Donald Trump And The Privilege of White Rage

Terrance Heath

In using the anger of his supporters to justify the escalating violence at his campaign rallies, Donald Trump is cynically exploiting a racial privilege as old, even older, than America itself.

At a rally in North Carolina, Trump supporter John McGraw, 78, sucker punched protester Rakeem Jones. McGraw, who is white, was caught on video sucker-punching Jones, who was being escorted out of the rally by police. As he was walking up the stairs, Jones flashed a middle finger at the crowd. McGraw walked up to the aisle and punched Jones. Police officers immediately tackled Jones. McGraw later said that Jones “deserved” the punch, and added, “The next time we see him we may have to kill him.” McGraw was later arrested and charged with assault.

On “Meet the Press” this Sunday, Trump used the anger of his supporters to justify this and other acts of violence against protesters at his rallies. “They have anger that is unbelievable. Unbelievable. They love this country,” Trump said. “I see it. There is some anger. There is also some great love for the country.” Of McGraw, Trump said, “The man got carried away, he was 78 years old, he obviously loves his country, and maybe he doesn’t like seeing what’s happening to the country.”

McGraw is a convenient stand in for the majority of Trump supporters. They are mostly white, male, and without college degrees. They have, in the last decade or so, been hit with a one-two punch of demographic trends that undermined their send of cultural primacy, and economic downturns that eroded their sense of economic security, brought on by the policies of the very conservative politicians they voted for.

The cumulative effect is that they’ve been stripped of some of the racial privilege that shielded them from some harsh economic realities, and let them remain the “salt of the earth” in their own eyes and those of others. Needless to say, they’re angry about it. Republicans nurtured that anger so well for so many decades, that it was ripe for Donald Trump to exploit. For many of Trump’s supporters, anger is the last vestige of the privilege they once enjoyed.

As I’ve written before, anger is privileged in America. Two decades ago, when “angry white men” swept a Republican majority into Congress, and made Newt Gingrich speaker of the house, almost no one questioned whether their anger was justified. Their anger demanded attention, from the media and politicians. Their anger was a forced to reckoned with. It was to be feared and appeased.

For everyone else — women, people of color, etc. — anger was always dangerous. If you were a woman, a person of color, gay, etc., your movements had to be slow and deliberate, your voice modulated, and your anger must never show.

Anger implies entitlement, whether to material goods, power, privilege, or respect. Anger implies a right to expect something, and is a justifiable response to not receiving one’s due. That’s what made it dangerous for those not thought to be due anything they’d have a right to be angry about having been denied.

White conservatives can get angry. Tea partiers can get angry, and turn town hall meetings into pandemonium. Cliven Bundy’s supporters can get angry, point weapons at federal officers and threaten to kill them, without facing tanks or teargas. Demagogues like Donald Trump can rile up their supporters to rough up protesters.

For minorities, anger means being dismissed as a cartoonish cliche. Worse, it could mean being seen as a threat and dealt with as such, and quashed or put in one’s place to preserve the status quo.

The candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama saw conservatives appeal more than ever before overtly to the racist resentments and anxieties of the GOP base. It gave life to the birther movement, which was based on the racist assumption that Barack Obama could not possibly be a real American, and which gave Donald Trump the opportunity to raise his political stature by becoming America’s biggest birther.

Trump now seems to be running a racially provocative campaign, almost designed to ensure the kind of clashes between protesters and supporters that have become a part of the political theatre of his rallies.

  • A Trump campaign event in Chicago was recently cancelled, after clashes broke out between protesters and Trump supporters. Jonathan Capeheart points out that University of Illinois campus where it was held is 25 percent Latino, 25 percent Asian, and 8 percent black. That can’t have been an accident. “Whoever picked that location knew what they were doing as far as poking that sleeping dog there,” said William Dalney, son of former Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, suggesting that the venue was chosen in hopes that it would provoke protests and boost Tumps campaign.
  • On Monday, Trump held a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, which is between 43 nd 45 percent African-American, but no protesters showed up this time.

Trump’s appeal to the GOP’s white conservative base is mostly about restoration. He promises to roll back the reversal of privileges enjoyed by white men for more than two centuries. The problem is, as Sen. Linsdey Graham (R-S.C.) said, the GOP isn’t “generating enough angry white guys.” The white male vote share is shrinking, and there might not be enough of them left to make Trump president. Trump is betting that stoking and amplifying their anger will draw more of them to the polls, and what remains of their white privilege will justify it.

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