By, Brian L. Ott
Having spent two years studying President Trump’s rhetoric, I have come to the conclusion that white rage is the sole basis of his rhetorical style. White rage, as I am using it here, describes a widely shared and fully embodied cultural sentiment; it is a sort of deep-seated public emotion rooted in centuries-old structures of racism. White rage is typically expressed or enacted in one of two ways. The first and more overt mode of expressing white rage involves anger or indignation at the perceived decentering of white male privilege. The president’s rhetoric, which includes everything from his temper tantrums on Twitter to his pugnacious performances at campaign rallies, frequently enacts this mode of white rage.
The most obvious example of the president’s enactment of white rage is, of course, his long-standing obsession with the southern border of the United States and his consistent vilification of immigrants, but especially those from Latin American countries, as a grave threat to the nation, which is really just another way of saying a threat to the power and privilege afforded by whiteness. Trump’s disgust for and hatred of minorities is so intense that he is not content to simply disparage and demean these groups through his rhetoric. So, he actively pursues policies and practices aimed at treating them as not fully human. His plan to bus immigrants to sanctuary cities and “dump” them there is just the latest evidence that he views these people as disposable objects not human beings.
Many other instances of the president’s enactment of white rage are also obvious, such as his retweeting of a racist video attacking congresswoman Ilhan Omar on Twitter this past weekend. Highly racialized rhetoric like this, which stokes racial animus and inspires vitriol and violence among his followers, is central to the president’s appeal. Somewhat less obviously, however, are the ways in which President Trump’s refusal to release his taxes, his continuous abuses of executive power, his unwillingness to cooperate with congressional inquiries and investigations, as well as his routine attacks on the media, Democrats, the judicial system, and anyone else who criticizes him are also reflective of white rage.
To understand how white rage animates these aspects of the president’s rhetoric and behavior, it is worth reflecting on how white rage is enacted and works. While anger and resentment about the perceived decentering of whiteness is one dimension of white rage, there is second key mode of enactment. This less overt mode involves the brash, unapologetic performance of white privilege, including authoritarian and autocratic actions that express white masculinity. In other words, when Trump is not angrily denigrating people who are ethnically different than him, he is performing racism by pompously enacting unearned white privilege.
Consider Trump’s ongoing refusal to release his taxes or his willingness to declare a national emergency to secure funding for his coveted border wall. What these seemingly disparate actions share in common is the belief that he is not answerable to anyone, neither the American public nor the United States Congress. Donald Trump, a man who inherited billions of dollars from his father for doing nothing, believes he is entitled to fame and fortune by virtue of who he is, a rich white man. He believes that norms, rules, and laws do not apply to him. These things exist, on the contrary, to keep the unsightly and unseemly elements of society in their place. He believes that his authority, as a rich white man, is beyond question, which is why he responds with righteous indignation to anyone who dares to question him.
Unfortunately, Trump’s unabashed performance of white privilege is as exciting and energizing for his base as is his openly racist rhetoric of white nationalism. It allows Trump’s followers to live vicariously through him. He functions as a surrogate for the ways that they wish to speak and behave. They, too, believe that they are entitled to success and happiness by virtue of their whiteness. And, so, the president’s performance of white rage resonates with them, with their own sense of privilege, as well as their own anger at its perceived decentering.
Brian L. Ott, a professor of communication studies and director of the TTU Press at Texas Tech University, is co-author, with Greg Dickinson, of The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage.