The Nation Must Deal with the Anxiety and Resentment from the White Majority

I recently listened to a Fresh Air interview with Evan Osnos, a writer who has been investigating white nationalists’ groups*. Much of the conversation focused on the way Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has resonated with these groups. A lot of Osnos’s observations made a lot of sense to me–I found his insights to provide very plausible explanations for Trump’s strong support.

Explaining Support for Trump

For example, Osnos explains that the anti-immigration issue has become one of the most important issues to these groups primarily because of fears whites have of losing their social and cultural status; or, white nationalists (and whites, more broadly speaking, perhaps) perceiving the removal of the Confederate flag from state capitals as symbolic attack on whites. If I were a white nationalist, I’d feel the same way.

I might also sympathize, at least to a small extent, if I were a moderate or even progressive white American. That is, I might not support anti-immigration policies, and I might strongly support removing the Confederate flag from state capitols–but I might also experience a surprising level of unease and even resentment. Racism and a conservative ideology don’t have to be the source of these feelings. The loss of power, culturally and socially, alone, can cause these feelings. Racism may also be a factor, but I don’t think white resentment and anxiety is simply–and only–a product of racism. Any time an individual or group loses, or potentially will lose, power, there is sure to be fear, resentment and anger. I would expect a tremendous amount of energy and resources used to resist this loss as well. To use an example from business, consider when powerful industries stand to lose big from a new government policy. These entities will wage war against the politicians that support this policy. Social groups respond in a similar fashion when they stand to lose significant power as well.

In the case of the American white majority, even if the power is primarily social and cultural, the loss this can be just as important as a financial one, and when the social status and cultural dominance of any majority group seems threatened, the group will begin to feel fear and anger.

Those feelings will only grow as the group’s status declines, and the whites won’t be the only ones feeling the effects of this, as they will channel these feelings outwardly in a way that will effect the nation as a whole–e.g., with anti-immigration movement. Honestly, I don’t know what the anti-immigration position is specifically, but I get the feeling their position is extreme, not very practical or rational. Maybe I’m wrong about that, though.

In any event, my sense is that there is a movement that takes a more extreme position, motivated by irrational forces (the kind of thing that lead to John Boehner’s retirement). and I feel like the fears and resentment I’ve been talking about are really fueling this movement.

What Can be Done?

If this is correct, my feeling is that the nation has to find a way to help the whites who are feeling these things deal with and channel these feelings in ways that don’t lead to irrational or destructive positions.

Can this be done? And how would the nation going about doing this? I don’t know the answers to this. Off the top of my head, my thoughts turn to two things:

1. The arts–specifically the dramatic arts–like plays, TV and film. Some kind of story to openly deal with these issues-something that could be communally cathartic;

2. Public discourse–from articles from journalists to conversations around the dinner table. My thoughts turn to talking and dialogue as way of dealing with this issue.

In both cases, giving a voice as well as validating the fears and resentment felt by the majority should be part of the goal. And whatever we do, we shouldn’t demonize whites who feel a degree of resentment, fear and even hostility; we shouldn’t automatically view such people as racists.

Currently, the issue and validity of these fears and resentment doesn’t seem to be so prominent (at least, that’s my impression), but I really think we, as a nation, should be discussing this topic and trying to do something about. I think it is already damaging politics and could be a powder keg that could eventually blow up.

(*Osnos explains the subtle distinction between white supremacy and white nationalism. The former see whites as superior to other races, while the latter fear losing their majority status and seek to preserve their “whiteness” and ostensibly their status.)

11 Responses to “The Nation Must Deal with the Anxiety and Resentment from the White Majority”

  1. Reid

    I read an article by Conservative columnist, Matt Continetti. He had a line that made me think of this thread:

    What disturbs me most is the prospect that Donald Trump is what a very large number of Republican voters want: not a wonk, not an orator, not a statesman, not even a leader, really, if by leader you mean someone who persuades and inspires and manages a team to pursue a common good. They just want a man who vents their anger at targets above and below their status.

