I’ve been trying to understand the Trump presidency for four years. Not so much trying to understand what it is doing, other than sowing chaos, but rather, trying to understand how it could have come about, and how it almost got extended another four years.
It has made no sense to me at all, up until a very recent addition to my personal library1. I still haven’t finished reading it — I’ve subtitled it, “The most uncomfortable book I’ve ever read,” and I can’t manage more than a chapter or two before I have to lay it down and think. Sometimes weep. But it has brought an unexpected, pellucid clarity to my mind.
To discuss why Trump was elected President in 2016, we have to start a little over five centuries ago: the year 1493 to be precise.
I should set the stage: the Gutenberg moveable-type printing press is only a half-century old. Lorenzo di Medici, patron of the Italian Renaissance, is just a year in his grave, and Florence is burning under Savonarola. The Spanish Inquisition has just begun torturing Conversos. Copernicus, the man who will remove the Earth from the center of the universe, is a young man of twenty. Martin Luther, who will be called the father of Protestantism, is a lad of ten. King Henry the Eighth of England, the first Protestant King, is in his swaddling cloths. William Shakespeare’s father will be born in about 40 years.
This is the late Middle Ages, a time of rising kings and walled cities and peasants and pestilent fleas, where the Catholic Church reigns forever — for a few more years, at least — supreme in its decadence upon the ruins of the fallen Western Roman Empire.
The year 1493 was the year of Christopher Columbus’ second voyage, consisting of seventeen ships, roughly fifteen hundred colonists, priests bent on converting the “savages” to the Catholic faith, and soldiers and adventurers seeking rape and murder and gold and slaves.
From the very beginning, the European incursion into the Americas was marked by violence and slavery.
Over the next two centuries, a caste system formed in the North American colonies, much like the caste system of India in all its essential features.
African slaves were preferred in the US to work the fields, as they were physically strong, and more resistant to malaria and other tropical diseases that were endemic to the Southern colonies: they were considered the better investment. The Dutch, French, and Portuguese slave trade reached its peak, bringing thousands of Africans to the US as slaves to be bought and sold on the open market, against their will.
It was seen as necessary to break the spirits of these stolen people, as you would break a horse, or a mule. Out of this arose a system of control, of continuous oppression of black slaves, that required the slave submit to the master’s will in all things. This system of oppression was enforced by law, justified in religion, and gradually became a system of caste based on skin color, in which the black-skinned people were considered to be born into their inferior state, and could never rise above it. The lighter-skinned people — the “white” people — were likewise born into a superior state, from which they could never fall. This was ordained by God.
By the time “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” was first penned by liberal-minded Deists, the colonies had three centuries of immersion in a skin-color-based caste system in which the lowest white person was judged as superior to the highest black person: the very opposite of equals in any sense.
Within eighty years of adopting the Constitution, the tension between the high ideals of constitutional government, and the systematic oppression of the much older racial caste system, broke out in open war over the issue of slavery itself, to which at least half the country’s (white) population consigned black people on the basis that they were of the lowest caste and thus fit for nothing else.
Black people were considered the mudsills of prosperity, according to writers of the time. A mudsill is the first footing laid down on the ground, in the mud, as the foundation of a house. It is the lowest thing in the grandest of houses, and everything above is built on its back. It cannot rise without destroying the house. It must endure, suffering the gnawing of rats and the incursion of damp rot, bearing the perpetual burden of stone and finer timber and grand ballroom dances with many feet.
As slaves, black people were the economic foundation of the US: the manual laborers who did all of the hard labor, which the owners claimed and used to build prosperity for themselves. The disparity was unconscionable, but conscience was soothed by the idea that black people were simply not capable of rising above the level of mudsill, being born to that state by their own nature and the Will of God.
After the Confederacy lost the war and slavery became illegal, the caste system went underground. Black people could no longer be owned and whipped by their owners, but they could be oppressed in other ways. Loans were denied. Businesses were burned. The KKK formed, and lynchings became commonplace public events at which celebratory photographs were taken and mailed to relatives as holiday greetings. Lynching photos were so popular that the greeting-card industry even opened up a card category for a while: Birthdays, Anniversaries, Lynchings, Easter.
We call this the “Jim Crow” period, from 1865 until the early 1960’s, in which a constant reign of terror was sustained, particularly in the deep South, to “keep the Negro in his place.”
So brutal and effective was this Jim Crow period, that when the German Nazis in the 1930’s were trying to codify their laws to eliminate the Jewish “race” from Germany (and ultimately, from existence), they turned with great admiration to the oppression of blacks in the United States. They wanted a caste system like the one in America, but with Jews placed in the lowest class.
Politically, the Democratic Party was the Party of the South (and Jim Crow) up until the early twentieth century. The Republican Party and its Laissez Faire economics (let the thieves take anything they can carry) ended up with the blame for the Great Depression, and the Democratic Party became a populist party that — in some desperation — supported common laborers and public works projects above the bankers and industrialists who, if they had not already thrown themselves off a ledge, were not able to pull the US out of the global recession. For the first time black workers in the north began to vote for Democrats. The South clung to the Democrats out of a sense of tradition, but with increasing unease. In the 1960’s, when the Democratic Party supported the Civil Rights Act, the South abandoned the Democratic Party, and the Party let them go. The Republican Party picked them up, and the era of “dog whistle politics” began.
