Human beings are not in the end all that different from a chimpanzee. They are ruthless and violent, tribal and jealous, and obsessed with their places in the pecking order. Would only that we were more like bonobos, the Chris Farley of the primate world. But it’s the human fixation on the community totem poll that is most relevant to our politics today, where millions of Americans feel enraged that they have lost what they took for granted as their rightful supremacy.
Not long ago, we lived in a culture in which the privileges of white men were a deeply entrenched assumption. When I was in first grade in the mid-1990s, my (woman) teacher implored me to try harder to put my chair over my desk because “even a girl could do that.” Band-aids came in “flesh” color because the marketers believed, with accuracy, that most Americans would assume the hue to be Caucasian. And to most people it hardly seemed remarkable that our presidential debates pitted one white man against another, year after year.
White-male privilege remains a potent force in our society. However, the historically disadvantaged have begun to challenge white patriarchy in powerful and vivid ways. Nowhere was the erosion of white male supremacy more evocatively demonstrated than by the accession of Barack Obama to an Executive Mansion built by African slaves. As one can see in his avant-garde presidential portrait, the First Black President both represented and midwifed a novel American culture in which more people had an honored place.
This barrage of equalizing forces has traumatized many conservative white people. As political science has demonstrated, the racialization of response to Obama was so pronounced that even opinions of the Portuguese Water Dog began to correlate with racial resentment. Trauma can be defined as a fundamental strike at the core of a person’s concept of existence. For tens of millions of white Americans, a world in which Barack Obama could be president, hundreds of thousands of people of color could enter the country every year as immigrants, same-sex couples could marry, and women could overtake men in education, was shocking and disruptive to their central assumptions about the world.
The politics of lost entitlement were the animating force that lifted Donald Trump to the White House. In addition, conservative panic has given rise to a generation of hate-fueled Republicans best exemplified by North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson. A culture of privilege is under siege in America, and the adherents of that system crave politicians who will fight to defend it. Given that the other side of America will not willingly recede back into subjugation, this conflagration will not cool for decades to come.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.