President Donald Trump. Let that sink in for a minute. If you haven’t yet leaped in front of a bus or fled to Canada, New Zealand, or some other former British colony that uses “ou” in words like “labour,” then you’re probably aware that Donald J. Trump is now President-Elect of the Unites States of America. After writing about the great orange dictator for over a year now, I never once went out and predicted that he would actually pull off the biggest political upset in American history. But I never ruled it out either.
I’ve called Trump a blowhard, a demagogue, an exclusivist tool, a middle-class radical, an authoritarian, a historical revisionist, a Know Nothing, an ethnic nationalist, a sham Evangelical, a rural populist, a faux American Exceptionalist, the Second Coming of Ross Perot, a world-class asshole, and the near inevitable end-result of Movement Conservatism. Now I have to call him president. So let’s try and unpack how America ended up crawling down the deepest, dankest hole since South Carolina decided to form its own republic in the name of preserving Dixie’s former coerced labor force.
Trump’s mind-melting journey — from ethically challenged, chauvinistic billionaire/reality TV guru to de-facto leader of the party that once elected Abraham Lincoln — caught pretty much everyone off guard. The polls were wrong. The pundits were wrong. Hell, even Trump’s own campaign team didn’t think they’d win as big as they did. Everyone except The Simpsons scoffed at the idea that Trump would ever be president.
The Donald’s unprecedented victory was, at its core, a true white riot. Trump won white voters from all socioeconomic, gender, and age backgrounds, and he managed to finally locate that mysterious group of “hidden” white voters — people who either didn’t show up in opinion polls, lied to pollsters about their support for the Orange One, or simply haven’t voted at all in recent elections — that so eluded Mitt Romney and John McCain. Trump’s utter dominance among the white electorate put him over the top in crucial Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, states that haven’t gone Republican since the era of Ronald Reagan. But Trump wouldn’t have pulled off his electoral feat had Hillary Clinton’s campaign not failed miserably in their own get-out-the-vote efforts. Voter turnout overall was down in the 2016 election, but the share of the Democratic Party vote plunged big time, even though Clinton almost certainly won the national popular vote (although it’s not like that matters, just ask Al Gore).
So why did Trump run the gamut with white voters? There’s no single answer, but reactionary ethnocentrism buoyed by racial animus and fear of cultural and demographic change — in other words, fear of a more diverse America — played a BIG role. At this point, there’s no denying why Trump obliterated a billion other candidates during the GOP primaries: while the Republican Party has been blowing racial dog whistles for years, Trump spouted white identity politics through a friggin’ bullhorn, and millions of white voters heard him loud and clear.
Writing for Quartz magazine, Eric Knowles and Linda Tropp refer to “white identity politics” as the emergence of a vast swath of white voters – many who are racists, but many others who aren’t, at least not in the traditional sense — who now notice their whiteness and have begun to vote as a minority group even though they aren’t yet an actual minority. “As whites increasingly sense that their status in society is falling,” they write, “white racial identity is becoming politicized. Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again’ speaks to these anxieties by recalling a past in which white people dominated every aspect of politics and society.”
A big part of the rise of white identity politics is its attendant exclusivist stance towards non-whites. After all, it’s not as if this white racial animus came as a surprise. Trump defined his campaign through the demonization of Muslims, Mexicans, and, in a more carefully coded way, black people (via his endless talk about the horrors of “inner-city” violence). Essentially, Trump recognized that a lot of white people in America feel besieged by non-white “others;” heck, even Trump’s appeal to overt misogyny couldn’t damage him with white women, 53 percent of whom supported his run for the White House.
Throughout the campaign, the seething white rage that underlay the Trump phenomenon was on full display to anyone who got a glimpse of his rallies. The cries overheard at these miniature Nurembergs included: “build the wall!” “fuck those dirty beaners!” “fuck Islam!” “Sieg heil!” “fuck that nigger!” (referring to President Obama), and so on. To deny the fact that white animus towards non-whites played a massive role in Trump’s victory is to deny reality (something that Americans are, sadly, very good at doing.) From the moment the Orange One announced his candidacy, there was a widespread belief that Americans wouldn’t elect an indecent fool like Trump. This was based on the false assumption that most humans are decent. They are not. To be a decent human requires education, empathy, and a willingness to view the world through another’s eyes — traits ill-suited to a political campaign.
But simple racism doesn’t tell the whole story of Trump’s rise. In America, race and class have always been interwoven, creating a symbiotic relationship that defies simple black and white thinking (pun intended).
