A couple of days ago, deep in the throes of data geekery and a migraine, I tried to write a couple of posts about sexism being a key factor in the election outcome, and ended up tripping over my white privilege and falling into a pit of missing-the-point blather. Said posts got scrubbed because UGH.
Not going to attempt to recreate the point I was trying to make there, but I am going to use the data analysis I did to talk about the meta-level point, which is this: This entire shitshow we’re in the middle of has been a long time coming, and its roots lie in a particular flavor of violently dominant, ableist, cishet-white-dude authoritarianism.
Read on for the wordy explanation of this.
The data I was digging into was exit polls from the past three elections. What I was trying to figure out was what had changed: Why did we comfortably elect a Black man in 2008, give him a narrower but still decent win in 2012, and then end up with a boorish real-estate magnate and reality-show host instead of a competent, experienced public servant?
Of course, no single factor was involved, and we absolutely can’t discount the effect of disproportionate electoral-vote distribution, but after digging through demographic data, I came to a pretty simple conclusion: Dudes. Men elected Trump. They didn’t do it alone, but yeah. National-level support for the Democrat dropped among every group except white women, but it dropped most sharply among men across all demographic categories: race, party ID, age, etc. So it wasn’t voter suppression or Hillary being generally less popular than Obama or even propaganda, to be honest. Had any of those things been the linchpin, the effects would have been more broad. She lost maybe 1-2 points of support to those things, while she lost massive numbers with men.
Now, I’m absolutely not going to indict men of color here because at about a third of a percent of the total electorate–and less than that in the key Upper-Midwest swing states–the ones who switched from the Democrat to the Republican or a third party didn’t exactly lose us the election on their own. Were they influenced by sexism? Probably. Did it matter, in the bigger picture? Not really. As always, people of color overwhelmingly voted Democrat, even if they did so with a few points less support than they did Obama. Moreover, the drops in Democrat support for men of color, while higher than those of their woman counterparts, were on average smaller than the drops for white men. In particular, the drop in white-male support for the D candidate in Michigan was a whopping twelve points, and seven points each in PA and WI. Yikes. So even though the data on men of color is useful for number crunching–isolating variables, in this case–they aren’t the problem. Not even close.
One other little bit of data reinforcing the sexism issue: Going back to the hypothetical-matchup polls from 2008, in virtually every scenario–Giuliani, Huckabee, Romney, McCain–Hillary did a few points worse than Obama did. There’s no doubt he’s charismatic and had a lot more “wow” factor than her, for the entirety of the past decade, but it’s also clear that sexism is involved, and it probably was the biggest factor in what changed from 2012 to 2016.
All that said, sexism alone doesn’t quite explain how we ended up with someone as horrific as the Mango Mussolini. Pretty much any of the GOP field would have had advantages over a woman in that department. Why did Republican pick THIS nightmare of a candidate over the others?
That’s where we bring racism back into the picture. And a bunch of other isms, too.
It goes back way before this, but for the purposes of talking about this particular country, let’s remember the kind of culture that was involved in Europeans invading and occupying the Americas. Patriarchal Christianity had been long established by then, and the violent suppression of anyone who wasn’t a Christian man was ubiquitous. Christians looked at the Roman Empire and thought that was a terrific model for taking over the world, and set about doing exactly that. Moreover, Christian explorers (men, mostly white, of course) also had the belief that their particular version of civilization was the most advanced, so when they encountered any people who weren’t living at the same level of development and technology, they assumed that those people were simply lacking in intelligence–little more than fauna in these “exotic” lands. Since the other native animals of these places were considered fair game for harvesting or otherwise making use of, they did the same thing with the humans they encountered. As had been the case well before Europeans settled in the West, the view that violent domination of the occupants of a given chunk of land entitled the “winners” to that land, the same thing was true here. As far as Columbus and every man who followed, they won this land fair and square over the “lesser” creatures who lived there first, because in their culture, violence was (and is) an acceptable means of establishing ownership of something. This is all somewhat biological, of course. It’s not like non-human primates don’t kill each other over territory, too. But it’s certainly a little ridiculous that we still adhere to that mentality today when we’re not just fighting over the tree with the most bananas on it. If we have enough intellectual development to instinctively know that we’re supposed to push a pedal to stop a couple of tons of engineered metal when we see a red light, we can resist any biological urges to kill someone for something we want.
Some people, however, are still married to this belief: That he (of course it’s a he) who has the bigger weapon wins. The people who benefited from the application of this philosophy have remained in power long enough that they have a vested interest in maintaining that kind of social structure. Unfortunately, maintaining that level of ownership and control requires the cooperation of other kinds of people. It requires hordes of underpaid or enslaved workers to do the labor that creates profit. It requires hordes of unpaid domestic laborers to provide the ownership class with the cooking, cleaning and child-care services that would otherwise occupy too much of their time for them to be able to run things.
When those other–lesser–people start growing in number and autonomy well beyond your ability to keep them in line, well, then you have a problem. Every attempt these laborers make to establish their own rights to determine their own futures and have a proportionate share of any profit their labor helps produce gets met with violent resistance from the ruling class. Indigenous people won’t leave the land you want to claim? Slaughter them. Enslaved workers fight for their freedom and even start winning support from some of the people who do have power? Best fight a massive war to try to keep them in chains. Women decide they want the right to vote, to have their own jobs, their own money, their own property? Use every means necessary to stop them. Underpaid, mostly immigrant, workers want to have shorter workdays, safer working conditions and the right of their children to get an education instead of dying alongside their parents in a filthy factory? Fight unions and labor laws with every bit of power you have.
