Open Essay

Why White America is Breaking Bad

Bennett Voyles writes on global trends. He was formerly with The Economist Intelligence Unit
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Revolutions are made by those with something to lose

PUNDITS HAVE FOUND many reasons to explain why Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton: the bi-coastal liberal bubble, Democratic cosiness with Wall Street, the end of industrial America, Hillary Clinton’s personal unpopularity. I’m sure all of the explanations have a grain of truth to them, but when the stupefied newscasters on CNN grudgingly conceded on the morning of November 9th that Donald Trump had won the US presidency, I thought about Walter White.

The anti-hero of the TV saga Breaking Bad, Walter H White is a high school Chemistry teacher whose life at the beginning of the show is an endless series of humiliations. Although a gifted teacher, this middle-aged White man gets no respect from his students, his principal (a Hispanic woman), or the Romanian owner of the car wash where he moonlights. Even his wife doesn’t think much of him. But after being diagnosed with terminal cancer and desperate for a way quick fortune to secure his family’s future, he puts his talents to work manufacturing methamphetamine. Complications ensue.

It’s a fun show, in a dark and violent way. The lead actor, Bryan Cranston, plays White’s moral descent from doormat to drug kingpin very well. I liked Breaking Bad a lot, but by the time we finished the third season, I began to feel that there was something a bit unhealthy about how much I was enjoying watching a fellow middle-aged White guy get the better of a variety of Mexicans, African Americans, and the occasional woman.

Cranston is no Trump supporter—he had said he would move to Canada if he won—but I think a similar dynamic to my response to the show may explain why a CNN exit poll found that roughly 63 per cent of White men and 79 per cent of non-college educated white men voted for him.

Jesse Pinkman: Wait. Wait. Hold up. Tell me why you’re doing this. Seriously.
Walter H White: Why do you do it?
Jesse Pinkman: Money, mainly.
Walter H White: There you go.
Jesse Pinkman: Nah, come on, man. Some straight like you,
giant stick up his ass, all of a sudden at age, what, 60, he’s just gonna break bad?
Walter H White: I’m 50.
Breaking Bad, Episode 1

Why would you choose the least qualified general election candidate in history over one of the most? I had a hard time understanding this one: I didn’t vote for Trump, nor as far as I know did any of my family, nor almost any friend I’ve made since I was about 10 years old. When I looked on Facebook, most of my East Coast and Californian friends were in a deep state of shock, even mourning. The only day in my lifetime that felt at all similar to me in terms of being a sudden upending of reality was in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Others felt that too—I saw a few people who posted no comment but the date: ‘11/9’.

Among my old, old friends, the people I grew up with in what was probably a 97 per cent White small town out in Oregon, the response was more mixed. The most extreme altercation I read was between a guy I’ll call Al, a log truck driver who lives further up the coast from Lincoln City, and my old neighbour, a bartender in Portland I’ll call Sandi. Al was ill and posted that he was feeling: ‘Sicker than a dog that [just ate] a salmon. But enjoying my boy just whoopin the rapist protecting (her husband) Muslim loving , Christian hating, Obama (unmentionable) sucking piece of (expletive) Hillary. This is better than football. Especially if you’re a 49er fan like me.’

And Sandi replied:

‘I’ll tell you what this is making me sick he is a pig and a racist and a Violator and the most despicable person I could ever imagine to run the country I’m heartbroken I think this is the most horrible thing in the world’

Then Al concluded:

‘Better than a rapist defending [her husband] we’ve had 8 years of the left and when Bush (not a fan) was running the show I payed $700.00 to $ 800.00 a month taxes. I still work 80-90 hours a week. My wages haven’t changed $65000-$70000 a year. Under Obama im paying over $2000 a year now. I love you sandi but we need to get back to basics.’

