The Trump Age: Critical Questions

I argue that the U.S. ruling class has been exploiting and co-opting the already existing structural racism and white supremacy as a divide and conquer tool through Trump to keep people divided and weakened. I contend that the establishment is not divided over Trump as anyone would be misled to think if they compare, for example, the way CNN vs Fox news cover any stories about Trump or his supporters. Rather, we should consider that the U.S. ruling class is using the mainstream media to keep people bitterly divided and distracted from asking more pressing questions about the unlimited wealth, power, and corruption of the ruling class. We must be suspicious of the fact that we are still hearing about Trump and his trial, while more important cases, like that of Assange, are shrouded with secrecy and no time was wasted to throw him in jail. The reason for that is that Assange did in fact expose the lies, manipulation, and corruption of the U.S. and world elites, whereas Trump has been doing nothing but serving their interests. Same can be applied to Snowden who is still in exile.  The key point here is that it’s time for Trump supporter themselves to begin questioning how they, too, are being co-opted and exploited to keep the nation divided and to crush any possibility of wider resistance in which people see each other as allies fighting for similar causes not divided enemies fighting each other like sardines trapped in a can, while the unlimited wealth and power of the few at the top remain unchecked.

I have been reflecting on, reading, and thinking about the Trump era for a long time. In fact, I have written about Trump’s comments about banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. while he was still campaigning for presidency back in 2015. I wasn’t sure whether or when I’d write about this topic again, despite having engaged and had many fruitful conversations with Trump supporters in the last few years, including people whom I knew as friends and acquaintances before Trump came into power. I can comfortably say that, like me, many Americans were divided, felt shocked or confused when they discovered that many family members or loved ones ended up zealously voting for Trump, a fact that has wounded and strained countless relationships nationwide. What prompted me to write this piece is two recent conversations I had with two different Trump supporters. The first one was with a woman who I knew a long time ago, and because she cared about me, she simply avoided talking about voting for Trump. She assumed that a conversation between us on this topic is impossible and can result in ending our connection. Yet, that conversation finally took place recently. And because I knew her for years, I engaged with her with great compassion and respect. I made my points about every reason she provided about why she supports Trump without dismissing her fears. I wasn’t trying to change her mind or make her feel ashamed of her choices, but simply and sincerely engaged with her reasons and fears – they were mostly fears. To my surprise, at the end of the conversation, she started sobbing. She said she’s ashamed of her choices and of all the things she thought and assumed without bothering to think deeper about issues. She then asked, “Why do we not have people like you on TV discussing things the way we just did?”

Another recent conversation that prompted me to write this was with a middle-aged man from Illinois who, upon finding out that I am anthropologist, immediately assumed I’d be a leftist or liberal, hate Trump and all his supporters, and so on. His first comment was, “so, as an anthropologist, how would you feel about a guy like me who wears a MAGA hat?” I told him that as an anthropologist, my job is not to love or hate, like or dislike, admire or disdain others. My purpose is primarily to understand not only how things are, but how/why they became the way they are.  I then shared with him that if I could sum up the most valuable thing I have learned from anthropology, it is this: the problems we have in this world are not Black, Muslim, Russian, Chinese, white, and so on. Our problems are simply human problems. They happen because we are born or thrown into certain contexts, places, circumstances, and structures that are often much bigger than ourselves, and we then try to make sense, resist, fight, accept, or give in to our circumstances in various ways. All our human successes and failures highly depend on our will, awareness, and the resources available to us to make individual or communal changes. In this regard, the most important thing we need to remember about white people is that they are people! And like any people, they have the virtues and vices of any human being on this planet. But also, like any people, when they exist in certain circumstances, live under certain structures or systems, or are influenced and agitated by malicious media narratives, they behave like any other humans would if in their place.

