False consciousness is a concept Karl Marx used to explain why the poor, who outnumber the rich, do not revolt. The rich and poor, according to Marx, are in conflict because their interests differ. The rich want to stay rich, so they seek to preserve the existing system because it benefits them. The poor, however, suffer under the existing system, which gives them few options besides working to serve the wealthy. They don’t revolt because they accept the myths, created by the rich, that make the existing way of life seem natural. One such myth is that anyone can become rich if they work hard enough and know how to market themselves. If the poor believe they too can become rich, they are less likely to cause trouble. While it is true that in the United States a few people from humble beginnings have become exceptionally rich with hard work, talent, luck, and government support, the truth is that far more people who are poor remain poor even when they work really hard. But, if the rich and poor alike believe that the poor are poor because of their individual failings rather than societal constraints, there is no pressing need to fix failing schools, stop gang violence, or provide programs for the disadvantaged. All the poor have to do to succeed is not be lazy. Anyone, according to this myth, can become President of the United States.
I bring up the Marxist idea of false conscious because we see examples of people who voted for and continue to support the President of the United States even though he acts against the interests of the poor, the middle class, and the large majority of the People of the United States. During the primary and general elections, we wondered why conservative, white people of faith supported a thrice married man who hurled insults at every demographic but his own. After the election, he has shown himself to be clueless about how to run the government, and he shows little interest in learning how. As he bizarrely continues to hold campaign rallies and the dysfunction of his leadership is apparent to people in every other country in the world, his supporters cheer enthusiastically for him.
Most of the people he hired in his cabinet are out to eviscerate the government which protects us all. We will no longer protect as many endangered species. You can see them at the zoo. Scientists can no longer publish climate change data. Nice knowing you. We can start mining coal again in Kentucky and pollute our waterways. Who needs clean drinking water? Our public education will be passed to the hands of for-profit charter schools. Hope you can find transportation. Universal health care? Repeal and replace.
Many middle class and poor whites voted for a fantastically wealthy business person, who was born into luxury and had all the advantages. He never spent a moment of his life wondering if he would be able to afford his next meal, if he could afford a visit a doctor, or if he could pay for his children’s education. Since he owned his company, he’s never faced a board of directors, justified his decisions to anyone, or enlisted other people’s help. He just had to decide who to suck up to, who not to pay, who to scam, and who to bully to get what he wanted. The rich like him because he serves their interests and plays to their prejudices. How many people of color do you suppose are members at Mar-a-Lago? But, why do working class voters continue to support him? He is not like Bill Gates who used his wealth and influence to create a foundation that really does help the poor. Trump has done little to serve the interests of anyone besides himself and his rich cronies. He puts himself first. So, why does he continue to appeal to so many who should realize by now that We the People have elected a pompous, incompetent, irrational human being? Is it false consciousness?
Trump is the ideal capitalist. He embodies the paradigm of success in the mythical capitalist system. Selfish? Check. The world is competitive. Every man (yes, man) for himself. The strong survive and flourish. The weak perish. Check. Morality amounts to doing whatever you can get away with. Buyer beware. Check. You can never have too much money. Check. Those who succeed are deserving. They have special qualities (even if they received small loans and were bailed out of failing businesses). Hard work and street smarts count. Check. Take what you want. Be powerful. You deserve to be dining on caviar while others starve. Check. Be supremely confident. Not humble. If you don’t know, make something up. Check. Be wary of people who are different. Use them when you can, but don’t help them. Make them the scapegoats for the problems of capitalism. Check.
Trump ran against the establishment. He was the anti-politician. His business experience, wealth and celebrity were why he was on the ticket. But he got elected because he appealed to disenfranchised white voters. He embodied the ideal of a person who rose from nothing to prominence (even though that myth was not true either). Trump remains popular among whites because he has created the appearance that he is shaking things up in DC and is fulfilling his campaign promises. He taps into people’s unconscious prejudices. Trump is perceived to be a straight talker: a truth teller (even though his “facts” come from unreliable Internet sources). He furthers the belief in capitalist myths.
How do you expose false consciousness (which by the way is no longer a central doctrine of contemporary Marxist thought)? Education. You expose the myths and reveal how the rich are not acting in people’s interests. This is challenging because we all believe myths. We want to believe that our successes are due to our hard work, not luck. It calms our fears if we belief that violence is the product of some groups of people that we can distance ourselves from. We whites like living in a black and white world where our sexual preferences, religious choices, and countries of origin are considered normal. We want to believe that our country stands for equality. Whites admire Oprah, Elton John, LeBron James, Jennifer Lopez, Betty White, Yo-Yo Ma, and Nelson Mandela, but we prefer a rich, white, male, heterosexual as a leader. He better fits the myths we unknowingly prefer to live by.
Myths help us make sense of a psychologically troubling world. These very same myths, however, can become dangerous. In these cases, the truth can readjust our norms, change our values, and help us better understand each other. Trump has accomplished more, in just a few short weeks, toward becoming the worst president ever. He is unlikely to change. We have to change the false consciousness of his supporters.