The Just World Hypothesis and Trump’s Border Wall

One of the ways to make sense of an unfathomable truth, one which does not makes sense with the world as we understand it, is to blame that unfathomable truth on something or someone else.

Well, hey there!

I know I’m supposed to be talking about the Just World Hypothesis and Trump’s border wall, per the title and my previous article on this topic. But, first I have to lay some additional groundwork.

You see, last week I looked at the Just World Fallacy in general terms. I outlined how the belief that the world is a fundamentally Just and Fair place can (key word there) lead to victim-blaming mentalities and behavior. In order to accurately capture how this leads to the rhetorical power of the idea of a border wall (all Trump really needs is the idea and to appear to be fighting for it after all), I need to first spend some time talking about the economy, which will be something of a theme for these articles.

Buckle up.

The story starts with the American Dream. Most American stories do, in one way or another. Specifically, this story starts with the Horatio Alger version of the American Dream, the classic rags-to-riches narrative wherein hard work and perseverance lead to an almost inevitable happy (rich) ending. It is the idea that no matter who you are, or what circumstances you were born into, you can become a member of the economic elite.

Now, at the end of the day, most people don’t really need to be part of the 1% in this country to be satisfied with their lives. Economically, most people would be content with being able to own a home, a vehicle (or two),  pay their bills, save for retirement, help their kids and give them opportunities they (the parents) didn’t have, with a little leftover for the odd indulgence at home and vacation away from home.

Right now, that’s most of what people want. Being fabulously rich would be nice, of course, but living comfortably is sufficient.

Sounds pretty reasonable, right? We’re among the richest and most developed countries in the world, so it would make sense for us, as a society, to be able to reach that level of success.

And yet, we are a country filled with people who live pay check to pay check. In January this year, prompted in part by the extended government shut-down meaning many government employees weren’t receiving their paychecks, reporter Brett Ziegler released an article diving into why 78% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck. That’s a startling statistic. 78% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck and do not have the savings required to handle a surprise expense.

I’d add to that statistic that an awful lot of the remaining Americans who are not living paycheck to paycheck still have deep-rooted economic anxieties.

Not that long ago I was talking about wage stagnation with my mother, and the ongoing debate about raising the minimum wage and what the minimum wage is supposed to accomplish, and she brought up that she still didn’t feel like she and my father had made it to the point where money wasn’t a concern. They make good money, sure. But debt, the costs of me going to college along with assorted medical expenses, gas, and household upkeep mean that that money is accounted for. All of it. What’s more, they both work, leaving no one at home to see to basics like cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, and so on. They both work to fit those things in to an already full schedule. My dad works far more than 40 hours a week on average, they don’t get much time together, and they are both exhausted with trying to keep up with the basics.  

In many ways they are emblematic of what is means to be an American worker and in an American family right now. It’s not just finances that are stretched. It’s time. It’s mental and emotional resources. It’s the relationships between friends and family that can’t be tended to.

We’re also living in a time where inequality, income inequality and particularly wealth inequality (wealth being the total accumulation of financial assets in an individual’s possession, minus their debts) is increasing, while at the same time upward mobility is depressed.

The break down of those two facts is this, people who are born wealthy are more likely to stay that way, people who were born middle and working class are less likely to become wealthy, and may or may not maintain their relative economic status. Inter-generational differences in things like the cost of housing and college also mean that the Millennial generation is not exceeding the economic fortunes of their parents.

This has been ongoing since the 1970’s, but individual families were often saved from the worst effects of rising cost of living because of several other things changing at the same time. Women entering the workforce en masse and the increased availability of credit cards and risky-lending to the general public all acted as stop-gaps that maintained economic status quos largely as they were until the 2008 recession.

The way people maintained their lifestyle changed, but, for many Americans, the lifestyle itself didn’t. 

So why, in an article discussing the Just World Fallacy and President Trump’s border wall, does all of this economic information matter? I’ll explain in a minute, but first we have to grapple with the emotional response to these realities.

The facts I just laid out are, by the very nature of economic science and reporting, big picture impersonal facts. For the most part, everyone felt the 2008 Recession, but wealth inequality and upward mobility are less than irrelevant when the question is whether or not you’ll be able to put food on the table for dinner, or whether you can pay rent at the beginning of the month. Both of those issues are too distant, and don’t seem directly related to the immediate issue. Economic terminology is, somewhat intentionally, sanitized so that it feels distant and like it doesn’t impact the individual.

