Mary Ellen is an adjunct professor of sociology and anthropology at Palomar College in San Marcos, CA.
All morning I’ve been hearing liberal media figures assert that the terrorist attack on the Capitol was all about racism. Pointing to the disturbing discrepancy between the aggressive police treatment of peaceful BLM demonstrators and the tolerant, if not encouraging, treatment of violent white, male Trump supporters, the media on the left are underscoring the breadth and depth of racism in the United States.
But is the fact that America has a serious race problem really the “breaking news” here? I think not.
The truth is that the social dynamics behind the attack on the Capitol are far more complex than we are being told. The terrorists who attacked the Capitol are indeed white racists, but they are only the outward face of the problem. Behind them and largely behind the scenes are powerful individuals and groups who have seized on American racism and are using it as an effective tool to achieve their own goal of maintaining and increasing wealth and power.
As threatening as they were with their bombs and firearms, the thugs who stormed the Capitol are not the most dangerous people in America. They were useful idiots doing the work of some very smart, obscenely wealthy people who knew that in a democratic system, they would never be able to win over the average American voter by telling the truth— by saying “vote for us, because we are the candidates who will take even more of the Nation’s wealth out of your pocket and put it into mine.” No, that message would never sell. To win ultimate control over U.S. and, indeed, global wealth, they had to find a wedge issue that would induce a large enough segment of the American population to vote against their own best interests and endow the upper echelon with enough power to overthrow our democratic republic.
Because let’s face it, not everybody in the US wants to uphold and protect our form of government, a government endowed with the ideological right and justification to redistribute wealth from the bloated rich to the starving poor. The democratic system of government that the founders and framers of the Constitution bequeathed us rests on the belief that all people, having been created equal, deserve the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but intrinsic to this foundational belief is the need to redirect money and resources from the highest echelons of wealth and privilege to the middle and lower classes when excessive wealth is concentrated at the top, and the gap between the wealthy and the rest of society is too great. The rich could never get behind the idea of Robin Hood running the government.
Despite their words to the contrary, the wealthy deplore a “trickle down” economic system if the taxing of the rich is the means whereby wealth flows to the middle and lower classes. They much prefer a system that cuts their taxes, claiming— quite falsely—that the added money in their pockets will fuel the economy and “trickle down” to others.
Of, By, and For the Rich
What the wealthy much prefer is not a democracy of, by, and for the people, but rather a plutocracy— a government of, by and for the rich, and Donald Trump, though flawed in many respects, promised to give them what they wanted and almost achieved.
While Trump identified as being one of them in terms of class, wealth and power, he looked to them like he might just be the right man for the job they wanted done. Sure, he lacked the polish and sophistication of the upper class, and sure, he probably wasn’t really all that wealthy (at least not until he used the Presidency to accumulate wealth), but Trump brought to the battle some important assets that the rich and powerful thought they could use to their advantage.
Importantly, Trump was both a genuine racist and an actual reality tv star who knew how to dupe average white Americans into believing that he was a successful businessman with a sincere populist message. While crossing his fingers and winking at his rich supporters, he told out-of-work miners in West Virginia that he’d bring back coal mining, and he promised unemployed factory workers in Illinois and Michigan that he’d bring manufacturing back to the country and to their states. Sure, he was lying to them—promising them the impossible— but while his wealthy benefactors saw through his deceit, his working class supporters believed his lies and loved him all the more for telling them what they most wanted to hear.
Trump managed, then, to win support both from the ultra-wealthy who expected him to do their bidding, and from the much larger population of average, white, working-class Americans who have been watching their own economic strength erode increasingly over the past 50 years and who genuinely believed that Trump was going to restore their notion of the American Dream. He was going to give them back their jobs, their pay raises, their new cars, their nice homes in the suburbs. He was going to “make America great again.”
Cowardice or Avarice?
Meanwhile the richest of the rich knew what Trump was really doing. If you wonder why Republican Senators and Representatives stood by and did nothing to stop Trump from overturning our democratic system, the reason was not cowardice. It was avarice. Most of them had immense wealth to protect, and those few who weren’t wealthy believed they’d secure wealth and power by swearing loyalty to Trump and to the people who represent his REAL base—the ultra-rich in the US and abroad (including people like Vladimir Putin).
So yes, we have a race problem in the US, but what we’ve been seeing is not a return to Jim Crow racism. It’s worse than that. What Trump has been doing is to harness racism as a tool to seize ultimate power, and that, I would propose, is slavery re-envisioned, slavery reinstated.
If we want to prevent the history of the past four years from repeating itself, the way to begin is by doing what we can (and what we must) to fight racism. The way to begin, I believe, is by taking on institutional racism. The choices of people that President-elect Biden has made to join his leadership team are right on the mark in terms of diversity, and philosophically they appear to be fully prepared to lead us by policy and by example toward a country where people are judged by “the content of their character”— not by the color of their skin or the size of their portfolio. Though we are a nation deeply divided, if we can begin to remove that which divides us, racism, then we can reunite as a people and be made whole again.