In 1967, the Kerner Commission, created by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the riots that engulfed American cities, concluded that “Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
In the past year mass demonstrations against police violence and racial inequity – and the way the Trump-led white grievance movement mobilised – demonstrated that the situation may be worse today. There are signs that the America polity has turned into two warring tribes who speak different languages and perceive reality from wholly different perspective. But how did we reach this point?
I’ve already written about systemic racism and the damage it continues to inflict on Black lives. Less frequently examined is the other side of the divide. Not that anyone can make excuses for armed white nationalists who led the violent insurrection, but it is important to understand the discontent that provides them with a support base.
Whether it was the emergence of Tea Party emerged in 2009, the Trump rallies from 2015 on, or the 2021 insurrection at the Capitol Building, the participants have always been working and middle class white Americans who felt betrayed by the political class and angry that they were left behind. Many came to believe that only Donald Trump understood their grievances and was ready to fight for them. And Trump definitely used racism and fear of immigrants as bait, but the message that resonated was his promise to bring about jobs and prosperity. How was it that this narcissistic, hedonistic, billionaire reality TV star could appear as a saviour?
I can see two reasons: the decline in belief in the American Dream, and the loss of confidence in government institutions and leaders.
Back in 1995, the then president Bill Clinton invited a small group of people including myself for afternoon coffee to discuss the country’s problems. I used the opportunity to explain what had happened in my hometown. My neighbourhood had been made up mostly of immigrant families and their descendants living in two family homes. The men worked in unionised factory jobs, a secure salary allowing them to provide for their children and their elderly parents. But then the mills closed down, moving to the south where labour was non-unionised and cheaper.
Thousands lost work. Many were forced to move. Extended families were severed and even nuclear families fractured under the pressure of unemployment. Within a few decades, my hometown lost nearly half of its population. Neighbourhoods fell into ruin and social problems grew.
The president had just celebrated the implementation of NAFTA, which many labour leaders opposed, fearing it would result in greater job loss. I asked him what he would do about hometowns like mine and his instant response startled me. He said something like, “we’re never going back there again. Those jobs are gone. That’s why we need to invest in retraining, portable health care and opportunities for people to relocate to where there is work.”
While I was impressed with the immediacy of his response, I was shocked at how flippant and unfeeling it was. He had nothing to say about my neighbours – what they had invested in their homes, the hopes they had for their children, dreams that had come to naught.
Much the same happened during the economic crisis of 2008-9. In just a few months, unemployment doubled, pensions lost 30-40 per cent of their value and one in five home-owners were in danger of losing their homes. The White House and Congress responded by bailing out the banks and Wall Street, but average Americans were left waiting for money to trickle down to them eventually. Some received benefits, but not enough to restore the confidence most Americans had felt that government cared about them. In just six months, polling showed a dramatic decline in belief in the American Dream.
In addition to this sense of economic dislocation and abandonment, there was a loss of confidence in government institutions. During the Bush presidency, Americans came to feel that the government couldn’t keep them safe (9/11), couldn’t be counted on to tell them the truth (the Iraq War) and couldn’t even respond effectively to a national emergency (the disastrous response to hurricane Katrina).
Governance dysfunction resulting from the growing polarisation of politics could only make things worse. Democrats and Republicans each courted their supporters, and every issue came to be seen through the lens of this hyper-partisan struggle. For the white working-class, Democrats came to be seen as caring more for “minorities” and women’s issues, leaving the field open to Republicans to prey on the white voters’ sense of abandonment. Despite the Republican agenda consistently favouring the wealthy (with lower taxes), corporations (with deregulation) and religious conservatives (with anti-abortion and anti-LGBT legislation), they nevertheless made significant inroads with working-class voters.
Then came Donald Trump, who while never veering from this Republican agenda, cast himself as the champion of the white working class. Although everything about his history was antithetical to their needs, he spoke to their grievances. He promised that he would bring back their jobs and defend them against the elite class that had turned its back on them. He would make them great again.
Despite having done none of the above, once casting their lot with him, supporters would not admit they had been wrong. His enemies became theirs. Those who were “stealing this election” were stealing their chance to succeed. This was why 75 million voted for him. And this was why they were so profoundly alienated by his loss.
Having witnessed the Republican’s shameful behaviour in the wake of the insurrection, I have no hope they will change direction. Some leaders in that party are still blaming “leftists” for generating the violence. And one senator, who initially condemned Trump, made a pilgrimage to Florida and returned celebrating that “we are the party of the working class, the party of Trump” and cautioning that Republicans can’t win without him.
It is up to Democrats to broaden their outreach and to craft a message and policies that speak to all voters – black, brown and white – and is sensitive to their economic, political and social concerns. This is something Joe Biden is equipped to do. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary to address both the reality of racial inequity and the loss of hope among white working-class voters. Unless American society’s deep polarisation is bridged, divisions will continue to take their toll.
*The writer is the president of the Arab American Institute.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly