How Moral Licensing and Caucasian Insecurity Bolstered the Right’s Reclaim America Movement

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We hear it a lot. It’s framed in many different ways, but the sentiment is always the same: The United States of America, has been destroyed. Our country is in tatters; our ideals fractured by a usurper who has unapologetically un-America’d America.

So what do we do now? Well, we take it backobviously.  But, who’s this, “we,” and who are “we” taking this country back from exactly?  Some would counter: the liberal elite, big-government cronies, the establishment, the politically correct, Obama’s invisible, socialist henchmen etc.

But that’s not it. Or, it’s only part of it. It’s the surface level, macro idea, but it all stems from the micro. 

According to a recent PEW survey Clinton and Trump supporters, unsurprisingly, differ dramatically on the evolution of life in America.  81% of registered voters who support Trump believe that life in the U.S. is worse for, “people like them” than it was 50 years ago.  In contrast, Clinton supporters only came in at 19%.  It’s a massive gap for sure, but a predictable one.  Coming off of eight years with a democrat in office, it would stand to reason that dems would have a sunnier outlook in general.

But again, there’s more to it then that.

This whole take back the country movement that Trump has exploited and energized, has an us vs. them component to it that simply can’t be ignored.  Especially when so much of the divisive language used is based on race. It’s worth noting that a recent NBC News/Wall St. Journal poll has Trump polling at an abyssal 1% with African American voters (Clinton was at 91%,) and another NBC/WSJ poll has Trump at 14% with Hispanic voters.  To put that in perspective, Mitt Romney, a candidate who performed very poorly with minorities overall, garnered 27% of the Hispanic vote and 6% of the African American vote in 2012.

These numbers are important because they show us that the 81% of Trump supporters that think the country is worse-off today than 50 years ago, this energetic swatch of cable news revolutionariesthey’re nearly all white. This isn’t exactly breaking news, Trump has been polling horrendously with African Americans and Hispanics since the day he slowly descended the escalator in Trump Tower. But Trump and his almost entirely white voter base, along with Fox News and a cadre others, have brought the reclaim America movement to the mainstream.

There is no more fringe.

The head of Breitbart is now running a major presidential campaign.

There’s a psychological concept termed moral licensing, also known as self-licensing.  Boiled down to basics, it’s the act of using a supposedly positive action as protection against future behavior.  It’s essentially the, “I’m not racist, I have a bunch of black friends” argument.  There’s an inherent mutual exclusivity proposed here. If a person does one large thing, makes one decision, like say, voting for, or not being initially appalled by, President Barack Obama, anything that person does or says henceforth cannot be viewed through the lens of race. Famed sociologist and writer Malcolm Gladwell has spoken about moral licensing, and its effect on politics and race relations on his podcast, Revisionist History, as well as in an interview at the 92Y.  Gladwell calls America’s shift from electing and re-electing our first black president to potentially electing our most openly racist president, “classic moral licensing.” And he’s right, it is.

It’s like justifying demolishing a huge bowl of ice cream before bed, because three days before you went for a run. The sundae is still bad for you. The contents therein do not change because you burned some calories a few days prior. In the same regard, electing an African American president does not excuse or validate racist behaviorwhether you agree with his policies or not.

So part of taking America back, and embracing openly divisive and racist rhetoric is due to moral licensing. But moral licensing is really only the mechanism that opens the gate, it’s not the catalyst.  The catalyst is change.  And whether that change is real or imagined doesn’t really matterit scares people.

The far right has this vision that the United States has been taken from them during the Obama presidency (more on the embedded privilege of this idea later.) There is absolutely no evidence of this, but much of it stems from our collective shift towards inclusion. The country has grown more collectively empathetic and more open. Gay marriage was legalized, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed, a series of bills were passed protecting the LGBTQ community from discrimination, numerous gender equality wage bills were passed, private prisons were decreased and will now be phased out entirely, scholarships were set up for undocumented students, a portion of Pell Grants were extended to incarcerated individualsand this list really only scratches the surface. The focus of the government’s attention broadened under Obama. Bills were passed that empowered groups to action and strengthened the revolve of those who all but given up on significant change occurring in this country. Many of these social advancements helped huge portions of the American public who were drastically underrepresented in the past.

Changes were made.

However, these changesmany of which are much smaller in reality than optics may lead one to believe have made a sub-set of Americans worried and uneasy about the direction of the country. This sub-set is full of white nationalists, some who proclaim their allegiance to their race outright, vocally, and others who do so only in practice. A faction of this movement is simply alarmed by the current size of our government and fear its growing influence, but much of the rhetoric fueling the fervor reaches way beyond size. Fear is a prevailing factor here. Large swaths of U.S. citizens have never interacted with minorities. They are comfortable with white people as the ruling class, and minorities staying minorities. It’s an out of sight out of mind thing, and foreign entities are now in their site line. And this divisive, fear-mongering technique is not exclusive to the United States by any means. Brexit leader Nigel Farage used the same technique and slogan.

Preying upon fear gets results.

This has been happening for centuries: a group uses a form of distorted patriotism to justify tribalism and an embarrassingly stagnant adherence to a preordained hierarchy. It’s demonization through the creation of a common, enemya subject for a rallying cry. Donald Trump marches out a handful or parents and relatives of people killed my illegal immigrants at the RNC. He’s showing us the enemy. We fear those who are different from us, and when fear is prodded it often tugs on the strings of insecurity and bends directly into hate.

It is still, currently, in every region of the United States, much, much easier to be Caucasian and straight. Even though conversations have begun and certain bills were signed into law, the reality is, in most ways, we are still the same country we were before Barack Obama. Presidents operate in a realm of incremental change. And the idea of taking America back directly implies a past ownership and privilege that immediately shows the selfish motivation behind the statement. A country shouldn’t be built upon ownership, but many facets of American society are. It seems we may have, in some small way, begun to stray from that path over the last 7+ years.

It’s a good thing.

This “America” much of this group is aiming to reclaim, is an “America” that left a significant portion of its citizens behind, while consistently bolstering the resources and opportunities of the already fortunate.


by Jesse Mechanic

Jesse Mechanic is the editor in chief of The Overgrown.

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