Who are the angry white males? Why are they so livid? Why do they seem so proudly, defiantly, cruelly angry?
Sociologists tell us that the populations from which most reactionary activism arise are those who fear that they may be overtaken economically by groups below them in social class. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan have always been comprised mainly of middle- and lower-middle class men, not the poor. When the Klan re-appeared during and after World War One, among its four million members were 30,000 Protestant ministers. Similarly, the first generation of anti-abortion activists were baby boomer males who made less money than their parents. Interviews with Tea Party members and attendees and Trump rallies reveal the same pattern. These people may be nervous, but many of them are not suffering.
Economics, however, is only part of the picture. Myth – the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves, and especially the stories about whom we are not – typically overrides the facts and provides the connection to the emotional energy, the rage, that often drives us.
For their entire lives, white Americans have received mythic instruction through the gatekeepers of the media, schools and churches that regularly, daily and continuously re-affirm two main aspects of their identity:
1 – The Hero: the potency and competency of the free, lone individual (disconnected from relationship and feminine values) and his capacity for achievement, creativity, control, productivity and perpetual growth towards a future that will be better than the past. That better future has always meant the expectation of rising above his parents. He creates his own reality because all options are available to him as an American. I discuss the Hero at great length here.
2 – The Other is the shadow of the Hero, and he has several incarnations. As the villain who is dedicated to defeating the hero, he is willing to utilize unethical and unfair means to achieve his aims. He represents evil, and he hates both the hero and his innocent community simply because of who they are.
As the outsider, he is all that they are not: dirty, lazy, impulsive, impure, overly sexual and untrustworthy; he is dangerous because he is highly contagious and always threatens to corrupt the community and infect it with his unchristian, animalistic values. Or as the Loser, he reminds the potential hero that – in this mythology – failure is also a choice. In terms of gender, the Other, of course, is not masculine, and she deserves all the nasty treatment that the Brett Kavanaughs of the world feel like dealing out.
This is how the sense of a solid self is formed in America. To identify in terms of what he thinks he is not is to claim the privilege of being accepted as a member of the innocent, well-meaning, Christian, masculine, upwardly-mobile, and most importantly, white citizenry. This means to know that one is not black, brown, yellow, red, gay, female or poor. Beginning in the late 17th century, Americans uniquely confused social class with race. As I write in Chapter Seven of Madness at the Gates of the City, The Myth of American Innocence:
This new allegiance to whiteness eliminated class competition and provided a sub-class of poor whites to intimidate slaves and suppress rebellion…America’s primary model for class distinction (and class conflict) became relations between white planters and black slaves, rather than between rich and poor. The new system, writes (Theodore) Allen, insisted on “the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group.”
And it provided the historical foundation for the American love affair with guns. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes, such violence against non-white populations was hardly unique. However,
What distinguishes the U.S. experience is not the amount or type of violence involved, but rather the historical narratives attached to that violence and their political uses, even today.
Eventually, southern class discrimination merged with northern religious stereotyping. Since poverty equaled sinfulness (to the Puritan) and black equaled poor (to the Opportunist), then it became obvious that blackness equaled sin. Scholars still wonder why a strong socialist movement never developed in America as it did almost everywhere else. Characteristically, they rarely consider the overwhelming presence of the Other: no other nation combined irresistible myths of opportunity with rigid legal systems deliberately intended to divide natural allies and prevent that opportunity for so many.
But no matter how impoverished a white, male American feels, he still hears and sees hundreds of subtle messages every day that divide him from the impure. Without racial privilege the concepts of whiteness – and to a very great extent, American masculinity – are meaningless. For generations, many such men have had nothing to call their own except this privilege, yet they cling to it and support those whose coded rhetoric promises to maintain it. There really is no other way to explain why hundreds of thousands of white Southerners were willing to sacrifice their lives to defend an economic system that did not serve them. In 1860, we recall, most American millionaires lived in Mississippi.
So, early on in this enquiry, let’s dispose of the complaint that white working-class men vote against their own interests. First of all, it’s patronizing: who are we (liberals, progressives, etc) to tell them – or anyone – what their interests are? Second, it’s useless because it is reflexively materialist; it implies that one’s only interests are those that might advance one’s own material well-being. And under capitalism, that can only happen at the expense of someone else’s well-being. That’s why we call our lives the rat race. Third, to look objectively at our history, we simply have to acknowledge that this is nothing new, that WWCMs have been doing so for 350 years.
The appeal of the conservative identity – that is, identifying with your oppressors – has always been to their emotional interest, the preservation of white supremacy, even at the expense of political solidarity and common-sense politics. More to the point, the appeal is to their fear of losing it. The anger, I suggest, is an ego defense that covers over the fear, because American Protestant machismo does not allow itself to display or even consciously acknowledge such weak – and “feminine” – emotions as fear. Fear (of the black Other) is what white women are allowed to feel, and vote upon, as they did in 2016.
