Liberal Democracy in Question

It’s Time to Take Trump Seriously

Why we underestimated him, and how we can learn

Let me start by apologizing. The following is a raw reaction to the election results. I still find it difficult to digest that Donald Trump has become President. Even more so considering the fact that since I thought he was going to be elected, I had been sharing my concerns with many friends, family, and faculty. Not only that he had a chance, but that he had more than enough support to win.

However, even on Tuesday night I wanted to be wrong, and wanted to see Clinton become the first woman Commander-in-Chief. There was the need, and still there is, that she became President. I never expected Trump to win so many electoral votes. I thought that, most likely, he would have won between 271 and 280, with Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa, Arizona, New Hampshire, and the big surprise of Pennsylvania going red. Instead, he got 306 and, while he lost in all of New England, he did get the entire Rust Belt except for Illinois and Minnesota.

And now everyone is surprised and quick to point fingers. First, polls lied to us (actually, most people just read them wrong). Second, the DNC should have gone for Sanders instead of Clinton because the electorate was desperate for an anti-establishment candidate (of course, though maybe strategically the DNC as an organization deserves blame, this does not necessarily explain Trump’s win — it only addresses democratic voter dissatisfaction with Clinton). Third, Clinton as a candidate was not likable (are you kidding me?! Why are we too blind to see that Clinton was a woman and many had a problem with that?) Fourth, no one took into account the frustrations of white blue-collar workers, suffering loss of income and standard of living, who voted out of anger (amnesia seems to be a recurrent problem in American politics — the white blue-collar voter issue had already happened with Nixon and Reagan, who employed similar discourses of going back to a romanticized epoch where everything was good and peaceful, although they did not have the nativist emphasis. Are we forgetting anti-war activists being punched and kicked by blue-collar workers in NYC in 1971?).

There are many more issues, but my concern with academia and the experts (including The New School) is that apparently no one saw this coming. How come? Many thought that the US was above populism, that Trump could never be elected here, and that candidates such as him are only successful in less developed or less civilized societies, or less democratically matured countries (read post-colonial world, eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean). That’s a very racist and American (white, too) supremacist type of reading, and also one that does not take into account US history. Nixon and Reagan used the let’s-make-America-great discourse before and won; Bush Junior performed the diet-nativist card in 2000 and again in 2004 and won. George Wallace would be the closest type of figure to Trump, and he only won some states in 1968. (And let’s not forget that the US had a segregationist apartheid system until 1965, and that lynching of Blacks was endemic and legitimized until the ’70s.)

Also, the fear for American democracy’s fate after Trump are legitimate, but don’t institutions matter? The US constitution provides a framework of checks and balances and rights that prevent a single person from taking over. But now, Trump is not alone; Republicans have majority in Congress and will be able to have five votes in the Supreme Court. And yet again, amnesia: Bush Jr. had that kind of power from 2000 until 2006. We witnessed the kind of Orwellian republic his administration designed and the American electorate did not care: he was reelected in 2004 after erasing a civilization and lying about the reasons for doing so.

And this is the historical trend. American democracy did not die on 11/9 when Trump was elected; it did on 9/11 (actually 9/14) when emergency powers were given to the executive. These extraordinary powers are still in place. Both Bush Jr. and Obama renewed them every year, with acclamation by Republican or Democratic Congresses. Yes, torture and rendition were outlawed during Obama, but targeted killings increased (Obama is responsible for killing more than 3,000 people in Pakistan with drones and it has not been discussed at all), and so did surveillance. Bush Jr. set the trend, and Obama and the Democrats reproduced it and reinforced it with a liberal smile, and now Trump will expand it with a nativist view. If there was a critical juncture to reverse the trend, it was not with Bernie Sanders, it was in 2006 when the Democratic Congress could have impeached Bush Jr., or Cheney, or Rumsfeld, and after 2009 when Obama could have repealed all the emergency laws, including the Patriot Acts, and even instruct his Attorney General to start an investigation over Bush’s War on Terror actions, including the Iraq war. There are many reasons why this did not happen, but the fact that it did not, the fact that it was not even on the agenda, tells us already that the electorate cared more about political stability than justice or democracy. Electing Clinton now would not have produced a revolutionary change of this trend, but it would have averted the possibility of a dangerous nativist turn.

Lastly (and I am venting a lot; again, apologies) I realized that Trump would win when I saw a couple of interviews in Western Pennsylvania in late July/early August conducted with young white women, all of them working class or low middle class. They were saying that they were not going to vote for Clinton, but instead for Trump. Then, I saw similar interviews with white male blue-collar workers in Michigan and Ohio. My guess was reinforced when Trump started his campaign by calling all Mexicans rapists, proposing the banning of Muslims, and calling Clinton, on national television, “a nasty woman.” He was still in the race, the Republican Party still supported him, his rallies were still very numerous, and there were no protests against him. We were all having fun. We were all laughing about “bad hombres” and Billy Bush. And while we were laughing, many were chanting his name and liking him more because, “he tells is like it is.”

Sixty million people voted for Donald Trump. They are not all inherently racist, or misogynist, or xenophobic. Yet they are very selfish (we all are probably) and subconsciously consider that white people deserve more than other communities (or deserve in spite of them) because they prioritized their own expectations of material resources or improvements in their lives over the probable marginalization and expulsion of millions of people. They privileged their prospective increase in consumption and well being vis-à-vis the massive deportation of migrants, the proscription of Muslims, the torture of terrorist suspects and their families, and the repeal of healthcare rights. Maybe one or two million people are legitimately white supremacists, but the other 58 million just do not care about others, or the long term. Why should they care about four polar bears in Greenland if they have been out of jobs for years? The same goes to all the so-called progressive left revolutionaries (many at The New School) that voted for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson (who I think should have dropped out of the race and supported Clinton to avoid a Trump Presidency and maybe get something out of it) in order to make a point about the problems with the two-party system or actually to have Trump elected to trigger a revolution. They are also very selfish because they first think they are an enlightened intelligentsia, and they prioritize their moral principles over the potential suffering of the communities they so much want to emancipate. Well, only privileged white (male) people that have never lived or experienced the pitfalls of revolutionary movements can afford such decisions.

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Emmanuel Guerisoli

  • Frederico Menino

    Good job, Emma. Raw reactions are the best forms of reaction. And I guess the only way to find a way out from the mess we are (in the US and globally) is to voice our raw reactions as loudly as we can. Only the unpredictable, messy and desperate aggregate of our dissatisfactions will (slowly, it’s true) show us a path to some for of reason and humanity. I agree with most of what you say. Yet my diagnosis is perhaps a little bit more skeptical. Taking Trump seriously from now on is the easy part. He is the fucking president, with control of the Legislature, a big hand on the Judiciary and deep structural support in most states. The more difficult part is to take ourselves (liberal, internationalized, progressive, highly educated, overworking/underpaid social scientists) more seriously. The “tamed reactions” – rather than “raw” – we’ve been giving to all sorts of societal problems in the past few decades were simply not enough. From ‘political correctedness’ to the continuous submission of our daily activities to the imperatives of “academic capitalism” and “the global knowledge economy”, we have NOT taken ourselves seriously enough. Sometimes I think that anti-intellectualism – which recently has so often been mixed with misogyny, racism and anti-establishment feelings – give intellectuals more pride than we give ourselves. We obviously must take Trump seriously. But, in the end, he still is no more than a very bad joke that just turned into a really damaging one. Above all, we need to take ourselves seriously and act accordingly.

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