It’s May 26, 2016 and Donald J. Trump attends a presidential rally in Bismarck, North Dakota.
“We’re going to make America wealthy again,” he tells the crowd of mostly white, mostly middle-aged men. “You have to be wealthy in order to be great, I’m sorry to say.”
In the middle of an argument against trade and for “shared prosperity” Donald Trump, the billionaire, does the unthinkable. He admits his privilege.
At almost every stage in the presidential election Trump has admitted that he has climbed to where he has because of his wealth.
In fact, he has bragged about it.
If the left wing concept of ‘checking your privilege’ involves rich people admitting that they have certain entrenched advantages over others, Trump is a leftist.
“I mean, part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich. So if I need $600 million, I can put $600 million myself. That’s a huge advantage. I must tell you, that’s a huge advantage over the other candidates.”
At rallies across America Trump spoke to poorer, less fortunate whites and used his relative wealth as a kind of signpost, a drawcard for the disadvantaged. He said he would bring back jobs in manufacturing, improve working conditions and start trade wars with low wage nations, including China. The fact that he admitted his privilege was a sign of strength, not weakness.
The traditional idea on the left is that admitting privilege allows others –the less fortunate- a chance to speak. This occurred in the election with white college educated voters. They were silent. They didn’t admit to pollsters or exit polls that they would be voting for Trump, likely because they felt privileged or uncomfortable about supporting an openly racist candidate. They allowed minorities the chance to speak. And once the minorities were done speaking, they spoke louder with their actions by voting for the racist candidate anyway.
This is a deep flaw in the ‘check your privilege’ mantra and the accompanying identity politics movement. It creates an echo chamber. Every time a person is told to ‘check their privilege’ they become quiet. But it doesn’t stop them from acting out their unspoken desires when given the chance to do so. In some ways it encourages them. Through voting, hiring, and other forms of discrimination, institutional structures can change even while people are polite in polite company.
The more we go along the path of silencing people, dividing them up and telling them not to share what they actually think about the world, the more they can commit to actions without talking to anyone about it – without being convinced out of it.
In Trump’s case, admitting his privilege helped him win the election. Simply saying “I’m rich” deflected the criticism of being ‘rich and out of touch,’ a charge that dogged Mitt Romney four years earlier. If you remember Romney’s “47 Percent” comment – you’ll remember why he lost the election. In some ways, he was deemed too rich to win. In many ways, Trump was overtly rich enough.
It’s counter intuitive but ‘checking your privilege’ can be used as a weapon against minorities and the disaffected. Trump’s attitude this year was: “I’m rich, so what?” or “I’m rich. You can be rich too. Join me.”
It worked. It appealed to the simplistic meritocratic myth of American society. His candidacy directly spoke to the American dream, the idea that anyone could become a billionaire if he put the right effort in, or maybe even that a billionaire would help out the little guy on the corner, if you just yelled loudly enough.
Both myths. Both compelling.
In light of Trump’s presidential victory, the entire concept of privilege and identity politics needs a re-think. At best, the concept is a niche academic idea about relative advantages in a world much bigger than those relativities would suggest. At worst, it’s meaningless. A concept full of jargon, seven-syllable words, like intersectionality (seriously, George Orwell would crucify the creator of that word), divisive concepts of micro-aggressions termed in such a manner that people have to research what a micro-aggression means.
To connect with people directly, we must begin to heed the words of Nelson Mandella. If we talk to a man in our own language, it will go to his head. “Talk to him in his language, and it will go to his heart.” Trump spoke the language of the uneducated classes – the horrible, awful, racist language of the uneducated classes – and that’s why he won the election. We don’t have to speak that language exactly, but we have to understand why people think the way they do, and try to bring them round to our way of thinking. Silencing them, yelling at them and shaming them won’t work.
In his social psychological research, Gordon Allport found that arguing with racists rarely ever changed their perspective. Prolonged inter-group contact between them and someone of another race, did. You cannot bring facts to a battle of emotions, you have to bring emotions – compassion, sympathy, even the most difficult emotion of forgiveness.
Trump did this.
“We have a lot to overcome in our country, especially the fact that our jobs are being taken away from us and going to other places.”
To a larger extent, the focus on relative disadvantages on the left draws the focus away from larger institutional and structural changes needed to improve the lives of all working people, of all races. When feminists entered the workforce in the late 1970s, for example, they enshrined the existing workplace culture, not a new one. The obsession with the pay gap, the gender disparity in corporate boards and so on were all legitimate grievances, but were never a direct challenge to the existing structure of work itself.
There was no halving of working hours, even though the workforce almost doubled in size when women entered work. Wages remained flat, all while women argued for equal wages for their equal work. All of their arguments were justified, and shifts did start to take place. But the overall structure remained in a structural decline for all workers; including women.
Into this melting pot came the resentment, anger, frustration, and dissapointment of the angry white guy. Angry at the idea that they worked longer hours for lower wages, that there would be no end in sight to their working lives, that robots and computers and technology were making their lives worse, rather than better. All of those empty promises of the rise of the internet, going up in smoke.
When Hillary Clinton talked to coal miners in West Virginia she said she would reskill them for a new green economy. She said they would be out of their jobs, and into a new one. The response was vicious and instant – how could she say people were going to lose their jobs? These same angry rust belt voters were central to her own eventual loss.
The feeling of exploitation is there. The feeling of anger is there.
Productivity has shot up since the creation of the Internet, yet we are working longer hours than ever before. The democratisation of knowledge caused by the Internet did nothing to stop rampant academic inflation – the demands for more and more credentials to get the same job. Young people have greater access to information than any generation in history, have higher IQ’s than ever before, have access to the internet – this wonderful, important knowledge tool that politicians plaudit over all the time – but somehow the young need more certifications to get the same job.
At the same time those in charge talk about getting used to the ‘real world’. Well the real world is changing. The Trumps, the Farages, the Hansons – all of them are exploiting this growing resentment and changing what the ‘real world’ is to a harsher, darker place under our feet. Stoicism won’t stop them.
No, we should not get used to the real world. The more we get used to it, the more it changes. The more passive we get, the more the alt right takes charge. The more we say that –oh well, jobs are just the way they are, get over it- the more racists become our leaders promising to fix those jobs. We open ourselves up to manipulation at every corner, and the angry white guy becomes the leader of our country instead of someone sympathetic, with compassion and respect.
This is the biggest wake up call of our lifetime. And yet we are still not paying attention. Still, we think our jobs are the most important things on the planet, while again, the planet changes under us every day. Still, we obsess over greed and materialism and instant gratification – ignoring the world as someone else’s problem.
Still, we obsess over how we are relatively disadvantaged compared to someone else, how people we know are privileged, had a head start and so on– while a billionaire takes over the US.
It’s not enough. We have to do more to address these problems before the extreme wings of political parties take charge on the pretence of doing it in our stead. We have to do something.
The three day working week – a radical idea. The universal basic income – impractical. Yet these ‘radical’ and ‘impractical’ ideas are just the kind of utopian vision needed to shift the working class back behind a cause worth fighting for. We need to rebuild the ideals of a future that actually has something positive about it. The only way to fight emotion is with emotion.
Women are still treated abysmally at work, let’s solve it together. Social corporate responsibility is slow, gradual, ineffective, let’s make it a cause for the entire community. It’s time to change the way we respond to the challenges in the world, before the challenges in the world change us.