If there is one uniting theme in the 2016 presidential campaign season it is the rise of Privilege Panic. Again and again, across parties and at venues all over the country, we see a deep well of anger exploding with the landing of fists and the hurling of chairs (and death threats). From BernieBros to TrumpBots to the calls for revolution by John McAfee at the Libertarian Presidential Debate in Nevada last week – the same underlying and disturbingly unified message pulses throughout. If there was ever a time when white, heterosexual, cisgender men felt panicked about their place of entitled privilege in America, this is it.
Don’t believe me? Watch me checkmate in three moves.
First up, we’ve got the Nevada Democratic Party convention held last Saturday, which devolved into such a chaotic and violent affair that the police were called and the whole event was shut down by the Paris hotel-casino after Sen. Barbara Boxer was booed off stage, chairs were thrown, and an elderly woman was hit with a bottle. Was this WWE or a major party convention? Most chilling of all was that there were death threats directed at the state party chair.
There is no question that the vitriol and violence came from Sanders supporters, who even days later are still storming social media. Whatever righteousness might have applied to their indignation has been nulified by the math and the facts. For all their #FreeThe64 whining, the truth is that only a reported eight of the 64 people who were ruled ineligible (because of a failure to register as Democrat by the cut off) even bothered to show up to argue their case to participate. It’s pretty hard to feel sorry for people who couldn’t be bothered to fight their own cause. Then came the epic tantrum by Bernie supporters who were mad that they didn’t get their way about the rules. Not only were chairs and bottles thrown at people, but Sanders’ supporters decided to take out their anger about the fact that there were more Hillary Clinton supporters – that’s just math, guys – by going completely scorched earth and voting down every single plank in the proposed party platform (even central tenants of Sanders’ own campaign). Classy move, guys.
Honestly, the kind of behavior on display at the NDP convention is actually worse than that of my six-year-old child when she’s misbehaving. Let me say that again so you understand how ridiculous this is. My six-year-old knows better than to throw a chair at another person, even in anger. What on earth could have the #FeelTheBern crew so angry that they resort to actual violence? It’s not hard to see where it stems from when you look at the vast catalogue of #BernieBro rage that is almost entirely directed at women on social media. It’s to the point that members of Sanders’ own campaign team have privately apologized to Clinton’s team. For all the jokes about Donald Trump’s “bleeding from their wherever” quip about Megyn Kelly (and by extension all women), the White Male Privilege Panic is palpable from the #BernieBro camp, too. For those that argue that Sanders can’t control the hordes on social media, I offer his tacit approval of what happened on Saturday. He not only does not admonish the #BernieBros, he doesn’t apologize for their violent, sexist behavior either — online or in real life.
Next up we have the GOP and their front-runner Donald Trump. The violence at Trump’s campaign events is well-documented and his endorsement by former KKK leader David Duke has thoroughly cemented his campaign’s complicit courtship of the white supremacist vote. This alone is the most blatant example of the Privilege Panic this election season. Candidates are literally getting endorsed because they promise to act in ways that continue systemic oppression of women and people of color – even banning whole groups of people from entering the country.
However, Trump is far from the most conservative of the once-crowded field of GOP candidates (any of whom could still be a potential veep nom). For instance, none of the 16 candidates support same-sex marriage and some, like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being only between one man and one woman. And of course, we all know how Mike Huckabee feels about transgender people. Likewise, Ben Carlson and Trump have both made headlines on their hardline take about abortion.
Regardless of party affiliation, this sense of panic is everywhere from social media taunts to actual fists flying. Just as the North Carolina bathroom bill is perfectly timed to express real Trans Panic (and the truthiness of gender roles) at precisely the same time that transgender icons including Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Caitlyn Jenner are entering the mainstream, this election season continues to make real the fear felt by vast groups of (mostly) white guys who worry their privilege is threatened by others attaining equality. But if a girl can be president, then what’s to stop a girl from doing my job?
My third example is from the Libertarian Presidential Debate, which was filmed in Las Vegas earlier this week. It will air this weekend on Glenn Beck’s The Blaze network (look for my story in Vegas Seven soon), but there was no denying that room was filled with the exact same Privilege Panic and discontent. (Airing your debate on Glenn Beck’s network kind of says it all.) A central tenant of the Libertarian philosophy is that every person should have total responsibility of and control over their own body. But when moderator Penn Jillette asked Austin Pertersen about his prolife stance on abortion, he unequivocally pivoted from Libertarianism saying that “all life” deserves liberty. So, if you’re Peterson, I guess all people deserve to have control over their bodies – unless those bodies are female. Then there was McAfee, who used his opening remarks to essentially say greed is good. (Actual quote: making money is what it’s all about.) And the mood in the room was electrified by McAfee’s Trump-like antics and Petersen’s party lines about how all Americans are actually Libertarian once they wake up. And not for nothing, the event may have been the whitest room I’ve ever been in during my 18 years covering politics in Nevada. That alone spoke volumes. There was definitely this same sense of panic about things that threaten the status quo of white guys continuing to be in control of all the wealth and all the power.
All of this reveals a certain kind of white American who is feeling all their presumed entitlements disappear. (Because presuming that white and male are the default is an entitled, or privileged, mindset.) As we can see, this particular type of white guy is not delineated by party as much as his fear of change.
The thing a lot of these bros have in common is a total cognitive disconnect from their bigotry. If you call them racist or sexist, they’ll point to one time when they promoted a woman in their company or going to their gay friend’s wedding as defacto signs of their open-mindedness and categorical deniability of bigotry. (You might recognize this kind of talk as the very same coded language as the rightfully derided, “I’m not racist. My black friend …” talk.) Because these bros know one person who fits into a marginalized category and because they don’t treat that specific person as a pariah, then by default they are not racist/sexist/homophobic/etc.
Furthermore, because of this cognitive disconnect, when BernieBros or TrumpBots go on social media and rage about women voting with their vaginas, they vehemently deny that their vitriol is sexist – even when they continuously troll women on social media. How exactly is my candidate choice because of my vagina but a man picking a male candidate is not at all about penises? Privilege Panic. What is the difference between a dude telling me I’m a “fucking bitch” because I’m a feminist blogger or a BernieBro calling me a “fucking bitch” because I support Clinton? Privilege Panic. The connective tissue between both comments is a desire to silence my voice precisely because I’m a woman using my voice.
I suppose this season of Privilege Panic was inevitable during an election cycle that comedian Larry Wilmore calls “the unblackening.” During the past decade we’ve not only had our first black president but also same-sex marriage became law in all 50 states and there’s going to be a black woman on the twenty dollar bill soon. It’s a lot of (long overdue) progress in a compressed span of time. Then again, we’ve got people antagonizing strangers in public bathrooms, so we’ve still got a long way to go. What we don’t need is this undercurrent of fear that is inciting real violence. Regardless of political parties, we as Americans need to rise above this petty panic because it’s causing real damage.