What the “Trump phenomenon” says about class consciousness

BY:Charles Bledsoe| September 22, 2016
What the “Trump phenomenon” says about class consciousness

Although the percentage of members of the American working class with a strong sense of class identification has risen – a very encouraging sign indeed – the levels of support for the Trump campaign among the rank and file of the work force is still high enough to be disturbing, and to acutely need addressing.

Well, it’s definitely disturbing, but not all that puzzling. Sigmund Freud defined an illusion as a false belief whose underlying motive is wish fulfillment. By this definition the perception that an all too large portion of the working-class electorate has of Donald Trump, as their tribune and champion, is a very understandable illusion. The American working class feels itself to be in dire need of a champion because it finds itself in such dire straits in our era of late capitalism. Its worsening precarization and pauperization has set it up to fall easy prey to a demagogue who portrays himself as its savior.

But there’s of course another equally obvious reason that much of the working-class public has swallowed the illusory bill of goods that Donald Trump is hawking. The American people have been thoroughly sold the myth that it’s one of the sunny features of American exceptionalism that working people on this side of the pond can safely dispense with the concept of class; that, all evidence to the contrary, the division of society into socioeconomic classes with conflicting interests is not in the slightest a reality of American society.

That a good many American workers are still gravely stuck in this class unconsciousness that protects the capitalist ruling class from the growth of blue-collar disgruntlement into a full-fledged class struggle that would topple the plutocrats at the top of the class totem pole is certainly not just the result of serendipity operating in favor of capitalist elites.

For some time now, conservatives and other pro-capitalists, the mass media and popular culture have done their level best to nip class consciousness in the bud. They’ve dedicated themselves to repeatedly telling the big lie that the United States is an ideally classless society. They’ve taught the man and woman on the street to dismiss the notion of class as divisive, and to demonize those who promote it as sowers of discontent. They’ve thereby conditioned Joe and Jane Sixpack to view the very idea of class as a dangerous and un-American foreign import rather than a fact of life that it would behoove working people to come to terms with. They’ve succeeded all too well in making the exceptionalist hype that America is a perfectly meritocratic, classless society a part of American patriotism and chauvinism.

And today, in this election year, we’re witnessing the fruit borne by all of this highly effective propagandizing against class consciousness. The successful discouragement of class awareness has made it absurdly and dangerously possible for a narcissistic, career capitalist like Donald Trump to hoodwink a great many blue-collar folks into counterintuitively believing that he’s their advocate. This despite the outrageous blatancy of his unmitigated inability to genuinely identify with wage earners, his total lack of sincere compassion for the less fortunate, and his proposal of remedies for America’s economic ills that would in fact only benefit members of his own class!

Regrettably, there’s no way around it, it has to be viewed as extremely sad commentary on the level of class consciousness of Americans that despite the obscene income inequality that prevails today, a disturbing percentage of the 99% are capable of remaining in almost clinical denial about the significance of class, and of taking a flaming member of the 1% to be their knight in shining armor.

And, of course, the lack of class consciousness is also an underlying and significant factor making for the immigrant-phobia, racism, and sexism that Trump’s campaign features, because when people fail to correctly identify the capitalist system and its power elites as the ultimate source of the economy’s woes, they tend to go in for the scapegoating explanations proffered by demagogues of The Donald’s ilk. This is yet another way in which class unconsciousness explains the Trump phenomenon. (And, by the way, it points up the fact that rather than class consciousness being divisive, it’s actually the lack of class awareness that leaves people susceptible to scapegoating and racially-tinged conspiracy theories, and which thereby leads to polarizing identity politics; i.e., the politicized sexism, homophobia, and racism that alienates a great many working Americans from their neighbors, and which plays right into the divide and conquer agenda of the ruling class.)

But this election year also makes it quite evident that the right and the Republican Party has had way too much success in creating a class-unconscious, ideologically dumbed-down lowest common denominator to pander to. The lowest common denominator (the Tea Party and the alt-right) has taken over the asylum (the conservative movement and the Republican Party) and is trashing whatever undeserved credibility their side of the aisle once enjoyed by outing it as the bastion of bigotry that it’s always been (just think back to the John Birch Society!)

But, it being darkest before the dawn, this is potentially a quite hopeful development for our society’s political life. Trump’s hardcore supporters are of course appallingly unbothered by the darkness that he personifies and promotes, the class unconsciousness that he cynically takes advantage of, the hateful politics of division that he stands for (if he sincerely stands for anything). But, by letting the ugly isms and phobias, the racism, sexism, and heterosexism, the immigrant-phobia and Islamophobia of the right all hang out so glaringly, Mr. Trump may actually do our society the service of turning its masses against the right, and eventually effect a swing toward the values of the left. So, although the words would currently stick in our throat, perhaps one day we might be able to say “Thank you for your service, Mr. Trump”.

At any rate, the mass appeal of Donald Trump’s demagogic shtick should be recognized by the left as a clarion call of duty to redouble its efforts to raise class consciousness. It’s imperative that the left heroically rise to the challenges presented by this critical historical occasion. After all, nothing less than the soul of the nation and the survival of its body politic is at stake, and only socialists possess the class awareness that’s capable of saving us from the kind of doomed future that the likes of Donald Trump are trying to beguile and bully the American electorate toward.



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