Analysis Based on factual reporting, although it incorporates the expertise of the author/producer and may offer interpretations and conclusions.
The storming of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 by a violent mob of thousands, incited by President Donald Trump, signals the end of already tenuous hopes for benign reconciliation of America’s warring divisions.
Liberals have assumed that time, evolving decency, and economic initiatives to address some imagined commonality of suffering between Trump’s White supporters and diverse, Democratic constituencies would diminish White supremacy. Former President Barack Obama tried lifting all the boats, but ended up mostly lifting the White ones. During his presidency, White Americans gained about 4 million jobs and more than $5,000 in real (inflation-adjusted) median family income from 2010 to 2017—much more than Black, Latinx, and Native Americans gained. Economic improvement was especially strong in the upper Midwest, which is 80% White.
Yet, White voters (especially older, rural, Midwestern White people) rejected Obama and flocked to Republicans. Liberals’ assumptions that White supremacy was fading got another rude shock in 2016 when 63 million Americans voted for Trump. That shock multiplied in 2020 when, after four years of Trump’s corrupt, brutal presidency and a spreading pandemic, a tidal wave of rural support rocketed his vote total to 74 million.
Trump’s large, increasingly violent base epitomizes America’s post-election moonscape, where hard positions have only hardened more. “I will not accept Joe Biden as president,” announced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, saying Republicans and Democrats “live in alternative worlds.” Both federal and state government buildings and officials have been besieged by armed Trump supporters shouting his baseless claim that Democrats “stole” the election. One-third of both Republicans and Democrats believe violence against the other side can be at least minimally justified.
Moderate Democrats who once counseled unity shifted to demand Trump’s immediate removal. Progressives are petitioning to have Republican lawmakers who egged on violent mobs expelled from Congress. Top Democrats previously shielded from the violence routinely inflicted on immigrants and Black Lives Matter protesters have now felt the visceral fear of being assaulted by Trump-supporting “insurrectionists,” who smashed windows and doors to break into House and Senate chambers.
Biden takes office on Jan. 20, and bipartisan cooperation on his agenda seems remote. Republican leaders have signaled their intent to stymie Democrats, which would paralyze a nation desperately needing strong solutions. At the opposite pole, the increasingly powerful Congressional Progressive Caucus promises forceful action on climate change, voting rights, and larger economic stimulus payments to Americans hit by coronavirus losses.
Resolving Today’s Divisions Means Facing Stark Contradictions
A major impediment to effective action is misunderstanding America’s disunity. What White “grievance” are Democrats now supposed to address? One might better ask what makes increasingly well-off Whites—especially those like Gingrich (net worth, $9 million)—feel so angry, alienated, and mistreated by America?
The standard liberal/left rationale blames destructive personal behaviors on social disadvantages. Good evidence from Western Europe, Oceania, Canada, and Japan shows that collectively redressing poverty, unemployment, and health and education disparities produces far fewer social problems than in the individualistic, economically striated United States.
Again and again, liberals have misperceived how visceral, widespread, and extreme White anger is, and what its real roots are. Critically needed policies of inclusion and the more egalitarian, multicultural America they foster are themselves driving White rage. The rightward tilt in White voting and attitudes tracks increasing minority visibility in formerly all-White suburban and rural communities.
However misperceived, White distress is real. Upending traditional sociological theory, America’s most privileged class, older White people, now shows a rapidly increasing prevalence of self-destructive behaviors. Meanwhile, the most disadvantaged classes, young people of color, show the most favorable trends. In a jarring shock to traditional thinking, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now show rural, middle-aged Whites in California now are more often murdered and arrested for homicide than supposedly gun-menaced big-city teenagers.
The uniquely serious trends among aging White people (which accompany a constellation of troubles that includes skyrocketing rates of drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, suicide, gun fatalities, criminal arrests, imprisonment, and violence) are belatedly winning attention. For example, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, profiling rising “deaths of despair” among Kristof’s now-middle-aged childhood classmates from Yamhill, Oregon, affirms “how many commonalities there are between a White farm town in Oregon and a Black neighborhood in Baltimore: what they share is deep pain.”
Yet, the causes of those two racial groups’ pain are not just different; they are diametrically opposite. Exurban/rural Yamhill, which twice voted for Trump, enjoys high and rising median income among White families ($83,000 in 2019, up $11,000 in real dollars over the previous decade), and plummeting unemployment (down from 9.3% to 3.9%). Meanwhile, Black families in heavily Democratic Baltimore endure low, stagnant median family incomes of around $39,000 and unemployment rates three times higher.
What, then, is driving the epidemic of self-destructive ills among White people concentrated in rural and small-town America that overlays widespread injury and community and family disruption? The best evidence indicates that White middle-aged suffering—unlike that of Black, other non-White, poorer, and younger groups—is fueled by their internal attitudes and prejudices, not by external oppression.
“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression,” an observation attributed to many sources, comes closer but still doesn’t fully explain the rage among Trump supporters and “deaths of despair” in Trump Country. America’s Whites and people of color, its Yamhills and inner Baltimores, are nowhere near equal in status or resources. Yet, Trump and his supporters seem ready to “burn down” America at the mere perception of future equality, even at the cost of destroying themselves.
Unifiers face a devastating contradiction. Redressing the pain of disadvantaged classes inflames the pain of aging Whites. Surveys find White Tea Party and successive Trump supporters are angered by “racial resentment” and imagined “loss of status” fueled by beliefs that “undeserving” minorities are stealing resources Whites deserve. While younger and poorer groups favor liberal policies that benefit all disadvantaged classes, older Whites subscribe to a zero-sum, “status” hierarchy in which gains by minorities and young people diminish Whites.
As appealing as declarations of imagined commonality, symmetry of grievance, and hoped-for unity are, they sabotage the tough choices we face. Modern social and political scholars need to step up.
Remedies Require New Thinking
The biggest danger of misunderstanding current divisions comes when liberals endorse rightward moves to “win back White voters” to foster “unity.” Democrat Bill Clinton tried being tough on crime and promoting moral values. Obama tried being tough on immigration and conciliatory toward Bush-era corporate and political crimes. Both embraced bipartisanship, to a fault. Yet, Democratic appeasements met with Republican intransigence, the decimation of the Democratic Party, and massive national shifts to the Right. Now, some, such as Times columnist Thomas Friedman, suggest restricting immigration to assuage White anxieties—which is both unfair and unworkable.
Recent, violent attacks by pro-Trump militants appear to have silenced, at least temporarily, liberals who counsel capitulation to unfounded White fear. Resolve to act on Democrats’ election victories is growing. This resolve should recognize that according to Internal Revenue Service data, Democratic counties supply nearly two-thirds of federal tax revenues, subsidizing rural-based Republicans’ regressive economic and social policies in the diverging geography of American politics.
Despite present political chasms, the future holds hope. Progressives have many favorable facts and trends on their side. For example, diversity actually is associated with greater safety. CDC tabulations show that both older and younger Whites are much safer from violent deaths of all kinds in racially diverse big cities and urbanized suburbs than in White-dominated small towns and rural areas. Unfortunately, calming facts do not reassure Trump adherents who disdain information that challenges their narrative of victimization. One-third to 40% of America’s population, overwhelmingly White, simply may be unable to live with diversity.
Our urgent task in this time lies in marshaling our imaginations to manage division so that more integrative future generations can reassemble a global society without suffering a ruined landscape of battling tribes. By every measure, progressive ideas chart the future. For the salvation of America and the planet, it’s time to act on that strength.
Mike Males is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the principal investigator for YouthFacts, and the author of five books on American youth.