Andrew O’Hehir’s Salon article: Appetite for destruction: White America’s death wish is the source of Trump’s hidden support
Is an “October surprise” that could put Donald Trump in the White House already baked into the American electorate? That’s the frightening question one could derive from this week’s column by Thomas B. Edsall, one of the most useful (and least ideologically hypnotized) contributors to the New York Times. We can’t be sure how many people really support Trump, Edsall reports, since there’s considerable evidence that they aren’t telling pollsters the truth. Voting for Trump, it appears, is something white people do in the shadows. It’s a forbidden desire that is both liberating and self-destructive, not unlike the married heterosexual who has a same-sex lover on the down-low, or the executive who powers through the day on crystal meth and OxyContin. On some level you know the whole thing can’t end well, but boy does it feel good right now.
I have argued on multiple occasions that white Americans, considered in the aggregate, exhibit signs of an unconscious or semi-conscious death wish. I mean that both in the Freudian sense of a longing for release that is both erotic and self-destructive — the intermingling of Eros and Thanatos — and in a more straightforward sense. Consider the prevalence of guns in American society, the epidemic rates of suicide and obesity (which might be called slow-motion suicide) among low-income whites, the widespread willingness to ignore or deny climate science and the deeply rooted tendency of the white working class to vote against its own interests and empower those who have impoverished it. What other term can encompass all that?
Trump is the living embodiment of that contradictory desire for redemption and destruction. His incoherent speeches wander back and forth between those two poles, from infantile fantasies about forcing Mexico to build an $8 billion wall and rampant anti-Muslim paranoia to unfocused panegyrics about how “great” we will be one day and how much we will “win.” In his abundant vigor and ebullience and cloddish, mean-spirited good humor, Trump may seem like the opposite of the death wish. (He would certainly be insulted by any such suggestion. Wrong! Bad!) But everything he promises is impossible, and his supporters are not quite dumb enough not to see that. He’s a death’s-head jester cackling on the edge of the void, the clownish host of one last celebration of America’s bombast, bigotry and spectacular ignorance. No wonder his voters are reluctant to ‘fess up.
Normal public-opinion polls conducted by telephone, Edsall writes, have consistently shown Hillary Clinton well ahead of Trump in head-to-head trial runs, by a recent average of about nine percentage points. But online surveys compiled by YouGov and Morning Consult tell a different story, showing Clinton ahead by much smaller margins. The most recent YouGov/Economist poll of registered voters, for example, shows Clinton leading Trump by just three points (43 percent to 40 percent), well within the margin of error. Edsall quotes Kyle A. Dropp, who runs polling and data for Morning Consult, estimating that throughout the primary season Trump has gained a consistent advantage of eight or nine points in online polls versus old-fashioned telephone surveys.
In fairness, we don’t know which numbers come closer to the truth. There are valid reasons why many political scientists and statistics wonks believe telephone polling is more accurate in predicting actual voting, and Edsall doesn’t discuss those. But as he puts it, “an online survey, whatever other flaws it might have, resembles an anonymous voting booth far more than what you tell a pollster does.” Your computer won’t raise its eyebrows in microscopic disdain when you click the box for Trump; it won’t tell its friends after work about this person it met today who seemed normal but turned out to be a raging bigot. And the idea that “social desirability bias” — in English, the desire not to seem intolerant or unenlightened in someone else’s eyes — can distort poll results has a long history that may give the Clinton campaign some sleepless nights.
Social desirability bias, in its Trumpian context, is closely related to the “Bradley effect,” a polling problem frequently observed in elections where one candidate is white and the other isn’t. That name goes back to my youth and the California gubernatorial election of 1982, when Tom Bradley, the African-American mayor of Los Angeles, led in the polls throughout the campaign but wound up losing to Republican George Deukmejian. A significant subset of white voters (so the theory holds) told pollsters they were planning to vote for Bradley, but didn’t. Either they lied about their true intentions because they didn’t want to sound like racists in the supposedly liberal context of ‘80s California or they discovered, in the privacy of the voting booth, that they couldn’t pull the lever for a black man.
We don’t have that scenario to contend with this year, obviously, and many social scientists believe the Bradley effect has faded: Barack Obama’s actual support among white voters, during his two election campaigns, was pretty close to his poll numbers. Hillary Clinton’s likely status as the first female major-party nominee will clearly be an X factor in this year’s fall campaign, a positive for some voters and a negative for others. But the Trump-specific version of social desirability bias is different from those things in a subtle but powerful way: Voting for Trump can be understood as embracing something rather than rejecting it, even if that something is viewed as insane or repulsive by polite society. Turning your back on a candidate because he’s black is a negative, private act that’s likely to make you feel bad about yourself; embracing the jingoism and misogyny and small-mindedness of the Trump campaign is joining a movement.
