"You’re not listening to me.” He gripped the steering wheel.
“What the hell am I not hearing?” I stared at my friend Terrence, who stared at the road as we drove in silence. He blurted, “White guys feel like they’re always wrong. I’m white. Listen to me. I know. We’re being yelled at by everyone.”
I drew a line down my cheek, “White tears.” The quiet in the van grew like a gasoline bubble. Just one spark. He parked, looked at me and said, “Boo hoo,” mock crying. We laughed. But our epic talks on race and politics took a turn when Trump went on a winning streak. I began to listen to his warning. A huge swath of White America was scared, cornered, cheated, insulted and left behind. When they looked in the mirror, they saw white as the new black.
The Strongman cometh. He’s Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. He’s Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt. He’s lurking in the ranks of the nationalist parties rising in France and Austria. Here, he is Donald Trump: the Cinnamon Hitler, the Groper.
Terrence and I watched him on TV. His puckered face and excuse-me-waitress forefingers. Trump soaked himself in the rage of Whitest America, lighting it on fire and spewing it from his lips like a circus fire-breather. He was a joke, until he wasn’t.
Today’s strongmen are not militarized goons like Uganda’s Idi Amin but Armani-wearing, fascist clowns like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. They mock liberal, middle-class sensibilities on behalf of a betrayed working class. The more they insult the establishment and are insulted back, the stronger they grow.
I didn’t see it. My leftist politics values the suffering of the poor and their redemption as class warriors, not as people who want to identify with leaders, who want power, who want to be the heroes of their national mythology. It struck me while watching Superman v Batman. In it, the villain Doomsday is a monster who gets stronger the more you hit it.
Afterwards I called Terrence. “I think Trump is from outer space. I think he’s an alien who gets stronger the more you insult him.”
“You may have it backwards,” he said. “Trump lovers think he’s saving them from you. For his supporters, you’re the monster.”
“White people are really conscious about being white,” he said as we stood in his apartment, which overlooked a tiny patch of green called “Crack Park” where homeless people slept in tents. They stumbled out each morning to get liquor from the store. By noon, they were passed out on the sidewalk like thrown-away dolls. I stepped over them when opening the door. Drug dealers stood nervously at corners. Prostitutes waved at passing cars. Everyone was black. Terrence was one of the few whites in the neighborhood. They watched him as he walked to the store, always asked him for money and sometimes heckled him.
“I get it, I really do,” Terrence said, “Everyone thinks I’m the problem. Out here, I’m seen as part of the system that ruined their lives. They don’t know me. They just see white. They don’t know I’m struggling too. And I am. But it’s not the same. I have things they never had. You know, one of the ladies out there said to me, ‘you must have really disappointed your family to end up here with us.’ I was really hurt.”
“Damn bro,” I shook my head. “Damn.”
I looked at my friend. I’d known him almost 20 years. He knew me when I had 4-foot-long dreads. He has these large feel-your-soul eyes and endless energy. He was a metal worker and his hands were often dark from soldering metal at his shop. He drummed, live looped and deejayed at parties. He protested Republicans. Total Bay Area man.
He was like a brother to me. We’d go on road trips, opening our lives up like origami, revealing new shapes and meanings to our lives. I trusted him. And I knew he was being ground down by the hateful stares on the street.
“You know, there’s this white man, Mark, a waiter at this restaurant I eat at on the way to Burning Man. Sweetest guy. We talk once a year. He’s old and works way too much. I wonder, what’s going to happen to him.” I sighed. “My whole life I’ve been taught to be loyal to black pain and be indifferent to white pain. It feels small though. There’s something larger than all of us that’s causing this…”
Two homeless men began cursing right below the window. It got loud. “Oh God.” I rubbed my temples. “I’m tired of feeling guilt. It’s like someone took a ship from the Middle Passage and cracked it like an egg over the street.”
“That’s intense,” he said.
“Can I be white,” I asked him, “So I don’t feel this black middle-class guilt?”
“Oh that won’t help,” he laughed. “Believe me.”
When I visited Oakland again, Terrence and I drank and laughed at how Trump was thrashing in controversy. I glanced at the large stack of empty beer bottles in his kitchen. Later, he told me he was behind on his rent and fighting depression.
“Sorry for unloading all this on you,” he said.
“No, no,” I said. “It’s all good.”
It was like the bottom fell out of his life and he was falling, falling, falling. I wanted to help but didn’t know how. Life was rushing by, too fast to catch. His former partner had given birth to a baby. His work projects piled up, unfinished. Everything was rushing by.
We kept talking about politics, how Trump was causing a feminist reaction, how it would clean America of some of its sexism. After he crashed, I stayed up thinking of what I needed to be cleansed of and thought of Mark the waiter and another white man I met who slept in a tent in Central Park. Or the white woman who I talked with on a bus who was sexually harassed at work and quit. Or the white cab driver I met in upstate New York who juggled four jobs and never saw his family. On and on.
What if I didn’t think — white? What if I just thought human? We’re all human and we’re trapped in a history we can’t see and trapped in a system we can’t stop? After growing up around whites who didn’t see their privilege, I was grateful that whiteness was becoming easier to call out. But I didn’t like how it was now so bright for me that I was objectifying it, unable to feel the human being locked inside its burning visibility.
And I wasn’t alone. Poor whites were an intellectual fad. Books about the white working class line the shelves, like Strangers in Their Own Land, White Trash, Hillbilly’s Eulogy, and Evicted. Now that a large slice of poor and working-class white America nearly made Trump president, the elites were scrambling to understand them.
Poor and working-class whites are scared and wanted a strongman to rescue them. But Trump has already lost. The election will be a wave, immense and fast. When it hits, liberals will yell and do mock touchdown dances. And the next day, capitalism will keep grinding along and more people will slip, slip some more and then fall into the streets.
I was safer than most. Safer than my friend. A month ago, he was evicted. He was allowed time to get everything cleaned out. This morning, I got a text from him saying that he had left his home. He sent me photos of the open road. I didn’t know where my brother was going but he was on his way.
Nicholas Powers is a professor of African American literature at SUNY-Old Westbury.