Given the state of our nation, it is worth examining the nexus of white grievance politics, and the three distinct groups that combine to make it so frighteningly strong.
It begins, and probably ends, with conservative Christianity.
True to our Puritanical roots, to many who attend conservative churches, Christianity is defined, not by the teachings of Christ, but by suffering. “Christ died for your sins!” That’s why The Passion Of The Christ, which was religious torture porn, was so beloved in the Evangalical community. For them, faith is not about Christ’s life, it’s about how he died. How he suffered.
Meanwhile, in Catholicism, early saints got to be saints by suffering. The worse the suffering, the greater the saintliness. Depicting Saint Sebastian riddled with arrows, Saint Lawrence being grilled, Saint Margaret being pressed, the gruesome deaths of martyrs became a fetish for centuries, enforcing this message that suffering equals godliness.
This has long been a feature of Christianity, the idea that suffering ennobles. What better way to tell people to endure an awful status quo than to tell them their pain makes them noble? Combine that with the demonization of both education and women that starts in Genesis and doesn’t stop until the Gospel of Mark (only to pick up again in Paul), and you have the recipe for a pliant populace.
The key, however, is to make them embrace suffering. Relish it. The more they suffer now, the greater their reward in the afterlife. They are ennobled by their suffering.
Suffering alone, however, does not make a person noble. Yes, suffering can reveal character, it can shape character. But nobility depends entirely on how a person responds to suffering. It requires action on the part of the sufferer. Turning the other cheek. Overturning tables. Teaching, accepting, ministering. That flies in the face of how Christ’s death is perceived, as a passive acceptance of suffering. It was, in fact, a brave act of defiance, of self-sacrifice. It was nonviolent resistance. But it is perceived that simple endurance is a sign of Christ-like behavior.
Therefore, if these people want to consider themselves good Christians, they don’t have to do Christian acts. No, they have to suffer. They have to be put upon. They have to be oppressed.
This need to view one’s self as a victim dovetails beautifully with the disgusting mythology created by Confederate states after the Civil War. It wasn’t that they were racists. No, they were noble, fighting for a doomed cause. They were righteous. Though they fired the first shot, they called it the War of Northern Aggression.
There has always been a confluence between these two groups. No accident that the KKK calls themselves Christians as they set out to persecute, terrorize, and murder Black people. But after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, racism and Christian martyrdom shook hands and found kindred spirits in the idea of themselves as noble sufferers.
They also welcomed in a third group: the so-called Objectivists. The followers of Ayn Rand, these days calling themselves Libertarians, who believe the only system that should be followed is capitalism. It should not have been a match of any kind, since Rand and her followers were openly atheist. But their view of government restraint of any kind as the most violent oppression a human could endure spoke louder than anything else. Taxes and regulations on monopolies and corporations were more than burdensome, they were evil. They caused the capitalists to suffer.
Thus we have the modern conservative movement, an inchoate collection of contradictory ideas that simply amount to a child caught misbehaving shouting, “Just leave me alone! Why are you so mean!?!”
This is why conservative Christians like to downplay or discredit actual suffering in the country. “Children in cages? Police murdering unarmed Black men? Can’t be worse than what WE go through!!!” Because these people see it as a zero sum game. The actual suffering of others decreases their own perceived suffering, which is their identity. So the suffering of others MUST be less than their own, because they’re Christians.
(Racists don’t need an excuse to downplay others’ suffering. They’re racist. And Objectivists/Libertarians simply blame the victim as not being hardworking enough)
It also explains why abortion is the perfect rallying cry. It allows conservative Christians to oppose suffering without having to actually help anyone or challenge their own beliefs.
This is crucial to understand. If they view opposition as condemnation of their behavior, that would require them to change. Whereas if they are opposed for their beliefs, change is not required. They are simply being oppressed.
(The most absurd version of this is the so-called “War on Christmas” that is waged nowhere but in right-wing media each year. Imagine how deeply someone must buy into the notion that they are a victim if someone wishing them joy and happiness is oppressing them, because they didn’t wish them joy in the way they demand to be wished joy.*)
Which brings us to today, and their embracing of Trump, the undisputed king of white grievance. To hear him tell it, he is forever oppressed, beset by evil forces. No one suffers the way he does. When he invokes the “deep state,” conservative Christians hear the Pharisees, racists hear the “urban elites,” Objectivists hear socialism, and they all feel kinship to his suffering.
After all, they are the noble sufferers. Nothing is their fault. Nothing is their responsibility. So long as they cling to their need to suffer, so long as this remains their identity, nothing — nothing — will ever change their minds.
* A footnote to the War on Christmas. The song “White Christmas,” a staple of holiday cheer, first appeared in the same movie as the song “Happy Holidays,” in 1942’s Holiday Inn. Both songs were composed by Irving Berlin, a Jew, who included no Jewish holidays in the score. That film also features a grotesque blackface number “celebrating” Lincoln’s birthday. American history isn’t easy. There’s lots to be offended over. The question is choosing what is truly offensive and perpetuates harm. Wishing someone Happy Holidays causes no one harm.