Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Insecure Masculinity Is the Glue That Binds Conservative Elites and Their Base

by Neil H. Buchanan

The end of the Kavanaugh confirmation travesty, which now seems a million years ago, overlapped with the blockbuster story in The New York Times about the Trump family's decades of tax dodging and other scams.  Or it would have been a blockbuster story in anything resembling a normal universe.

The Times showed, through meticulous research, that young Donald Trump's father had not merely given his son the mythical "small loan of a million dollars" (which Trump insists he repaid with interest) that put Trump on the path to unimaginable success.  By evading the estate tax and other taxes in a variety of ways (and I do mean "evading," which means illegal underpayment of taxes), not to mention by making money from government contracts and exploiting low-income renters, Fred Trump ended up transferring a total of $413 million (in inflation-adjusted dollars) to his son.

The Kavanaugh and Trump stories are actually connected by a common bond of clueless, angry entitlement.  Even more importantly, the sense that each man has of his own greatness and their shrieking horror at any suggestion of not being a "self-made man" are the keys to understanding both men's connection with Trump's non-elite white male cheering section.  Male insecurity runs the world.

Back in January 2016, I published a column questioning Trump's supposed financial prowess.  I drew in large part from a piece at Vox, where Dylan Matthews ran the best numbers that were then available, starting from the apparent fact that Trump had inherited about $40 million when his father died.  Matthews then noted that Trump would have become much richer if he had simply parked his inheritance in a passive investment fund rather than actually trying to be a businessman.

This conclusion, however, was based in part on a guesstimate of Trump's net worth as being in the $3 billion range in 2016.  Trump's various claims about his net worth change with the hues of orange on his face, but his most typical claim is that he is worth ten or twelve billion dollars.  If that were actually true -- but of course it is not, as far as anyone can tell -- then he actually might have beaten the market.

Sort of.  As I put it in my column:
"The Vox piece cites further estimates showing that if Trump had become a passive investor in 1982, he would now be worth $6.3 billion, while an early retirement in 1988 would have given him something like $11-$13 billion today.  That suggests, I suppose, that Trump might have been a good businessman for about ten or fifteen years, but he's been positively awful since then."
At best, then, Trump's own claims about his wealth would have him barely keeping up with a passive investment alternative for the last twenty-eight years of his pre-presidential life.  But if he actually inherited $413 million rather than the presumed $40 million?  Even taking into account the adjustment from the 1970's to today's dollars, to create an apples-to-apples comparison, that $40 million would become about $200 million or so.  That would make Trump an absolutely mediocre businessman even if he were worth twice as much as he currently claims.

It is one thing to lie about one's wealth, however.  That might merely be a manifestation of the standard carnival barker gene that drives Trump.  Everything must be the biggest, the richest, the best!  That's what brings in the suckers, and Trump knows it.  But the problem here is deeper than that.

Trump, after all, is not merely saying that he is rich.  He is saying that he is better than everyone else at everything because he is rich.  In his telling, he is superior to all of his detractors because his savvy allowed him to do what others simply are incapable of doing.  This is, of course, nonsense.

As I noted in a column last week, Trump often displays what psychologists call "projection" by disparaging other people for the faults that he cannot admit in himself.  "You're a loser because you didn't make yourself rich" is a slam both because it accuses the other person of being poor and because it says that, however rich that person might be, he is not self-made.  And deep down, Trump knows that he is not as rich as he claims and that it was all Daddy's doing, anyway.  Denial has to kick in.

But this obsession with the mythology of the self-made man (and I do mean man) is hardly unique to Trump.  As the party of the plutocracy, Republicans have spent decades flattering themselves and their owners with stories about the greatness of the wealthy class.  Grand tales about the titans of capitalism run constantly in the business press.  This means that tax cuts are to be understood as merely giving the great men their money back, to allow them to bequeath upon the undeserving multitudes the further fruits of their greatness.

This is how handmaidens of the wealthy like House Speaker Paul Ryan have built their careers.  They became obsessed with a few poorly-written novels in high school or college and became convinced that the government cannot be allowed to interfere with the greatness of the Great Men.  "The takers" cannot be allowed to use the grasping state to redistribute from "the makers," because to do so will make those benefactors unhappy, unproductive, and ultimately too despondent to continue to create wealth.

This is all a matter of deluded individualism, the idea that the people at the top did not rely on the platform provided by the state (including, for example, a reasonably educated -- and docile -- work force) or the efforts of their workers to build their fortunes.  They almost invariably insist: "I did it all by myself!"

This then feeds into the idea that progressive taxes "punish success" -- as if any tax system in the world has the effect of making a rich man poor.  Being somewhat less rich because of taxes is not punishment.