It is at that moment when this man became extremely relaxed and began engaging respectfully in the conversation. The perspective he shared with me can basically be summed up in that, as a white man, he constantly feels like he is being treated as a suspect, even when he sincerely tries to learn new things and be more conscious about different issues and challenges. He also feels that many rights and freedoms are being taken away from people in this country, yet all he hears about is heated debates about what he considers minor issues, instead of facing the real threat of gradually losing many basic human rights for most citizens. The conversation continued and I saw that, given his positionality, he had many blind spots, but I also saw the goodness, the humanity, and the potential to engage from his side once he felt safe to engage. One remark by him caught my attention after a long exchange about issues of gender, sexuality, refugees, and diversity. He said, “well, based on what I am hearing from you, it seems like all the other groups in America are unhappy and feel disadvantaged as many of us white and Trump supporters feel, though each one is unhappy in their own way.”  It is at this moment when I realized that Trump supporters, too, are being exploited to keep the society divided, and that we really cannot afford not engaging with each other, no matter the risk and the discomfort that result from this for all sides involved. We must undo all this hate, agitation, and divide that has been created by the mainstream with the full blessings of the American ruling class so that we see each other as enemies not allies in this struggle. This is when I decided that I must write about the particularity of this moment in history.

To constantly talk about Trump, as the mainstream media has been doing for years now, is different than taking a close look at Trump supporters to understand who they are, what series of events and circumstances (mis)led them to become Trump supporters, and why understanding them in ways that are neither moralizing nor apologetic matters to foil the bigger strategy of the American elite that keeps agitating society through this figure known as Trump. I argue that the American ruling class has been deliberately capitalizing on and exploiting the history and wounds of racism and white supremacy for the sake of producing more divide, keeping potential and existing Trump supporters feeling ever more agitated and disenfranchised. The age-old racism and white supremacy are being exploited here without any intention to fix, let alone end, either.  This is done to ensure that people in the U.S. remain distracted from the real conversation, which should be about the frighteningly small ruling class that often pretends to be anti-Trump but has been using every social and psychological tool to ensure that what Trump embodies and represents continue to serve their interests. I call for a meaningful (re)engagement with Trump supporters in such a way that they begin to see that they, too, are paying a serious human and spiritual cost in this battle. If they begin to engage and have meaningful dialogues with all the groups Trump and the American elite are depicting as enemies plotting to ruin America, they will discover that the humanity and the basic needs of all these groups depicted as enemies intersect in important ways that require us to work hand in hand.

The fact that Fox news condones or glorifies Trump’s deeds or those of his supporters, while CNN supposedly bashes him or his supporters doesn’t necessarily indicate that these two channels, both controlled by the wealthy, are divided on Trump. It is more an indication that their coverage of him and his supporters is for the purpose of keeping the American people fighting with each other instead of together against the wealthy and the powerful. Here we must ask a critical question: what does it mean when American media outlets deliberately censor and silence anything related to Palestine, the voices of war atrocities in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria; while at the same time glorifying the Ukraine war or presumably covering Black Lives Matter or police brutality against black people? Can we believe that such media has good intentions? Can we believe that they really care about Black people, or are they more interested in deepening the divide in the society? I personally find this suspicious and ill intentioned. I believe the purpose here is not to support any Black causes or push for meaningful changes, but rather, exploiting the already existing and strong structural racism and white supremacy weaved into the fabric of the entire society to make people even more alienated from each other.  Mistaken are those who think that “divide and conquer” is only practiced in remote places and in so-called “third world” countries. There are many ways to divide and conquer, but we need to have the right critical tools to detect and fight against them, as is the case here.

With that in mind, we must ask critical questions that I don’t see discussed in the media or even by most people I engaged with over the last few years, whether Trump supporters or opponents. But before that, I’d like to share some disclaimers. First, I have never belonged, nor will I ever belong to any political party in my life. While I sympathize with and value certain political causes and struggles, my primary goal is to understand how things work and why/how they become the way they are.

Second, in line with the first point, the way I write about the Trump age in no way intends to demonize white people, including those who support Trump, but rather to understand the bigger picture in which we are all operating. Obviously, it’s not my intention to condone or be apologetic about any racist behaviors by Trump supporters. I am interested in understanding the genealogy and the triggers of such behaviors in this moment in time – the Trump moment. More importantly, I am interested in exposing who is really benefiting from this frightening amount of hate, rage, and divide that the U.S. has been experiencing and even exporting to the rest of the world where many versions of Trump have mushroomed in many parts of the world. The latter is proof that this is far from a coincidence. It is evidence that this shift has been calculated and approved by the American elite that also imposes its foreign policy direction and preferences on many parts of the world. I see the bigger goal here as creating a huge global divide between people to distract them from questioning why we have a very small number of rich and powerful billionaires who now have an immense impact on politics, economies, technology, and destinies of billions of humans worldwide.