    How cathartic it is to give voice to your fury, to wallow in self-righteousness, in helplessness, in self-serving self-pity. It’s what one expects of teenagers, artists, bloggers, pajama boys—immature, peevish, radical, self-destructive behavior. If that is how Republican voters would like to end their days, in a defensive posture of suspicion and loathing of this big crazy wonderful country that has made them literally the wealthiest and most entitled generation of human beings in the history of the world,…

    (emphasis added)

    This falls in line with my sense that Trump is a destructive outlet for feelings of anxiety, fear and resentment from enough whites to make Trump a presidential candidate. It underscores the need for an alternate means for dealing with these feelings–feelings, which I think have some legitimacy (which Continetti doesn’t seem very sympathetic to).

    Continetti expresses contempt for people voting for Trump–and I can understand his frustration and disgust. On the other hand, I sympathize, to some degree, with the sense of being threatened and anxious from the imminent loss of majority status. (Also, I suspect many in this group don’t really feel wealthy.) Pouring contempt on these voters isn’t going to help. Instead, I feel like we need a more constructive outlet for these feelings.

    Just another idea off the top of my head: have some white professional athletes (Nascar drivers, baseball players, etc.) or country music stars talk about these issues–sharing about the way they may feel a degree of resentment and hostility. If they could do this in a way that affirms these feelings, while also diffusing these feelings instead of whipping them up, I think that might not only help white Americans who feel these things, but also help the country overall, but preempting unhealthy and destructive phenomena like Trump’s presidential candidacy.

  2. Reid

    How the Left Has Made Matters Worse

    In a interview with conservative writer, Andrew Sullivan, Sullivan made a point about the way the Left contributed to the rise of Donald Trump that I agree with and relates to this thread.

    Here’s what he said:

    The social justice left, which is essentially a Marxist construct, has not just advanced an idea of the way the world is but has decided to instantly stigmatize and demonize anyone who dissents from it as a bigot and a racist or a homophobe and all the other litany of bullshit they throw around.

    And there’s only so long that struggling, poor white people can bear being told by what they think is an entire political party, an entire elite, that they are privileged before they lash back.

    Not only is their resentment toward the elites, but there’s a complete failure to recognize the legitimacy of resentment and anger from losing (or the sense of losing) the social, cultural, political and economic status that whites have held for so long. Automatically stigmatizing and demonizing whites who feel this way–while not acknowledging a difference between racism and a normal, human reaction–is not helpful, and I think it has contributed to the rise and power of Donald Trump. Even until today, there really hasn’t been any prominent public figure that has acknowledged this, and I just think that would have been the first step to dealing with these resentments and fears in a way that hasn’t been so destructive for the entire nation.

  3. Reid

    In the wake of Trump’s electoral victory, my thoughts turn back to this topic. If I had to point to one explanation for Trump’s victory, I would point to this topic: namely, white anxiety and resentment to their decline in majority status and the failure of everyone else to help them deal with this. Now, expecting minorities to help whites in this situation isn’t very reasonable, but that still means that failing to help has contributed greatly to Trump’s victory, in my opinion.

    Additionally, those on the left who mock Trump’s supporters–for their ignorance, religious beliefs, lifestyle, etc.–have greatly exacerbated the problem. For example, suppose that some prominent white Democrat/liberal, instead of mocking working class whites, actually pushed back against those who ridiculed them–and did this on TV–sort of like what Ben Affleck did for Muslims/Islam on Bill Maher’s show. This is the kind of thing that could have gone a long, long way to diffuse the resentment and lessened the support for Trump, especially if it happened frequently. Trump was the one of the only prominent public figures who spoke for these white Americans, and they turned him as their champion as a result.

  4. don

    The areas in which Trump won were rural America. Yes rural America is predominately white and middle class. My guess is history would say the Democratic candidate would normally win rural America (just a guess). Watching the election coverage one person pointed out that in the last 50 or so years, America’s government has really aided in the lifting of the poor and the minorities (or at least that is the perception). And while the rich doesn’t need much help from the government, they too have continued to thrive. The person on the coverage is saying that the white middle class is feeling neglected and thus voted for change. I’m in total agreement with the theory. The head-scratching part is why rural white America would think Trump, of all candidates, would do anything for them.

