Whither the Wages of Whiteness? How Trump’s Path to the White House Was Paved by Neoliberal Economics

Donald Trump’s (in)famous presidential campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again.” However, based on his rhetoric and the policies that his administration has enacted so far, his agenda may be better understood as an attempt to make “whiteness great again.” The way out of the crisis of the 1970s through the imposition of neoliberalism brought about a reduction in what race scholar David Roediger refers to as “the wages of whiteness.” Neoliberalism, by facilitating access to pools of cheap labor around the world, allowed the capitalist class to abandon earlier reciprocities with its own national proletariat leading to a reduction in real material wages as well as in the “wages of whiteness.” The great recession of 2007-2008, which led to further job outsourcing was another decisive step in the same direction. However, reducing the value of these combined “wages” has necessarily led to a loss of legitimacy for the capitalist class and for the capitalist system among white workers, because its hegemonic position is built on an edifice of white supremacy. Trump’s election is an attempt to increase the wages of whiteness, as a way to restore ruling-class legitimacy — crucially, without increasing real material wages.

Historical Origins of the Wages of Whiteness

In the United States, white workers have historically enjoyed privileged positions with respect to non-white workers. Many of them have occupied positions in what’s known as the primary labor market, where wages are higher and working conditions better, whereas their non-white counterparts labored in the secondary labor market. In addition to higher wages and better working conditions, white workers also benefited from what the great African American intellectual W.E.B. DuBois referred to as a “public and psychological wage,” granted to them by the fact that, unlike their non-white counterparts, they shared skin color with the dominant class. For much of the history of the country, then, white workers were to some degree protected from the worst ravages of capitalist exploitation by this “white-skin privilege.” American historian David Roediger, explains that therefore, “status and privileges conferred by race could be used to make up for alienating and exploitative class relationships …”

As long as white workers continued receiving those privileges, and thus being spared the most brutal aspects of capitalism, their notion of it was not as negative as that of non-whites — after all, for many of them, capitalism seemed to be working just fine. Compared to non-whites, they had better jobs, higher wages, better housing, easier access to credit, etc. White workers were told by the ruling elites that they were better than non-whites, and their reality largely reflected that. However, as DuBois and other Marxist scholars noted, these racial privileges granted to white workers as a way of enlisting them on the side of the ruling class served also as a mechanism for ensuring their own continued exploitation by creating and deepening racial divisions among the working classes.

The Wages of Whiteness and Globalization

This arrangement ideologically undergirded the capital-labor compromise that held in place until the advent of neoliberalism. However, in the early 1970s, faced with international competition from Europe and Japan, as well as declining rates of profit, theKeynesian-Fordist mode of accumulation ran out of steam, leading to another economic crisis. For the capitalist class, the way out of the crisis of the 1970s was to cannibalize the welfare state, dismantle the capital-labor compromise and embrace globalization — in short, to bring about neoliberalism. As socialist William Robinson explains, “Capital began to abandon earlier reciprocities with labor forged in the epoch of national corporate capitalism precisely because the process of globalization allowed it to break free of nation-state constraints.” One of those “nation-state constraints” had been the responsibility of ensuring the social reproduction of its labor force. “Going global” allowed the owner of capital to not have to worry about this anymore, as now they could tap into an ever-growing global pool of reserve army of labor.

As the capitalist class took this opportunity to outsource most jobs that could profitably be outsourced, this situation led to the further precariatization of broad sectors of the working class, resulting in widespread joblessness and wage stagnation. This included many manufacturing jobs which had historically been considered as “good jobs,” and thus principally occupied by men (and especially by white men). This is one of the reasons why many of the people who became unemployed after the 2007-2008 economic recession were men. This should not be taken to mean that only white males were negatively affected by the advent of neoliberalism. As it always the case, workers in the most vulnerable positions feel the effects of the recession earlier and deeper than those in more stable positions.

Whiteness and the Capitalist Crisis of Legitimacy

Neoliberalism, in addition to resulting in a reduction in the availability and quality ofemployment for US workers, also contributed to the perception of a decrease in the wagesof whiteness by leading to an increase of immigrants coming from Latin America, among other places, which are often (mistakenly) seen as taking “American jobs” away from Americans. This narrative has been popularized by some members of the ruling class and the corporate media, which have sought to displace the growing dissatisfaction with capitalism among these native workers by scapegoating immigrants. The increase in trade, the breakup of the capital-labor compromise, the chipping away of the welfare state and the increase in economically coerced migration — all the result of neoliberalism, have led to what Cultural Studies Professor Stacy Takacs refers to a “dual impulse — towards transnationalization on the one hand, and xenophobic retrenchment on the other.”

