them.

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Thus, voting for Trump was not voting for a con man – or at least most didn’t buy the con. Rather, it was a strategic action: a vote for the candidate who will push everyone else back and ensure they at least maintain their fragile superiority and privilege, such as it is, for as long as possible.

Put another way, Trump’s white legions understand that unless there is a radically new political order, they are simply never going to achieve a level of prosperity and security under neoliberal capitalism as they did under the post-War corporate welfare state.

Until someone can articulate a plausible path to such a future, we can expect them to continue to cling to white privilege and power as long as it’s believed it will deliver more benefits than the available alternatives.

A strong country

In fact, Americans have heard this sales pitch before, on the other end of the imperial bell curve. In the late 19th century, as the US was becoming a global power, one of the foremost preachers in America, Josiah Strong, a Protestant clergyman, argued for a “strong” America, projecting American power and reining in immigration of “the pauper and criminal class” in much the same fashion as Trump.

Where Trump sees Muslims as an existential threat, Strong saw Catholics. Similarly, Trump’s casually vicious eugenics saw its predecessor in Strong’s celebration of white “Anglo-Saxon” Christian men who were the natural epitome of the “pure, spiritual Christianity and… civil liberty” that were missing from and undeserved by everyone else.

Crucially, Strong believed that “the time is coming when … the world enter upon a new stage of its history-the final competition of races… Then this race of unequalled energy … having developed peculiarly aggressive traits calculated to impress its institutions upon mankind, will … move down upon Mexico [and] Central and South America … over upon Africa and beyond. And can anyone doubt that the result of this competition of races will be the ‘survival of the fittest’?” (PDF)

Today, the US’s frontiers are long closed, the future no longer wide open. Its global power is shrinking with no ideology, or even managerial method capable of managing, as did Fordism and Taylorism in the 20th century, the still-developing global neoliberal economic order.

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The present “survival of the fittest” contest is not one working and middle-class, white, Christian America is likely to “win” on its merits, unless the game is again rigged in its favour. And nothing helps rig politics more powerfully than the race card.

So we are left, at the dawn of the Trump era, wondering how a progressive movement can both appeal to the full spectrum of Americans while still offering Trump’s white core a vision and narrative that is both more hopeful and indicative of a change that benefits them than the soon-to-be-installed system of hyper capitalism with a pronounced white bias.

In the interim, it’s clear that any attempt by progressives, such as Bernie Sanders, to work with Trump would be a disaster. There is no way to de-racialise Trump’s policies. Any success would only reinforce the profoundly racist system that will be (re)installed during his tenure.

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Meanwhile, unions face an “existential crisis“; the large-scale protests of the kind we now see at Standing Rock might succeed in individual circumstances, but will almost assuredly be unsustainable at a national level, unless the left shows a level of organisation and training that it has shown no indication of possessing.

Simply put, in the Trump era we are all increasingly “indigenous”; suffering from the lack of political representation, discrimination and economic marginalisation that have defined Native America since the 18th century.

But as the elders often repeat at Standing Rock, when people of different races and identities – literally, the “four winds” – come together as is occurring now on that hauntingly beautiful landscape, their collective force can blow away even the strongest obstacle to healing and change. That at least is a vision through which a broad and inclusive progressive vision can be articulated.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.