Hyperventilating over Donald Trump’s various “pronunciamentos” seems to have blinded our political class to the deeper and truly historic implications of Trump’s transformation of our national identity as Americans.
In his campaign themes and rhetorical metaphors, Trump has defended his base of supporters in a new way: He has radically affirmed their sense of victimhood.
The overlooked “big story” about Trump as a culture warrior has been his success in altering the self-image of his white American tribe — replacing pride with self-pity.
When The Donald speaks about politics being “rigged,” or about the need to build a “wall” and deny immigrant visas to Muslims, all in order to fence out “threats” — when he declares that bad trade deals have allowed white Americans to become victims of Mexican and Chinese workers — he is assuring his base that the cards of life are stacked against them.
He is not speaking literally, under proper traditional standards of facts and logic. But he is fully understood by his audience — as speaking around and above mere literal facts and cutting right through to the emotional heart of what matters to them.
He is providing them with meaning about their lives. What it means is that they are victims, not winners in life’s struggles. America, he complains, never wins anymore. He has turned the meaning of America upside down.
He has turned his back on the group identity that carried our nation from the Revolution to greatness of purpose in defeating the Nazis, the Japanese militarists and the Communists, and in creating a United Nations for the betterment of all. He appeals to felt victimhood and loss by demanding that we must make America “great again.”
Out of nowhere, but with remarkable insight into social realities, Trump has reframed our civil religion, replacing the traditional assumption about American exceptionalism and opportunity with an equal opportunity for all Americans to consider themselves victims.
Many white Americans were already suffering from inner convictions that they are not winners. White Americans are dying younger, with rising rates of drug and alcohol abuse. White men are dropping out of the workforce. White families are not saving effectively for retirement. White marriages are breaking up more, and the number of white children born out of wedlock is rising.
Trump has borrowed a tactic used by the left to deconstruct American pride — the special moral status of victims — and applied it to those who were said to be privileged.
In this Trump has in effect declared that the left has won the culture-war struggle over the meaning of America. We have assumed a new national identity, one prone to dysfunction and infantile acting out. We are now told — by the left and by Trump — that we are, deep down, a nation of losers; that we need visionary leaders to protect us from further failure.
The long-term effects of this will be pernicious, nationally and individually. As we come to believe in ourselves more and more as victims, we will more and more become actual victims as we fail to act courageously and strategically in our own best interest. Who we think we are largely determines who we really are; thinking well of ourselves leads to good outcomes in life, and thinking badly leads to failure and despondency.
Just as a bully is often a person with a lot to feel lousy about internally, so Trump-style populism uses negative psychology as self-medication to numb the pain of perceived victimhood.
Thus, as white Americans, still a powerful political demographic, feel ever more sorry for themselves, we can expect a more isolationist but also more bellicose U.S. foreign policy.
Domestically, Americans may become even more antagonistic with each other. Every victim group will claim a preferential status: If you don’t respect my victimhood, I won’t respect yours. Equal rights will come to mean an equal right to blame others for our disappointments.
We will lose self-reliance and shrink from risk-taking; our economy will stagnate, and then we will feel even worse. We face a downward spiral of self-fulfilling pessimism.
The irony here is that when everyone is a victim, no one will be able with reason to claim the special, uniquely deserving status they crave.
Only those in the elite will be left as oppressors — regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or political belief. Those in the 1 percent, or those working on Wall Street, or as tenured professors, managers, celebrities, political and government insiders — they will be the new ruling class.
And they, at least, will be expected never to complain about anything.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.