The Louis C.K. theory of Donald Trump425 views
One of the more insightful and accessible recent commentaries on the role of race in American society comes from the comedian Louis C.K. in 2008. You’ve probably seen his riff on the role of white privilege, clipped from his 2008 special “Chewed Up.” If you haven’t, here you go. (If you haven’t seen him perform before, he likes to swear.)
Let’s focus on this bit.
Here’s how great it is to be white. I could get in a time machine and go to any time and it would be [expletive] awesome when I get there. That is exclusively a white privilege. Black people can’t [expletive] with time machines. A black guy in a time machine is like, “Hey anything before 1980, no thank you, I don’t want to go.” … I can go to any time — in the past. I don’t want to go to the future and find out what happens to white people, because we’re going to pay hard for this [expletive], you gotta know that.
There’s a lot embedded in that little riff: the ongoing dominance of whites in American culture, the evolution of racial status — and concern (however joking) over what the transition to a more multicultural society will mean for white Americans.
By the year 2050, America will have undergone several dramatic demographic changes, often working in opposite directions. Data from Pew Research and the Census Bureau shows that America will have gotten much older, much less white and much less religious.
It’s the age and race changes that will be in tension; a lot of those older Americans will be white and watching America shift away from the way they knew it. This always happens as you age, of course; it’s just soon there will be so many older people. And if you want a preview of how that will affect our politics, look no further than the 2016 presidential race.
The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein has done consistently interesting analysis of the demographic trends shaping this year’s contest, including an examination published Thursday morning looking at the role of “white nostalgia” in Donald Trump’s candidacy.
Trump’s regular use of phrases like “again” (as in “Make America Great Again”) and “bring back,” Brownstein writes, “touch the pervasive sense of loss among many of his supporters — the belief that the changes molding modern America have marginalized them economically, demographically, and culturally.” He points to polling showing that the group that is most concerned with cultural change — opposition to gay marriage, frustration with immigrants who don’t speak English, thinking the government coddles minorities — is white Americans with a high school degree or less.
White voters without a college degree are much more likely to back Trump than Hillary Clinton in a general election, according to Washington Post/ABC News polling. Trump also leads by 25 points with white voters age 50 and older in our May poll, compared to a 19-point lead among whites under 50. (People under 30 are less likely to have college degrees, too, given that degrees take time.)
Those older voters, Brownstein suggests, are in the Louis-C.K.-time-travel position: concerned about where this whole thing is going as American changes.
At the New York Times, Thomas Edsall dives into the psychology of this frustration a bit further. Edsall quotes a New York University professor named Jonathan Haidt, who explains a concept called “psychological reactance.” In Haidt’s words, this is “the feeling you get when people try to stop you from doing something you’ve been doing, and you perceive that they have no right or justification for stopping you. So you redouble your efforts and do it even more, just to show that you don’t accept their domination.” This overlaps, Edsall suggests, with frustration over changes to the position of whites in American society and Trump’s focus on rebutting “political correctness.”
“Trump’s supporters,” Edsall writes, “judging from the venom with which they refer to ‘political correctness,’ perceive the network of state, local and federal anti-discrimination laws and directives as censorious and coercive.” In other words: As a challenge to their cultural position.
The subtext to Louis C.K.’s bit, of course, is that there are no time machines that go backwards, just the real-world one that moves forward one second at a time. Trump can’t reverse time any more than he can go a day without tweeting. What he can do, though, is speak convincingly to the concerns of the aging, shrinking American majority to which he and C.K. belong.