Much like the pain scale was designed to give doctors an accurate representation of a patient’s pain and to protect the doctor from an intense emotional description of the pain that might distract them from the technicalities of their job, terms like economic inequality and wage stagnation serve as placeholders that allow us to talk about difficult financial realities and seek solutions without directly thinking about people and families in need. They allow economists, politicians, and financial experts to tackle problems without being overwhelmed by the hardships and pain those numbers often represent.

But people and families are in need.

More to the point, the reality of middle and working class economics does not match the emotional story of the American Dream. How, as a people, do we reconcile the notion that we are both the 12th richest nation in the world (based on per-capita GDP: source.) and a nation where so many people live paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford to see their doctor? What about being a nation with a chronically dysfunctional veteran’s health system, or one where veterans and disabled people and LGBTQ people are at such visible risk of homelessness? Or where it is possible to work two jobs and still not be able to afford basic necessities much less luxuries?

For most Americans their personal realities are felt far more keenly than any statistic or graph about the economy.

Take my city. It’s a rare day for me to drive into town to pick up groceries and not see someone panhandling on the street corners, carrying a cardboard and marker sign: Out of Work, Anything Helps; Disabled Veteran, Anything Helps; Disabled and Can’t Work, God Bless.

Recently it’s been a woman in a wheelchair. She sits at the corner of the intersection for the big grocery super-mart on the north side of town with a bonnet made from a scrap of fabric instead of a sun hat. She is sun-burnt all the time, she is old, and, even without her wheelchair you would know that she is disabled to look at her. Because Independence Day is coming up (July 4th for anyone not from the United States), she sometimes has a little paper American flag which was clearly given to her by someone in place of money or other assistance. She waves the flag, when she has one, at every passing car.

I wish I could tell you that I saw her and took her to a local homeless shelter (which I didn’t because they have a horrible reputation for abuse in this area), or that I got her a hotel for the night, that I had a job to offer her, or even just that I had a bag of something to give her, a hat, blankets, a good refillable water bottle, a water-proof sleeping bag. It’s summer now, but people freeze to death here in the winter when they can’t find shelter.

I didn’t.

I gave her five dollars. Once.

Because every cent I have is important. Because I just graduated college and have a lot of debt and no income. I couldn’t do more, and I probably won’t be able to do more if she is still on her corner next week.

If she isn’t, someone else will be there.

These are the stories we feel. The stories behind the statistics. We feel it when a friend has to go on food stamps, or a family member admits that they sometimes go to bed hungry so their kids can eat, or so the heat will stay on one more month. Or when we find out that our co-workers are living out of their cars, or when we have to do one of those things ourselves.

As Americans, living in the 12th richest country in the world, a country we are continuously told is the best country in the world, those stories, and the feelings they invoke, make no sense.

This is where the wall comes in.

One of the ways to make sense of an unfathomable truth, one which does not make sense with the world as we understand it, is to blame that unfathomable truth on something or someone else. If the world is not as it should be there must be something to blame.

Insert a bad-guy and the unfair world suddenly makes sense again.

Why? Because really the world is fair, but the bad-guy, the bad-people are stealing that good and just world out from under us. That’s the Just World Fallacy rearing its ugly head again. That’s the Just World Phenomenon telling us that any injustice, any unfairness, like the disconnect between the economic fortunes of the country and the economic fortunes of its people, is the result of bad-actors taking advantage of the rest of us good people and preventing the natural order from asserting itself and rewarding the good.

It’s not true. But it’s surely powerful.

And for Trump? And many of his followers, his fans? The Bad-Guy, the Bad-People? They are illegal immigrants, or Mexicans in general (because the only illegal immigrants are Mexican, right? Right…), or Muslims, because what’s scarier than someone who is Brown (stereo-typically. No one seems to think about the White Muslims.), and foreign (because surely no one born in America is Muslim…), and follows a different religion!

I don’t mention China because, while China is certainly on the list of bad-guys in Trump world, he hasn’t ever actually connected them to the need for the wall on the Southern border. He talks about illegal immigrants all the time, including in the speech he made to announce his candidacy for President (Source.), and suggested that ISIS and other Muslim extremist groups would attempt to infiltrate the US through the refugee caravan of 2018 (Source.), mixing illegal immigrants from Central American countries, Refugees from anywhere, and Muslim extremists into the same motley bag of ‘bad-guys’ the Wall would prevent. His language, “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” re-enforces the suggestion of these groups being ‘bad-guys’.

