American Culture

Trump voters and the need to feel superior

Faulkner was wrong. Mankind will not prevail.


Part 2 of a series

After weeks of pondering, I think I finally understand the election.

Full disclosure. I am an older white male. I grew up in the projects in the South, which was several social rungs below a trailer park because it meant living side by side with negroes. We were impoverished, living from paycheck to emergency loan to charity to government assistance to paycheck. I grew up in a family of virulent racists, proud that our ancestors had fought for the Confederacy and ridden with the Klan. My mother never finished high school and no one in my direct family line had ever completed college. I’ve been married 38 years to the same woman, have children and grandchildren and live in rural Indiana.

Trump’s tax plan will save me about $12,000 a year and will save my kids over a million dollars in inheritance taxes. I should’ve been a Trump supporter.

I voted against Trump because I have grandchildren and hope to have more, and I believe that he will make their world a worse place. I believe that the best we can hope for with Trump is four years of cronyism, corruption, sleaze, and melodrama. The worst is that his authoritarian tendencies and stupidity may result in what Glenn Beck has called an existential threat to our democracy. (Never thought I’d quote Beck. Strange times.)

Perhaps those who voted for Trump are just stupid. Research says conservative voters are on average less intelligent than liberal voters. And while not all poor people are stupid, there is a strong correlation between intelligence and income (although there’s no correlation with wealth, because of inheritance).

But I suspect that some smart people voted for him, because the decision was never a studied one. It is emotional one, one driven by deep, primal compulsions. It goes beyond racism, sexism and tribalism. It’s rooted in a deep, human need to feel superior to someone or something.

We all have that need. I recently heard a talk by a scientist who pointed out that for centuries scientists have been trying to come up with definitions of intelligence that prove humans are smarter than animals, e.g., “humans are the only species to use tools,” or language, or whatever.

Those of us who’ve demonstrated some level of individual superiority—wealth, recognition, etc, are very comfortable with the idea that we’re superior to other people because we’ve earned it. We define “earning it” as working hard or investing in education or just being smarter than others.

Those who don’t have individual superiority (or don’t have enough) have to find some other plausible argument that they’re better than someone else. Some find it in religion—“I’m special and superior because I’ve chosen the right God to worship. I may live in a trailer now, but I’ve got a mansion waiting for me in heaven.” Some find it in country. Remember American exceptionalism? Others find it in ethnicity or race (even though the math doesn’t quite work—if you’re a below average intelligence Caucasian, even if “the white race” were on average slightly smarter than other races, you wouldn’t be; but then again if you’re stupid, statistics is as mysterious as singularity).

Those of us who have individual claims to superiority tend to be pretty smug about it. We disdain those who base their claims on race or religion or sexuality. We sniff and look down on racism, because we can afford to. We sit in expensive rooms in expensive homes with “I-love-me” walls covered with framed photos of us getting awards and visiting distant places.

But when you get right down to it, we are driven by the same underlying emotional drive as those dopes who voted for Trump. It’s important enough to us that we’re willing to vote against our own economic self-interests just like they did. And like them, the root source of our belief in our own superiority is genetics—in our case those of our parents, in their case their race or ethnic group. We think we should be entitled to more than 1/7 billionth of the world’s resources because of something we’ve done and they think they’re entitled to more because of something they are, but we’re both entitled.

Now this isn’t to say that we and they are the same. Degree matters. Theirs is a nastier and more direct assertion of superiority. It calls for proving their superiority by depriving those they deem inferior of basic rights. It’s bad stuff. But it is, at some primordial level, a manifestation of the same human condition.

Look, in the very long term, this won’t matter. Faulkner was wrong. Mankind will not prevail. An asteroid will come along one day and kablooie! It won’t even matter in the medium term. Our world is like underwear. It may start out white, but sooner or later it will be brown and yellow (or more likely, beige). A bunch of ignorant racists can vote to reverse time all they want to, it ain’t going to happen. Those of us who’ve done better than average should disdain them.

But we shouldn’t be too smug about it.

4 replies »

  1. A great commentary. I submitted it as a quicklink to Keep your fingers crossed. This opinion may set sail tomorrow or Wednesday over there, who knows….