It's a denigrating term that is meant to literally put people in their place: loser. If you did a word cloud of Donald Trump's speeches, that word might come out in 60 point Arial bold type. The opposite of loser is, of course, winner, another of Trump's greatest word-cloud hits. Let's spend a moment looking at this close up, because I think it's the key to this particular American political moment.
There are many great and amazing things about the American story that we can all justly celebrate, but there's an underside to it that keeps turning up, over and over in American politics. Capitalism at its worst tells a story about winners and losers. Our winners are the rich, and our losers are the poor. Unlike socialism (which I am not advocating here, just using as a discussion point), where workers are valued as part of the social whole and the gains of the group are more important than the achievements of the few, in capitalism it is a challenge to feel at home if you're not at least in the comfortable middle. Most of us will not be millionaires, most of us will not be famous. And by economic definition, the vast majority of us could be called losers.
And now we have Donald Trump, the ultimate symbol of capitalism as the triumph of winners over losers. In an ordinary year, a billionaire who had spent his entire life chasing after money and privilege, with nary a glance back at the people on the bottom of society, would have no chance in hell of mobilizing the angry and the left-out. But Trump's particular brand of genius appeals to those on the bottom by psychological association; if you are with me, Trump proclaims, then you are no longer losers. I am a winner, and if you hold onto the hem of my hand-tailored coat, you will be magically transformed into a winner, too. His slogan might as well be "Making You All Winners Again."
And the "again" part of his slogan is the most potent of all, because it hooks into a fact so apparent and so destabilizing it is rarely spoken aloud: Trump is speaking to white people on the bottom. White men on the bottom. For the new minority, democracy suddenly is hard to swallow: in this new century, white men are the minority of the voting age population. And soon white people will no longer be a majority in the United States, as they are no longer a majority in many major cities.
American capitalism always held out something special for white men; no matter how much they might be exploited by employers who would always be much, much richer than they could ever hope to be, at least they controlled the culture. At least their religion, their ideas, were dominant. At least they could feel like America was their country, even as they knew that the American dream of upward social mobility was never as great as was promised, and has died a slow death with the crushing of unions in the 20th century.
Trump supporters will come back with polls that show that there are some Trump supporters who are economic winners in the game of capitalism, some with college degrees, some with comfortable means. But the fact remains that the most likely way for a political scientist to predict support for Donald Trump is level of education, followed by level of socio-economic status. Well, let me amend that; the most likely way to predict whether or not a person is likely to support Trump is race.
Let me close with a personal story, as I often do in my essays. This is a story about race, and losers, and winners. The year was 1981, and I was a student in seminary at Yale Divinity School. The Klu Klux Klan was undergoing something of a resurgence, fueled by widespread belief that affirmative action was taking away jobs from more qualified white men. The Klan was planning it's first rally outside the South in a generation, and they were coming to Connecticut, with their Grand Imperial Wizard and full regalia, for a good old fashioned cross burning. I tried to organize a group of seminarians to go with me, not to protest outside the rally, which was a popular notion, but to go inside the rally and speak to those people face to face. That was not such a popular idea, so I went in alone.
I wore my collar, and handed out chocolate chip cookies I had made myself. I asked these Klansmen standing around a burning cross why they had come to the rally, and this is what I heard, over and over, for hours: stories of loss. Jobs had been lost. Homes had been lost. Small towns had dried up. Small farms were swallowed up by Big Agriculture. Despair. And blame. They were taking this blame in as if it were a drug, the only drug that could hold them up. And the end of every conversation, I asked gently if each one could imagine Jesus ever coming to such a rally. And one by one, they looked down at the ground, shuffled their feet, voices trailing off.
Now, one way to look at this phenomenon and condemn it outright. I've done my fair share of that. Another way is to see this as a problem in the heart of a capitalist system itself, and to understand it as such. We have to give everyone a reason to feel like a winner, and it cannot be by invading other countries or continually sounding the drums of war to create a patriotism based on projecting the hate we feel for ourselves as losers onto other countries, other races, other religions. We need to see each other not as partisans, but as human beings. Everyone who tries to care for their families is a winner, everyone who gets up every day and works at a job that seemingly has little dignity does in fact have dignity.
Instead of celebrating economic winners who are often the products not just of their own work ethic but of luck, including family money, like Donald Trump, we have to grow up! Everyone who works for the good of their family and their community is a winner, and if we can find a way to make this a political message, then we might be able to slowly turn our culture around, and be proud of the other story of America. There is another story. In that story, majorities do not oppress minorities. Religions are respected and people of no religion are respected. Work is made available from public funds when capitalism disrupts lives with its constant churn of change. Trump will crawl away as a loser when we start sharing that story.