[This post originally appeared in Longreads.]
When I was about 7 or 8 I had my first serious conversation with my mother about the future: what I wanted to be; how I wanted to get there; how things really “were.” The word “were” in this context was probably my first paradox. Things that “were” were infinitely complex, yet simple. They were understood with or without understanding. You had to know how things “were” before they made themselves known, or you would regret having made the acquaintance.
There were jobs that were “gone” as she described it. Jobs that paid well right out of high school were “gone.” Jobs with security were “gone.” Before those jobs had “gone,” they had been scarce for black folks in her experience anyway, but now they were accessible in theory but nonexistent in reality. Now the door that would have been closed because of Jim Crow was open, but in the case of certain jobs, it opened into an abyss: sort of like an economic trap door. She didn’t say it exactly that way, but that was the gist of it.
We did not talk about globalization or mechanization or automation. There was no myth or theory to explain what was now “gone.” And regardless, there were groups whose complaints mostly fell on deaf ears anyway. As African Americans we were part of one of those groups. Struggle was not a sign of some flaw or conspiracy at work. It was how things “were.”
But not for everyone.
Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon best articulated the difference in an interview, in which he argued, “You know, when two thirds or three quarters of the CEO’s in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think — on, my point is, a country’s more like, a country’s more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”
As my mother hinted so many years ago, the American working class has been in decline for decades. In When Work Disappears, William Julius Wilson cites a study that men in the bottom fifth of income distribution “experienced more than a 30 percent drop in real wages between 1970 and 1989.” Things didn’t get much better in the subsequent decades, but what was particularly frustrating about the problem was that even as the overall economy improved — as jobs were added, as unemployment plummeted — many workers became even less secure, having to move from one job to the next, often losing a well-paying manufacturing job and replacing it with one that paid less — often much less.
The worker had the surreal and infuriating experience of watching news about how great things were and not personally experiencing that greatness, especially if he or she expected to be included in the windfall.
Meanwhile, the top 1 percent of income earners in the United States received nearly one-fifth of the total gross income — more than double their share from 1979. Thomas Piketty in Capital In the Twenty-First Century attributed this rise in incomes to an “unprecedented explosion of very elevated incomes from [management] labor” — what he called a “veritable separation of the top managers of large firms from the rest of the population.”
Managers and management were winning. Over the same period CEO pay increased by almost 1000%, and the argument from many on the Right was that this was all perfectly normal and even desirable.
The Right until recently rejected a zero-sum relationship — or in many cases any kind of relationship — between the incomes of managers and workers. If the manager’s income rose sharply it was merely a reflection of their increased productivity. If the workers’ incomes dropped they must work better, smarter, faster or maybe get a second and third job.
This is simply how things “were,” workers were told. To complain, or worse, to organize was to claim unearned credits. It was cynical — even un-American – for workers to take collective action and demand changes. Working-class whites voted for and supported politicians that made these arguments for decades.
Meanwhile, the business sector ignored much of its own advice, choosing to behave a great deal like Labor used to. Businesses organized through Chambers of Commerce and mergers. Businesses lobbied to the tune of billions of dollars. Businesses threaten to boycott cities or states that they deem anti-business. Businesses threatened to strike if the government didn’t offer bailouts. Businesses marched in the guise of grassroots conservative movements. Businesses made demands and expected to be heard and obeyed.
Workers were told that they were part of a great chain of being of which they were the greatest beneficiaries: that, to paraphrase libertarian icon Ludwig Von Mises, all of the improvements in their material condition were due to the efforts of men who were better than them and that the smartest, most prudent thing that they could do was to defend the interests of those men. Deference, they were told, would make them free — or at least keep them out of trouble.
Trumpism modifies this. It preserves the deference, but rather than ignoring the worker’s losses it weaponizes them against a series of scapegoats. Bannon’s “civic” worker is being led to believe that the “other” is the barrier between him and progress: that were it not for the Silicon Valley Asian CEO, the middle manager in the Midwest would be a CEO; that were it not for tiny of fraction of tax dollars going to minorities on welfare, the employee would have enough money to start his business and join the ranks of the titans of industry; if it were not for the illegal immigrant, or “illegals” as many are fond of saying, the expendable, interchangeable worker in any number of industries would become essential again. To the “civic” man, these losses are not “losses,” but thefts.
These myths amount to an American version of the Dolchstoss, or the German stab-in-the-back legend. The Dolchstoss blamed the loss of World War I on a combination of political dissidents and “international Jewry” rather than a military campaign that was doomed before it ever began. The Dolchstoss pandered to the German military aristocracy. It soothed the psychological wounds of the general public. It created the hole in the German Republic’s legitimacy that Hitler and his cronies barreled through.
The defeat and decline of the American worker is creating a similar crisis that the Trump administration is attempting to exploit at the expense of democratic institutions. The press, the Judicial branch, local governments and citizens that disagree with Trump are not merely labeled wrong but illegitimate. But why are so many Americans receptive to the Dolchstoss — white Americans in particular? What wounds does it heal? And what are its implications in the years to come?
Identity and sense of privilege help to explain the appeal. Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities, writes that “[a nation] is an imagined political community” and quotes social anthropologist Ernest Gellner’s observation that “nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.” Privilege is essential to this imagining and invention. It’s not merely a question of who you are, but who you want to be. To be a member of a nation is to be special or exceptional in some way and ideally to be on the road to becoming even more special and more exceptional.
For Germans, the military aristocracy, or Junkers, were the owners and bestowers of this privilege. Rather than challenge it or establish new standards, the growing middle and professional classes curried favor with it. The highest ambition of the middle classes was to become part of that military nobility. So the German military’s defeat in the First World War was not just the loss of a war, but the death of a dream.