‘Better than football’ says a lot, if you think about it. The fun for Al was clearly not just the possibility that Trump will shave off what I think he meant to write was his $20,000-plus tax bill, but something more visceral. In person, Al is like a lot of truck drivers—quiet, a bit shy, with the kind of thoughtful air you develop if you spend most of your days alone in a glass and steel box. Why would he get the same kind of charge out of this election that I’d gotten watching Walter White get the better of various nasty women or use his chemical know-how to blow some bad hombres to kingdom come?

“We’re a big sprawling country and the interior country often feels, whether rightly or wrongly, belittled or ignored by the cosmopolitan elite media of the two coasts, and the national government seems far away,” says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism in Chapel Hill. “There was an appeal that Donald Trump had to rural people, to working class people in the old industrial cities, and to suburbanites in some of our newer metropolitan areas that touched their anxieties, touched their grievances, touched to some extent their racial attitudes.”

It’s a fun show, in a dark and violent way. The lead actor, Bryan Cranston (left), plays White’s moral descent from doormat to drug kingpin very well. I liked Breaking Bad a lot, but by the time we finished the third season, I began to feel that there was something a bit unhealthy about how much I was enjoying watching a fellow middle-aged White guy get the better of a variety of Mexicans, African Americans, and the occasional woman

It’s worth stressing that this was a peculiarly White phenomenon. African American and Latino workers both voted for Clinton in substantial numbers—not surprisingly, of course, given his record number of insults, particularly of Latinos. Perhaps even more importantly, they don’t feel nearly the same level of despair: a survey sponsored by the University of Chicago found in 2013 that just 46 per cent of Whites say that their family has a good chance of improving their living standard compared to 71 per cent of Blacks and 73 per cent of Hispanics, a divergence that has grown substantially since the Obamas moved into the White House.

In fact, Black and Hispanic household incomes remain substantially lower: 44.5 per cent of White households brought home less than $50,000 in 2014, compared to 56.6 per cent of Hispanic and 63.9 per cent of Black. Further up the ladder, 43.4 per cent of White households took home more than $50,000, compared to 38.3 per cent of Hispanics or 31.4 per cent of Blacks, according to US Census data.

“African American and Latino workers have seen some progress over the past two decades, but for the White working class, it’s been a case of unremitted decline... the prospect of a bleak future drives a lot of the anger that they saw in the election,” explains Victor Tan Chen, an assistant professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy (2015).

Wages have not gone anywhere since the 1970s, except near the top of the ladder, and 80 per cent of the jobs lost between 2008 and 2010 were men’s jobs, notes Michael Kimmel in his book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era (2013). Kimmel, a professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at Stony Brook University in New York, theorises that many American men feel aggrieved not just because times have been hard but because they feel that so many people have come along and taken ‘their’ good jobs—whether that’s a well-paying union job in a car factory that’s moved to Mexico or the presidency.

This isn’t especially fair, of course. As Kimmel quipped in his book, ‘The truth is, white men are the beneficiaries of the single greatest affirmative action program in world history. It’s called ‘world history’.’

Trump’s pitch takes them back to a time when White men had it easier. “In Trump’s slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’, the pregnant word there is ‘again’,” says Chapel Hill’s Guillory. “...I think that the implication there is that if you go back to the 50s and 60s, when there was a thriving middle-class and the Baby Boom was on the march, when we were the big super power... there’s a sense that it was great back then before all the trouble started and the trouble was partly the civil rights movement, partly the rise of a counter culture, partly the decline of heavy industry, and then the challenge that some White people felt because of immigration.”

But whether Trump reverts completely to being the centrist New Yorker he used to be before his conversion to Republicanism doesn’t mean the counter-revolution he ignited last year won’t continue

At my 35th high school reunion last summer, I talked to another old friend I’ll call Stretch who’s a Trump supporter now. A Gulf War vet, he’s the supervisor of a construction crew in Eastern Washington—a tall biker with a ponytail, brash as ever, still strong and confident but grey and grizzled now, and concerned about the country. People just don’t look out for each other anymore, he said. Me, if you were in trouble, I’d drive across the country to help you. But a lot of people, he said, they just don’t care.

