By John Kaag
and Michael Ventimiglia
Donald Trump is the candidate for the privileged white male because he embodies not merely his hopes or dreams or aspirations, but also, and primarily, his fears.
Trump gets them at this fight-or-flight level. He can talk about his large penis or bank account because that's what they, desperately, want to talk about. They could all be lying (and they probably are) about their specific endowments, but that's not the point. Trump's appeal is less about what he has - or says he has - than about what he is afraid of: that he never quite deserved what he possesses, and now it's being taken away.
Trump is the personification of a set of cultural advantages that he and white males of far lesser means have enjoyed for quite some time. He knows how it works; he knows how to justify it; and he knows how tenuous it is. Tenuous - stretched thin and weary - like milking a century-long legacy of patriarchy and white supremacy until there is next to nothing left. Trump has a pillow-sharing acquaintance with all of this, which is the reason, despite the vastly different universes they inhabit, that he resonates so viscerally with his supporters. He gets them, because he is them. He is a last man for his time, as close to a cartoon figure as a flesh-and-blood human being can come. He is the undeserving white male. He knows it, and this is their swan song.
This explains, at least in part, the visceral reaction that Trump and his supporters have to "political correctness." Politically correct language is, to their ears, the soundtrack of an alien uprising - a rhetorical slight of hand that is engineered to bestow unmerited privileges on undeserving groups. Trump and his supporters hate it. Why? By now it should be obvious: because Trump is the personification of unearned privilege. And what he and many of his supporters sense is that their game, a game they will not admit they have been playing, is coming to an end.
The white male has lost - or is quickly losing - his place in modern society. Two generations ago, white men could make a respectable living and raise a family pounding nails or hauling steel or digging coal. (We know, at least indirectly - both of our grandparents did.) That time is largely gone.
That time is gone, in part, because the guarantee of white male privilege was predicated on the "systematic disadvantaging" - let's just call it "oppression" - of a host of groups that have only recently started getting their say. Our grandfathers were the ones making their hard-earned dollars. But since the 1960s members of these disadvantaged groups - among them a countless number of grandmothers - have carved out important political, economic, and cultural real estate in what are often very nearly zero sum games. And this has left Trump and his supporters in an awkward, though understandable, place - pining for an America of the distant past and working to make it "great again." Great again for them.
Hatred is a very telling emotion. Its pitch is unique and unmistakable, and it always betrays us. We don't hate that which does not threaten us, that which we don't at some level fear. (Of the two of us, one of us hates the Yankees and one of us dislikes the Mets. Nobody hates the Mets.) Hate is the sharp end of fear and insecurity, what we deploy when we have little else to protect us. It's reserved for situations when we perceive that we are in the wrong. Perhaps it's the sort of anger one feels when he loses something that he senses he never fully deserved. The man doth protest too much.
This brings us back to what we see as the crux of the presidential election: unearned privilege, both real and imagined. Who are the targets of Trump's rhetoric? Foreign workers, welfare mothers, Mexican immigrants, the beneficiaries of affirmative action. Why have they piqued Trump's ire? These parasites on the American ethos have supposedly begun, just begun, to enjoy unearned privilege. Trump despises them because he sees in them something that he has always secretly feared about himself. He sees a person on the dole, one whose earning potential and social status has little, nay, nothing to do with their intellectual merits and everything to do with institutional factors that have led people to a better life than they otherwise deserve.
What would you fear about yourself if your father gave you millions of dollars to become a real estate mogul? What would you fear if everyone mocked you and your small hands and said your success was nothing more than a product of your rich father? Just maybe you would come to hate any reflection of the unearned privilege you despise in yourself. And maybe, just maybe, you would come to hate the politically correct language that rhymes with it.
John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. John_Kaag@uml.edu
Michael Ventimiglia is an associate professor of philosophy at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT. VentimigliaM@SacredHeart.edu