Humiliation and the Triumph of Donald Trump
Updated: Aug 22, 2022
Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Yes, some people voted for Trump DESPITE their distaste for his vulgarity. But I think that his base supported him precisely BECAUSE of it. In fact, I think it may partly be an act he put on just to appeal to a certain group of Americans who are consistently humiliated and denigrated for their political incorrectness. He spoke for them, and in their name pointed an extended middle finger at the liberal, educated “elites” such as you and me.
People have been saying that Trump won because of the loss of manufacturing jobs to immigrants and overseas factories. Nah! It’s not about the economy, stupid! It’s about dignity and status. The most painful emotion is humiliation, and there is one segment of the population that feels deeply humiliated—older, poorly-educated white males, including prosperous ones, who hold the values that were normal when they were young: misogyny, racism, nationalism, competitiveness, and swaggering dominance. To “make America great again” means simply to reassert those attitudes.
It is not Marx, with his class analysis, who can explain this, but Weber, with his recognition of power and status as forms of social inequality distinct from, and sometimes more important than, class. Indeed, a class (i.e. economic) analysis would yield easier solutions. You’d just redistribute money more equally and that would reduce the conflict.
But money isn’t what it’s about. It’s about the shame of being considered culturally inferior. It’s about losing rank in terms of social respectability. And whereas money can be equalized, prestige and honor cannot. The whole point is to compare individuals and groups against each other, not against some objective standard of well-being. You can have “enough” money, but social standing is entirely comparative. Inevitably, for every winner there is a loser.
Thus I have no idea what the solution is, except to persuade people not to compare themselves to each other, but to imagine that all of us (including criminals, sexists, racists, narcissists, nationalists, etc) have a rightful place in the world and need not be scorned.
I don’t know how to run a political campaign that recognizes the equal value of all the candidates and parties. We have to distinguish among them, and actually we exaggerate the differences between them. That seems inevitable to me. But every time one of us posted a scathing attack on Donald Trump for being a bigot, we were attacking vicariously all those “dirty old men” whom he was representing with his crude language and impulsive behavior. We have to criticize that behavior, but in doing so we were humiliating a large portion of the American population, and they had a powerful means of retaliating against us.
I don’t know how, and I hope someone will inform me of a way, to criticize others without humiliating them. The worst is that the humiliation may even be unintentional. Individuals and groups can feel inferior to another person who actully harbors no contempt for them. I think that’s the case now in the relationship between Russia and the United States. Russians (represented by Putin) complain that they are humiliated by Americans, but for their part Americans were simply treating Russians the way they treat all other countries, which means they didn’t pay as much attention to them as they had during the Cold War. This was not (at least until the Crimea thing broke) hostile, but only indifferent. But people get sore when they lose status in comparison to some other groups that are gaining status. In the US, white uneducated, religious males (especially prosperous ones) are losing “honor” in comparison to blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, women, gays, etc.
We have to criticize and protest against bad behavior. And in doing so, we can (and maybe inevitably will) display a kind of arrogance that is called “political correctness.” If you can solve this conundrum, you will give us some useful guidance in dealing with the social dynamics that led to Trump’s victory.