The most common question posed to me by journalists—and my students for that matter—is always some version of, “Is it really still about losing the Civil War?” The “it” is always changing. Substitute segregated proms or voter ID regulations or Stand Your Ground laws for “it.” The list proves endless. And now the “it” is Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump. Southern white support for Trump is not just about losing the Civil War. It’s about losing, period.
Losing the Civil War, historian Fletcher Green argued, “left the people of the Southern states with a defeatist attitude, an inferiority complex, a tender skin to criticism, and a fear of ridicule.” Trump’s greatest strength comes from this Southern weakness, and he has exploited it to win the Republican primaries in ten of the eleven states of the former Confederacy, and their cousin Kentucky.
Psychiatrist and founder of the School of Individual Psychology Alfred Adler actually coined the term “inferiority complex,” and it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who popularized his work during the civil rights movement, citing Adler by name in his 1968 “The Drum Major Instinct” speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. “We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade,” proclaimed King, who also noted, “Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse.” At the core of Adler’s theory lie two critical ingredients that when mixed could catalyze an inferiority complex in an individual: (1) what I call an “alarm bell” and (2) the presence of key environmental conditions. The “alarm bell” represents the moment of consciousness in which individuals become aware that they are judged as inferior by some external force. Of course, losing a war is not just an “alarm bell,” but rather a deafening siren. And so is military occupation during Reconstruction.
Criticism of the white South poured in throughout the twentieth century, too, and mostly it was unequivocally well-deserved. H. L. Mencken’s 1917 essay, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” published in the New York Evening Mail, found nothing of value culturally in the entire region. “If the whole of the late Confederacy were to be engulfed by a tidal wave tomorrow,” Mencken dramatically proclaimed, “the effect upon the civilized minority of men in the world would be but little greater than that of a flood on the Yang-tse-kiang. It would be impossible in all history to match so complete a drying-up of a civilization.” The international media seemed to agree, particularly in 1925 when the world spotlight shone on Dayton, Tennessee, as newspapers across the globe printed coverage of the Scopes “monkey trial” on their front page. When covered stateside, non-Southern journalists were quick to distance the rest of the country from the wayward South, with the New York Times specifically referring to the “Cranks and Freaks” in Tennessee, and some faculty at Columbia University even going so far as to recommend that the administration refuse to accept high-school diplomas from the state since the scientific education of the students may not be based on facts. Demonizing the South became a way of exorcising our national sins. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, while traveling to North Carolina in 1950, proclaimed about the region that “one can enjoy oneself superficially, but one must shut one’s eyes.” Though Roosevelt also expressed sadness for the destitution that she witnessed, her empathy fell on deaf ears; rather the tender skin to criticism was burned again.
To be fair, the criticism came from inside the region, too. Five Southern journalists and/or newspapers won Pulitzer Prizes in the 1920s, for public service or editorial writing that exposed white Southern atrocities, including the Memphis Commercial Appeal for its cartoons and coverage of the Ku Klux Klan; the Charleston News and Courier for its editorials; the Montgomery Advertiser for editorials detailing Southern racial and religious intolerance; and the Columbus (GA) Enquirer Sun and the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot for their coverage of lynchings. Writing in VQR in 1964, George B. Tindall called this period of time the era of the “Benighted South,” and now, a half century later, there is no end to this era in sight. The civil-rights beat is established in every major newspaper in the wake of the murder of Emmett Till and the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and on and on.
None of the critics were or are wrong. In fact much of the criticism has been brave and necessary and tangibly catalyzed progressive reforms. But it has not been without repercussions.
Understanding those repercussions helps us to understand the rise of a Donald Trump. Southern whiteness is not just about race. Yes, that is how it started. But as Southern whites faced the changing twentieth century, they became the “other” or foil to American identity. Each time the criticism poured in, they defined themselves in opposition to a growing pantheon of enemies. Southern whiteness expands beyond racial identity and supremacy, encapsulating rigid stances on religion, education, the role of government, the view of art, an opposition to science and expertise and immigrants and feminism, and any other topic that comes under attack. This ideological web of inseparable strands envelops a community and covers everything, and it is easily (and intentionally by Donald Trump) snagged.
