Years ago. I worked in an office whose head one day got religion about gender equality. To prove his feminist bona rides, he announced he would henceforth hire only women. I told him he wasn’t doing his bit at all. Having benefited from his male privilege, he was now giving back with someone else’s job.
I didn’t last very long there. But I find myself thinking of that conversation a lot these days, each time I see one of the rallies or marches that have become a sad feature of life in the Trump era. It’s all too easy to get smug and dismissive about angry white males. Just as it was all too easy for my colleague to reverse centuries of oppression in time for happy hour. If the dismissal is coming from someone who availed himself (or herself) of all the white privilege on offer before deciding to make the world a better place, it rings rather hollow. Beware of strangers bearing gifts.
Let’s start with the obvious. By definition, any ‘fine person’ would leave a crowd as soon as it started chanting ‘Jews will not replace us.’ Nothing can excuse the tiki torch-bearers of Charlottesville. But in amidst the predictable long beards and shaved heads one would expect to see at a white-supremacist march, there were a few young men who looked like button-down naifs that wouldn’t have appeared out-of-place at a suburban PTA. Who knows, that could even be where some of them might have opted to spend the evening, had they the chance.
I have a quiet admiration for the online campaign to out the march protesters, and cheered silently when I read of one who lost his job after his pic went viral. But let’s be honest: if we think losing a short-order cook his job at a burger joint is going to end white supremacy, we may well be its dupes: the real legacy of white supremacy persists among the Berkshire billionaires in their monochromatic communities who tut-tut about deplorables while reaping the fruits of centuries of oppression.
The left fell for the gift-bearing strangers who dressed up in progressive clothing to sell their neoliberal potions, in no small measure because their wares suited this technocratic elite. They told us redemption was free, or that it might even make us richer. I recall the speeches Bill Clinton used to give in the 90s, when he said the way to eradicate poverty was to chase profit-opportunities in depressed communities, or Al Gore’s insistence that investment in new technology would both save the planet from global warming and make us wealthy beyond compare. Well, both gentlemen made off pretty good from their shtick. But as we know, relative deprivation continued to worsen in America and as for the environment, the fact remains that the best years for the global climate have been those in which recessions slowed emissions output (but that’s a story for another day).
No, morality requires sacrifice – and we shouldn’t hesitate to make it. The neoliberals had merely found a way to pass the tab onto others. As I’ve written before, the economic policies of the Reagan years, subsequently championed by Clinton and his successors, essentially reallocated economic output in such a way as to preserve the lifestyles of the upper and middle classes at the expense of workers. That’s why I’ll go out on a limb and guess that at least some of the people attending these dark rallies might have yet become fine people had they been given the opportunity their elders received. If the others who went before them aren’t now minded to make the sacrifice needed to make the world a more just place, why should they?
Trump’s White House days are numbered. As Nate Silver has been chronicling, beneath the surface dips and rises, his net disapproval rating has steadily worsened throughout his presidency. Eventually he’ll reach the point that even Republicans consider him expendable. Internally, his administration is barely functional. I had drinks this week with a former student of mine who was in London on business – a highly-placed executive who speaks regularly with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. After Trump’s bizarre defence of neo-nazis, he asked Mnuchin how much longer he could last. Mnuchin, who is Jewish, replied ‘Me and Gary (National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, who is also Jewish) have to stay: we’re the only grownups here.’ Everyone else on the White House team is apparently ‘aghast’ with a President who, to their knowledge, never, ever reads a book.
The odds of the Trump presidency collapsing thus rise by the day. However, all the angry young men to who Donald Trump gave hope, however false, have had a taste of power. They will bitterly resent if their hero is forced from office. The resistance needs to peel the potentially decent folk away from the genuine deplorables with a narrative that offers them something more promising than the ridicule we now deliver. Most importantly, it needs to lead by example, demanding that all of us who benefited from white privilege ‘tithe’ some of their gains so that the angry young men, if still receiving fewer benefits than previous generations, aren’t actually forced to pay everyone else’s tab as well.