There is evidence that many non-college white Americans who have been undergoing what psychiatrists call “involuntary subordination” or “involuntary defeat” both resent and mourn their loss of centrality and what they perceive as their growing invisibility.
Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, wrote by email:
They fear a loss of attention. A loss of validation. These are people who have always had racial privilege but have never had much else. Many feel passed over, ignored. Trump listened to them and spoke their language when few other politicians did. He felt their pain and was diabolical enough to encourage their tendency to racialize that pain. They fear becoming faceless again if a Democrat, or even a conventional Republican, were to take office.
Cherlin pointed to the assertion of a 67-year-old retired landscaper from North Carolina who joined the Trump loyalists on Jan. 6 on the steps of the Capitol: “We are here. See us! Notice us! Pay attention!”
White supremacy and frank racism are prime motivators, and they combined with other elements to fuel the insurrection: a groundswell of anger directed specifically at elites and an addictive lust for revenge against those they see as the agents of their disempowerment.
It is this admixture of factors that makes the insurgency that wrested control of the House and Senate so dangerous — and is likely to spark new forms of violence in the future. Each of the forces at work has helped drive millions of white voters to the right: working in tandem, they collectively provide the tinder for the destructive behavior we saw last week in the chambers of the United States Congress.
“It is very, very difficult for individuals and groups to come to terms with losing status and power,” Cameron Anderson, a professor at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, wrote by email. While most acute among those possessing high status and power, Anderson said,
People in general are sensitive to status threats and to any potential losses of social standing, and they respond to those threats with stress, anxiety, anger, and sometimes even violence.
Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, agrees in large part with Anderson, describing the fury and disappointment contributing to the takeover of Congress as concentrated among whites who see their position in the social order on a downward path. In an email, Keltner wrote:
The population of U.S. Citizens who’ve lost the most power in the past 40 years, who aren’t competing well to get into college or get high paying jobs, whose marital prospects have dimmed, and who are outraged, are those I believe were most likely to be in on the attack.
When pressed to give up power, he added, “these types of individuals will resort to violence, and to refashioning history to suggest they did not lose.”
In a September 2020 paper, “Theories of power: Perceived strategies for gaining and maintaining power,” Keltner and Leanne ten Brinke, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, argue that “lower class individuals experience greater vigilance to threat, relative to high status individuals, leading them to perceive greater hostility in their environment.”
This increased vigilance, Brinke and Keltner continue, creates
a bias such that relatively low socio-economic status individuals perceive the powerful as dominant and threatening — endorsing a coercive theory of power. Indeed, there is evidence that individuals of lower social class are more cynical than those occupying higher classes, and that this cynicism is directed toward out-group members — that is, those that occupy higher classes.
In other words, resentment toward successful white elites is in play here, as evidenced by the attack on Congress, an overwhelmingly white seat of power.
Before Trump, many of those who became his supporters suffered from what Carol Graham, a senior fellow at Brookings, describes as pervasive “unhappiness, stress and lack of hope” without a narrative to legitimate their condition:
When the jobs went away, families fell apart. There was no narrative other than the classic American dream that everyone who works hard can get ahead, and the implicit correlate was that those who fall behind and are on welfare are losers, lazy, and often minorities.
Despair — and the associated mortality trends — is concentrated among the less-than-college educated and is much higher among whites than minorities. The trends are also geographically dispersed, with populations in racially and economically diverse urban and coastal places more optimistic and with lower premature mortality.
What, however, could prompt a mob — including not only members of the Proud Boys and the Boogaloo Bois but also many seemingly ordinary Americans drawn to Trump — to break into the Capitol?
One possible answer: a mutated form of moral certitude based on the belief that one’s decline in social and economic status is the result of unfair, if not corrupt, decisions by others, especially by so-called elites.
In “The Social and Political Implications of Moral Conviction,” Linda J. Skitka and G. Scott Morgan, psychology professors at University of Illinois-Chicago and Drew University, wrote that “although moral conviction motivates any number of normatively positive behaviors (e.g., voting, political engagement), moral conviction appears to also have a potential dark side.”
Skitka and Morgan argued that:
The terrorist attacks on 9/11, the Weatherman bombings in protest of the Vietnam War, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, or the assassination of abortion providers, may be motivated by different ideological beliefs but nonetheless share a common theme: The people who did these things appear to be motivated by strong moral conviction. Although some argue that engaging in behaviors like these requires moral disengagement, we ﬁnd instead that they require maximum moral engagement and justiﬁcation.
