We interrupt our regularly scheduled post on genres to bring you this dispatch from the edge of despair.
For the past several days I’ve been making notes toward a post-election post, the title of which was to be something like “Now, the Long Slog Back From Trumpism.” I meant to talk about the radical divisiveness in America that Trump’s campaign made glaringly obvious, and the painful fact that the opposing sides in this divide might well prove to be incommensurable—but that it was the primary task of a Clinton presidency to try and heal that rift.
Well. That would have been nice.
I woke up this morning in a world where “President Trump” isn’t merely a terrifying prospect, but a reality … and it is taking a long while for that reality to sink in. Possibly it won’t—possibly while Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office, I will still be investigating the backs of wardrobes, searching for a way back to the reality I left when I went to sleep last night.
I cannot recall a time in recent memory when I have been so relieved to be Canadian, though even that relief is marred by my fear that Trump’s victory will be a gust of oxygen for the revanchist embers smoldering in this country.
For the last few months, I have been reading a lot in an effort to wrap my head around the Trump phenomenon—more specifically, to try and understand his appeal to what has turned out to be a plurality of the U.S. electorate. I’ve read a number of books and a lot of articles; possibly the most interesting one, and the one I would most recommend, was Alexander Zaitchik’s The Gilded Rage. In it, he follows around the Trump campaign and speaks to his supporters—basically, just letting them talk and listening. Most striking in the stories he records is a remarkable cognitive dissonance. To be clear, Zaitchik did not sit down with any of Trump’s most rabid and nativist supporters, but people who have felt left behind by Washington and by the economy, and who see in Trump an outsider not beholden to a broken system. But then, after preambles venting about Washington elites and Obama’s “disastrous” presidency, more often than not they complain about the erosion of the social safety net, about income inequality, and health care. To a person, all who mention it deem Obamacare a massive failure, but then voice a desire for a single-payer system. They want better educational opportunities and to improve the schools we have; and while many echo Trump’s sentiments about immigration, all of the people who live by the border articulate a much more nuanced reality, expressing compassion for the Mexicans who suffer at the hands of the drug cartels and who come seeking a better life, and disdain for border agents who behave, in the words of one rancher, as little better than thugs.
That they would put their faith in Trump as someone who would address any or all of these problems is frankly baffling, but is likely a measure of their alienation from the “establishment”—they want to throw a bomb at the government, and Trump is the grenade most ready to hand.
The biggest problem with Zaitchik’s book is its brevity: at 125 pages, it necessarily provides a highly selective sample, presumably chosen for how compelling their accounts are. And however reasonable they sound, I could not shake an oft-recounted experience of Trump rallies, at which attendees are often described as affable until the shouting starts—and then the venom and hatred emerges, given voice and license by Trump and his lackeys.
It is this very vitriol that defeats an attempt at a rational understanding. Most recently, I read Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal!, which is a concise and lacerating critique of the Democrats’ shift from being the party of the working class to neoliberal boosters of the professional class. As I read it, it felt like one half of an explanation for Trump’s popularity: though Frank never puts it in racial terms, what he describes is the Democrats’ abandonment of White middle America. The second half of the story, of course, is the Republicans’ successful courting of southern and Midwestern voters, appealing to their social conservatism and their racial anxiety, soliciting and getting their votes while slashing the social safety net and implementing policies that facilitated the concentration of wealth at the top at the expense of the middle class (a process, Frank points out, that was not hindered by Bill Clinton but accelerated).
This erosion of social programs, it needs to be noted for a point I will make momentarily, was itself racially coded: as Heather McGhee of the Demos Institute points out, middle- and lower-class Whites accepted these depredations more often than not because they were sold as cuts to programs that disproportionately benefitted inner-city Blacks (think, for example, of Reagan railing against “welfare queens”).
Meanwhile, both parties oversaw the busting of unions, trade agreements that sent jobs overseas and denuded the country’s manufacturing base, and fiscal policies that increasingly benefited corporations and the wealthy.
One way to understand Trump’s appeal to this cross-section of White America is to see them as an economically dispossessed group who woke up to the Republican long con of appealing to their social conservatism, either because they no longer cared about those issues, or because they saw jobs as the more important consideration, or (most likely) because they saw the long con for what it was, a bait-and-switch perpetrated by hypocritical political elites with more in common with their fellows across the aisle than the people whose votes they court.
Enter Trump: a swaggering bully who spoke intemperately, gleefully slapped around the Republican establishment, and confirmed all their politically incorrect suspicions about Mexicans and Muslims. And promised to restore what they had lost.
