If anyone still wonders what made Donald Trump so popular among the working classes, Bernie Sanders provided the answer yesterday in an outburst that will probably cost him what remained of his chances for the nomination. When you’re white, according to Senator Sanders, you “don’t know what it’s like to be poor”.
It’s urgent that Sanders visits the senior citizens in Kent country, who survive off a diet of cat food, and informs them that their poverty isn’t real. In fact, statistics show that most Americans living below the poverty line are white. In contrast to minority communities, these poor whites are relatively inapt at having their voices heard.
Whereas black Americans can blame their poverty on institutionalized racism, there’s still very much a perception in American culture that one determines the outcome of his own life. Only racism, sexism and other -ism’s are accepted as legitimate barriers to one’s economic emancipation.
This is the myth that America’s political and cultural elites have endorsed. The very same universities that favor “legacy admissions” of wealthy white students whose families have attended the university for generations while discriminating against working-class white and Asian students because they are “over-represented”, carry out studies investigating in what dark corners of society institutionalized oppression still resides.
For white poverty to even be acknowledged as a problem tends to require the perception that the subjects in question have somehow made a sacrifice for their society. Veterans who are impoverished receive some attention, as do the elderly. Poverty among most other groups is more taboo, as people are afraid of being perceived as “wanting a hand-out”, or worse, “being a socialist”.
From another ivory tower, Hillary Clinton looks down upon her peons and responds to Donald Trump’s growing popularity that “America never stopped being great”. She’ll probably never come to understand that the statistics she’s shown on paper don’t correspond to the reality that average Americans experience.
If we look at GDP per capita, we see a steady rise, but if we look at real median household income, which better reflects an average person’s financial situation, we find that the standard of living peaked in 1999. Since then it has been a bumpy road downwards. This simple acknowledgement, that America stopped being “great”, is a violation of an unspoken taboo that is enough to win Trump millions of votes.
Americans have figured out that their nation is in decline and Donald manages to come up with a narrative that makes the decline appear reversible. If only they had a “tough negotiator”, nations like China and Mexico would stop “taking advantage” of them. In reality of course that situation is a bit more complicated, but if you say something with enough confidence, people will generally believe you, especially if you tell them something they want to believe.
If elites should learn one thing from the Trump revolution, it’s the fact that publicly denying decline isn’t going to save your skin. At some point, you are inevitably held responsible for the festering mess your country has turned into, by a public whose impoverishment has become so universal that it can no longer be kept in the dark through statistical trickery and fooled into believing that their individual experiences are the exception rather than the rule.