But that does not stop conservatives from telling stories about the Democrats' supposed "politics of envy," which purports to explain progressives' desire to increase taxes on the rich.  It is not about trying to make the world a better place for everyone by redistributing from those who have much more than enough to those who were unlucky enough not to be born with rich parents.  No, it is about all of the little people being envious of their supposed betters.  "Don't worry, Donald.  The kids who hate you are just jealous!"

Along with Ryan, the handmaidens of the rich include the permanent conservative class of political strivers that Brett Kavanaugh now so perfectly represents.  He was never as wealthy as Trump claims to be (or even as Trump actually is), but he was given every advantage growing up.  His mother was a judge and his father was the head of a major business lobby in Washington.  Although he lied about it to the Senate (no surprise there), he had connections at Yale.  Connections led to connections, and being willing to toe the movement conservative line made him even more valuable to "the malefactors of great wealth" than Ryan ever was.

Even so, Kavanaugh infamously adopted the "I did it all by myself!" line as his own, telling the Senate -- in digressions that were deliberately non-responsive to Democrats' questions -- that he "worked [his] butt off" and now deserves what he was promised.  How dare any jealous people take away what is rightfully his?!

Believe me when I say that I am also the beneficiary of great luck.  Every successful person that I know is lucky in a multitude of ways.  Beyond the luck of the draw on our health, we had parents who made it simply a background assumption that we would go to college.  That does not undermine the fact that we did work hard and that others with similar advantages did not achieve as much, but those others might have had hidden disadvantages that we did not face.  In any event, it would be crazy to try to claim that we are self-made.

But Kavanaugh and Trump cannot abide the idea that others might dare to try to take away their birthrights.  Lying women either scheme to bring the great men down or are pawns in the plans of jealous rivals who resent the great men's success.  If success after success is not forthcoming, it is someone else's fault.  Success is a one-man show, but failure is a global conspiracy.

Even though Trump and Kavanaugh traveled in different circles and measured their (completely deserved and earned, just ask them!) success differently, they are among the tiny fraction of men who constitute key parts of the conservative elite.  Both claim to have done it all by themselves, against the forces of little people who try to bring them down.

So what about those little people?  In his most recent column in The Washington Post, Paul Waldman draws a connection between Trump and his white male base voters that runs through the resentments of threatened privilege.  Trump's base -- and this is not merely the much-touted blue collar men, because it clearly includes the more prosperous men who constitute the statistically larger part of Trump's support -- views itself as under siege by ungrateful, grasping, illegitimate usurpers.

Waldman presents his argument in the context of Trump's sneering contempt for Senator Elizabeth Warren's American Indian heritage.  As Waldman points out, scientific evidence supporting Warren's origin story will not stop Trump from attacking Warren.  Trump frequently repeats long-since-debunked lies.  (Indeed, that is practically his brand.)  But the larger point is that this particular lie is useful because it connects Warren to the long-running grievance on the right about affirmative action:
"What is much more widespread among Trump supporters is the idea that racial minorities are given special advantages that allow them to vault past more deserving white people, making every aspect of their lives a cushy ride in a government-provided limousine while virtuous whites struggle to make it on nothing but their own merit."
Although Waldman tells the story from the standpoint of racial animus, gender animus also runs deep.  Warren is thus a particularly useful target for Trump because she is a woman, but the racial aspect appears to be stronger.  (A majority of white women voted for Trump in 2016, even though his contempt for women was manifest.)

The bigger idea is that people who believe that they simply deserve success -- white men, even those who are not economically elite -- also believe that they are being unfairly attacked by undeserving "mobs" who deserve nothing but scorn.  When Trump started telling tales about men brought low by unfair #MeToo lies, he tried to get women to worry about their husbands, sons, and brothers who might be victimized.  "What happened to Brett Kavanaugh's poor family could happen to you, too," Trump warned.

It now appears that the most emotionally fragile, insecure people in the country are Trump's white male supporters.  Even the hint that they might not get what they want sends them into a rage, looking for scapegoats.  Trump and Kavanaugh surely have no respect for the many men whom they consider to be their inferiors, but those men see their own self-pitying plight when they see a prominent white man threatened.  How can a man do it all by himself, they ask, when so many people refuse to let him succeed?


Shag from Brookline said...