Stretch isn’t alone in feeling more alone. “The working class in general tends to view things in a more individualistic perspective than they did in past decades,” says Chen. One factor that’s accentuated this sense of isolation, Chen says, is probably the decline in union membership, which helped give people “a sense that we’re all in this together.” Only 6.5 per cent of private sector workers are unionised these days in the US, according to US Census data, down from about 20 per cent in the 1980s.

IRONICALLY, SOCIAL MEDIA, which helped bring us together for our reunion and keep up more closely than we ever did, may also be driving us further apart. “Clearly, the proliferation of social media has accelerated the discussion of resentments, the discussion of made-up facts, too,” says Guillory of Chapel Hill. “One of the fractures in our society that the election illuminated or laid bare isn’t just the difference between Democrats and Republicans... but we’ve got a fracture between professional news organisations and the potent social media pseudo-news and discussion groups and opinion purveyors. People don’t just get information from a common source or from a local daily newspaper or from a television station, they get news and attitudes from Facebook, Twitter and blogs.”

The Wall Street Journal runs an interesting page that compares the news and pseudo-news that ‘blue’ and ‘red’ Facebook users get. The latest posts on Hillary Clinton for instance, include a graphic by a group called Left Action that notes her popular vote victory and an old tweet of @realDonaldTrump from 2012 that said ‘The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.’ Meanwhile, the rightwing Gateway Pundit claims ‘Hillary became ‘Physically Violent’ Last Tuesday as the Presidency Slipped Away from Her!!!’

These information echo chambers have helped transform political party membership from one of many social signifiers to competing world views so distinct that people can find it difficult to even be civil to someone from another party. These days, it’s the one sort of bigotry permitted in polite society: 30 per cent of American conservatives and 24 per cent of American liberals say they would feel uncomfortable if a family member married someone from the opposite political camp, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study.

Trump’s transition team also has an unusual composition for a populist politburo. If he weren’t on it, Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, might well have characterised it as a globalist conspiracy on Breitbart News, his popular and occasionally anti-Semitic alt-right website

At the same time, the complexity of many of today’s problems has also made it easier to substitute what University of Wisconsin political scientist Katherine Cramer has called a politics of resentment for a politics of ideology. ‘What might seem to be a central debate about the appropriate role of government might at base be something else: resentment toward our fellow citizens,’ she wrote in her 2016 book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

Making matters more difficult—at least for politicians who aren’t in the scapegoat business—is the fact that there is no necessary correlation between the cause of a group’s pain and the target of their venom. In Raised to Rage: The Politics of Anger and the Roots of Authoritarianism (second edition, 2016), authors Michael A Milburn and Sheree D Conrad note that researchers have understood for 75 years now that the pain of one group can motivate an attack on another, in the same way that a man frustrated at work might take it out on his family.

A 1940 study, for example, found that the numbers of Blacks lynched in the South tended to correlate with a decline in the price of cotton, according to the book, and over 100 studies since then have demonstrated that displaced aggression tends to increase when unemployment rises or social norms are called into question.

Facts, unfortunately, tend not to have much impact. Decision-making processes made by people with a penchant for right-wing authoritarianism ‘tend to be emotional rather than cognitive in nature’, Milburn and Conrad write.

Looked at from this perspective, it becomes easier to see why Trump did well with anxious White men despite his boorishness. Far from being a character flaw, Trump’s antics were an essential part of the fun, and what made his victory sweeter than a touchdown for my friend Hank. Whether insulting Jeb Bush, making fun of the robotic Marco Rubio, telling off Hillary Clinton, or bragging about assaulting women, the more aghast the rest of the country felt, the more excited they became. “When he attacks political correctness they feel like, ‘Wow, they now have a licence to say the kinds of horrible things to people that he does’,” says Conrad, co-author of Raising Rage.