  5. Reid

    The person on the coverage is saying that the white middle class is feeling neglected and thus voted for change. I’m in total agreement with the theory.

    It depends what you mean by “change.” If you mean, improving economic conditions, I don’t really agree with that. I saw one stat that showed high Trump support in areas with low unemployment (although unemployment is only one measure of this). On the other hand, if by “change,” you mean changing the dysfunction in Washington–I’m more sympathetic to this view. In an CNN exit poll, I think 85% of the voters believed Trump is the better change agent. (I suspect he’ll change things, but not really what voters were thinking.)

    The head-scratching part is why rural white America would think Trump, of all candidates, would do anything for them.

    Basically, everything I said in this thread, which I guess I failed to express well. It’s not about policies–it’s emotional, therapeutic even.

  6. Reid

    The Great Difficulty Mainland, Liberal Americans Have with This Issue

    After Trump, a Call for Political Correctness from the Right is an Atlantic article by Peter Beinart, responding to an open letter to Democrats from Erick Erickson, a Conservative who opposed Trump. The line that set Beinart off was this:

    Instead of condemning them and labeling them all bigots and racists and deplorables. I hope you will try to relate to them, connect to them, and recognize their legitimate concerns.” Since Trump’s victory, other commentators have said similar things.

    Beinart provides evidence that many of Trump’s supporters hold racist, bigoted, and sexist views, and claims that Erickson is “denying” this. Beinart ends with this:

    Should Americans who loathe Trump talk to his supporters about their concerns and, where possible, find areas of common purpose? Sure. But I thought conservatives like Erickson favored blunt truths over dishonest kumbaya. The blunt truth is that most Trump supporters hold bigoted views. It’s what most clearly distinguishes them from other Americans. To bury that truth in the name of civility and sensitivity would be, to borrow a phrase from people like Erick Erickson, “politically correct.”

    I had some problems with Erickson’s letter, but I don’t think he intended to deny that many of Trump’s supporters held racist and bigoted views, nor that he was “burying the truth in the name of civility and sensitivity.” Maybe I’m projecting, but I think there’s a valid reason for what Erickson said, a reason that I sense many mainland liberals will have great trouble with (and that’s a problem).

    I believe many of Trump’s supporters hold racist, bigoted, and sexist views, but that doesn’t make them a racist, bigot or sexist (and Beinart seems to acknowledge this). In my view, this isn’t a binary issue where one is a racist or not. There’s a significant difference between clutching one’s purse while walking past an African-American and being in the KKK, and there are many points in between the two. The problem with labeling a white American a racist is that this tend to eliminate any nuance or complexity–really, the humanity of the individual–and seeing them as a cardboard villain. This isn’t a helpful approach, and my guess is that this is where Erickson is coming from.

    Here’s my guess: a lot of Trump supporters are resentful and anxious about losing their majority status–a status that is threatened by minorities and immigrants. That fear and resentment can lead to holding racist, bigoted, and even sexist views. These views may not be deeply entrenched, as if they were almost inseparable or inherent in these white Americans. My guess is that, for the majority of these white Americans, if they get over their resentment and no longer fear the changes to our country–if they discover that the changes aren’t so bad–they will let go of these racist, bigoted, and sexist views. Not all of them, but I think many of them will.

    I feel like American liberals can’t even imagine this. I get the sense that they believe if white Americans hold these racist views, then they’re almost inherently racist; they do not believe that holding on to racist views may stem from a more universal, human reaction to the loss of social, cultural, and economic power in a society. They don’t seem to be able to get to this point. And that’s a big reason we’re in a situation where a guy like Trump can become the U.S. president.

  7. Reid

    See this related thread.

  8. Reid

    Events starting over the weekend have turned my thoughts back to this thread topic. I heard someone make a comment about the “rising hate,” and I wanted to riff off of that remark.