Alan Page Fiske, a professor of anthropology at U.C.L.A., and Tage Shakti Rai, a research associate at the MIT Sloan School of Management, make a parallel argument in their book “Virtuous Violence,” in which they write that violence is:
considered to be the essence of evil. It is the prototype of immorality. But an examination of violent acts and practices across cultures and throughout history shows just the opposite. When people hurt or kill someone, they usually do it because they feel they ought to: they feel that it is morally right or even obligatory to be violent.
“Most violence,” Fiske and Rai contend, “is morally motivated.”
A key factor working in concert to aggravate the anomie and disgruntlement in many members of Trump’s white working-class base is their inability to obtain a college education, a limitation that blocks access to higher paying jobs and lowers their supposed “value” in marriage markets.
In their paper “Trends in Educational Assortative Marriage From 1940 to 2003,” Christine R. Schwartz and Robert D. Mare, professors of sociology at the University of Wisconsin and the University of California-Los Angeles, wrote that the “most striking” data in their research, “is the decline in odds that those with very low levels of education marry up.”
In the bottom ranks of educational achievement, they continued, trends in inequality are
consistent with the decline in the odds of marriage between high school dropouts and those with more education since the 1970s, a period over which the real wages of men in this education group declined.
Christopher Federico, a professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota, described the key roles of education and employment opportunity in the right-wing mobilization of less-educated white men:
A major development since the end of the “Great Compression” of the 30 years or so after World War II, when there was less inequality and relatively greater job security, at least for white male workers, is that the differential rate of return on education and training is now much higher.
In this new world, Federico argues, “promises of broad-based economic security” were replaced by a job market where you can have dignity, but it must be earned through market or entrepreneurial success (as the Reagan/Thatcher center-right would have it) or the meritocratic attainment of professional status (as the center-left would have it). But obviously, these are not avenues available to all, simply because society has only so many positions for captains of industry and educated professionals.
The result, Federico notes, is that “group consciousness is likely to emerge on the basis of education and training” and when “those with less education see themselves as being culturally very different from an educated stratum of the population that is more socially liberal and cosmopolitan, then the sense of group conflict is deepened.”
…Bernard Grofman, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, put it this way in an email:
We would not have Trump as president if the Democrats had remained the party of the working class. The decline of labor unions proceeded at the same rate when Democrats were president as when Republicans were president; the same is, I believe, true of loss of manufacturing jobs as plants moved overseas.
President Obama, Grofman wrote,
responded to the housing crisis with bailouts of the lenders and interlinked financial institutions, not of the folks losing their homes. And the stagnation of wages and income for the middle and bottom of the income distribution continued under Obama. And the various Covid aid packages, while they include payments to the unemployed, are also helping big businesses more than the small businesses that have been and will be permanently going out of business due to the lockdowns (and they include various forms of pork.
The result, according to Grofman, was that “white less well-educated voters didn’t desert the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party deserted them.”
At the same time, though, and here I will quote Grofman at length:
More religious and less well-educated whites see Donald Trump as one of their own despite his being so obviously a child of privilege. He defends America as a Christian nation. He defends English as our national language. He is unashamed in stating that the loyalty of any government should be to its own citizens — both in terms of how we should deal with noncitizens here and how our foreign policy should be based on the doctrine of “America First.”
He speaks in a language that ordinary people can understand. He makes fun of the elites who look down on his supporters as a “basket of deplorables” and who think it is a good idea to defund the police who protect them and to prioritize snail darters over jobs. He appoints judges and justices who are true conservatives. He believes more in gun rights than in gay rights. He rejects political correctness and the language-police and woke ideology as un-American. And he promises to reclaim the jobs that previous presidents (of both parties) allowed to be shipped abroad. In sum, he offers a relatively coherent set of beliefs and policies that are attractive to many voters and which he has been better at seeing implemented than any previous Republican president. What Trump supporters who rioted in D.C. share are the beliefs that Trump is their hero, regardless of his flaws, and that defeating Democrats is a holy war to be waged by any means necessary.
In the end, Grofman said,
Trying to explain the violence on the Hill by only talking about what the demonstrators believe is to miss the point. They are guilty, but they wouldn’t be there were it not for the Republican politicians and the Republican attorneys general, and most of all the president, who cynically exaggerate and lie and create fake conspiracy theories and demonize the opposition. It is the enablers of the mob who truly deserve the blame and the shame.