For one thing, the Democrats deserve much of the blame for losing to the most unpopular presidential candidate in U.S. history. Ever since the 1970s, the Democrats have been banking all of their fortunes on being the “Not-Republican” party, all the while kissing up to the same financial powers that also bankroll the GOP. In 2016, they nominated the ultimate establishment insider candidate and hurled her into an electorate that craved an outsider.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but it’s safe to say that Bernie Sanders would have done better. The enthusiasm gap in the 2016 election was astronomical: Trump supporters were deeply passionate about their candidate, whereas people primarily voted for Clinton because the only other real choice was Donald Trump. By contrast, the primary enthusiasm for Sanders was real and widespread, particularly within the all-important Millennial bloc that never really warmed to Clinton. Moreover, Sanders won stunning primary upsets in both Michigan and Wisconsin, two Rust Belt states that Trump took from Clinton, thereby clinching the general election.
This isn’t to say that Bernie Sanders would have won, but his economic populist message was precisely what the electorate wanted to hear. Without a Democrat serving as the voice for working people, Trump filled the void, albeit in his own crude manner. As a result, a billionaire con man played the populist card better than the party of Jackson, Roosevelt, and Johnson. If this nightmare doesn’t kick Democrats in the ass, then nothing will. Moreover, the elites within the DNC seriously underestimated the raw, visceral, irrational hatred that millions of Americans have for Hillary Clinton. That’s why any Democrat that wasn’t Clinton would have fared better.
The problem with the Democratic Party, however, goes well beyond Clinton and Sanders. The real problem is deep, structural, and has building for years. In effect, the whole party was ill-equipped to deal with the Trump nightmare. The party has long abandoned working-class people, and as a result, longtime Democratic voters jumped ship. While the racist element was strong in the 2016 election, many white people voted for Trump even though they personally loathed the man. Their faith in the existing establishment was so low that throwing a molotov cocktail into the the whole nest of thieves seemed like the better option.
Consider voters like like Joe Schmaling of Kenosha, Wisconsin, a landscaper who told the Washington Post that, “If we put up with Obama, we can put up with four years of this guy [Trump]. I’m excited to see him blow the place up. He stands on his own, so he can throw the middle finger up.” Voters across the Rust Belt echoed this sentiment. And who can blame them for wanting to burn down the palace? Over the course of the last few decades, the Democratic Party has become totally beholden to a capitalist system that, especially since 2008, has been leaving more and more people behind. The Podesta emails reveal the extent of this rot within the DNC. The millions of former Obama voters who supported Trump didn’t do so because they were flaming racists, they did so because they saw no other option.
The working class, as well as highly educated professionals, have been feeling real, sustained economic pain as job opportunities vanish or mutate into contingent labor and/or minimum wage retail hopelessness. Voters who are mad about outsourcing, the endless race to the bottom, and deindustrialization may be mad at liberals & immigrants, but in a much deeper sense, they’re also mad at capitalism. In a twisted way, this election was the first serious (if not actually genuine) challenge to the neoliberal capitalist consensus that has reigned for decades. That this challenge came from a dishonest Manhattan billionaire running on the Republican ticket, instead of from America’s “progressive” party, is a tragedy.
The defining narrative of the 2016 election — more than racism, more than white identity, more than misogyny, and more than Trump — is that voters desperately need something to believe in, and the establishment simply won’t cut it anymore. Minus a real narrative of hope that leads to honest material betterment in the form of meaningful work, higher wages, and affordable health care, ordinary Americans can become susceptible to the most vile conspiracy theories circulated by Right-Wing social media. If liberals think that conspiracy and paranoia don’t float freely through the Heartland, they’re deluding themselves.
I just spent an entire election year reading the Facebook feeds of people I knew back in working-class Ohio where I grew up. These are often good people, but the things they share from right-wing sources are unreal. The Clintons are murderers. Obama wants to imprison all white people and advocates white genocide. Feminists want to put all men in gas chambers. Hillary is a secret lesbian who had Bill Clinton’s lovers murdered. The Jews are financing the Clinton campaign via George Soros. I could go on. These are people with families. They work regular jobs. If you met them, you might think they’re fairly nice. They all passionately supported Trump. Now, I’m not saying that all Trump voters are like that. But I AM saying that the cesspool of right-wing media culture has a firm hold on depressed parts of America. It thrives in the vacuum created by a non-existent left/liberal movement that should be there to offer hope, stable incomes, better wages and benefits, and a more promising world to look forward to.
Despite my criticism of the Democratic Party, the way forward still points in a reinvigorated Left-Liberal Social Democratic direction. American conservatism has become a zombie ideology that worships wealth and violence, embraces ignorance, stokes inequality and sexism, and has nearly destroyed the country in the decades in which in has been the reigning governing philosophy. Trump is the logical end-point of conservatism’s descent into organized anarchy. Surrendering Americans more to the Right will only exacerbate the problems that led them to board the Trump Train.
Americans have much to think about in the immediate future — about race, about capitalism, about gender equality, about what kind of world they truly want to live in. The worst thing they can do is blow up the system without first having a viable alternative at hand, because without a viable alternative, you’re left with people like President Donald Trump.