“Dog whistle politics” in the US is where campaigns are run with cues and clues that are audible to people well-attuned to the race-based caste system. Those who are not attuned, simply don’t hear the clues at all. Because of the Civil Rights Act and the widespread disdain for “racism,” laws that explicitly targeted people in the black caste as during Jim Crow could no longer be passed or openly enforced. But politicians could still draw the white caste members’ votes with a wink and a nod that said, “I share your pain, brother. It ain’t right. It just ain’t right. And I’ve got your back, unlike my turncoat, traitorous Democrat opponent.” And they could (and did) work in government to block or poison any national law or program that truly threatened the caste system.
This brings us to President Obama, and if you’ve followed me this far, I think you see what is coming. A black man moved into the White House in January of 2009. A black man, destined by the Law of God to be lower than the lowest white man, was elevated to a position higher than the highest white man.
Under the American system of racial caste, this was an abomination. It was a Sign of the End Times. It was intolerable.
Supporters of the American caste system, bluntly put, lost their shit.
So when Donald Trump came on stage in 2015, blowing a full brass band of racist dog whistles, however badly, he was nothing short of a savior to those who wanted to keep the caste system in place.
Who are those people who supported (and support) Trump? The statistics are clear: the core of his supporters are working-class whites.
The question the media has been distracting us with since 2016 is, why are the working-class whites stupidly voting for Trump? Trump has done damn little for them, and a whole lot against them. His incompetence has made their lives a lot more insecure. They are clearly voting against their own interests. Are they really that stupid?
The answer comes from asking the question, “What if they aren’t stupid at all?” Or more specifically, “What if they aren’t voting against their interests?“
Is there a way they could actually be voting against their short-term interests, but in favor of their longer-term interests?
The answer is: Yes.
The American caste system asserts that the lowest white man is higher than the highest black man, by birth, by nature, and by God. Another way of saying that is, so long as there is a black man available to press into service as a slave, then no white man can be pressed into slavery. If a white man is pressed into poverty, it will never be as deep or hopeless or lacking in dignity as the best condition of the black man. Even if a white man loses everything else, he still has his self-respect. Which means he is still honored as a white man, above the highest black man. He will never be at the bottom.
So long as caste endures, the white man will never be the mudsill, with his face in the mud and the whole economy forcing him to work for no return, with a smile on his face.
Now, remove the caste system.
As far-more-capable black people are allowed to come boiling up out of the caste-based Hell we’ve created for them, they will displace white people, and nothing will prevent those displaced white people from sinking all the way to the bottom.
The white people nearest the bottom of the white hierarchy stand to lose everything if the caste system goes away. So it is actually in their best longer-term interest to vote for an incompetent, loudmouth racist who offers at least the hope of preserving the caste system. Even if he steals a little from them.
I’m hoping that as I finish the book, the author will provide some insights into how we might untangle this mess. Because in the true long-term, this system hurts everyone.
It got late and I didn’t quite finish this.
There’s a lot of divide-and-conquer going on right now as the Biden administration gears up for Dec. 9 (Electoral College vote), early January (the Georgia runoffs for the Senate), and of course, January 20 (Trump is evicted), and one of the fights shaping up is “social issues (racism/sexism), or the economy?” Choose one.
I think they are two faces of the same problem.
The real problem with our economic system is that it is extraordinarily cruel. It is also unstable, and in the long-term — which is rapidly shortening — inviable, both of which suggest it will become even more cruel.
In my conversations with conservatives, it always seems to come down to the word “undeserving.” There is a belief that there exists a living-wage job for everyone, and anyone who is suffering financially is simply lazy, and therefore undeserving, and therefore should not be rewarded with “free handouts.” This almost always ends in a flash of anger and a statement along the lines of, “I worked my ass off for everything I have, why should some lazy bum get a free ride?”
The idea of the “lazy bum” is a variant of the “lazy slave.” Both are undeserving of kindness or pity, and therefore, should be punished to get them moving, rather than coddled and allowed to lie in the sun. If necessary, they should be whipped, starved, or allowed to die. This relies on the idea of a “mudsill economy,” with a ranking from the mudsill class, to the lordship class, where the latter is deserving of all the profits of everything built upon the mudsill, which deserves nothing beyond bare maintenance.
Any attempt to address economic inequity results in screams of “Socialism” and “Theft of Private Property,” and raises the mythology of the “undeserving” poor: the lazy welfare queen, the lazy bum, the lazy slave, the lazy Millennial, all of which is based on the idea of a hierarchy of deserving. And our example for the bottom of that hierarchy is the untouchable caste, the black slave. Our economics are cruel because the hierarchy of deserving is rooted in a rightful starvation in a gutter while billionaires stride past on the sidewalk, an ethic with its root in the unmourned death of a disobedient black slave.
We aren’t going to shift the economy in any meaningful way until we recognize that it is profoundly cruel. And we cannot see the cruelty so long as we have an untouchable caste.
1Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson