Bacon’s Rebellion and Donald Trump

The liberal left media has been pushing many ideas about what the election of Donald Trump symbolizes. Arguments abound about how to combat the rising tide of the Alt-Right. Many of these arguments deal with how one’s particular gender, race, or orientation affects the way in which one might join the fight for equal rights. The specific villain to target seems to change week to week, day to day, like the specials menu at a gluten free, vegan, locavore café and bakery.

The electorate that supported Trump’s move into office (for the most part) declare his victory as a move towards a more stable economy that will acknowledge the working poor in a way that previous administrations have not. They point out the alignment both Obama and Clinton had with Wall Street. His supporters combat accusations of bigotry with arguments about jobs and safety: Trump’s wall is not about Mexicans – it’s about jobs; Trump doesn’t hate Muslims, he simply acknowledges a present reality about safety in the world.

Articles fly across social media decrying or defending the misogyny, racism, xenophobia and anti-intellectual rhetoric which sprouted forth from the mouth of our President-Elect. The left will remind you that you must beware of the Trump supporters: even if they do not practice the hate he preaches, they excuse it. The right-wing media will argue that the Left mistakes practicality for bigotry in their quest to shove political correctness down America’s throat.

But the Trump apologist’s assertion that his actions are based on pragmatics and not on hate might be right – just not for the reasons that Trump supporters, or possibly even Trump thinks.

In 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion saw poor and hard-pressed white colonists join forces with enslaved blacks in an attempt to overthrow the ruling class of the Virginia colony. This was terrifying. If poor whites and enslaved blacks saw themselves as the same, they might be able to effect actual change. So, the elite hired one half of the angry poor and downtrodden to police the other. It was a brilliantly effective strategy with a several century legacy.1

The conservatism of the nineteen sixties and eighties saw the criminalization of racial protest and the segregation of working poor families along racial lines. Nixon’s administration targeted black movements for criminal prosecution and led a public campaign to sway the public to see these groups as dangerous.

Under Reaganomics, urban neighborhoods across the country, which were once mixed income and mixed race, fractured under new crushes to organized labor, and corporate loopholes that favored company executives and board members. The result was white flight and the ghettoization of impoverished minorities. This wasn’t an accidental occurrence. It was a calculated political move.

The militarization of a police force – predominantly made up of individuals from lower income households – was a tactic to inspire and propagate fear between two different elements of the lower classes. Lo and behold, those who funded the war on drugs were the same individuals who profited from the war on drugs. Those who participated, on both sides, scapegoated each other for a problems created by others.2 Over the past thirty five years income disparity and wealth disparity in America has grown at an alarming rate. Is it a coincidence that this alarming change happened in parallel with a calculated segregation of the working class?

Trump’s victory isn’t one of misogyny or racism or xenophobia or anti-intellectualism. It’s also not a victory for the working poor.  It’s not even anything new. It’s the same pattern repeating itself. Poor whites, poor blacks, and poor latinos are not responsible for one another’s misfortunes. They’re victims of an institutional divide that breeds contempt and distrust among a group that could be very dangerous to the rich and powerful if they managed to find common ground.

Right now one percent of the population of the United States owns 35% of the wealth of the United States, and the systemic injustice that allowed for that accumulation of wealth also created the idea that the victims of that system should blame one another.

In the early 1990s American manufacturers began moving jobs overseas because lax labour laws and international economic disparity provided the opportunity to produce more goods while paying workers significantly less money.

A wave of fear over the loss of American jobs to immigrants has gripped the country  for nearly three decades now, regardless of this fear’s bearing on reality.

Recently, the prognosticators of Silicon Valley have flooded the world of social media and news with articles arguing that jobs are overwhelming being lost to automation, and that the trend will never end, that eventually we’ll all be replaced by machines, like something out of a Twilight Zone episode, as if the machines themselves were making the decisions.

The reality is that jobs are being lost. But they’re not being lost to immigrants or to outsourcing or to technology. Jobs are being lost to the pursuit of personal wealth by a tiny, powerful group of the privileged. The truly privileged. Each step in the reduction of the workforce is to serve only one end – to raise the net worth of board members and shareholders.

The growing problem of income instability that led to the fear and distrust of this election isn’t going away, and just because you haven’t felt it yet, doesn’t mean you won’t – not because machines will take over all the work people can do; we’re very good at inventing bullshit jobs to occupy one another. You’ll feel it because paying a living wage doesn’t benefit the bottom line and we’ve eroded all the laws and unions that used to protect our rights to a living wage. This fear, the fear of living paycheck to paycheck and being crushed under debt – as most Americans are today – leads to a palpable anger, one we’ve been bombarded by for more than a year now, and it won’t go away.