The key environmental conditions (if we learn from Adler’s pattern again) that made it more likely, in the wake of such criticism, for an individual to develop an inferiority complex were poverty, lack of education, and authoritarian religion. The Southern white triptych or trap. For those of us who were born here or have spent our lives in the South, other than the sheer distinctive levels of violence, the trap remains the most painful dynamic to witness. The need to maintain white supremacy and patriarchy at all costs has, indeed, cost us almost everything. The price to maintain segregation, both legal and cultural, is limited access to and the denouncement of education. The price to maintain white economic power is the proliferation of pay-day lenders and right-to-work laws and the vilification of the “undeserving” on welfare and food stamps. The price to maintain male authority is the failure of almost all Southern states to ratify women’s suffrage in the 1920s (though they did so symbolically decades later, including Mississippi finally in 1984) or the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and 1980s (renewed efforts failed in both Virginia and Arkansas just last year) and the wholesale demonization of feminism. The price to maintain fundamentalist Christian values includes the banning of textbooks, the denigration of non-Christians and of science in general. The price is so high that Southern states rank forty-eighth and forty-ninth and fiftieth time and again on almost every measure that matters to quality of life. And those rankings serve as alarms as well, and the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, an inescapable trap laid by the very folks it ensnares.
So public criticism for many white Southerners is constant and damaging and creates a defensive and extreme response that only causes more damage. In-migration to the South has diluted this community, but for many whites who self-identify as Southern, the inferiority complex is alive and well. We know from our own academic polling that whites who claim a Southern identity score significantly higher than those who do not on scales measuring racism, sexism, and fundamentalism. Whites who claim a Southern identity prove to be more decisive on public-policy issues, with significantly fewer respondents choosing a neutral or independent stance on health-care reform or gay marriage or abortion or affirmative action. In his letter to Life magazine in 1956, William Faulkner warned of this Southern white penchant for polarization. In the battle over integration, Faulkner questioned, “Where will we go, if the middle becomes untenable? If we have to vacate it in order to keep from being trampled?” They run to the right.
So George Wallace’s mantra of “You’re either for it or you’re against it” vibrates on a frequency that white Southerners recognize. It’s a team rally cry, sport-like with signs and tailgates. Even the pushed-up primary in the South was given a sports-conference moniker—SEC. Trump is the brashy, defiant, absolutist celebrity coach. The more he and his supporters are criticized, the more entrenched they become. And his fans want nothing less than a national championship.
They, of course, are not the only Americans who hear that dog whistle. Perhaps there is something to the “southernization of America” described by both Peter Applebome and John Egerton several years ago. NASCAR and country music and the spread of the Southern Baptist denomination across the country follow the American defeat of its own war in Vietnam. Whatever the reason, politicians learned over the last four decades that it is acceptable, even welcomed, to blow the dog whistles of racism and sexism and fundamentalism harder and louder in the South, and when they do the sound reverberates throughout the country. For white Southerners, the sounds are hard to distinguish; the battle for whiteness and patriarchy and church over state are compounded so fully that few can untie the knots in their own hearts and minds.
But outside of the region, in the other states that Trump has won—Illinois and Michigan and Nevada and New Hampshire—he need only strike one of these chords among voters. Maybe immigration is fueling nativism in one community, maybe the legalization of gay marriage has deeply upset another. Maybe some don’t want a female president. After all, white Southerners aren’t the only people who feel down and out or who feel discriminated against, which is clear in the simultaneous, yet separate, national rise of men’s rights movements (mostly notably in the online “Manosphere”), EEOC claims of reverse discrimination, and the belief (among 56 percent of Republicans) in a “war on Christmas.” Trump’s Southern strategy turns out to be less about geography and more about identity. And many want to go back to an America in which people like them run the show.
Nancy MacLean, when writing about the KKK, called this phenomenon “reactionary populism,” in which poor white Southerners mobilized in a riotous mass to fight not for the status quo, but for power and a lifestyle of the past. In this case, demographic changes in the United States will erode a white majority and with it, eventually, the privileges embedded in that whiteness. And Barack Obama will always be the forty-fourth president of the United States, and one day a woman will ascend to that office as well, symbolically shattering antiquated notions of Southern gender roles. Gay Americans can now serve openly in the military and walk down the aisle. These are all lost causes.
And Donald Trump’s voters want to win.
The 2016 election isn’t solely about race-baiting; it’s about inferiority-baiting from a celebrity deal maker turned politician who promises the benighted masses that he will deliver a knockout punch, run up the score, and rise again.