Monday, March 28, 2016

Wolff: Trump as the Great White Hope -- Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

Michael Wolff, USA TODAY 8:45 a.m. EDT March 28, 2016

Trump image from article

A significant part of modern journalism focuses on minorities who in the past might otherwise have seemed invisible to traditional media.

The New York Times is aggressively on top of the transgender story, likely to the surprise of many of its longtime readers. The issue of economic opportunities for African Americans stretches all the way, according to a recent breathless BuzzFeed story, to the fact that they may not be getting their fair share of jobs in the growing marijuana industry. Another dull Oscar year became a big story about multicultural diversity. The evils of sexism are as large in media as the evils of communism once were. This is otherwise known as identity politics — a chronicle of the rising power and continued grievances of various social subdivisions.

And yet the media seems largely to have missed what may be the most important development in identity politics, radically pushing the national mood and agenda: white rage. Indeed, the nation’s Donald Trump shock might not have been so great if white plight had been better documented.

True, this is often called the white backlash story — quite a media chestnut. But that’s not a story so much about conditions in poor and lower-middle-class white communities as about the resentment of people in these communities toward other groups. The condition is the resentment.

There’s a broad business news category that deals with the collapse of the manufacturing sector and, occasionally, the setbacks of trade unionism and, more recently, a sudden awareness of the effects of trade imbalances — all having a disproportionate effect on older white people without college educations. But there is to these stories largely a sense not of inequity but of the inevitable. Globalism is globalism, and not all demographics are equal. Some are a write-off.

The Times, not long ago, seeming to grasp at the larger story here, devoted considerable attention to drug issues in this demo. White people are the new heroin addicts. The "proscription" drug epidemic is now one of the leading killers in the demo. And if the drugs don’t get you, you’ll kill yourself anyway — with spiking suicide rates in the new white ghettos. This is, it’s hard to miss (or perhaps easy to miss), very similar to the stories that used to be written when the once overwhelmingly white media tried to cover the black community. From outside looking in, what you saw were crime, drugs and single mothers.

You might regard older white people as the new black people — in an economically hopeless situation, with broken families, and ever-escalating drug dependence, handicapped by deep cultural prejudice (and a negative media portrayal), and largely funneled into depressed communities, ghettos by any other name.

Part of the problem here is that older poor and lower-middle-class white people don’t have a separate identity designation. Once, there was the working class, or the white rural poor, and for a while there were the evangelicals, but now it's an identity largely formed just by lack of education. They are merely part of the larger dominant white culture — the failures in it.

Another specific media problem is that, for a host of complicated reasons, this group largely ended up in the right-wing camp (as Reagan Democrats or part of the politically homeless catchall called populism) rather than the left-wing camp, which fosters modern identity designations and allocates media coverage. (Fox News understood this and developed its counter-programming strategy accordingly.)

Then too, there is the issue of how exactly to cover this story. A particular holy grail of the media is that you need natives of an identity group to understand and write about that group. Everybody’s bearing witness. Gays about gays. Hispanics about Hispanics. Even Millennials about Millennials. The Times has a frequent transgender op-ed columnist, Jennifer Finney Boylan, for a trans point of view. Vanity Fair used a gender ambivalent writer, Buzz Bissinger, to profile Caitlyn Jenner.

White people, however, can’t write about other white people just because they are white. And even if they could, what would they bring to the story? People in the identity politics business, even as they become respected journalists, endeavor to hold on to their identities — and have pride in them. The nature of white upward mobility, however, is that you become the opposite of the downwardly mobile. White people — strivers vs. Trump’s hard-bitten base — are divided. It’s an identity gap. To maintain a sympathy with an older white underclass might even appear to be a kind of racism. (Curiously, before the rise of identity media, there was robust coverage of and identification with the white lower class — they were newspaper readers!)

Has this very invisibility and lack of representation, this virtual blackout, this, at best, merciless condescension in the media, helped fuel Donald Trump’s rise? This demo would hardly be the first not to see itself or its concerns reflected in the media — and to have realized that to gain any cultural consideration, it must make itself impossible to ignore.

Is this Trump’s attraction? He is someone who can talk back to the media — who can take control of the media. Identity politics needs a showman. The Donald as a sort of white rapper. He would seem like an awfully unlikely hope. But every identity group must have its own unique promoter. And often you don’t choose him, he chooses you. And you embrace.

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