Bacon’s rebellion was motivated by frontier issues and particularly the feeling that the government wasn’t doing enough to combat indigenous groups, but its anger was focused on the ruling elite of the colony. The nearly one thousand mixed class, mixed race individuals that got together to challenge those ruling elites managed to burn down the capital and were only truly defeated once government forces arrived from England.

The Virginia Slave Codes of 1705 made sure that would never happen again. We’ve been living in the that legacy of engineered segregation ever since. It’s taken on many forms since then, but it has always managed to maintain distrust between different groups of the working classes.

The income divide is growing. The wealth divide is growing, and jobs really are going away. We have wealth disparity in this country that rivals that of the era of the Robber Barons. Being complacent won’t fix that problem. Building a wall won’t fix that problem. Arguing with China, and cancelling trade deals won’t fix that problem. Yelling at someone who voted for Trump because they’re tired of being broke and in debt won’t help that problem. Neither will denouncing someone as dumb or hateful because their act of desperation and frustration doesn’t line up with your social ideals.

Corporations set the rules for our country. Board members with majority shares set prices for pharmaceuticals and wages for jobs. They reward hiring practices that deny benefits, and layoffs that reduce the cost of production while maintaining the price of goods. They give out bonuses for taking advantage of unethical child labor and dangerous factory conditions, because it means more profits at the end of each quarter. They circumvent laws that endanger our health and our environment because the profits to be made are greater than the fines imposed. They use their extraordinary wealth to lobby our government to pass laws that benefit corporations and hurt the public. They do this without the consent of the population, without being elected, without any real system of checks and balances. The world is changing, and it’s being shaped by corporations and companies that are only interested in their own, short term well being.3

Donald Trump isn’t the rise of a new type of American political leader. He’s the same guy we’ve always had, but his sheep’s clothing is a little more tattered or a little more realistic, depending on which side you’re looking from. Donald Trump’s victory isn’t a symbol of a resurgence of racism in America. It’s not a sea change against the corrupt politicians of the past. It’s the same racism that has always existed in our country. It’s the same corruption. It maintains distrust on both sides. It divides us. It protects the powerful. It will never go away as long as it benefits powerful people.

You can read this article and post it to facebook. Attach a little line like, “Here’s an interesting new perspective on the election.” At least it will show your friends you’re not afraid to look at all angles of an issue. You can quote parts of it out of context to someone who already agrees with you to justify something you already did. You can sign your name to a petition, one that isn’t too specific, but is antagonistic sounding, full of youthful revolt or that nicely avoids having to take any real action. Decades from now, you can show it to your grandkids to prove to them how you cared enough about something to type your name into a form on the internet. You can subscribe to the YouTube channels of young people regurgitating hackneyed ideas, who love to hear themselves talk. You can join a protest and shout real loud, while making sure that you don’t shout louder than our perceived level of oppression allows for.

But maybe we could stop doing those things. Maybe we could stop blaming individuals or groups for systemic problems. Maybe we could focus our anger and our energy on the real culprit. Maybe we could reach out to someone with whom we don’t agree, who’s suffering under the same system as us, and try to find some common ground. Maybe we can use that common ground to band together and create some actual collective action. Maybe we could stop buying products we don’t need made by companies that don’t care. Maybe we could stop paying off the credit card debt and the mortgages that keep us under the thumb of the banks that destroyed our economy. Say ‘fuck you’ to credit agencies that benefit wealthy individuals and corporations while denying the working class opportunities for advancement. We can stop funding a government that doesn’t represent us, by refusing to pay back our over inflated student loans – or get real dangerous and refuse to pay our taxes, until we see real, meaningful reform. Maybe we could risk some of our comfort and stability by refusing to participate in a system that makes us angry enough to scream slurs and insults at each other.

Maybe.

Or maybe we could just wait until we’re all broke and indebted and living in 21st century Hoovervilles and we don’t have any other option but to get radical.

Or maybe the facebook thing is working and it’ll all be better in four years.

  1. Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print. []
  2. Parenti, Christian. Lockdown America : Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. London ; New York :Verso, 1999. Print. []
  3. Spitzer, Steven. “Toward a Marxian Theory on Deviance” Social Problems 22(5):638-651, June 1975. []
S. Vollie Osborn is an American writer and director currently living in Tasmania. Read other articles by S. Vollie.