February 2021Theory

Insurrection at the Capitol: The Counterattack of White Privilege

What was on the minds of the horde that stormed the Capitol on January 6?

Clearly many if not most (and possibly all) felt they had been directed to attack the house of Congress by their master and commander, Donald Trump, who at his inflammatory rally preceding the invasion exhorted the crowd to march to the Capitol in the tones of a general sending an army off to war. This Confederate-flag waving, MAGA-hat wearing mob represented a slice of Trump’s most devoted base — a nearly all-White, mostly working-class crowd that had come to hang on every word of the maximum leader.

But more important than what the crowd heard Trump say at the Ellipse that day was the history that brought them to that point.

In hindsight, the attack on the Capitol was the logical consequence of Trump’s four years of stoking hatred against his bogeymen — namely immigrants, minorities and anyone in public office who might defend them or any member of the media who might hold Trump to account for scapegoating them.

The attempt to disrupt the certification of the election was only a handy target of Trump and the mob, not their ultimate grievance. While the attack was indeed an insurrection, it’s difficult to project a logical conclusion to the assault that would have ended in their favor. Temporarily taking over a building is not overthrowing a government. Trump, for his part, had abandoned logic; he was out only to sow chaos and disruption and to punish his enemies in Congress. If he couldn’t run Washington, the next best thing was to break it. 

As for the mob, its real aim was not the election, not Congress, but the restoration of an America of White privilege that they saw slipping from their grasp. 

Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008 was a shock to the system of millions of White Americans who considered themselves of superior status to any Black or other non-White American, no matter their education, occupation or wealth. This American racial hierarchy — very much a caste system, argues Isabel Wilkerson in her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents — had been in effect going back to the early days of America’s English colonies; and despite the Civil War, reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement, it still lived in the minds of many.

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Working-class whites as a group possess a wide variety of opinions and any analysis of what they think necessarily deals in generalities. Within any racial of income grouping there exists a diversity of outlooks. The thousands who attacked the Capitol are a thin slice of the tens of millions of working-class White people in America. 

But a substantial portion of the White working class was outraged enough by Obama’s election to cling to their identity more tightly while embracing causes that appealed to their racial insecurity. During the early Obama years, the Tea Party advertised itself as a small-government, low-tax movement, but its base of support was heavily composed of working-class Whites who joined out of racial resentment. The promise of low taxes had a natural appeal, but it was connected to a fear that their tax money in an Obama administration would go to programs that served mostly minorities. Emerging at the same time was the “birther” conspiracy, whose proponents — a principal one being Trump — falsely asserted that Obama was not born in the United States, but instead a “Kenyan” and “Muslim.” This dangerous racist rhetoric appealed directly to the sympathies of insecure Whites.

Trump played on Whites’ fears of losing status, a fear as compelling for many as that of losing a job or a family health crisis. Correctly indicated by many observers of the White working class — such as Thomas Frank in his influential What’s the Matter with Kansas? — people often act against their own economic self-interest. In Frank’s analysis, White working-class voters responded to Republicans’ embrace of social issues such as defending Christianity and opposing LGBTQ+ rights while they ignored, or even supported, the party’s attack on economic programs that benefited them. While some orthodox Marxists have stressed homo economicus as the essential nature of humanity, real people have frequently failed to live up to that model. 

For the four years of his presidency Trump continued to whip the flames of White working-class racial resentment — in his policies, his Nuremburg-style rallies, his tweets and his interviews on Fox News. He then ratcheted up the rhetoric to a fever pitch when he falsely claimed that a victorious re-election was stolen from him by — well, someone; presumably a vast conspiracy that could even steal votes in a Republican-led state such as Georgia and under the nose of a sitting president. But members of Trump’s base wanted to believe him, and so they did. Thousands of them heeded the call to steal back the election to preserve the status that was slipping away from them.

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Can the White working-class be weaned away from racial and cultural obsessions? Could they be convinced that their true interests lie in economic solidarity with other Americans across racial lines?

In recent years the “deep canvass” has emerged and explores the feelings of working-class Whites. It prods them away from obsessing on race and culture and instead guides them towards seeing their common bonds with other working-class Americans. The deep canvass involves in-depth conversations with voters that steer them toward kitchen-table issues such as jobs and health care as well as how their enemies are not minorities or imagined cultural elites, but the true economic elites who exploit the working class and divide it against itself. Theorists and practitioners such as Ian Haney López, author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class, see great long-term promise in deep canvassing to liberate voters from their obsession with racial status.

However, by any measure this is a steep hill to climb. Race as a form of status has become ingrained into the American psyche over four centuries and will take more than an election cycle or two to expunge. There are a lot of voters out there to canvass; Trump, after all, won 74 million of them.

Kitchen-table appeals have been part of the Democrats’ playbook for a long time, but they have moved few White working-class voters to their side. In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson explains:

Why, some people on the left kept asking, why, oh, why, were these people voting against their own interests? The questioners on the left were unseeing and yet so certain. What they had not considered was that the people voting this way were, in fact, voting their interests. Maintaining the caste system as it had always been was in their interest. And some were willing to accept short-term discomfort, forgo health insurance, risk contamination of the water and air, and even die to protect their long-term interest in the hierarchy as they had known it.

That’s why “Medicare for All” has failed to register more widely. This strikes the ears of many working-class Whites as “Medicare for Black people that we have to pay for.” They’d rather deprive the racial enemy than gain benefits for themselves.

The slow path to winning over the White working class to economic populism takes place against the backdrop of an America that is every day becoming more diverse — less White, less Christian, less homophobic and transphobic, less tied to patriarchy. Whites in the United States are projected to be a minority by 2045. The insurrectionists who directed their rage at the Capitol were in reality fighting changes in the United States that threatened their standing in society. The outburst was a cry of protest against a country that no longer seemed to be theirs. 

Building a progressive majority in the United States necessarily means one that is multi-racial and multi-ethnic, embraces all faiths and as well as the nonreligious, and includes LGBTQs and straights, immigrants and the native born, men and women and non-binary. The world is becoming a smaller place, and the United States with it. There are fewer homogeneous enclaves in which to hide. The best hope for working-class Whites to become part of a progressive future is the younger generations, those having grown up in the post mid-20th century-civil-rights years and more exposed to integrated settings. They are more likely to shed their racial preconceptions than their elders.

The present is more diverse than the past, and the future will be more diverse still. The sooner all people embrace that fact and see it as a strength rather than a threat, the better off we all will be.


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