MOBILE, Ala – The temptation was too great for New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz. Photos of Donald Trump’s August 21 campaign rally at the football stadium here showed a throng so white it might have been a convention of albinos. Perhaps a spy agency’s scanning technology could pick out a few pigmented people, but to an amateur’s eye most pictures showed zero. Chance and coincidence cannot explain that in this majority (by a small percent) black city. Borowitz knew the reason:
A rally featuring a racist speaker Friday night in Mobile attracted a crowd of just twenty thousand people, widely considered a disappointing turnout for a racist event in Alabama.
The satire presumes it’s still 1965 and George Wallace is governor. He did indeed hold racist rallies that throbbed and snarled with anger and hate. No blacks would attend nor even dare to be seen in the vicinity. Trump did not rouse the same spirit of aggressive menace. The scattered blacks present (including a local NAACP activist) were curious observers, not targets.
Trump’s audience was no whiter, only bigger, than any other Republican presidential candidates would draw. If convening for campaign photos with all the local Republican officials, state legislators and members of congress, that group too would be entirely white—which does not make them racist.
Yes, a few folks have never recovered and don’t want to. They will wrap themselves in the confederate flag as a funeral shroud and carry it onward into eternity. But the rest are no more racist than everybody else formed by a society stratified with racial divisions and distinctions since its founding and across its expanse—north, south and throughout.
Trump also embodies another divide. Governor Wallace could have stepped off a truck bed or hay bale platform into the crowd he was igniting with his words and blended right in. Nothing about his style or speech set him apart. Trump entering the Mobile stadium resembled nobody jamming both sides of the runway to adore him. Only his Make America Great Again baseball cap, donned as a disguise for the campaign, had a down homey feel. The rest was The Donald—erect overbearing bearing, billionaire stride, stylish blue blazer, white yachty pants and shoes, New Yawk accent. Drop him into the crowd and he would seem a lost alien species.
Jesus Baptizes The Donald
Yet he was received with hosannas worthy of a savior. Thank You, Lord Jesus, for President Trump read a homemade sign thrust aloft by a woman evidently in the throes of religious ecstasy—or whatever.
That blend of faith and politics echoes a hybrid Trinity often enshrined by black Baptists during the civil rights struggle. Homes barely more than shacks with no art, except maybe a couple magazine pictures taped or pinned to the walls, would feature framed portraits of Jesus, Martin Luther King, and martyred president John Kennedy.
Kennedy’s place in that trio did not come from anything he had done to bless or advance the cause. He had been cautious and hesitant and gave very little help. But he was the fairy tale good prince of Camelot—rich by inheritance, regal, powerful, stylish, married to a fabled beauty, at ease among the elites, but sympathetic to the lesser levels and willing to display concern for them.
That’s Trump too though his wealth is gaudier, his wives swankier, his manners rougher, his ego needier with gilded buildings and personal aircraft advertising his name. And he goes among the peasants promising to serve them. And he skewers his opponents as political hookers begging for money from his one-percenter peers, while his riches keep him aloof from such prostitution. In comparison he appears pure. A savior.
So his garbled policies have not mattered. He has supported socialized medical care like Canada’s but now he doesn’t, gun control but now he doesn’t, abortion but now he doesn’t, negotiations rather than war in Iraq but now he wants to return there and battle the Islamic State. With such lists his rivals and pundits try nailing him to the cross of contradiction, and he just ascends in the polls.
He’s not burdened with principles and consistency. He’s an obsessive money hunter boastfully proud of his skill at doing deals turning his inherited fortune into even greater fortune. He’s a self-important self-promoter. There’s a term for those traits applied to politics: opportunist.
This means nobody—including Trump—knows if he’s truly a racist. He’s surely willing to play one on TV, because he discovered that certain phrases and poses will draw roars of approval from certain crowds, like the ones at the Fox News debate for candidates and at the Mobile stadium.
Anchor Babies and Left Behinders
These congregations are laden with the Left Behind. They were nourished from birth with the belief that this country is theirs, and now they are learning that it isn’t. The lords of commerce and finance and government and media have been Raptured away, taking with them into loftier realms the money and power to steer the whole system.
That’s not how it was supposed to be. Maps of birthright citizenship locate it mostly in North and South America—the New World. Not for natives exterminated or corralled into reservations, nor for enslaved Africans, but for European immigrants the western hemisphere was a place free from ancestral ghosts. Here the rights you had did not depend on who your parents were or on your family’s history and status. Your rights depended on who you were, a citizen with the same capacity to run your own life and to share in running the communal life as every other citizen.
The popularity of Trump’s attack on birthright citizenship and anchor babies shows this civic faith is faltering. The constitution says anyone born here is a citizen. Denying this privilege to an American-born child because a parent entered illegally says the ways of the Old World now apply inside the U.S.—your rights derive from who your parents are, not from who you are.
This idea has saturated every variety of society that wished to transmit inequality through the generations. In the pre-Civil War U.S. children of slave parents were slaves at birth. Immediately after that war the constitution was amended to specify they are full citizens. Now Trump leads a movement to erase this automatic right. He aims his ire mainly at people with a Mexican taint, but he could aim other directions too if that attracted a rabid response.
America has also tried, fitfully, to temper the legacy of economic inequality. In the 1950s under Republican president Eisenhower the tax rate at the top income levels was 92%. This wasn’t done just to balance the budget. It was also social engineering via the tax laws. The intent was to whittle down excessive wealth and spread it around through government programs. High inheritance tax rates did the same thing.