The neoliberal order, then, resulted in a new reality for many white workers in which they no longer were guaranteed the set of privileges that they had become used to and come to expect. For this group, neoliberalism resulted not only in mass unemployment and the loss of material wages, but also in the reduction of the “wages of whiteness.” After the capitalist class took the opportunity of “going global” to breach the racial contract that had long shielded white workers from the worst ravages of capitalism, these workers began feeling some of these effects with full force. This diminishing of the wages of whiteness, both materially and psychologically, has resulted in what gender scholar Michael Kimmel refers to as aggrieved entitlement, “… those benefits to which you believed yourself entitled have been snatched away from you by unseen forces larger and more powerful. You feel yourself to be the heir to a great promise, the American Dream, which has turned into an impossible fantasy for the very people who were supposed to inherit it.”

All of this was fertile ground for the rise of movements centered around white identity, such as the Tea Party, and more recently, the so-called alt-right. Trump’s path to the WhiteHouse may have been paved by disgruntled white workers (Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”). Yet, long before they became Trump supporters, many of these people supported the Tea Party. The genius of Trump’s handlers was to deftly tap into this sentiment of aggrieved entitlement. White people are not the only victims of neoliberalism, but they are the only ones that can genuinely reminisce about a past in which things were better. Hence why Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” and ultimately, his election as president resonated well with many white workers. The field in which Trump planted the seed of xenophobia and hatred among white people had been tilled by neoliberalism and fertilized with money from the Koch brothers and other ruling elites. Trump’s slogan is only the newest iteration of the Tea Party’s promise to “take the country back” and tapped into to the same sentiment of aggrieved entitlement. Yet, all his promises notwithstanding, there is no reason to believe that he will do anything to improve their material condition. Trump is, after all, a member of the transnational capitalist class who himself has benefited tremendously from neoliberal globalization.

What, then, are we to make of Trump’s promises to “bring jobs back”? The fact that Trump took advantage of the desperation of white workers by promising to bring jobs back does not mean that those jobs are coming back. To put quite simply, there is no economic incentive to do so as neoliberalism has proven to be so profitable for the ruling elites.

Unable (and unwilling) to reverse the march of the neoliberal juggernaut, the capitalist class has been faced with a loss of legitimacy. It was this loss of legitimacy that fueled the emergence of white-identity organizing over the last decade. Loss of legitimacy for the system among workers does not automatically need to result in aggrieved entitlement and xenophobic retrenchment; it can also lead to the development of class consciousness and a desire to take wealth and power away from the ruling elites. Occupy Wall Street and the popularity of self-declared “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders stand as examples of this possibility. However, this outcome is unacceptable for the ruling elites. Their task then includes two related strategies: on the one hand, to shore up legitimacy for their own rule (and in doing so, for the capitalist system), and on the other, to prevent people from turning towards class-based movements.

Making Whiteness Great Again

Based on the election of Trump, his executive orders and the makeup of his administration, it’s clear that the ruling class has devised “making whiteness great again” as a key part of their re-legitimation program.

The issue of the border wall provides evidence that Trump has made increasing the”value” of whiteness a centerpiece of his administration. The issue of immigration policy had not been a priority in the public sphere for a few years. And why would it, since immigration from Mexico to the US had all but stalled after the economic collapse of2007-2008. In fact, some immigration analysts estimate that there was a flow reversal during this period, with more people leaving the country than arriving (a fact that makes the number of immigrants deported under the Obama administration even more astounding). In other words, Trump came up with a “solution” for a problem that did not exist — never mind that there is already a wall at the border! The actual goal of this strategy is not to deal with the “problem” of immigration, but rather to increase the value of whiteness and thus to regain some legitimacy for the ruling elites among the white working class.

Importantly, while this type of legislation is designed to boost the wages of whiteness, there is little evidence that the actual wages and the overall condition of white workers will improve at all, let alone that of any other workers. If anything, as with the recently proposed health care overhaul, there is clear indication that the condition of most workers (both white and non-white) will worsen substantially.

Trump’s promises to “Make America Great Again,” the Tea Party’s calls to “take the country back” and the appeal of movements centered around white identity have become increasingly popular among working-class whites because their prospects have come to look increasingly bleak. A recent study from Princeton economists found that among this group of people, mortality rates have increased substantially, owing specially to what they aptly refer to as “deaths of despair” — alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide. The imposition of neoliberalism has diminished the protections against the most brutal aspects of capitalism that white skin privilege used to offer. As scholar-activist Yamahtta Taylor puts it, “… the privileges of white skin run very thin in a country where nineteen million white people languish in poverty.” Under this reality, it is not a surprise that nationalist retrenchment and white supremacist ideology are gaining traction with this segment of the population. However, this time of discontent and despair is also a time of possibility. Having become disillusioned with the system offers socialists the opportunity to make inroads in organizing these white workers, previously bribed by the “wages of whiteness” and bring them into a coalition that puts all the workers on one side against the true enemies of all workers: the capitalist class.