And if this particular kind of appeal to the emotions has been so effective for 3 ½ centuries, essentially America’s entire lifespan, then it as close to a national, archetypal pattern as we can imagine. This is not an abstract idea. Thirty-five years since the beginning of the Men’s Movement, nearly any American man, if pressed to candidly identify his deepest fears, knows exactly what I am talking about.
Despite the easy availability of guns (recall that Canadians have nearly as many guns per capita as we do but kill each other far less often), we cannot understand our unique willingness to go ballistic, to let loose the dogs of war, without fully contemplating why, almost without being fully conscious of it, we are so angry all the time.
Most Americans have also been subject to three other subtle messages:
1 – For three to five generations, we have been bombarded with unrelenting, sexualized commercialism that has pre-determined both the nature of our goals and desires and also their essential unavailability. We feel constantly deprived because capitalism creates demand. Artificial scarcity of gratification assures the surplus energy that drives the fevers of production and conquest. To generate scarcity, it attaches sexual interest to inaccessible, nonexistent, or irrelevant objects. Thus, wrote Phillip Slater in the early 1970s,
…making his most plentiful resource scarce, (man) managed…to make most of his scarce ones plentiful.
Because of their valuation of radical individualism, Americans in particular have been tantalized by the carrot and stick temptations of the media that keep them striving for more symbols of success, at the expense of traditional social relationships.
This is part of a complex cultural experience of the sheer insanity of modern life that almost all of us share, yet rarely acknowledge. I make a much more detailed case of it here.
2 – Recently, the media has commonly speculated about the end of the American dream. But this is not anything new. In socio-economic terms, the efforts of most Americans, especially “millennials,” to achieve the material proof and evidence of both their potency and their membership in the in-group of the middle class have been failing since the end of the Viet Nam War. Most of those families that have not fallen backward in the rat race have done so for two reasons.
The first is two-income households. The economy (not the economy sold to you by the media, but the actual world of meaningful work and satisfying consumption) has been shrinking at the same time that the Others – blacks, browns, gays, the disabled and especially women – have attempted to claim their places in the mainstream. Indeed, the fact that women working in middle class service jobs now often make more money than their mates contributes to falling male self-esteem (remember our Hero myth), which often converts into rage and substance abuse.
Walk into most any large bureaucracy or service agency and, to the lament of many men, the supervisory positions are often held by women. Walk onto a college campus, where women now earn both more B.A.s and more advanced degrees than men. Or walk into divorce court, where more women are paying alimony as they become primary breadwinners.
Second: for the past forty years those same families have survived primarily by borrowing. The average household that carries credit card debt (which is most of them) has a balance of $16,000. If we include mortgages, car payments and student loans, that household is paying up to $8,000 in interest each year.
3 – Americans are deathly afraid of failure, because our mythology offers only one non-villainous alternative to the victorious Hero: the loser, or victim. In this world of radical individualism, those same gatekeepers have instructed us that failure – at any level – is our own fault. This is an unacknowledged but profoundly significant aspect of our Puritan heritage. To fail economically is not simple failure but – in America – it is moral failure. Both Jerry Falwell, for a time, our best-known preacher, and football coach Joe Lombardi said: “This is America. If you’re not a winner, it’s your own fault.” Herman Caine, usually an inarticulate clown, said it quite clearly:
Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.
It gets worse. Surveys show that a large majority of Americans – including the poor – have learned this old teaching so well and for so long that they consistently believe that losers are bad and morally corrupt, regardless of the circumstances.
And what about that related image, the victim? We must be brutally clear about this. The young, Protestant, female (usually blonde) protagonist of our most basic narrative – the Indian captivity narrative – is pure and blameless; that is, until the moment when the vicious Indian rapist has his way with her. At that point, once he has mixed his impure blood with hers, she shares his corrupt state and becomes indistinguishable from the loser – it is her own fault. She shouldn’t have worn that miniskirt.
Ironically, there is a deeper implication, shared by all monotheistic religions: since men are children who cannot control themselves, women must be completely responsible for their behavior. See my essay, “The Modesty Doctrine” or this one: “I Know Why Evangelical Women Support Brett Kavanaugh. I Was Raised To Do The Same.”
Perhaps this mythological mis-thinking explains why so many Republicans, men and women, were so quick to vehemently defend Kavanaugh (“He didn’t do it!”) and in Trump’s case, to actually mock Christine Blasey Ford (Of course he did it, and she’s a loser!”) Or, in another version of the misogynist’s fevered imagination, many women are pre-destined losers because, as likely Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro told a female lawmaker, she was “too ugly to rape.”