But again, as much as laying it out in socio-historical terms provides an attractive narrative, it falls short. Indeed, while for a time I was most of the way to believing it, I now call bullshit. Back in March, Thomas Frank wrote an article in The Guardian in which he offers his own explanation for Trumpism, which is more or less consonant with what I outlined above. He writes:
[T]o judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern—not white supremacy. Not even his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, the issue that first won him political fame. He did it again during the debate on 3 March: asked about his political excommunication by Mitt Romney, he chose to pivot and talk about … trade.
It seems to obsess him: the destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies’ CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US.
This much is impossible to deny: Trump is obsessed with the U.S.’s various trade deals, invariably referring to NAFTA as disastrous, and frequently banging on about how China and Mexico take advantage of America. Frank continues:
Now, I have no special reason to doubt the suspicion that Donald Trump is a racist. Either he is one, or (as the comedian John Oliver puts it) he is pretending to be one, which amounts to the same thing.
But there is another way to interpret the Trump phenomenon. A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.
Again, as with Listen, Liberal!, I don’t think Frank is wrong, per se—just that the economic narrative is deficient in and of itself. One reason it loses traction is because the tacit media perception that Trump supporters are disenfranchised blue-collar workers is basically wrong: Trump voters have a median income of $72,000, which is ten thousand more than the U.S. national average. Which isn’t to say that you can’t be earning a comfortable income and not feel disenfranchised, but the reasons for that feeling are also where the economic narrative runs into problems.
Simply put, Trump’s insurgency is—to quote Danielle Moodie-Mills on CBC last night—“white supremacy’s last stand in America.” The economic narrative is attractive—and has been adopted by many in the media—not least because it helps paper over the discomforting racist dimension of his popularity. Thomas Frank’s argument about trade elides the fact that Trump’s preoccupation with trade and trade deals is not somehow a separate issue from his racism. Rather, he consistently conflates the two. Free trade is not something he abhors solely because of economic reasons, but because it entails a conception of an America with open borders. The rhetoric is of a piece with his signature policy items, the building of a wall and the banning of Muslims. Anyone identified as Other must be either removed or barred from entry. Those Others inconveniently in possession of American citizenship must be policed with more rigor. Since he first rode down that escalator to announce his candidacy, Trump has consistently advocated for a Fortress America, one that would somehow restore its “greatness.”
“Make America Great Again.” As I have written previously, Trump’s slogan is rank nostalgia, and I mean “rank” in the sense of the odor it emits. He of course does not specify when America was great—he lets his followers fill in the blanks. But his rhetoric of jobs and manufacturing, of bringing companies back to the States and punishing those that leave, speaks very obviously to the few decades after WWII when the U.S. was ascendant—when there was little economic competition because the rest of the world was rebuilding in the aftermath of a war that never touched continental America. When there were high-paying jobs available to men without college degrees, and a family could flourish on a single income.
But to again quote a professor I once TA’d for, “The problem with ‘the good old days’ is that they were invariably bad for someone.” The America Trump evokes is a White America, one in which all of the opportunities enumerated above were predominantly available only to Whites. Thomas Frank is not wrong when he outlines the ways in which both the Democrats and Republicans have dealt in bad faith with working-class Americans, but the rage and resentment, the vitriol and virulence of the Trumpistas, is rooted in that cultural shift of the late 1960s when Nixon recruited former Democrats with the Southern Strategy. Well, to be certain, it’s rooted in a much longer tradition of racism in America, but the voters who gave us President Trump last night are the scions of Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater.
As the saying goes, “to someone with privilege, equality feels like a loss.” A section of a speech by President Obama keeps rattling around in my head today. Remember when he was in the midst of a bitter primary fight with Hilary Clinton eight years ago, and for a brief time it looked like his candidacy was over because of intemperate words spoken by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright? Obama turned everything around, and ultimately won the nomination, by delivering a speech that is—to my mind—one of the greatest pieces of American political oration. At one point in the speech, he said:
Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
It’s a sad thing to realize that the election of Obama did not do much—or anything, perhaps—to salve this resentment. Instead, it has only grown. While live-blogging the Republican National Convention, Andrew Sullivan wrote hopefully that perhaps Obama has functioned as a poultice, “bringing so much pus to the surface of American life,” which would allow for the cleansing and sanitization of America’s racial wounds. I’ve long harboured the same hope, which rested to a large extent on this election and the possibility that a Clinton victory would have provided a space in the aftermath to address the ugliness that had arisen.
Instead, America has embraced the ugliness.