    I don’t know if hate–or white supremacy, white nationalism, neo-Nazism–is the key feeling or idea, here–or at least not the way we should think about racial tensions in our country. Instead, I think we should think about the sense of fear and resentment that some (many?) white Americans may have over a sense of losing cultural, social, and even economic power in our country. I do think those feelings can morph into hate, and into accepting dangerous ideology like white supremacy, etc.

    However, we shouldn’t assume that whites who feel fear and resentment are equivalent to white supremacists or white nationalists. This is a key point in my view. We need to carve out a space for whites who feel fear and resentment, but not necessarily view non-whites as inferior or not necessarily want to segregate America.

    My sense is that if we can focus on resentment and anxiety over losing cultural and social status–and also refrain from demonizing this reaction–we can effectively deal with these feelings in a constructive way, proactively stopping white supremacy, white nationalist ideas from gaining strength.

    My sense is that this will be a challenge. I get the sense that many people might have a hard time of looking at racism in this way. I get the sense that, to them, you’re either racist or you’re not, and I don’t think it’s that binary. And if those who oppose white supremacy/white nationalism frame the issue this way, I think that will make matters worse. Whites who feel that resentment and fear will either express it through adopting racist ideology, or they’re sublimate those feelings, which might likely lead to destructive expressions–i.e., voting for a demagogue like Donald Trump.

    We need a form of national therapy to talk about the very natural and human feelings of resentment and fear when a group loses status and power. By openly discussing this in a way that doesn’t condemn the people who feel this way, we can take a big step in dealing with these emotions in a healthier way.

    There’s also a second component to this, which involves providing a vision for America the place that whites, non-whites have in this world. I’ll try to write more about this later.

  9. Reid

    In the last post, I talked about providing a vision for America that could help white Americans deal with anxiety and resentment over a sense of diminishing social and cultural status. I want to discus this briefly, here.

    I also want to tie this into the current demonstrations by white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-nazis. I’ve been hearing that these groups have planned more demonstrations, and my inclination is that protesters who oppose these groups not confront them at these demonstrations. Instead, I’d like to see them create counter-demonstrations at a different site, but same city. Make these demonstrations not only about denouncing white supremacy, etc., but also talk about–celebrate–American values and principles, e.g., all men are created equal. Give speeches about stories involving non-white Americans contributing to the country. Better yet, emphasize aspects of our culture and history that involve the synthesis of different ethnic groups and cultures.

    It’s this last point that is a key part of the vision I spoke about earlier. White nationalists talk about “white genocide,” about not being replaced by Jews and minorities. It’s about ethnic and, I guess, cultural purity. In a way, proponents of multiculturalism seem to think in terms of purity, as well–in the sense that they emphasis the way minority groups are distinct and equal to whites. I’m placing the emphasis on something else–namely, the blending and synthesizing of different ethnic groups and cultures. The melting pot idea. Think of something like jazz or plate lunches. Let’s emphasize and celebrate that!

    Mayor Landrieu of New Orleans gave a speech about taking down a confederate statute in his city, and it exemplifies what I have in mind:

    In addition to speeches like this, the counter-protest–or more like counter rally–could include musicians (hopefully, some country musicians). This would hopefully draw bigger crowds that would eclipse the white supremacy demonstration. Make the counter-rally not only bigger, but make it a great celebration of our country. (I also spoke about this idea here

  10. Reid

    A Serious Discussion We Should Have as a Nation

    I didn’t read Brooks’s op-ed, but there’s a question that came to mind: How many white Americans would favor policies that maintain preserve whites as the majority? A part of me feels we should have an open discussion about this. Why would this be OK or not? Who would want this and why? Is this a racist objective? I realize that having a fruitful discussion about this would be incredibly difficult, but I think it would be valuable. Specifically, I think it could potentially diffuse the resentment and fears regarding declining majority status among whites. (Maybe a book about this or a conversation between two or three people would be a more ideal format.)


    For Trump supporters, what does it mean, exactly, “making America great again?”
    What does it mean to be America? Do we have to have a white majority to be America?