It should be pointed out that Justice K's mother became a Maryland judge long after teenage K's private high school hi jinks days at Georgetown Prep. But Justice K's mother was a Montgomery County prosecutor during teenage K's high school days. A cynic might suggest that authorities in Chevy Chase and neighboring MD towns in Montgomery County in addressing any such hi jinks may have been aware of the relationship and acted accordingly. In the confirmation hearings, then Judge K expressed his pride in his Mom starting law school when he was 10 years old and then becoming a prosecutor and later a MD judge. That was before revelations about the teenage K's high school hi jinks. I have asked the question elsewhere whether his parents were aware of his teenage hi jinks in high school.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Terrific post, Neil! I go back and forth in my thinking about the role of race in white women's identification with Trump and with Kavanaugh. It certainly does look like a racial sort of empathy, because a majority of white women voted for Trump, while an overwhelming majority of African American women voted for Hillary. Yet the African American community got behind Clarence Thomas in 1992 (or was in 91?), even though he stood accused of misconduct toward an African American woman and even though his politics were (and are) very conservative. I wonder whether something about a sexual abuse allegation--and the centuries-long alarmist propaganda about women bringing false accusations against innocent men--ironically draws the community of women around the accused. The accuser then becomes a sort of cutout without interests or feelings of her own, sent to injure one of "our own" men. If I am right, then women accusing the two men of some non-sexual offense, say vandalism, might have had an easier time reaching the "white female" demographic. There is also the matter of class. Joan Williams has written about this: professionals derive much of their status from their jobs--hence the obligatory "what do you do?" question they ask of one another--while working class people derive their status from other things, because their work may not confer that much status. Though Trump has loads of money, his personal style will be familiar to people from less prosperous economic classes. He just says whatever he feels like saying (much to many people's horror), without the veneer that professionals typically paint onto their communications. Kavanaugh, in general, has the professional style, but his behavior at the hearings after being accused was that of someone who just yells what he is thinking, without pretending to sugarcoat anything. I think this might be appealing to people outside the professional classes, even if this stylistic familiarity is at odds with financial and professional distance.

Joe said...


If it was 1992, it would have broke the "no confirmation in a presidential election year" rule. Come on. And, the Democrats controlled Congress with a Republican president, so it violated McConnell's recent addendum too.

Seriously, how did the sex split work there? That is, did black women also support Thomas?

JS said...

Those who obtain greatest benefit from our form of government should have the greatest obligation to support the nation. Instead they contribute the least.

former student said...

A simpler view would be that working class folks are more likely to fear newer rules of social engagement because they didn't write those rules, aren't asked for their input, and have more difficulty navigating those rules. They worry that the rules may contain pitfalls for the unwary, and so may sympathize with Kavanaugh when he appears to be caught in one, even though he is otherwise a foreigner. Whether this fear is valid or not is a completely different question. I don't think this insecurity is confined to working class men, or to men, or to working class folks.

Also, to Ms. Kolb's point, working class folks who have skilled laboring jobs do locate a great deal of their sense of status in their ability to perform those jobs. There are class divisions between "laborers," on the one hand, and "boilermakers" or many of the other highly-skilled trades, on the other. The fear of losing jobs where those skills matter, and the fear that the people writing the rules don't even recognize those as skills that do matter, is also at work here (e.g., with Nafta, policies of not enforcing immigration laws, etc.). Trump is more recognizable than Sanders or Warren, and therefore less scary. Working class folks understand bosses and businessmen; they have to navigate those folks to earn a living and more or less know how to do so. The world of academics and universities is something very different.

Joe said...

"A simpler view would be that working class folks are more likely to fear newer rules of social engagement because they didn't write those rules, aren't asked for their input, and have more difficulty navigating those rules."

Newer rules of social engagement develop over time and include such things as proper treatment in the workplace that workers themselves have various means to influence. I'm not sure how they specifically as a bloc [we are talking a lot of types of people here] have more difficulty as compared some subsets who might favor Trump.

Workers of various types do feel not respected though again we should note there are a variety types of workers (see, e.g., Erik Loomis' "Ten Strikes" book) or Sarah Kendzior's book of essays (e.g., concern for unpaid interns). Such fears is exploited by Trump though net Clinton's platform would protect workers more.

I'm not sure how Sanders is "more recognizable" than Trump specifically though agree he was a national celebrity. The realistic worker, again a general type, would know Trump as a typical grifter though some of them might on balance toss their support his way (e.g., those with certain racist and/or sexist tendencies).

Workers do engage with academics and universities as well. Again, some might find Trump more appealing in certain ways.

former student said...

Also, isn't it possible that the impression that many working class white folks have with affirmative action comes from their own experience in dealing with how those issues ended up being handled at the union level, on shop floors, and in the construction trades, not that minority status is a ticket to limo rides in Cambridge? This kind of characterization of working folks' thoughts and concerns could end up backfiring or fueling Trump's fire, because it could be taken as dismissive of their experiences or thoughts.