White supremacy is real and white suppression of minorities, particularly Black people, absolutely permeates every aspect of our society, from business to culture to governance. Without setting aside that reality, it’s useful to examine why so many white people, with their built-in white privilege, would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a wannabe dictator like Trump.
All over social media people are asking, “Why would anybody embrace fascism? Why would they be willing to overthrow a functioning democratic republic?”
The answer is simple: safety.
Safety is at the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. If a person doesn’t feel safe, they’re not able to even think about other dimensions of life. And, increasingly, working class white men in America are feeling unsafe. It’s a new and shocking feeling for a group that’s been in power for over 400 years, and producing a predictable backlash.
In 1981 Ronald Reagan and the GOP began a 40-year project to disempower and gut the American middle class, including white people in that economic basket.
He wanted to take away their safety.
There was an actual rationale for this, laid out by Russell Kirk in his 1951 book The Conservative Mind. Kirk argued that without clearly defined classes and power structures, society would devolve into chaos. He essentially predicted in 1951 that if college students, women, working people, and people of color ever got even close to social and political power at the same level as wealthy white men, all hell would break loose.
(Keep in mind, this was at a time when racial segregation was legal and brutally enforced, the voting age was 21 and campuses were almost entirely all-male, and women couldn’t open checking accounts or get credit cards without a husband or father’s signature.)
Throughout the 1950s, Kirk developed a small following; the most prominent of his proponents were William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater. But when the birth-control pill was legalized in 1961 and the Vietnam War heated up a few years later, those marginalized groups Kirk had warned his wealthy white male followers about began to rise up in protest.
Kids were burning draft cards, women were burning bras, and Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a movement for racial justice that the white power structure blamed for American cities burning. Meanwhile, the Arab Oil Embargo had lit the flame of inflation and unionized workers were striking all over America for wage increases to keep up with the rising cost of living.
The wealthy white male power structure freaked out. They became convinced that they were seeing Kirk’s prophecy play out in real time on their television screens every night.
Nixon demanded “law and order,” a euphemism for preventing students, women, striking union workers, or people of color from acquiring political and social power and the wealth that usually accompanies it. He put into place his War on Drugs to, as John Ehrlichman famously noted, overtly criminalize being Black or an anti-war or pro-civil rights hippy.
This took us straight to 1971, when Lewis Powell wrote his infamous Memo noting that Ralph Nader and Rachel Carson had kicked off consumer and environmental movements that threatened to cost industry lots of money, and that the student, women’s, union, and civil rights movements were disruptive to society and had to be stopped.
The next year Nixon put Powell on the Supreme Court and, particularly with the Buckley and Belotti decisions of 1976 and 1978 respectively, the Court put Powell’s doctrine into practice by legalizing political bribery by billionaires and corporations alike. (The Belotti decision legalizing corporate campaign contributions and black-pool third-party bribery of politicians was written by Powell himself!)
In the election of 1980 the Democrats were awash in union money and so didn’t much take advantage of Powell’s twin SCOTUS decisions, but the GOP leaped at the opportunity. Millions flowed from rich individuals and huge corporate behemoths into Republican coffers, sweeping Reagan into office that year.
Thus, Reagan set out to make sure the dystopia he and other wealthy white men had glimpsed during the “unrest” of the 1965–1979 era was never repeated.
Unions were crushed and formerly unionized jobs were aggressively offshored, individual states started passing so-called “right to work” laws that devastated union membership, and an entire union-busting industry was birthed that today does over $2 billion a year in corporate work.
Voting rights were circumscribed by Karl Rove’s 1980s invention called “caging” where postcards were sent into minority and union neighborhoods and when they weren’t returned the voters were purged from voter registration lists.
Voter ID laws were passed that excluded as much as 20 percent of potential Black and Hispanic voters, as well as college students and elderly Social Security voters, from casting ballots.
Massive antiabortion organizations were funded and mobilized to push back against the women’s rights movement, and white evangelical churches — which had been mostly pro-abortion rights prior to 1980 — cashed in on the movement and further empowered it.
Phyllis Schlafly led a national campaign urging women to stay out of the workplace and be obedient to their husbands, while also working against labor and abortion rights in the media and the courts.
Government programs to provide minorities with “bootstraps” (ranging from civil rights enforcement to affirmative action to basic food and housing subsidies) were gutted. And the cultural demonization of college professors, gays, and public intellectuals went mainstream.
In 1980 about two-thirds of white workers had either a union job or its equivalent (unions set local wage floors, generally, even in non-union shops) and most of what was consumed in America had been manufactured here. Housing, college and healthcare were all affordable.
With just one single wage-earner, about two-thirds of white Americans were living the American Dream, buying a home and car, taking an annual vacation, and building up pensions and savings for retirement. It was so ubiquitous a lifestyle it was a background story line for shows from The Flintstones (1960–1966) to The Simpsons (1989-today). The 1960s show The Jetsons assumed that by the year 2020 a single wage earner just pushing a button a few times a day could support a family including fashion-obsessed teenagers and a charge-card-addicted wife.
Fast forward to the consequence of 30 years of Reaganomics: 2010 was the first year in three generations when fewer than 50 percent of Americans could call themselves middle class. By 2020 almost two-thirds of all Americans would be wiped out by a single $1000 unexpected expense, and between foreign imports and the gig economy most people entering the job market were looking at a poverty-grounded lifestyle.
The white middle class has become the white working poor, and the sense of safety their parents and grandparents enjoyed has evaporated.
As Alan Greenspan, in 1989, told the Wall Street Journal, he believed his main job as Reagan’s Chairman of the Federal Reserve was to maintain a “necessary” minimum level of “worker insecurity.”
Meanwhile, for forty years conservatives from Schlafly to Reagan to Trump told white workers that the enemies who’d “stolen” their good union jobs were women, Blacks or Hispanics.
There is a debate about whether fascists are primarily motivated by economics or just pure racism. The answer is both. But the German didn’t start looking for Jewish “others“ until the Treaty of Versailles wrecked that country with its worst depression in known history. Out of that grew Hitler, as John Kenneth Galbreath correctly predicted. And out of Reaganism gutting the middle class can grow a Trump dictatorship.
This isn’t experienced at the level of the individual, of course, but far more deeply and powerfully as a corrosive poison that hollows out the entire society from within.
At the same time the white middle class was being gutted, the Black middle class that grew particularly fast after the Great Society reforms of the mid-1960s took a hit, too. Conservatives then reached out to African Americans, arguing that their problems were all caused by Mexicans or Asians.
Today they are funding Spanish-language “conservative” radio programming nationwide telling mostly Catholic Hispanics that Democrats are using abortion to produce a Latino genocide.
Kirk’s original vision was to produce a more secure and stable America.
Like so many conservatives before him, from Edmund Burke (who opens Kirk’s book) to today’s columnists for The Wall Street Journal and talking heads on Fox News, he argued that when “those people” were simply held down, suppressed and marginalized — when people knew their place and were kept in it — society would function smoothly. Oligarchy is a good thing, with white rich people (in constant need of trillions in government subsidies and tax cuts) running the show.
It was a fantasy then and its a fantasy now. And it’s brought us the dystopian reality of a ruined economy (except for the rich), racial hatred and now a full-blown fascist anti-democratic anti-republican movement grounded in a bizarre conspiracy cult led by Donald Trump.
White Americans need to learn their damn history.