Tag Archives: social dominance

The Politics Of White Male Grievance

I have obviously spent most of my life being naive.

Until very recently, I had faith that the overwhelming majority of my fellow-Americans were really good people. Wrong sometimes, certainly. Confused sometimes. But essentially kind and well-meaning, and –importantly–receptive to reality and able to learn from it.

I accepted that there would always be a small minority of people who are damaged in some way. I still think that “damaged” explains more than “evil,” but I’m less certain that the distinction is helpful (and Mitch McConnell has convinced me that some people really are evil).

During the past few years, I’ve read more American history, and a lot of that history isn’t pretty. The Internet has put more information at our fingertips (some credible, some not), and much of that information has been depressing. And then, of course, came November of 2016. It was like ripping a bandage off a very ugly sore.

If there is one central thread running through my various disillusionments, it is some people’s evident need to divide humanity into “us versus them”–and to dominate “them.”

Paul Krugman recently published a column responding to Stephen Moores’ comparison of the protestors storming state capitols to Rosa Parks. (If you missed that bit of Trump administration idiocy, I assure you I am not making it up.)  I was particularly struck by this observation:

The modern right is driven in large part by the grievances of white men who don’t feel that they’re getting the respect they believe they deserve, and Fox-fueled hostility to “elites” who claim to know more than guys in diners — which, on technical subjects like epidemiology, they do — is a key part of the movement.

Krugman is restating what social science research has confirmed: white male grievance explains most of Trump’s base support. (There is also significant evidence that white male grievance has motivated most mass shootings.)

As Rebecca Solnit has observed, these are white men who feel threatened because they see life in America as a zero-sum game–a game that rightwing media and the Republican party are constantly telling them they are losing. They were born into a culture that told them they were entitled to dominate us “lesser” folks: black and brown people, women, gay men, non-Christians…that they were the “real Americans.” Suddenly (or so it seemed), those “lessers” were demanding a place at the civic table, and they had to defend their superior status.

We saw that resentment in Charlottesville. (It’s important to note that we also saw it in the appalling behavior of now-Supreme-Court Justice Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing. White male grievance isn’t the exclusive province of people we can dismiss as “yahoos” and “uneducated yokels.”)

As a column in the Washington Post put it, shortly after Charlottsville,

More than a half-century ago, minorities, women and immigrants began to challenge the economic, political and legal hierarchy that had favored white men for centuries. Their efforts produced a white backlash that burst into the open after Barack Obama’s election in 2008.

Donald Trump has tapped into this anger and manipulated it to his political advantage. The bond between President Trump and his white followers is not based on policy but on grievance. They both reject the cultural changes over the past half-century, and Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan signals his intent to unravel them…

Until the 1960s, white men sat unchallenged atop the United States’ cultural and economic pyramid. They did not have to compete against women or African Americans in the workplace, and they benefited from laws and customs that sustained their privileged position. They not only ruled the workplace, they dominated American politics and exercised virtually unchallenged power at home.

That automatic dominance based on skin color is changing. Slowly and unevenly, but it is changing. And a significant number of white men simply can’t deal with the change.

My problem is, I’m having an equal amount of trouble dealing with the realization that these attitudes characterize something like 35% of American voters.