I am generally pretty jaded when it comes to things like politics, elections, and presidential candidates. I dislike most of them. I dislike some of them more than others, and those are the ones for whom I do not vote. I voted in the primary. I will vote in the general election in November. That doesn’t mean I am an avid supporter of anyone. I am, however, avidly anti-Trump. Those are my politics. Here are my thoughts.
I’ve been generally operating under the supposition that Trump and Trump-followers are the epitome of white privilege, a social condition that has been omnipresent for centuries and has grown increasingly obvious and toxic in the past five or so years in a way it hasn’t been before, precisely because it has become visible and is being (rightfully) attacked.
But today I realized that Trump and his followers aren’t the epitome of white privilege. Trump himself is a rich white man, yes, but he doesn’t share in the kind of white privilege I’m talking about because he doesn’t need to–he can buy pretty much anything he wants (hopefully the presidency will not be one of those things). His wealth removes him from the category of people who get by on their whiteness. He has money. His whiteness is eclipsed by money and perceived masculinity.
His followers aren’t getting by on white privilege, either. In fact, it is precisely because they aren’t getting by on white privilege that they are so dangerous, toxic, and angry. They want to get by on white privilege. Many of them used to get by on it, and now that it’s being (very) slowly dismantled, they want it back, and Trump is offering to buy it for them.
The metaphor that comes to mind, both horribly and appropriately, is the sociopolitical construct of antebellum plantations in the US South. Trump is the plantation owner. He has wealth and power and can do pretty much whatever he wants to whomever he wants. His followers are the poor white workers on the plantation, who, by virtue of their likeness in color to the owner, are placed in positions of authority–the overseers. Because of Trump, they are given power and just enough money to fear losing it to the people they see as below them on the social ladder. It’s that fear that keeps them in line, you see, because so long as they fear losing what little they have to the Others–slaves, blacks, Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, Latinxs, gays, lesbians, transpersons, whomevers–they will all-but-blindly follow whatever the Trump-owners tell them.
That is not white privilege. It is white exploitation, and it is being committed by other white people. It’s also racism (and not against white people), and it is blatant and obvious, and that racism is actually the key to being a part of the Trump party. It’s white supremacy, and it goes part-and-parcel with the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism (“Make America Great Again!” Barf.) that Trump has been spouting all along.
White privilege is also playing a role in this election, but it is coming from somewhere very surprising. White privilege is coming from the so-called Bernie Bros (this does not apply to all supporters of Bernie Sanders), people who are neither so advantaged as to be Trumps nor so disadvantaged so as to be Trump-followers, but whose whiteness (and, usually, maleness) is of a particularly middle-class variety where it matters just enough to give them an advantage without being their only advantage. And that is where white privilege is dangerous. When whiteness is the only thing someone believes they have as a source of power (the overseers), they cling to it out of desperation. When whiteness is the thing that tips you over the edge from just-like-everyone-else-in-this-sinking-boat to I-get-to-get-in-the-life-rafts-first, then you are going to feel as though you are entitled to the life raft without really understanding why–that is where white privilege becomes especially dangerous, because it’s all but invisible.
Male privilege is also a part of the Bernie Bro identity, and its role is just as invisible as the white privilege they also possess. It doesn’t take much to find the sexist rhetoric that’s a significant part of the attacks on Hillary Clinton and her Armani suit and new haircut. Clinton has to work at least twice as hard to get just as much support as a male democratic candidate, and she’s put in that work. Let the woman wear an Armani suit, for Pete’s sake.
I want to be clear here that I am not saying anything about the policies of either Sanders or Clinton. Politically speaking, I am probably closer to Sanders’s politics than I am to Clinton’s, and I would happily vote for him if he were to be the Democratic nominee. I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen, so I will vote for Clinton, because the last thing I want to see is a Trump presidency. Yes, I am a feminist and I would love to have a woman as president, but if she had Trump’s politics (like, say Sarah Palin), I wouldn’t vote for her, either. My point is not about either Sanders or Clinton, but about the people who follow them.
Many of Sanders’s supporters are rational, progressive, and thoughtful people. Many of them will vote for Clinton if she is nominated, even though they would rather vote for Sanders. Those are not the people I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the people who can’t fathom the idea that they might lose and are therefore proverbially throwing the board–and the office of President–because their position of privilege (white, male, or both) has never been one of significant setback or failure.
Those are the people for whom white privilege is a problem, because it has misled them to believe they are more special, more capable, more worthy of success than someone else, and it has done so without explicitly tying that superiority to race or gender. The hardest part about this privilege is that the people who most benefit from it don’t see that benefit as a result of privilege, that they have been told they are important and special and unique, and that they are great just as they are–without realizing that a part of that rhetoric is their whiteness, their straightness, their male-ness, their middle-class-ness.
It’s hard to be told that you are a success because of chance and your parents’ luck. That you aren’t successful because you are talented and smart, but because you had all the advantages and none of the disadvantages in society. That you are wealthier or more socially liked because of the color of your skin rather than the content of your character. It’s hard to accept that. But it’s also vital that we do so, because until we do, we can’t move forward in an equitable society. Trump may want to build a literal wall, and we can’t let that happen, but we also have to tear down the invisible one that already exists.