It’s transparently unfair to compare Trump to Adolf Hitler (even though I’ve already done it), and it isn’t likely, in the context of the 21st century, that a Trump administration would actually resemble the Third Reich or provoke World War III. But here’s how they’re similar: Hitler cloaked the death wish in positive terms too. Nazism rolled the most noxious elements of German nationalism and European anti-Semitism into a package that seemed affirmative and optimistic, to a nation struggling with economic difficulty and an internal identity crisis. Trump has tried to do the same with his toxic package of racism, sexism and xenophobia, his thoroughly imaginary version of America built from white people’s despair and paranoia and self-loathing. We have underestimated its allure all along, and we still don’t know how deep it goes. Mainstream pundits and politicians in 1930s Germany made a similar mistake.
2 days ago
I say it goes deep. Amanda Marcotte wrote somewhere how surprised she was at how many male liberals were expressing surprising amounts of hatred towards women, via attacks on Hillary, now that they had Bernie as cover. Anger towards women, is anger towards one's mother -- and Hillary, as Gloria Steinem has argued, brings her to mind -- and necessarily also at oneself: the self-centred, spoiled, neglectful brat one feels was responsible for her neglect. Love is always potentially available, one feels, if at the end the person you feel most deserves to die, is the child, who by self-actualizing in life, surely purposely abandoned the mother. By chasing down death yourself, you might yet acquire her love.
Americans know that Trump will quail independent women, and this will be felt as hemming in the overpowering mother of our childhoods -- our righteous revenge. He will intimidate progressivism everywhere, and this will relax our sense that we are enriching ourselves with too much opportunity. He'll bond us to our Mother Country, show us the way to be patriotic -- to be "good boys and girls --" and target others whom we've projected our own "bad boy" impurities into. If like the Nazis we build roads and enable ourselves with Volkswagens, it'll just further ensure we engage in an impossible suicidal war against the world that can only lead to thorough ruin.
I agree though, it won't get this bad. And the story is more complicated, because however much we may underestimate the number of people unconsciously desiring to stop progress, re-stage our early childhood humiliations, and enact revenge, we also have a large base of people who'll be mostly immune. This article will help them self-prepare for the future.
2 days ago
.......the deeply rooted tendency of the white working class to vote against its own interests and empower those who have impoverished it.
What major political party in the U.S. currently represents the interests of the white working class? The Democratic Party has been run by globalist technocrats since the late 80s at least, and the GOP has been the party of the 1% since Teddy Roosevelt left the White House. It's ridiculous to criticize the white working class for voting against its own interests when it has no other viable option.
I have argued on multiple occasions that white Americans, considered in the aggregate, exhibit signs of an unconscious or semi-conscious …
One indication of this is the almost total passivity of white Americans in the face of trade and immigration policies designed to undercut white Americans economically.
2 days ago
@FreeQuark "One indication of this is the almost total passivity of white Americans in the face of trade and immigration policies designed to undercut white Americans economically. “
I think they sprinkle in a little racism against blacks and it makes EVERYTHING better. Many of these policies they support can be explain by one of their experts, Lee Atwater.
"You start out in 1954 by saying, “Ni**er, ni**er, ni**er.” By 1968 you can’t say “ni**er”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Ni**er, ni**er.”
And for over three decades now they have been destabilizing our country from within. And so it continues.
2 days ago
@FreeQuark I think you can argue that what wasn't passive, is/are white Americans voting in politicians they unconsciously knew were going to wage war against them. The professional class psychologically required some group to suffer while they "indulged," but even if they were the most kind-hearted folk they were going to be forced to be exploiters/abandoners. All to empower today's righteous revenge, enacted not just by those who lost manufacturing jobs but by a lot of progressives... who really can seem like they'd want to kill one of of every three people on Wall Street.
2 days ago
@FreeQuark You're agreeing, then, right? But complaining at the same time.
2 days ago
"Consider the prevalence of guns in American society, the epidemic rates of suicide and obesity (which might be called slow-motion suicide) among low-income whites, the widespread willingness to ignore or deny climate science and the deeply rooted tendency of the white working class to vote against its own interests and empower those who have impoverished it. What other term can encompass all that?”
The thesis that whites' support for Trump is somehow a “death wish” is so crazily backwards that I’m tempted to call it insane.
But then I remember that I’m reading Andrew O’Hehir, and Andrew obviously isn’t insane. It’s just that he has no intuition at all for how working class people actually feel and think—and yet he loves to be recklessly presumptuous about the “true, secret motivations” of people with whom he has nothing in common, and whom he does not understand.