Now top tier income taxes are sharply reduced and inheritance taxes are zero on most estates. Pair these tax policies with astounding pay increases for top executives in business, finance and professions. The result is an economic pyramid with vast bottom layers tapering steeply to a gleaming golden peak.
This breathes life back into ancient words like oligarchy and plutocracy. America was supposed to have left those concepts behind, in the Old World or in history. But now they are creeping back into public discourse because they accurately label what is happening here—fading democracy and rising rule by a few who possess wealth or are captives of it.
Voting Against Themselves?
In these circumstances what is the sane and rational course for the Left Behind who imagined this country was theirs and now are realizing it isn’t?
Voting against their own interests is not the wisest course but that’s what they often do, according to baffled or scornful pundits and professors. These observers say the white lower classes ought to unite with the deprived black, brown and otherwise marginalized for their mutual uplift.
But the Left Behinders rarely do that. Instead they align with demagogues like Trump who cultivate their grievances. Or they turn with racially tinged rancor against the other aggrieved who might have been their allies. Or both.
The baffled, scornful observers routinely attribute this to ignorance, stubbornness or rank racism. They don’t consider that this course actually reveals sense and reason. Or as the old saying and song puts it: Making the best of a bad situation.
When living in that layered pyramid, somebody is going to be on the bottom row. What if escaping or altering the pyramid is not an available choice? And what if you are not quite on the bottom row? And what if the only visible choice is staying there or trading places with the bottom dwellers?
In this circumstance you are not voting against your own interests if you decline to switch positions. Refusing that demotion is sensible. It makes the best of a bad situation.
Donald Trump is certainly not going to demolish the pyramid that installs him at the summit. Nor are any of the other plausible candidates for president. Not even Bernie Sanders. He calls his campaign a political revolution, which is to say it’s not any other type of revolution.
But only some other type could drastically alter the structure of the pyramid. Absent that, the Left Behinders who flocked to Mobile’s stadium in homage to The Donald are not being stupidly tribal. They are recognizing Trump as the one candidate saying most plainly and most stridently that they don’t have to trade places with those on the bottom.
Instead of a descent Trump peddles visions of resurrection. But events mock his promise to Make America Great Again.
World War II wrecked every major nation except the U.S. This fostered a delusion of dominion that got scholars drunk on American exceptionalism and masses at public events hypnotically chanting We’re Number One! We’re Number One! But the 5% of humanity living here was never destined to police the other 95% for long, nor to have the world’s wealth funneling into the U.S. And even within the homeland (another Old Worldism recently popularized here) the offspring of European settlers are trending toward minority status.
Trump is telling them they don’t have to accept these things. They can reclaim global domination, prosperity will return, and their founding right of self-rule will be restored.
None of this will be fulfilled, but the vision of it stokes an angry, armed nostalgia. When reality shreds the myth, the believers’ shock and frustration can veer in vengeful directions. Anxiety about such developments has periodically produced fevered expectations of a revived Nazism and another Hitler, ever since Adolf exited the stage in 1945. Every forecast like this has proven false—so far.
Healthier outcomes are possible but they will wither unless nurtured. A week after The Donald boarded Trump One and flew off to his next performance, gatherings across the gulf coast held 10th anniversary remembrances of hurricane Katrina. One of these was at a community center in a fishing town south of Mobile.
The storm surge there lifted fishing boats from their moorings and deposited them in the woods, then smashed homes and businesses before retreating. For emergency housing the feds brought trailers reeking with formaldehyde that sickened the occupants. Five years later the oil from BP’s exploded offshore well began arriving. This coastal stretch of Alabama has never fully recovered from those blows, and even before then lives and livelihoods there were precarious.
A few politicians attended the event at the community center but it wasn’t a platform for their speeches. And the composition of the crowd didn’t duplicate the one Trump had attracted to the stadium up in the city. This group was a human gumbo.
The local population is a swirl of natives and later arrivals from Europe, Africa, and southeast Asia most recently. Time and heat have stewed them together without totally blending them, and the crowd at the community center reflected this.
Besides food, a band, kids’ games, a film and karaoke, the program included memories of Katrina. A mike passed around for anyone moved to speak.
The stories included sad and tragic passages, but they were not sad and tragic stories. Again and again the speakers thanked friends and neighbors for helping them survive. If we don’t have each other we don’t have nothing at all was a repeated refrain. They thanked churches for opening their doors as refuges for the homeless and as emergency supply depots. They thanked god for sustaining them and nobody blamed god for allowing these calamities to befall them. The god they acknowledged was a benevolent, protective presence.
A Civilized Alternative
The spirit and appearance of this assembly refuted the message of Trump’s rally up in the city stadium, without ever mentioning him and his flock. The working people, as they described themselves, from the forgotten towns, as they termed it, down on the coast modeled civilized ways of living together that would expose The Donald as a noxious inflated fake—if these examples were known and were spread across the society.
That’s exactly what a dogged corps of nearly anonymous local organizers seeks to achieve. Arising spontaneously from bleak defeat and stark necessity imposed by natural or devised disasters, they are spreading across the society and against the odds with a far more hopeful and humane vision than the Trump types offer. That’s the proper response to The Donald, rather than dismissing his smitten contingent as racist retards.
© 2015, David Underhill. All rights reserved.