The third disclaimer I wish to share is that I in no way wish to discount, dismiss, or deny racism, white supremacy, and the serious consequences these structures have always had on billions of people in the U.S. and worldwide. Instead, in this work, I am zooming in on the particularity of the Trump moment and how white supremacy is being weaponized to achieve sinister objectives for the ruling class, something that millions of marginalized and disenfranchised white people should also be aware of and abort. The latter cannot be achieved without a meaningful dialogue and engagement by all wounded parties, so that we begin to see the full humanity of each other. I am painfully aware of how difficult this task is, but the alternative is much more detrimental.

While obvious to many, the first point we need to remind ourselves of is that Trump didn’t come from a vacuum, and that the American ruling class, many of who are people who didn’t even pass as “white” in recent history, have been paving the way and shaping the circumstances so that Trumpism would reconfigure the fabric of the society, even if he loses elections, as he did in 2020. The elite’s key objective here is not whether he wins or loses. Their focus is on his function of creating hate, divide, and distraction before, during, and long after he’s departed the office, which is precisely what we are seeing today.

When I first came to the U.S. as a graduate student from Iraq, two things simultaneously caught my attention: first, white people, like any group of people on this planet, were diverse in their politics, acceptance, awareness, and even economic status. I obviously encountered many racist, ignorant, pro-war whites, but I also encountered many who were the opposite, and many others in between. The second thing that caught my attention is a small percentage of privileged white people in academia, media, and many other venues that greatly influence public opinion who were constantly talking about “white privilege” and “white people” in blanket statements, clearly suggesting that being white necessarily makes a person privileged or even racist. I felt then – and still feel now – that if we objected to any blanket statements that would portray Black people in a certain way, or statements that insinuate that any Muslim is potentially violent or a terrorist, or that queer people are pedophiles, why aren’t we using the same basic critical tool to reject the assumption that being white necessarily makes one privileged or racist? Why are we not using another basic critical tool by asking yet another important question: what percentage of white people is extremely wealthy and privileged, and how/why it is problematic to put all whites in one basket as it would be if we do to any other group of people?  Anyone who has traveled through the poor parts of white America, places like West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and many others that I have personally visited and observed, will know that there is a big percentage of white people who are, in some cases, as poor as newly arrived undocumented immigrants.

In brief, I soon understood that there are so many white people in this country who are marginalized and disadvantaged, and therefore, the broad use of “white privlige” or even insinuating that being white is connoted to racism is extremely problematic, divisive, and counterproductive.  I’ve simply lost track of the number of white people I encountered who showed me nothing but understanding, respect, and care. Many such people never made me feel that they have any prejudice about others. Many of them, when they heard my take on the Iraq war or when we discussed issues like gender, sexuality, racism, and others, would not only listen attentively and show appreciation for different perspectives, but had repeatedly wondered why they never get such perspectives in mainstream media. The latter point clearly shows that the problem is not white people, it is the structure under which they live, which is designed and maintained by the ruling class. Little did these people know that the mainstream media is not interested in creating understanding or complicating our understanding about legitimate problems like white supremacy or racism, wars and violence, gender and sexuality, refugees, and so on. Rather, the mainstream media is more interested in maintaining the level of misunderstanding that ensures that all of us, including white people, don’t ask the right questions that will lead us to discover a very simple, yet troubling fact which is this: our real enemy is not the poor marginalized white people, including many who were misled into supporting Trump. Our enemy is not the immigrants, the Blacks, the LGBTQ2+ communities, the Muslims, and so on. The most dangerous enemy is the very small percentage of the extremely rich and powerful individuals that are using every social and psychological tool at their disposal to make everyone think that everyone else is their enemy. The main purpose of the ruling class, then, is to govern all these different bodies through various narratives that make each group an enemy of one or more groups in the same society. This is precisely what it means to ruin the fabric of society to maintain full control over it.