    Edit (11/1/2017)

    From the Niskanen Center, a disagreement with Brooks’s piece above. I agree with the author, especially this:

    Trump has shown how easily the unifying “small government” ideology of a Republican Party that is 75% white and Christian can morph into an ethno-cultural group identity ideology. The fact that it’s been about 100 years since the foreign-born share of the population was as high as it is now, and the fact that white Christians are no longer a majority, has strengthened white Christian group identity by threatening its centrality to American national identity. And thanks to the knock-on effects of the 1964 Civil Rights act and de-unionization, which has broken the link between working class whites and the Democratic Party, millions of white Christians have sorted out of the Democratic Party and into the GOP.

    This has made Republican partisan identity a better and better proxy for white Christian identity. But because white Christians are historically America’s politically and culturally dominant ethno-cultural block, and remain the biggest one, even if they no longer constitute a majority, members of this group prefer to cast their ethnic and religious group interests as the national interest, and to think of themselves not as one group among many, but as the real Americans, alone fully vested with moral citizenship.

    The GOP has or is turning into an ethno-nationalist party, while Democrats are moving toward an ethnically diverse party. A central topic is the one I raised above–relating to national identity and “American-ness.” One concern I have is that the Democrats will move toward the far-left, into leftist multiculturalism, which I think will only lead to to greater galzanize the ethno-nationalism in the GOP.

    Off the top of my head, I think an alternative vision should emphasize the following:

    1. American principles of liberty, equality, freedom of religion, rule of law. I believe our national identity should be rooted in these principles, not ethnicity.

    2. What is American–or at least what is beautiful and admirable about America involves a synthesis of cultures. American-ness = poi dogs; pure breeds are no as American.

  11. Reid

    From Politico Johnstown Never Believed Trump Would Help. They Still Love Him Anyway.

    But what I wasn’t prepared for was how readily these same people had abandoned the contract he had made with them. Their satisfaction with Trump now seems untethered to the things they once said mattered to them the most.

    It’s not about policy, but what those policies represent. And to me, what they represent is an attempt to return to a world where whites were the majority. This isn’t to say policy doesn’t matter at all–I assume they want jobs, healthcare, etc.–but for at least some, that might not be as important as the attempt to make America white again.

    It’s not that the people who made Trump president have generously moved the goalposts for him. It’s that they have eliminated the goalposts altogether.

    This reality ought to get the attention of anyone who thinks they will win in 2018 or 2020 by running against Trump’s record. His supporters here, it turns out, are energized by his bombast and his animus more than any actual accomplishments. For them, it’s evidently not what he’s doing so much as it is the people he’s fighting. Trump is simply and unceasingly angry on their behalf, battling the people who vex them the worst—“obstructionist” Democrats, uncooperative establishment Republicans, the media, Black Lives Matter protesters and NFL players (boy oh boy do they hate kneeling NFL players) whom they see as ungrateful, disrespectful millionaires.

    And they love him for this.

    Thought: The idea that Trump is fighting for them is almost enough. What they perceive him to be fighting for, or outraged by, almost seems crucial–and that is a loss of world where whites were the majority. It seems to not matter if he has a real plan to get this world back. The fact that he’s angry about and seeming to attack and fight others about it is enough to endear him to these supporters.

    So many people in so many other areas of the country watch with dismay and existential alarm Trump’s Twitter hijinks, his petty feuds, his penchant for butting into areas where the president has no explicit, policy-relevant role. All of that only animates his supporters here. For them, Trump is their megaphone. He is the scriptwriter. He is a singularly effective, intuitive creator of a limitless loop of grievance and discontent that keeps them in absolute lockstep.

    Response: So find a way to

    a. Reduce their grievances
    b. Listen to them and address some of their concerns. (Just making a genuine attempt at this could help a lot.)

    I suspect their grievances can fall into various categories–some of them have to do with policy, but most of this might be social emotional thing–namely, the see their world changing around them, they were on top, socially, culturally, and maybe even economically, and they see that slipping away. Some level of racism could be involved, but some of this is a natural, human reaction. If we can help them deal with these feelings, then we can minimize more destructive expressions of it–like voting for a demagogue.

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