Conrad speculates that the target of the rage may matter less than the rage itself. “What I’ve been mulling in the last few days is, whether the words necessarily are important, whether [Trump] could just get up and say, ‘Oh well, we’re going to throw the snails out of America and build the wall’.”

So will Trump give my old pals the revolution he promised? Already, on a variety of Trump’s signature issues, from the wall on the Mexican border (parts of which Trump and some advisors now say may end up being ‘a nice fence’) to the repeal of Obamacare (Trump now intends to repeal only parts), the Trump revolution is looking less ferocious by the day.

Even “crooked Hillary” is getting a break. In his acceptance speech, Trump called the woman he had said repeatedly that he intended to put in jail “a dedicated public servant to whom we owe a large debt.” In his most recent interview on the CBS television programme 60 Minutes, he still seemed disinclined to prosecute the Clintons. “They’re good people,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt them.”

Trump’s transition team also has an unusual composition for a populist politburo. If he weren’t on it, Steve Bannon, the president-elect’s chief strategist, might well have characterised it as a globalist conspiracy on Breitbart News, his popular and occasionally anti-Semitic alt-right website. Three members of the executive committee are Goldman Sachs alumni—financiers Steve Mnuchin, Anthony Scaramucci, and Bannon himself. The openly gay German-American businessman Peter Thiel is a Silicon Valley billionaire and the founder of Paypal, the very definition of a cross-border business. Jared Kushner, his son-in- law, is publisher of the New York Observer and a New York real estate baron in his own right. Scaramucci is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations and the World Economic Forum, the group that sponsors the Davos speech festival. There are also three Jews: financier Steve Mnuchin, Kushner, and Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who converted to Orthodox Judaism when she got married.

Nor are they all dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. Scaramucci worked on Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012, but voted for Obama in 2008. Kushner endorsed Obama for president in 2008 in his newspaper, The New York Observer, but said at the time it was a tough call as he thought Clinton was “a stand-up person”, and most of the family has donated money to many Democrats.

At the moment, aside from Bannon’s appointment, the only policy that seems very different from what we might have seen in a Mitt Romney administration is on climate change. On that issue too, Trump has sent mixed signals: he has a climate change contrarian working on the environmental briefs now and he himself has called climate change a Chinese hoax. Then again, last year, his organisation filed an application to build a wall on the Atlantic coast of a Trump golf course in Ireland that was not intended to hold back Asian practical jokes. ‘The evidence for increased storm activity associated with climate change suggests that erosion will accelerate,’ the application warned.

But whether Trump reverts completely to being the centrist New Yorker he used to be before his recent conversion to Republicanism doesn’t mean the counter-revolution he ignited last year won’t continue. His fans have liked the Trump show a lot, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, a public interest law group, has said that incidents of hate crimes have risen more dramatically since his election than at any time since 9/11. The President-Elect has told these hooligans to cut it out, but for now at least, as SPLC director Richard Cohen has told USA Today, White supremacists are “feeling their oats”.

In spite of its social consequences, the Oval Office’s celebrity apprentice doesn’t seem to have any regrets about the way he campaigned. Although his speeches seethed with insults against women and almost every minority and were peppered with lies and outrageous exaggerations, he seems unconcerned. Asked by the Wall Street Journal in one of his first interviews after the election about whether he thought his campaign rhetoric had gone too far, the master marketer didn’t hesitate. “No,” he said. “I won.”

I imagine things will settle down soon, but if at some point my friends Hank, Stretch, and the rest of the near-majority who voted for Trump conclude that they’ve been snookered by a billionaire’s club, I’m not sure what their response might be.

‘Revolutions are made not by those with ‘nothing left to lose’,’ Kimmel warned in Angry White Men, ‘...but precisely by those with something to lose—and a fear that they are, in fact, about to lose it.’ As he pointed out, that’s the situation that many of these men feel themselves to be in right now.

In a country of 330 million people with 300 million guns between them, that’s cause for concern.