Years later, after I earned my doctorate and studied many of these topics in depth, I understood that those privileged white professors bashing white people in classrooms with blanket statements that lack particularity and context, were knowingly or unknowingly, directly or indirectly, creating the current divide, bitterness, and hate that produced Trump supporters. It is precisely at that moment when the American ruling class decided to allow Trump, a wealthy businessman who doesn’t care about poor white Americans or any other groups, to come to the stage and pose as the savior of “whiteness” and American “purity” by basically cleansing America from anything that stains its whiteness. For all these reasons, I propose that we zoom in on more important questions to move forward. First, as noted previously, understanding that, contrary to what many feel, Trump has the full blessings of the establishment in this country, even if it appears that Fox news and CNN are divided over him – they are in fact united in using him to divide the people.

Another critical question we must reflect on ponder is tracing the genealogy of the entire political and so-called democratic process in western countries, which has for long been bought, sold, and hijacked by the wealthy under the pretext of smaller governments and more power for the private sector to create jobs, and so on. What this process ultimately produces is politicians and a political system that is not only bought and sold according to the whims of wealthy businessmen like Trump himself, but also, over time, this reality disables and erodes many basic human rights and public services, turning most people from citizens to consumers whose livelihoods and destinies are at the mercy of a small wealthy percentage that determines who rules us, and what kind of political systems we live under. Inevitably, this makes most people feel paralyzed, neutralized, and enchained. It makes most people feel bitter and harbor hate towards any perceived enemies, and this is precisely the point when the ruling class brings in politicians like Trump to keep creating enemies that distract people from the real cause of the problem – the ruling class itself. In brief, when the entire political process and system is in the hands of businessmen, and when the president himself is a businessman, it is hardly surprising for them to continuously point fingers at imagined and manufactured enemies to distract the public.

Lastly, another critical question we must investigate about the Trump era is whether the ruling class is using this moment as a pretext to fully neutralize diversity and equity in such a way that makes them devoid of meaning and of no benefit to those at the receiving end of such initiatives, while at the same time they continue to divide and agitate those who perceive anything related to DEI as purely political tools, or associate such initiatives with negative images and stereotypes. Since Trump, we’ve been seeing increasing attacks on DEI initiatives as well as certain critical materials in the curricula nationwide. Yet, there is little to no conversation in the mainstream media about the fact that many DEI initiatives, as they function currently, neither serve those they are supposedly intended for, nor do they make any meaningful changes in the structure of the society at large. Instead, the way I see many DEI initiatives working in this country, a topic I plan to examine and write about at length in the future, is by maintaining the status quo in several ways: first, most diverse people I see in different places are tokens and are only allowed any form of power or contributions upon the condition of proving that they are not there to rock the boat or be a threat to the upper powers, who are usually selected privileged whites. Second, there are deliberate and malicious efforts to tokenize diverse people who are not only incompetent, but also complicit to almost make it look like that truly qualified diverse people don’t exist (far from true), as well as to give the majority of white people the impression that they are losing their jobs and privileges to people who are not even qualified or deserving, hence creating further bitterness and divide in the society. In sum, the way the DEI initiatives work is neither benefiting the truly qualified and competent diverse people who could change the structure and the system, nor are they helping white people truly see the value of different perspectives and different ways of thinking, sensing, and doing that enrich this world. As such, the DEI initiatives, as we know and see them working (or rather not working) are part and parcel of the same divide and conquer strategy that created Trump and produced his supporters. I have lost track of the number of times when I chatted with DEI professionals or even diversity hires of different races and backgrounds who painfully told me that they are put in a position that makes them incapable of making any meaningful changes in their workplace. That their job is primarily to be tokenized and make the institution look and feel good, but in reality they – and any diverse person in their workplace – feel totally paralyzed in environments that look good, but are in fact extremely controlled by the few privileged at the top. Now, those few privileged at the top are not just any white people, they are the ruling class posing as ordinary white people, hence the importance of paying close attention to this nuance when analyzing the issue.

I confess that there are simply too many complex threads and facets to this topic, and that many more works and analyses are needed to navigate this complex and treacherous territory. I see this work as one small step to analyze one specific angle in that direction. It is my hope that more such works will be written to start the kind of engagement that we need to go through this dangerous rough patch. If we can have dialogues, there is always hope, but no dialogues can be effective if we don’t ask the tough and uncomfortable questions first. We certainly can’t have any meaningful conversations when each one of us is always on the defense, or when each group sees the other as an enemy. In my wishful thinking, I always wonder when humanity will understand that there are no enemies. That the only enemy is the one that is convincing us that we have enemies.


Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.