The mythology that the force compelling Americans to support Donald Trump was their economic anxiety — a fragile myth already called into doubt repeatedly over the last four years — was irrevocably shattered by last week’s raid on the Capitol as Trump beckoned his followers to march.
Rioters chanted, “Hang Mike Pence.” They built nooses. They graffitied “Murder the media.” They repeatedly called Black officers the n-word. One held as his banner the Confederate flag. One man allegedly threatened to kill Nancy Pelosi. The less extreme said they were there as patriots who “bleed red, white, and blue,” fighting to take back what was stolen from them.
These are not the cries of people hungry for economic opportunity. These are furious cries of vengeance against phantom enemies imagined by the president.
If the last four years had already weakened the idea that financial distress led voters to Trump, the events of Jan. 6 utterly discredited it. “When people attack the Capitol waving Confederate flags, they’re not expressing economic anxiety. They’re expressing a desire to dominate,” said Sarah Crozier, a spokesperson for the Main Street Alliance, an organization representing small businesses, a segment that has been financially devastated by the pandemic. The group described last week’s events as a “riot by an angry mob of armed white vigilantes.”
Without question, financial insecurity and inequality define much of American life — I’ve written about it for some time now — but ascribing the insurrection to the devastating impact of financial hardship overlooks the role racism played. Economic insecurity and racism have gone hand in hand and fed each other throughout American history, and it is critical not to mistake this “revolution” for Trump for something else. “[T]he human stain on America is racism, and it is something that we have not examined and have allowed to fester,” said Mit Joyner, president of the National Association of Social Workers.
Trump sold himself very effectively as an economic populist, boasting for years about the strength of the US economy under his leadership. But his tax overhaul cut taxes for the wealthy and for corporations; inequality reached new highs as billionaire wealth soared and investors made gains from the stock market while the poorest households hardly saw any improvements. Despite endorsing stimulus checks during the pandemic (checks bearing his name, in an election year), Trump has largely abandoned economic populism — and yet his base still follows him. It’s worth examining why.
“White supremacy is central to this,” said Manju Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, which works with low-income people, immigrants, and refugees. “When you look at all the people who were there last Wednesday, it's hard to find the economic anxiety.”
Certainly, there were plenty of people at the rally and riot who have been left behind by a callous economy, and by the uneven economic recovery of the past decade. Numerous attendees turned to GoFundMe to raise the money to travel to DC, for example. But the people most likely to live in poverty in America — Black and Indigenous people — did not show up in droves marauding through the Capitol, or to rally at the Ellipse. There were, however, plenty of high-profile elites.
Consider some of the people rallying for Trump in DC that day: Derrick Evans, a newly elected official from West Virginia (who has since resigned from his position); Rick Saccone, a former Pennsylvania lawmaker who also taught international relations and global terrorism at Saint Vincent College (he has resigned); John Eastman, a Chapman University professor who wrote an opinion piece in Newsweek arguing Kamala Harris might be ineligible to be vice president because her parents were not US citizens when she was born (he retired from his role at Chapman on Wednesday and is rumored to be joining Trump’s impeachment defense); the CEO of a Chicago-area marketing company (he has been terminated from his role); a retired Air Force officer “who lives in an affluent suburb of Dallas,” according to the New Yorker; a real estate broker who flew in on a private jet; the son of a judge. These people are just a few among the thousands who attended Trump’s rally, but they do not stand out as being members of the country’s underprivileged classes.
Neither do their allies in this so-called class war — including some of the wealthiest members of Congress and those who graduated from the country’s most elite schools — who spread Trump’s unfounded lies about election fraud. In the end, 147 of them actually went through with voting to overturn the results of the election (Kelly Loeffler backed down following the violence); some are still fighting for him. Trumpism is not about economic anxiety.
In a newsletter about the Jan. 6 riot, Kulkarni wrote, “These individuals hailed from across the country, from the legal, business and tech community; many were former members of the armed services or law enforcement, rich, poor and middle class. What they had in common was a shared belief in the lies told not only by the Trump Administration, but by many members of the Republican Party and the moral and financial support of countless conservative organizations, as well as mainstream companies. And they champion whiteness and white Americans over all others, branding the rest of us with subordinate status and conditional citizenship, which may be revoked at any time.”
"If we don't put out the fire, it will continue to just burn. And we won't have a democracy."
Within the mob, many said they fight, nebulously, to “save America,” to protect their constitutional freedoms and the sanctity of the electoral process, to cut out the rot infecting the government and the country at large, to get the United States back on an upward path. They are, they feel, the victims of a failing system, and they demand justice. They want to be seen and heard. Indeed, many of the feelings in that mob are based on their lived reality. But Trump’s lies ignited an already burning sense of political victimhood and fear, and today they stand for something else altogether.
None of these things undermine the fact that millions among Trump’s fans face serious financial hardship, especially through a pandemic that worsened under his leadership. But this alone did not drive 74 million people to vote for him in November (11 million more votes than in 2016) or lead them to rally to keep him in office. “There is true economic pain out here, we've seen it, but it isn't the core of what happened last week — especially for those who had the time and resources to get on a plane to DC,” said Crozier. “To insinuate otherwise misses the real challenges that we all must face together.”
What happened on Jan. 6, and what is being planned in future uprisings, is not about fighting for economic justice. “They were asking for injustice. They were going to overthrow our government, our democracy, everything we work with,” said Joyner. “People broke into our Capitol with no masks, taking pictures and selfies. What does that tell you? That tells you that those people think that they have the power of our government behind them.” And there’s no quick way to deal with the aftermath. “You’ve got to put the fire out first, and then you have to replant the trees,” she said. “It will take another generation for us to get the forest again, but if we don't put out the fire, it will continue to just burn. And we won't have a democracy.”
A mild description of what’s transpired is that many of Trump’s followers, including those with power, are trying to go backward in time to an America that didn’t work better for everyone, but probably worked better for people like them. As Fox News’ Tucker Carlson said, a vote for Trump is a vote against the ruling class, who forgot these people except as a target for mockery. Trump gave them affirmation. They craved recognition as badly as Trump did himself. And so they define themselves in opposition to “leftists,” to those who show them disdain, to the agenda of the Democratic Party, and to the media. These views alone are not racist, they argue. As one person told Pew researchers, “I am not a racist. I am not a neo-Nazi. I am not a bigot. I am not a misogynist. I am not a deplorable. I do not hate immigrants, I just want them to enter the U.S. legally. I am not a White supremist [sic].” Another said, “We are their neighbors, friends, and sometimes we are family members.”
Stripped of context, these positions may be innocuous, but the actions they inspire are anything but. And, as Kulkarni said, “Just because somebody truly believes something, it doesn't allow them to avoid consequences and accountability.”