Worse, his presumptuous speculation is an egregious violation of Occam’s Razor: if hypotheses should not be multiplied without necessity, if the simplest explanation is the likeliest explanation, then the motivations of Trump’s supporters are not mysterious at all. Trump’s poll numbers exploded, and they stayed high, when he spoke aggressively about illegal immigration. His numbers went even higher, and they stayed high, when he called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US.
Following Occam’s Razor, shouldn’t we therefore conclude that whites are supporting Trump because they actually like his stance on immigration? Do we really need to concoct a weird theory to explain behavior that is straightforwardly explicable?
Of course it’s true that many whites have long been in a state of despair. Why so? Well, sure, partly for economic reasons. But also emphatically for demographic reasons. And that is what Andrew does not understand about working class people: they hate being forced to become a racial minority in an historically white majority country. Working class people—not only them, but especially them—are racially very tribalistic. That is how they’ve always been, it’s how they are now, and it's how they will be a hundred years from now.
The reason whites have been in such a state of despair is because in 1965, they were about 90% of the population of the US. Today, whites are a fast-shrinking 60-something percent. The immigration act of 1965 was opposed by a majority of the US population when it was passed, and the public was basically lied to about its likely demographic implications. Most Trump supporters are very angry about that.
Moreover, whites are bombarded by incessant anti-white propaganda from the mainstream media, the educational establishment, and of course from web sites like Salon. And whether Andrew knows it or not, when he accuses white Trump supporters of harboring “an unconscious death wish,” he is waging a subtly evil form of psychological warfare against them. His subtext is, “Hey, stupid working class whites. I know you *think* you know why you’re supporting Trump. But I, Andrew O’Heir, know you better than you know yourselves. You are suffering from false consciousness; and I see the hidden truth about you. You are suffering from an unconscious death wish. Your support for Trump is clearly pathological!”
The straightforward truth is that white support for Trump is the opposite of a death wish: it is a desperate “life wish.” That is, many whites are in a state of despair because they feel no organic connection to an increasingly multicultural society that was forced on them against their will. White despair is above all an *ethnocultural* despair; they feel they are losing their homeland.
Trump seems to them to be their only hope of arresting, and possibly reversing, the current demographic trend of white minoritization. Yes, it's a dangerous vote. But what alternative do they have?
A similar despair would afflict *any* historical majority population anywhere in the world, were it confronted with becoming a minority against its will. And, given the opportunity, a similar desperate convulsion, and final attempt to do something, would likely happen in other countries, too.
Do you think the Japanese would handle it well, were they set to become a minority in Japan? How about the Mexicans in Mexico? How about the Somalis in Somalia? Or the Chinese in China?
As it would be with any other historical majority population anywhere in the world, so it is with whites.
It's really that simple. No extra theorizing required.
2 days ago
@Jack Burroughs The truth is that white support for Trump is the opposite of a death wish: it is a desperate “life wish.” That is, many whites are in a state of despair because they feel no organic connection to an increasingly multicultural society that was forced on them against their will. White despair is above all an *ethnocultural* despair; they feel they are losing their homeland. A similar despair would afflict *any* historical majority population anywhere in the world, were it confronted with becoming a minority against its will.
I see them as re-experiencing early childhood traumas, where they knew too much of powerless and fear (Germans, who were swaddled as infants and starved by their caregivers, were obsessed with a need for an expanded motherland -- the world had become populated with their own projections). So, I agree, there is a sort of "life wish" to this. Well-raised people, people mostly absent these sort of terrifying childhood traumas, won't react this way to external realities. Just becoming part of a global community is to microscope one own's previous nationalistic/tribal identities, and most progressives have found this a breeze (I suppose you could argue it was because they willed it; but as I've argued elsewhere on this thread, ostensible imminent self-destruction can be self-willed as well, and be the opposite of threatening if it welcomes you back to traumas you feel the need to re-stage and revenge against). Because for them it doesn't recall any sense of once being engulfed or extinguished.
So, yes, in a sense -- "life wish"; but ultimately since these endorphin-filled, revenge-driven "saved lives" will operate more as pawns and target our most progressive, our most-actualized, our most truly-living members, it'll be about saving the lives of destroyers.
2 days ago
Undoubtedly O'Hehir is describing a few Trump supporters. However, considering Sanders' big win in West Virginia, he might also be describing Sanders' supporters. You take good jobs away from people and then insult them by saying they are privileged, bigoted thugs who cling to their God and guns. And, oh, by the way, they are demographically going the way of the dodo which is a very good thing.
Then you expect those voters to smile, bow towards Washington five times a day and send their children out to marry someone who hates their culture and denigrates their religion to hasten the liberally desired Caucasian demographic collapse? (Which is the way those hicks in flyover country see it.) I don't think so.
