Donald Trump has latched onto a zeitgeist and identity that forms a large part of the fabric of our nation. We’d like to say that this sullied portion of the fabric is the strain of racist and bigoted segregation that we’d hoped America had moved beyond. And while this unfortunate reality is central to Trump’s appeal, the explanation for Trump’s rise is a bit more complex, but equally as troubling and regularly overlooked.
The root connector of Trump’s supporters and the vile ascension of his campaign may reside in the combination of, on the one hand, the antiquated notions of property, status, and class that Americans originally brought with them from the Old World, and on the other, the racist, segregated, and oppressive structures Americans established in the New World.
Since before democracy was even an idea, European societies had been structured around property. The nobility and the church were the major landowners, and with land came class, status, education, and the closest guarantee to a comfortable life that one could imagine. The colonizers of North America applied this structure, where land ownership brought with it status, wealth, education, and political and professional influence, even as they stripped away the nobility. In America, with its wide expanses of land, anyone could have the opportunity to own his own parcel, build a house, start a family, and live the closest thing imaginable to a European noble existence but with the enlightening and revolutionary tenets of democracy replacing the archaic notions of Europe.
And while theoretically there is nothing wrong with this concept of property and ownership, the American application of these ideals took a drastic turn for the worse because people of color, Native Americans and African Americans, were prevented from participating in this bounty. The ownership, property, control, and identity of America resided in the hands of white Americans even though people of other races also lived, worked, and raised families on this land. These other races were barred access to the American Dream.
In Cheryl I. Harris’ profound essay “Whiteness As Property” (PDF), she describes how whiteness in America amounted to treasured property and blackness as the lack thereof. The ownership of the property that their whiteness afforded them conferred upon them status and opportunity unavailable to non-whites.
In her essay, Harris outlines the extent to which race-related Supreme Court cases such as Plessy v. Ferguson employed notions of whiteness as property during their legal proceedings. Homer A. Plessy was a black man who could pass as white, and he was forcefully removed from a whites-only train car. The court’s decision against Plessy formalized the flawed “separate but equal” doctrine, but Plessy also argued that his removal from the whites-only section unjustly denied him the ownership of his whiteness. The removal of his whiteness was the equivalent of stealing his property or social capital, and the benefits that came from being white.
Since blackness was the lack of property, any unwanted participation by a black person in an American structure constituted an invasion, a theft, or an acquisition of white property. Harris’s grandmother, she writes, also passed as white to obtain a job working in a fancy department store, and this required her to covertly “invade” a white dominion and “steal” a job that one would argue rightfully belonged to a white person. There was no way that Harris’s grandmother could reveal her black identity and expect to keep her job.
Two centuries of strife have resulted in the principles of democracy and equality usurping those of white dominion, property, and ownership. Black Americans have used their enhanced agency to better their lives, and other minorities have done the same. Yet despite this progress, notions of property, ownership, and the expectant bounty that whiteness formerly provided exclusively for whites still permeate through our society—thankfully in much smaller doses.
This is the American zeitgeist that has propelled Trump’s campaign. His rhetoric speaks to a simpler time for white Americans where success was right around the corner and non-white bodies were not complicating or influencing society; and he’s not bashful about sounding like he’d employ oppressive, despotic means to re-create it.
In a recent Fusion poll, almost 29 percent of white Americans said that the American Dream “is not really alive.” And one-third of white non-college graduates now say it is not alive. In comparison, in 1986, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, only 10 percent of white Americans felt the dream was not really alive.
Likewise just over 60 percent of white college graduates and 70 percent of non-college graduates feel the dream had become harder to obtain.
A large percentage of Trump’s supporters are white Americans without a college degree.
The frustrations that certain white Americans express about America speak to an acknowledgement of their diminished position. America is more culturally diverse and the votes and voices of white Americans have a decreased impact. There is nothing unjust in this democratic development, but across America numerous entities have begun invoking concepts of property, ownership, and expectant white bounty to fight against this evolution.
This week the Supreme Court will hear round two of Fisher v. University of Texas, in which Abigail Fisher, a white woman, has argued that she was illegally denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin on account of her race because racial diversity played an impermissible role in the admissions process. Conservatives decry this situation as reverse racism, yet incorporating race into college admissions is clearly an attempt to allow groups who have been historically prevented from participating in the American Dream an opportunity to pursue it. Ironically it took a Supreme Court case, Sweatt v. Painter in 1950, to force UT-Austin to admit black students.
For years, voices in the conservative media including Trump have referred to President Barack Obama as the “Occupier in Chief” and questioned his legitimacy as an American because, according to certain Americans, he has invaded white dominion and taken up a position blacks were never intended to. During Obama’s first campaign countless black Americans, my grandfather included, openly expressed their belief that white Americans would not allow Obama to become president. Yet fortunately—regardless of anyone’s opinion of Obama—democracy prevailed, and the person with the most votes won the election.
Right now we live in a climate where some white Americans are openly expressing their anger and fear about a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, democratic America that feels alien to them. They express that they are losing control of “their” country and loathe the idea that certain previous guarantees, such as the American Dream, are harder for them to obtain. Trump’s divisive and demonizing campaign that openly ridicules and advocates for oppressing minorities and non-Christians feeds into this abhorrent slice of the American psyche.
Trump’s supporters aren’t necessarily racist per se—although some clearly are. They just preferred America when they could pursue their dreams with a stacked deck. Trump promises to take them back to a time when they could, and who better to do so than a bigoted, fear-mongering billionaire landowner?