But we’re talking about anger, and below the anger is fear. Consider that, as Lili Loofbourow writes of this sordid affair,
It is a remarkable fact of American life that hordes of men are now defending sexual assault… despite the fact that the accused party denies it ever happened…This group has opted instead to defend male impunity for sexual assault and frame a woman’s story of coping with years of trauma as a true crisis…for men…The reason for this panicked defense of assault—even as Kavanaugh continues to firmly deny it—is fear. Not fear that the system will punish men wrongly but that it will punish them rightly…But they sure got to pretend they didn’t. “Boys will be boys” is a nostrum with the designated purpose of chalking male malfeasance up to innocent high spirits. It’s a saying that’s meant to exonerate, but here’s the funny thing: It only works on the agreed-upon assumption that boys do shitty things, the gravity of which we’re supposed to ignore or dismiss. The message isn’t that the boys don’t know that the things they do are bad; it’s rather that the rest of us should forgive, understand, and love them anyway, without their needing to ask for it. Is it any surprise that an incentive structure like this one breeds entitled indifference to girls and women in the coddled party, and in the system that coddles them? Is it any surprise that men would panic at the realization that the system that they could depend on to look the other way is fast eroding?…The subtext—stripped of all chivalric pretense thanks to the recent panic—is that victims don’t matter. They’re invisible because they’re unimportant, and women’s pain is irrelevant. In contrast, during these past few weeks, nothing has been presented as more crucially central than men’s pain.
We have internalized the shaming messages of many generations of white, Protestant Euro-Americans. Take note of how the mythology exonerates men. To Puritans, all sensuality, not to mention rape, is unacceptable. But when women in any way are framed as having provoked such behavior, then we exonerate the men. They were, after all, mere boys.
Our mythology is intertwined with our Puritan religion, and they are both qualified by our profound ignorance. Seventy-five percent of us believe – wrongly, if you must know – that the proverb “God helps those who help themselves” can be found in the Bible. The Puritan Benjamin Franklin coined it.
In Kindergarten everyone gets a sticker just for trying. But soon afterwards, most of us learn that under our unique form of religio-capitalism, it is a zero-sum world of very few winners and large swarms of losers, because in this mythic dead-end, one can only be a hero or a victim / loser. And those who perceive themselves as losers will generally find only one of two ways out of their uniquely painful condition:
1 – A solution to their pain through collective, politically progressive action. But Americans, insisting on their right to radical individualism, participate far less often than in other nations. Since 1945, union membership has fallen from 33% to 11%, partially due to their extremely racist and exclusionary heritage. And the corporate corruption of the ideals of the Democratic Party has lead to a severe drop in voting participation. The attraction of fundamentalist religion has siphoned off and re-directed much of our public energies. And we should not forget that the primary objectives of the corporate media and other mythic instructors is to distract Americans from identifying both the true spiritual and economic sources of their pain, and the actual social opportunities for addressing them. Yes, this is close to the materialist definition of “interests” I mentioned above. But we are also talking about community feeling, or solidarity.
2 – A solution to their pain through (more or less) culturally-approved, individual behavior. For many of us, especially since the 1970s, such behaviors have included everything from substance abuse, consumer addictions, celebrity worship and extreme sports to the self-help movement and committed spiritual disciplines. Or we share our sense of “vicarious Dionysus” (see Chapter Ten of my book) with a cheap version of that solidarity on Sundays, either in the morning, in the white innocence of the mega-church, or later in the afternoon, watching mega-sized black men battering each other on a green field.
To be honest, however, we must admit that violence, especially righteous gun violence, has always been approved behavior when it is directed at the Other. For an increasingly larger minority, this has meant actual, personal violence. For vastly far more, it has meant vicariously experiencing and approving violence perpetrated by the state, from a safe distance. Of course, right-wing media and politicians have been stoking most of that anger and violence for our entire history. For 200 years they justified it in terms of miscegenation, the corruption of pure, Anglo-Saxon blood by African blood. For the last 50 years, they have done so in terms of fear of violence by black men, and more recently of Latinos and Muslims.
However, according to sociologist Mike Males, “White people should be more afraid of other whites than they are of people of color.” The statistics are quite clear: whites who are most at risk of dying from gun killings and illegal-drug overdoses are those who live in predominantly white counties which Trump won in 2016. When whites are murdered anywhere in the country, the murderer is five times more likely to be white than nonwhite.
Overall, white Americans who live in predominantly white and Trump-voting counties are 50% more likely to die from murder, gun violence and drug overdoses than whites who live in the most diverse and Democratic-voting counties. The more white and Republican a county is, the greater the risk for white Americans. (my italics)
What’s going on here? Perhaps white, working-class men are finally catching up, in a most gruesome way, to black, working-class men. The old phrase “black-on-black crime” described the phenomenon of internalized rage on the community level: gangs of black youths killing other gangs of black youth. Now whites are doing it to each other — but mostly to themselves. Later in this essay I’ll speak of internalized rage on the personal level, or suicide.