In one calendar year we have seen the new order of the liberal world: merchants and county officials forced to participate in gay wedding ceremonies, nuns forced to provide their employees with contraception and women forced to allow men in their public bathrooms. It is easy to understand how those with a traditional bent think Washington has gone stark, raving mad even if they still have good jobs.
Working class white voters don't have a death wish; they have a life wish. They want theirs back. What you are seeing today is massive backlash in the form of a Donald Trump. If it hadn't been him, it would have been someone just like him. Any amateur historian could have seen this coming. I just expected it to take a little longer.
2 days ago
@LynnRobb Thank you! I said pretty much the same thing. I usually like O'Hehir's articles, but he missed the mark here, taking the side of the plutocracy that has created the current situation over the past 40 years.
2 days ago
@LynnRobb One theory as to why it didn't occur earlier is because the populace has been going through a process of re-staging a humiliating existence that they once knew in their childhoods. Bowing to arrogant overlords; forced to do things they themselves found unpleasant; yet also humiliatingly disregarded: these are the complaints of still many Americans out of their unpleasant childhoods. In society they've seen it once again, writ large.
It could have been their intention to see it this way because if the "new order of the liberal world" had simply empowered them, brought them into global glory like it has the professional class, in their minds they would have experienced their immature caregivers -- their parents -- rejecting them again and again for abandoning them (the old faith) for frivolous frolicking. One figures this would have lead to psychic discombobulation: shunting themselves back into the role of victimized child -- look ma! there's clearly no spoiling going on here! -- probably allowed some sanity.
This isn't to say the professional class hasn't required some other to bear punishment arising from their own guilt, while they themselves knew true personal growth. As Thomas Frank has argued, they got a kick out of a world that informed them that they themselves were the only ones who really mattered, and the rest were some kind of puerile disregard. But if they weren't this way... if they insisted on such things as a living wage, guaranteed annual income, and paid healthcare for all... if they resisted poking fun at those in flyover country and instead saw them as worthy people, however much stunted by coarser, crueller childhoods, this wouldn't mean a jolt as to our current situation.
To serve fantasy purposes, even if the professional class were in fact as benevolent as they could possibly be, given how really few of us are comfortable not finding someone out there who is really, truly the bad one, ostensibly worthy of being neglected, when we ourselves are knowing unprecedented ongoing professional and personal growth -- knowing ongoing happiness -- they would have retrofitted in the imagination as gloating humiliators, attempting quite literally to starve the breath out of them.
All the humiliations the nazis handed out to the Jews -- those who thrived in Weimar's age of change, owing to being more warmly raised by more emotionally evolved parents -- were replays of humiliations their own parents inflicted upon them. Be suspicious of anyone, including Frank, and including Andrew Sullivan, and including Brooks, and Hedges, who is suddenly focusing so much on how humiliated the white working class has been, presenting the professional class as composed of those who sport most joyously when they sport around other people's pain.
The extent to which they actually are like this might just be helpful, but not at all necessary, for the anticipated revenge upon them, already baked into people's psyches. These people indulged, and wished for a world that would limit the permissible discrimination upon groups society has previously seen as guilty simply for being vulnerable -- women, children, minorities -- an instinct for uncowed accusation against the bullying parent: for this they must be punished.
2 days ago
Underneath all the chest-thumping, flag-waving, and boosterism that is Trump's proto-fascism lies nihilism. At the deepest level, desperate white working men voting against themselves has no little in common with Wotan's urge to "end it all" (Wagner, The Ring of the Nibelungs") which ultimately does happen: at the climax of "The Twilight of the Gods" Valhalla comes crashing down carrying the gods to destruction as the flooding Rhine cleanses the earth for, presumably, clean restart. The vision was realized at the end of 1945 when the last remnants of the Third Reich went up in smoke and flame with the Soviets overrunning Berlin.
Is this as stretch too far? I certainly hope so, but there is enough expressed desire to "shake things up" no matter what shakes out to make me fear otherwise. A major component of that fear is the obvious imperviousness to logic or facts by the Trump acolytes demonstrated every day in comment columns at places like WaPo or AOLnews. (The latter is really a shocker, resembling Stormfront at times.) Even from the Left, there is often a desire to see Trump win (rather than Hillary) just for the pleasure of making the "establishment" or the "elites" miserable. That everyone will be made miserable should that happen does not seem to matter --- or may be a secret desire. There seems to be some fantasy abroad about what happens when an older social order breaks down, that somehow virtue and honor and decency (even "justice", whatever that might mean at a given time) arise from the chaos that ensues when means of commerce, income, even the distribution of food become uncertain.
All this might just be me recovering from a nasty bout of flu (unable to eat, lost 10 pounds in 6 days, still very weak). But I have more time than usual for sampling the intertubes, and the results are not uplifting.