There seems to be a virtual consensus among the journalistic punditry about the heart of the Tea Party: white men who are frightened and angry. They lash out against any insult or imagined insult. And, this portrait gets worse as we look down the economic ladder. Once again, the poorly educated guys have the worst cases of White man’s disease.
But this portrait is drawn from a great distance. It tells the story about the “other,” who is objectified and diminished in the telling. There must be exceptions, but virtually every writer I can think of excludes himself or herself from this picture. I can’t entirely do that. I don’t share Tea Party opinions and I don’t vote Conservatively. But I can identify with some of the feelings that drive these men.
We had no money when I was growing up in the Bronx and Levittown. Later, as a teenager, when I delivered flowers in Manhattan, I would be directed to the ‘service’ entrance—I thought of it as the ‘servants’ entrance—and told to take ours shoes off in order to carry the heavy pots into the Park Avenue apartments. I felt humiliated and angry. I felt the same when I was caddying at a fancy golf club.
I must have been forty years old, and very much a successful professional with a house of my own, before I could walk into a clothing store without worrying that the salesmen would look at me and say “what are you doing here.” When we were teenagers, friends would borrow their parent’s cars and drive up to Great Neck to gawk like tourists at the “mansions.” What I felt was not envy but anger. I wanted to throw rocks. I didn’t but that desire to get even—for what exactly, I don’t know—was palpable, and it’s not so hard to feel it to this day.
I imagine that many of the people who analyze the White guys come from backgrounds like mine, but they don’t write that way. They hide whatever identification they might feel. Maybe identifying ‘down’ would be humiliating. Maybe it would put them in touch with uncomfortable feelings like raw anger and shame. So, with some trepidation, I would like to offer my not-so-distant understanding of why the White guys are so angry.
To begin, it they are filled with a feeling of having lost something and entirely unclear whether they will be able to regain a stable and secure place in American society. The loss of blue collar jobs to Asian factories and the decline in blue collar wages have become the iconic image of the declining White man in America. But, however important it is to earn a descent living and to support your family, there is more to the economic situation than money. There is knowing that you can help lift your children out of this depressed life. There is the stability, emotional as well as economic, that a steady, long-lasting job brings—and takes away when it is gone.
There is also the sense of protection and belonging that came with union membership. That, too has eroded. And with it the ability to fight for one’s rights and livelihood. Everyone can be angry, but if you have a union that “has your back,” as the returning veterans currently say, that focuses your anger through campaigns and gives you a chance to win against all those rich snobs, then the anger isn’t so bad. It can yield positive results. Organized anger, even though it upsets people in suits, is superior for an individual White men, who now must hold it himself, knowing that he, alone, can’t fight and win the battle for dignity and security.
His declining standing in the family seems equally important and less understood. With the flight of stable and sufficient income, men can’t easily claim their traditional place at the head of the table. When women earn almost as much, as much, or more, then the challenge to family leadership is legitimized. When fifty years of women’s rights activity has entered every marriage, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, then it’s a new game that men have not yet figured out how to win or even how to fight. Among other things, it’s not clear who the judge or the sheriff is. Who will resolve the fights? By what rules? By all accounts, the women are more adept in this court. Men are humiliated by their incompetence. When they are humiliated, they may turn to violence. But that victory is always horrible to the women, sickening to all, including the children, and at best a pyrrhic victory for the men.
They may retreat to bars, to drugs, to binging on sports, to a kind of despair. They can’t see a way out of their dilemma. It’s a dead end. It looks endless. They feel defeated. The more they fall to these despairing activities, the less standing and nurturance they have at home. The less nurturance, the more they retreat, the more they are alone. No family to have their back then piles onto the loss of unions and solidarity with other workers.
Family loss may (or may not) be most intense among the poor and working class men, but it is surely not limited to them. There is a similar sense of displacement among middle class and often enough among well-to-do men. How many doctors and lawyers, for example, spend long days at work, commanding respect from nurses and administrators, then go home to their families who, after years of the long work hours, feel more neglected than eager to have them. These professional warriors are not welcomed home, not given their proper place. So they stay longer at work and become more alienated from families, and so the cycle builds. This is why they often vacillate between feelings of alliance and distancing themselves from their working class brethren.
While these immediate losses at work and at home are the most devastating, the cultural changes that surround their personal lives confirm and compound their sense of being left behind. Take sports, not participatory but couch-based sports. The players, the heroes, no longer look like them, at least not enough of them do. They are often Black and Latino. That’s certainly true in basketball and football. Not so much true in baseball and hockey, whose popularity has seen a resurgence these days. Take entertainment. More and more singers and actors are people of color; and even the White entertainers are too often liberals, who really don’t understand the White guys. More snobs, like the Wall Street crowd. Too damn many successful people look and act different. The class divide has been exacerbated.
The very idea of success is passing the White guys by. Success is for somebody else. It looks and talks and dresses like somebody else. Not even the army offers a redemptive image—not like the heroes of World War II. The army guys return, often beaten, traumatized, without sufficient support for work and health. They may be publically lauded as heroes but, if you listen to their stories, that’s not their experience. Nor can the veterans point the way towards a successful life. They’re not the road out of the White guys dilemma. They represent another way that the road out is closed. Success remains hidden.
I’m no different than the analysts in my dislike for the road taken by these White guys, the votes for Trump, the nativism and racism, the fascination with guns, the domestic violence, the disdain for education. But I do appreciate what has brought them to this place. I do understand their attachment to the Trumps and the Tea Party as symptoms, not causes of disaffection in America. We have to find a way to join forces—with them—to attack the real problems that have disenfranchised them. It is up to us, too. If we don’t, if we keep our distance, then we are very much a part of the real problem.