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Ranting Trump Voters on Viral Videos Aren’t Empowered. They’re the Opposite.

Michael Reaves/Getty

Another week, another racist rant from a Trump supporter going viral.

This time it’s the white woman at the Michaels crafts store in Chicago, who, after she was apparently asked to buy a $1 bag for her bigger items, proceeded to berate black employees, with an onlooker capturing the incident on video. The ranting woman repeatedly claimed she’d been “discriminated against” because of her race and presidential preference (“I voted for Trump—so there”) while attacking the “black women” workers and calling one “an animal.”

This was only the latest of the viral videos showing white Trump supporters going off in public places—most notably, a racist ranter at a Starbucks in Coral Gables, Florida, and a sexist Trumpeter on a Delta flight. There’s been widespread agreement about what these videos mean: more evidence that Trump supporters are emboldened by his victory,” as the website Mic called the Chicago ordeal. And on the surface, they do look (and sound!) like the fulfillment of countless campaign predictions about Trump normalizing bigotry, evidence of the “trickle-down racism” that Mitt Romney, of all people, warned us about. “Trump victory would embolden the bigots,” CNN warned on November 7, summing up the long-running meme.

There’s unquestionably some truth to that. But what the viral videos of Trump supporters gone wild reveal is actually more complicated—and fascinating. The closer you look, the more you listen, the clearer it is that these bigoted ranters aren’t so much empowered as they are fragile and pathetic. And what’s gone largely unnoticed is the reactions that the other people in the videos have to their bigoted ravings—reactions that hint at something to be kinda, sorta hopeful about—that non-racist whites have also been woken up by the Trumpian surge of white nationalism.

Certainly, many Trump’s voters do feel emboldened in a sense, having just been granted a kind of white tribal validation by his election amid their anxiety over America’s growing multiculturalism. “One of the more widespread effects of the Nov. 8 election,” writes Jaweed Kaleem at The Los Angeles Times, “may be the emergence of a broad array of everyday Americans who insist they’re not white nationalists but say the president-elect has made them more comfortable in their white skin.”

Yet a clear common theme of these crazy-white-people videos is that the offenders are anything but comfortable in their white skin.

Take the woman in Michaels, who reportedly dragged out her outburst for a full 45 minutes—again, for no other reason than the suggestion that she spend $1 on a bag. In a particularly telling moment, she even lashes out at the white onlooker who recorded the scene on video, Jessie Grady, calling her a race traitor. “I don’t know what you think you’re videoing, lady,” the ranter says. “I was just discriminated against by two black women. And you being a white woman, you literally thinking that that’s okay, you standing there with your baby thinking that’s okay?”

The Florida Starbucks video reeks of similar discomfort from the man who claimed “anti-white discrimination,” supposedly by a black woman employee and on the basis of his Trump support. But as The Washington Post reported, “A witness said the man simply got angry that his coffee order took too long.” He referred to the employee as “trash,” prompting her to shoot back, “So what?”

He responded: “I voted for Trump. Trump. You lost—now give me my money back.”

Here, too, the most interesting moment in the video isn’t the rant; it comes when an aghast patron intervenes. “Do not talk to other people that way,” he says. The two then discuss whether they should “step outside” and settle things, before the Trumpeter leaves the shop grumbling about the “absolutely ridiculous” experience. (He has since apologized for his behavior, but still maintains that he was discriminated against.)

The Delta video was perhaps the most bizarre of these three instantly famous incidents—and the reaction it captures is also telling. The man on video appears to be exhorting a plane full of people to share his enthusiasm about the president-elect, clapping his hands over and over while shouting “Donald Trump, baby! ... Come on, baby! Trump!” Greeted by utter silence, he then demands to know, somewhat defensively, whether “We got some Hillary bitches on here?” (which might have been what got him banned from the airline for life).

So, yes, these people were acting entitled. In two of the cases, they were engaged in racial harassment. And sure, they’re all displaying petulant and pathetic assertions of white privilege. But they’re also full of what the scholar and author Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility”—“a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”

Anti-racist activist Tim Wise says these episodes demonstrate, as much as anything else, how recent years have created “a perfect storm of white anxiety” in the United States: There was the economic crisis, followed by the election of the first black president—and a nagging anxiety about the fast-approaching end of majority-whiteness in America. And then, of course, along came Trump, who Wise describes as “much more the bullhorn than the dog whistle” with his racial appeal. The president-elect has mainstreamed expressions of bigotry, allowing for greater expression of a new white identity politics—even among Americans who don’t support Richard Spencer-style white nationalism.

The good news in these videos, to the extent that there is any, is that both their content and their spread on social media suggests that other white people aren’t going to be, to use a Wise phrase, “silent partners” for assertions of white nationalism and privilege. Jessie Grady’s decision to capture the episode in Michaels—and to immediately rally to the aid of black store employees, along with several other customers—was a prime example of what racial-justice activists call “white allyship.” (Grady also raised more than $22,000 on GoFundMe for the store manager.)

Wise said he’s seen more white anti-racist activists in recent years than he has for many decades—and Trumpism has undoubtedly helped them find their voices, too. In a strange way, these disturbing viral videos can be a gift, showing Americans who we really are—both bad and good. They’re also an challenge to be our best selves, to act in such situations the way we’d hope to be seen on camera.