And so on . . . people with disabilities, queer folk, etc. Every time a given oppressed group starts chipping away at the exclusive hold on power by the ownership class, they get met with suffering and death, because that ownership class sincerely believes that they have the right to their disproportionate power, either because they have the might to strike down rebellions, or because they believe they’re Divinely ordained to exclusively have that power. In their minds, they are god-kings, deserving of every advantage they have.
Progress marches on, and rights continue to expand, much to the horror of the rulers. After each major victory, they get angry and vow to fight back, and because they still have a crapload of power, they often do. They don’t often win back all of what they lost, but they at least gain control for a little while until the people rise again.
Every so often, however, so much progress is made in so little time that the god-kings get sent into a full-on panic, and think they’re about to lose everything. That’s what’s happened in the past eight years. A Black man had the audacity to win the presidency, and subsequently manage to make a lot of progress, even despite massive opposition, and then he was about to be followed by, of all things, a woman, and not one who believed in ultimately deferring to white men. That could not be allowed to happen. The god-kings entered crisis mode, and started looking around for the biggest god-king they could find to stomp on all this nonsense and put things back the way they were “supposed” to be. Conveniently, one appeared.
Now, it should be noted that this god-king mentality isn’t just held by the actual ruling class, nor even only by men. In their ideal version of the world, one nurtured by a belief in an omnipotent, patriarchal deity, the best leader is strong, powerful, and willing to violently strike down anyone who would threaten the supposed Divine order of things. Poor and working-class white men believe in this structure because they believe that if they work hard and pray, they’ll eventually have as much power as the rich men they idolize. A good half of white women believe–have been conditioned to believe–that they won’t survive without a powerful white man to protect and provide for them and their children, so they also vote to uphold that structure. To them, Trump isn’t awful for all of his boorish, bullying and downright abusive nature. That’s part of the appeal. The biggest, meanest dog in the room is promising he’ll protect and elevate them to the place they believe they’re entitled to, so they’re happy to set him loose on everyone else. They WANT that wall, because they believe immigrants want to take things that rightfully belong to them. They WANT Muslims to be rounded up because they believe Christianity must be dominant or Jesus won’t come back. They WANT Black men to be shot in the street for the crime of existing outside of chains because they’re “thugs” and the thug-in-chief told white people that they weren’t supposed to have exclusive control of everything, and they’re pissed off about that. These women even believe that reproductive health care should be tightly controlled because women who don’t play their part in the proper structure of society threaten the entire system on which they rely–the one that keeps their husbands employed and therefore able to provide for them. Stockholm syndrome is a lot easier to induce when you can blame outside forces for suffering.
Along the same lines, among the white working class, this mentality has been exacerbated by massive economic disparity. Though the roots of the problem lie in Reaganomics and the religion of supply-side supremacy (which never can account for where consumers are supposed to come from), it’s pretty easy for busy, poorly educated people to get swayed by their chosen forms of propaganda into believing that they’re struggling because people of color and immigrants are both taking their jobs and lazily living off of their taxpayer dollars (nevermind how they’re supposed to be able to do both things at once.) The actual ownership class can keep the white working class from rebelling by feeding their belief that they alone are entitled to those crappy, shit-wage jobs. Promise ’em that someday, they, too can be a big, mean dog with a solid-gold toilet and the freedom to eventually stop working themselves to death and they’ll buy your red hats and declare you the new messiah. After all, their God tells them that there is no reward in the afterlife without hard work and suffering in this one, so if being obedient to the proper order of things means they lose health care and have to work two dangerous jobs, so be it. Even if they don’t win the lottery by feeding the big dog whatever body parts they can spare, at least they’ll be able to relax in Heaven when they die of black lung or an ectopic pregnancy.
The bottom line to all this: Trump isn’t an aberration. He’s exactly what the right was looking for because he embodies the exact kind of violent, patriarchal authoritarianism that white Christians have been invested in for centuries. They’re angry as hell about having to share any of their power with the people they consider lesser creatures. Those people were conquered, dammit! Why didn’t they stay conquered? If their Fearless Leader strip-mines Yosemite and turns Crater Lake into a Trump-branded casino resort, then so be it. That’s how things should be: strong white men making use of everything on the planet because God gave it to them, and therefore it’s theirs alone to do with as they will. If he fails to give them each an AR-15, a new pick-up, and a pony, they may decide he’s yet another liar and failure and abandon him, but for now, his cheerleading squad is intact because he’s doing what he said he would do: Putting the country, down to its bedrock, in the hands of the men who are “supposed” to have control over it.
For those who have read this far–yay, you!–a note about what we can do now that we’re up to our ears in this shit. For one, we’re not going to win by trying to play nicely and convince these people to see things our way. We cannot appeal to their sense of compassion or fair play because they have none. They sincerely believe in white male supremacy, even if they’re not actively invested in formal orgs for that, and trying to get them to see other people as fully human and fully deserving of rights will always run up against a giant wall of religion and centuries of cultural conditioning. They are, however, a minority in terms of numbers, and that’s the one advantage we have. Tomorrow, I’ll do another post that goes into how we use that advantage, and concrete suggestions of what to do.