Many Americans are experiencing a similar crisis of faith. The explicit promise of America is equal opportunity, but the implicit promise for many years has been white privilege and eventual prosperity. In her essay “On the Backs of Blacks,” Toni Morrison uses a scene from Elia Kazan’s film America, America to illustrate this point. The film tells the story of a young Greek immigrant’s determination to make it to and in America. She writes, “Fresh from Ellis Island, Stavros gets a job shining shoes at Grand Central Terminal. […] Quickly, but as casually as an afterthought, a young black man, also a shoe shiner, enters and tries to solicit a customer. He is run off the screen. — ‘Get out of here! We’re doing business here!’ — and silently disappears. The interloper into Stavros’ [the main character’s] workplace is crucial in the mix of signs that make up the movie’s happy-ending immigrant story: a job, a straw hat, an infectious smile — and a scorned black.”
Stavros would work. He would struggle. He might succeed or fail, but he could assimilate. He would have to watch his associations though. The stereotypes that he and other immigrants encountered would have a common theme: blackness. The Irishman was labeled a “nigger inside out.” The Italian was labeled a “guinea” which referred to the Guinea coast of Africa, alluding to their mixed racial heritage. And Jews were labeled “white-niggers.” To be truly and fully American they would have to disprove these associations.
They would need to become and remain prosperous relative to the black and other “others.”
Prosperity was either a cause or a consequence of American virtue depending on your tradition. The Jeffersonians believed that prosperity through agricultural toil in particular made Americans virtuous. The Puritans believed that virtue made Americans more prosperous. Alexis DeTocqueville commented on the popularity of this gospel of prosperity, noting that, “it is often difficult to ascertain from [American preacher’s] discourses whether the principal object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the other world or prosperity in this.”
Prosperity, virtue, and American identity are closely intertwined, and yet those that feel most entitled to this inheritance feel themselves slipping behind. An African American president symbolized this more than their personal decline in fortunes, which in many cases had been underway for decades. This helps to explain why Bannon and others can promote an “economic nationalism” that is mostly devoid of both economics and nationalism, yet that resonates with many Americans.
Few politicians even pretended to defend the interests of African American workers. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Philadelphia lost 64% of its manufacturing jobs; Chicago lost 60%; and Detroit 51%, as William Julius Wilson notes in When Work Disappears. This meant hundreds of thousands of jobs lost, disproportionately impacting African Americans. The solution from conservative and many so-called liberal politicians? “Migrate” was black conservative Shelby Steele’s prescription. “Get new skills,” said others. And even more popular was “behave more like Asians.”
White workers were having similar struggles over this same time period, but the white American worker was iconic in a way that the black worker was not. He stood astride history: building monuments, bearing witness; finding “freedom” in America. His material condition, or growing “inequality” was beside the point.
Many economists on the Right discouraged discussions about inequality at all, but if it had to be discussed it should be based on consumption not incomes. So, if the worker could afford a DVD player and his CEO could afford a DVD player, then for practical purposes their differences in incomes did not matter. The kinds of forces that naysayers grumbled about: declining wages; instability; declining social mobility were really signs of a thriving economy.
Now, the Right is ready to acknowledge the challenges facing workers — not as consequences of conservative policies, but as a reaffirmation of the dangers of the other: the illegal immigrant, the Muslim, the Chinese. It is a mistake to indulge these arguments, simply because they reassure workers who feel left behind or ignored by the “establishment.” It is also wrong to accept Bannon’s euphemisms. Yes. Bannon – and by association – Trump are advocating a kind of nationalism: white nationalism, not economic.
When I was in middle school I had a conversation with my grandfather that was similar to one I had with my mother, but I wanted to know about his early life instead: what he wanted to be and do. He had grown up under Jim Crow in Mobile, Alabama. His answer was that he figured he would do something with his hands. I pressed wanting to know if that was what he had wanted. He sort of dismissed the premise of my question, as if I had asked about driving during the bicycle era or electricity in the age of kerosene. “Back then you couldn’t really be anything,” he said.
That is how things were.
They had not always been that way. As Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, notes how, for a period after the Civil War:
“The federal government had taken over the affairs of the South, during a period known as Reconstruction, and the newly freed men were able to exercise rights previously denied them. They could vote, marry, or go to school if there was one nearby, and the more ambitious among them could enroll in black colleges set up by northern philanthropists, open businesses and run for office under the protection of northern troops. In short order some managed to become physicians, legislators, undertakers, insurance men. They assumed that the question of black citizen’s rights had been settled for good and that all that confronted them was merely building on these new opportunities.”
Poor whites benefited as well during this era. The Freedmen’s Bureau “paired impoverished whites and freed people, not as cutthroat adversaries but as the worthy poor,” writes Nancy Isenberg in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America. “In Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee, the bureau extended twice — and in some cases four times — as much relief to whites as to blacks.”
However, by the mid-1870s the North had withdrawn much of its oversight and those poor whites along with their middle class and well-to-do counterparts voted to roll back the rights of African Americans. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s Southern states passed segregation laws covering everything from street cars, to bathrooms, to schools, to walking on sidewalks, to assorted personal interactions between blacks and whites. If a black and white reached an intersection at the same time the black had to let the white motorist go first. Blacks were not to speak unless spoken to. A black man could not offer to shake the hand of a white man, unless the white man offered first. And in Mobile, my grandfather’s birthplace, a curfew required blacks to be off of the streets by 10 p.m.
These laws and norms violated the letter and spirit of the law at the federal level, yet they remained in place for nearly 100 years. This was the real American dolchstoss. It stabbed my grandfather in the back before he ever drew breath. It was part of a cycle of progress and reaction that insures that with each step forward, there will be a betrayal.
© 2017 Shawn Hamilton. First published in Longreads