Bringing this back to the economic insecurity so many are experiencing in the United States right now, the assumption is that the ‘bad-guys’ are stealing economic opportunity out from under the deserving American populace a number of ways. The first, and perhaps most iconic example is the ‘They’re taking our jobs!’ narrative.

In some ways, I won’t lie, this narrative holds up. Immigrant workers and outsourced workers are, often, cheaper to hire and cheaper to keep than U.S. citizens. However, this is not the fault of that cheaper labor force, but a result of the forces of capitalism and the willingness of employers to outsource, hire undocumented workers, or remain short-staffed waiting for workers willing to accept low wages as the cost of doing business. It’s not that ‘They’re taking our jobs!’ so much as ‘businesses won’t hire us so long as someone cheaper is available’. I admit, the truth doesn’t roll of the tongue nearly so well.

More than jobs though, there is also the (false) cultural impression that immigrant workers, documented and undocumented, don’t pay taxes, but still receive benefits like food stamps, housing assistance, and social security. Basically the idea here is that the people who really deserve and need these programs don’t receive them because undocumented immigrants and criminals manipulate the system and drain away needed resources. This is patently untrue. It is true that immigrants on average receive more welfare assistance than native-birth citizens (Source.), but they also pay taxes into the system.

In fact, the same analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies also reveals that 93% of non-citizen families receiving some form of welfare assistance also have at least one worker in the household, whereas only 73% of citizen families receiving some form of welfare also have at least one worker.

Undocumented immigrants do not have access to welfare programs except those needed to maintain life. Going to the emergency room counts under this metric, as does WIC and CHIP in some cases in order to ensure the life of mother and child. However, Medicaid (the most used and most costly form of Welfare in the U.S), Earned-Income-Tax-Credits, and other welfare programs are not available to undocumented immigrants.

Ultimately, for both citizens and non-citizens educational attainment is a good predictor of welfare use. It’s also important to note that welfare use is variable, and as recently as 2013 citizen families accessed welfare programs at a higher rate than non-citizen families (Source).

Put simply, non-citizen families that use welfare are more likely to have a worker paying taxes and generating economic activity than are citizen families. They’re not stealing resources anymore than a citizen using the same program.

The last argument I want to touch on here is crime, the idea that illegal immigrants are making the streets more dangerous either through direct crimes committed, or by bringing drugs into the country, or just generally being unlawful.

However, the Cato Institute, along with many other groups researching this issue, conclude that illegal immigrants are less likely than citizens to commit crimes, and legal immigrants less likely than either group.

Looking at Texas, the only state currently tracking immigration status of incarcerated individuals, the Cato Institute concluded, “If anything, Texas is more serious about enforcing laws against illegal immigrant criminals than other states.  But even here, illegal immigrant conviction rates are about half those of native-born Americans – without any controls for age, education, ethnicity, or any other characteristic.” (analysis by Alex Nowrasteh, Source).

Yet, despite these facts being easily found with a few minutes of research on Google, the myths I outlined are powerful motivators for building the wall. Part of that is because those negative myths about Trump’s immigrant and refugee ‘bad-guys’ play incredibly well into both the Just World story and the American story.

In a Just and Fair World the United States would be able to provide a high standard of living for all of its citizens, the condition of the working poor, if it existed at all, would be transitory, and welfare would be largely unnecessary, and used only as a step on the path to productive economic success. Because those things are not true, there must be something preventing fairness from working, otherwise we would all be what Robert Reich terms “The Triumphant Individual” (in a seriously good video).

Reich also points out another part of the American Story, which is also at work in this rhetoric, that of “The Mob at the Gates”, or the grand threat to our society, in this case, Trump’s vision of the lawless and corrupt (and Brown) immigrant. In other times ‘the mob at the gates’ were communists, or fascists. The mob at the gates story plays into the idea that a Just World is being prevented by people taking more than their fair share, or otherwise sabotaging the efforts of other, more deserving, people.

Of course Trump isn’t doing all of the heavy lifting when he employs this rhetoric. It neither started with President Trump, nor, unfortunately, is it likely to end with him. But when he talks about immigrants, when he talks about the Wall, and when he talks about how important building the Wall will be for the well-being of the average (he means White) American citizen, he is playing off of the idea of a Just World that is built into human psychology and parts of the American Story which have been culturally potent for more than a century.

These ideas are incredibly powerful, and easier to fit into our personal narratives than the economic realities and insecurities which motivate them.


As always, I hope you are well.

I’ll keep a light on.





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