Keeping Nope Alive: Tens-of-thousands of mostly young American protesters poured onto the streets of the major US cities in the hours following the shock election of Donald Trump as America's 45th President. It remains to be seen whether, in the days and weeks to come, middle-class Millennial hope is any match for white working-class resentment and rage.
ALL YEAR, NEW ZEALANDERS have quietly congratulated themselves on not being Americans. Like so many others around the world, we have looked on with mounting disbelief as the [Dis]united States of America plumbed new depths of malevolent ignorance. If it’s been said once, it’s been said 100 million times: “Thank God we’re not like that!”
But why aren’t we like the United States? What is it that we, as a people, did – or did not do – that has kept our political system from veering so suddenly, and dangerously, off course.
The most obvious and plausible answer is that we, along with many other Western nations, have maintained a reasonably comprehensive welfare state. More specifically, we have preserved a public health system.
It is easy to overlook the role a functioning public health service plays in preserving even a modest level of social equality. By far the most common reason for so many middle-aged Americans declaring bankruptcy is the crippling cost of medical treatment and pharmaceuticals. In just a few weeks, serious injury and/or chronic illness can swallow up every last cent of an ordinary family’s life savings. There are tens-of-thousands of American workers whose entire pay check gets spent on ruinously expensive medication.
It is one of the great ironies of the 2016 US presidential elections that Donald Trump’s supporters have been so vehement in their opposition to “Obamacare”. Granted, the Affordable Health Care Act has its flaws, but, surely, it is also a small step in the direction of universal, publicly-funded, health care?
“Hell, no!”, cry the Trumpites. “Obamacare is the thin edge of the wedge of socialism!” And you’d better believe that this verdict is delivered through bared teeth. As though, for people in their desperate economic circumstances, socialism is a bad thing.
We chuckle at the ideological incongruity of poor, white, working-class Americans voting for a man like Donald Trump. “Why can’t they see that they’re voting directly against their own interests?”, we ask. “How can they be so blind?”
For an explanation we must turn to American history, and the myths with which it disguises itself. The most enduring of these cultural illusions is that every American has a shot at success. That the path from shoeshine boy to billionaire is real. That it’s open to all. That it’s possible.
Persuading Americans that their much-vaunted equality of opportunity is a mirage is extremely difficult. But, convincing them that they are the prisoners of a class system every bit as pernicious as Britain’s is practically impossible.
But it’s true. As Nancy Isenberg demonstrates so conclusively in her recent book, White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America, the enterprises (and that word is used advisedly) which eventually grew into the United States were predicated on the most ruthless exploitation of indentured labourers and servants. Before America was a slave society, it was a society into which the English aristocracy and their entrepreneurial hangers-on decanted the poorest and most powerless of the English people.
That these readily disposable servants of the American ruling-class have, for more than 300 years, been regarded as more despicable than dangerous is largely attributable to two key factors. The first is the poor whites’ sullen awareness of their own worthlessness in the eyes of their social superiors. And the second is the consoling knowledge that below them on the American totem-pole there exists an even more wretched and put-upon social strata: Non-Whites.
This is the vicious political alchemy which has fuelled every outbreak of white racist populism from the Civil War to the rise of Donald Trump. A crude compound of resentment and rage, it may be directed, with equal success, upwards: against the One Percent and the disdainful middle classes (in whose eyes poor whites are indeed little more than “deplorable” human “trash”) and downwards: against the descendants of slaves, and that floodtide of immigrants whose descendants threaten to strip these “crackers” of what little White privilege remains to them.
And, before we congratulate ourselves too fulsomely on our lucky escape from America’s political and cultural degradation, we should, perhaps, recall our own national origins. New Zealand, too, grew out of British “enterprise”. We, too, deceive ourselves with the mythology of egalitarianism and classlessness.
There, but for the grace of God – and a still socialist public health system – go we.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 November 2016.