Ok but WHY did the white men do this? Thoughts on Trump’s victory

November 10, 2016 § 2 Comments


By whitney waller (connect-the-dots) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In this blogpost I take as my starting point Eric Kaufmann’s article “Trump and Brexit: why it’s again NOT the economy, stupid” (on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog). I think Eric has got some useful data but I am not convinced by the way he joins the dots and constructs his story of cause-and-effect. The story I would find more convincing would be to half-agree and half-disagree with him: I think he’s right to say it’s not class, but wrong to say it’s not the economy. I think he’s right to say that there is a values divide (“between those who prefer order and those who seek novelty” as Eric puts it), but he doesn’t convincingly explain the cause of the rise in ‘Right-Wing Authoritarianism’ (which he doesn’t link to white supremacy and misogyny, but should). His argument is that “rapid ethnic change [nationally or locally] leads to an increase in anti-immigration sentiment and populism.” This argument raise a new question: why?

He thinks the answer is that the rise in anti-immigration sentiment and populism is the response of those who can’t deal with rapid ethnic change – because of their values, which favour cultural continuity and order over novelty and diversity. I think there’s some truth in that, but I think that to suggest this is the whole explanation and that the economy has nothing to do with it – which is what Eric seems to do – is bizarre.

A quick look at the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Sun newspapers in the UK, or a quick listen to Trump’s speeches, suggests that anti-immigration sentiment is not simply “they’re not like us, our culture is being eroded”; instead, a really strong narrative stoking anti-immigration sentiment is “they are stealing our jobs and our taxes are going to give them houses and welfare benefits.” In other words, anti-immigration sentiment is closely tied to the economy. In the UK, this narrative goes further in order to target both the EU and human rights legislation: the immigrants are getting jobs and houses and benefits at the expense of natives because the EU’s human rights laws gives them preferential treatment over natives – so we need to get rid of the immigrants, the EU, and human rights legislation. In both the UK and the US, out-of-touch liberal elites are seen as favouring immigrants over natives.

At its core, this is not about Right-Wing Authoritarian voters feeling that rapid ethnic change threatens cultural continuity and order. Instead, it is about these voters coming to believe a narrative, promoted by right-wing populist voices in politics and the media, which sees rapid ethnic change as the cause of specific problems these voters face. Eric is right to say their decision about how to vote didn’t have “much to do with personal economic circumstances,” but only in the sense that rapid ethnic change is not, in fact, the real cause of the problems these voters face.

What he misses is that their decision about how to vote had everything to do with their perception of the cause of their personal economic circumstances. These voters feel as if the immigrants are the cause of the problems they face. They accept that narrative, and ignore data that suggests immigrants are not the cause. And crucially, the problems these people attribute to immigrants are economic problems. The narrative they find compelling and based their voting decision on is about clash of civilisations and competition, and yes, part of that competition is cultural, but a lot of it is economic: it’s about jobs, and who benefits from how the government spends tax revenues.

I think this narrative is factually incorrect insofar as the elites are not really favouring immigrants over natives; instead, I think the elites are favouring themselves over everyone else, and then turning the natives against the immigrants to prevent the natives and immigrants forming an effective coalition against the elites. Values matter insofar as they make divide-and-rule possible, by making it possible to construct immigrants, Muslims, and ‘nasty women’ as scapegoats for what elites are doing to non-elites. And this has been happening to an ever-increasing extent since the 1970s, hand-in-hand with increasingly precarious employment and living conditions for all non-elites. No non-elites like this very much, but non-elites respond to these conditions in different ways, depending on their values. Right-Wing Authoritarians respond by saying “Stop the world, I want to get off.” And more than anyone else, it is white men who say this. Why is that? I think Naomi Klein’s explanation works quite well:

Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.

At the same time, they have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous. Success is a party to which they were not invited, and they know in their hearts that this rising wealth and power is somehow directly connected to their growing debts and powerlessness.

For the people who saw security and status as their birthright – and that means white men most of all – these losses are unbearable.

Naomi Klein points the finger at the rise of the Davos class, and I think she is right to do so. What this means is that while Eric is right to say it’s not the working-class who voted for Trump, he is wrong to say it’s not the economy. It is the economy: it’s neoliberalism. Moreover, it is class, too: but rather than it being about the working-class, it’s about everyone outside the Davos class.


Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

§ 2 Responses to Ok but WHY did the white men do this? Thoughts on Trump’s victory

  • I just read this article, which provides another angle on why right-wing authoritarianism might be more common in some parts of the US than others: “of course, people on the coasts could stand to meet more rural and exurban people, to understand why they are anxious about a changing world and less economic opportunity. But rural and exurban people need to see more of America. People do not understand the depths of how little rural America travels and sees other people and cultures.” (http://www.rollcall.com/news/opinion/im-a-coastal-elite-from-the-midwest-the-real-bubble-is-rural-america)

    I think this article is a useful reminder that values are not something we are born with but something that we are socialised into, which means they are shaped by our life experiences. Why might rural Americans not have a lot of time for what Kaufmann calls ‘diversity and novelty’?

  • The following quote makes a similar argument to my blogpost: “We are told by bourgeois pundits that racism, not ‘the economy’, mattered in this election. No such choice can be made. Unless we wish to reify ‘the economy,’ there is no way of talking about it except as an ensemble of social relationships structured by race, gender and class. The overdetermined nature of ideology means that it was possible for Trump to speak to polyglot class groups in the language of race and national chauvinism, ‘building the wall’ functioning as a metaphor for purification and protection against both global elites (subtly, and sometimes less subtly, coded with antisemitism by the Trump campaign) and the wretched of the earth. In the standard representation of right-wing populism, the losses incurred by these groups are interpreted as a national decline, inflicted by a collusion between the cosmopolitan rich and the de-nationalised poor.” http://salvage.zone/online-exclusive/saturn-devours-his-young-president-trump/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Ok but WHY did the white men do this? Thoughts on Trump’s victory at dropitintheocean.


%d bloggers like this: