On Not Giving Up
In the Wake of Donald Trump's Victory
During the weeks leading up to the election, I must have seen Tammy Duckworth’s TV ads hundreds of times. One of her punchlines, a line that was supposed to sum up her generous democratic egalitarianism and contrast it with the punitive austerity of her opponent, was this: “If you don’t give up on yourself, America won’t give up on you.” Sounds good — even moving, given what Duckworth’s been through. But in the last few days of the campaign, something finally struck me about this slogan. It makes collective solidarity conditional, like a little bit of fine print in the social contract: “some restrictions may apply.” Now, in the wake of Trump’s victory, I want to consider what Duckworth’s slogan means under the weight of these first days of fear — fear about the “restrictions” that are about to be and are already being applied: from above and from below, under cover of law and under cover of darkness and in broad daylight. But to consider what her slogan means now, I have to start somewhere else.
Every attempt to personify the “Trump supporter,” in the singular, is an oversimplification. Trump’s supporters are a coalition, built across demographic differences of the kind that readers of exit polls and election returns have been parsing furiously for the last few weeks, like race, gender, income, and education; but also across differences in the meaning of the vote to each voter. A vote can indicate full support of an agenda; support on a single overwhelmingly salient issue; belief in skills or trust in character; deference to an estimation of the lesser evil; deep-seated revulsion at the only other serious alternative. A vote can be cast enthusiastically, reluctantly, rotely, through clenched teeth. The wide range of ways in which people on the left resolved the question of whether, on what grounds, and in what spirit to vote for Hillary Clinton should be evidence enough of that. And what is true of her coalition is true of her opponent’s, too.
This might sound like the prelude to the rosy conclusion that deep-seated white supremacy didn’t play as much of a role in Trump’s victory as one might have thought. That isn’t my point; I think it did. So, too, did the depredations of capitalism — but this is not an exercise in measuring the relative contribution of different factors to Trump’s victory; and anyway, I take capitalism and white supremacy, as historical phenomena, to be inseparable, each incomprehensible without the other. But it’s important to be clear about where white supremacy is. Elections are all about the aggregation of individual votes, so at election time it’s easy to think that white supremacy exists in the aggregation of individual attitudes. If racism is made up of racists, then to say that Trump’s supporters are a coalition, and that not all of them were necessarily drawn to the candidate because of his nativist promises of border walls and deportations, or his birtherism, or his instigation of violence against non-white protesters at his rallies, or his ongoing public insistence on the guilt of the exonerated Central Park Five — the list could go on — is automatically to suggest that white supremacy didn’t matter to the election as much as one might have thought.
But this is a red herring, because white supremacy is not in the first instance a matter of the prejudicial attitudes and biased beliefs of individuals. Instead, to adapt a phrase from political theorist Ainsley LeSure, white supremacy is in the world. It is in the social organization of American life, from the maldistribution of the material and symbolic resources that sustain racial inequalities in wealth and employment, to the persistent patterns of residential and educational segregation that concentrate racialized poverty and make it easier for many to ignore or misunderstand. It is in the repertoires of American political culture, from deeply entrenched presuppositions about whose lives and futures matter, to the patterns of meaning that allow people to dog-whistle about race while appearing to talk about something else, to the ritualized demand that non-white political voices speak in tones calibrated to soothe white consciences.
Trump’s campaign drew on the deep well of resources available in this culture and this society to assemble a coalition behind a campaign that is and remains racist, whether one would describe each of its individual supporters that way or not: racist in the way it defines the “real” America whose greatness Trump promises to recover, and in the way it represents the threats that America supposedly faces. This is not exculpatory, though it does mean that there are many different ways in which people are implicated in the racism of the Trump campaign and the nascent Trump presidency. (Being willing to look away from or minimize something is a form of implication in it, too.)
This same distinction between what individual subjects think and feel, and the features of the world they inhabit, can also clarify what it means to say, in the wake of Trump’s victory, that the left needs to do more to “understand” his diverse coalition of supporters. If the focus is on the contents of individuals’ hearts or minds, rather than on the world, then “understanding” might mean “empathizing,” or it might mean, more hard-headedly, acknowledging others’ preferences as fixed points in the political universe, which you’ll need to accommodate if you want to win. Thus the familiar left dilemma: hold to your principles and lose, or hold your nose, pursue the center, and win, but at too high a cost.
But “understanding” can also mean listening in order to grasp which problems in the world matter to people, and how, and why — not for the sake of effecting a conversion in someone’s heart, or for the sake of accommodating yourself to their preferences, but for the sake of speaking differently to those problems. The political theorist Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the importance of cultivating an “enlarged mentality,” which meant learning to think “in the place” of others, for the practice of political judgment. Both of those phrases can be misunderstood as calls for empathy, or as expressing a naive faith in the power of reciprocally structured discourse to overcome deep political divisions. Yet to think “in the place” of someone else need not mean to defer to their thoughts or to merge your feelings with theirs: for Arendt, it meant to think for and as yourself, but in a way that takes into account and responds to the “worldly conditions” to which someone else is subject.
This is not a recipe for overcoming conflict through personal engagement. If anything, under present circumstances, it is a way of sharpening conflict — but maybe also making that conflict productive — by making it less personal. In the Guardian, Chris Arnade has written about the importance of the feeling of “humiliation,” induced by economic precarity and the fear or reality of downward social mobility, in mobilizing some white support for Trump. Yet the lesson of this insight isn’t that liberal elites need to learn to feel the pain of these voters, or defer to their interpretations of its significance. The fact of economic precarity is one thing; deeply entrenched and racialized norms about who deserves to be able to imagine a minimally secure future for themselves and their families are something else. Those norms amplify the humiliation induced by white economic precarity, and they can provoke the performance of compensatory and vengeful counter-humiliation of the kind that Trump’s victory now seems to have authorized. The challenge is to develop a political agenda and a political rhetoric that disarticulates the condition of economic insecurity from the racism to which Trump’s campaign has connected it, responding constructively to the one while, and by, actively refusing the other.
And this brings me back, finally, to Tammy Duckworth’s ad. What I hear in its conditional form — “if you don’t give up on yourself” — is the whole, long history of liberalism’s and neoliberalism’s reflexive pursuit of the center, of its attempts to hedge in its egalitarianism with concessions to the anxieties of the right about the undermining of social hierarchies. I’m not saying that was what Duckworth herself meant to be doing; in fact, she deserves credit for speaking out quickly and forcefully against Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon. I mean that, in the larger repertoire of American political discourse, “if you don’t give up on yourself” can mean and has meant a thousand things, from “if you don’t become dependent on welfare (especially while black or Latina),” to “if you pull your damn pants up,” to “if you at least make a good show of mimicking the heterosexual family form,” to “if you have a college degree and find a way to fit in to the changing economy.” It’s almost the pure form of normativity.
But to make collective solidarity conditional in this way is to offer a political imaginary that is homologous with, though maybe softer, or maybe just more euphemistic, than the right-wing imaginary it opposes. That homologousness means that this imaginary is also implicated in the reproduction of dominant forms of normativity in the political culture, including white supremacy. Its weakness and its reliance on euphemism, meanwhile, condemn it to failure when people under severe strain seek strong remedies and leaders who “tell it like it is.” This has been the strategy of the Democratic party for my entire political adulthood and longer; it has damaged the world both in victory and in defeat.
Perhaps it is time, finally, to reverse Duckworth’s slogan, to say “we won’t give up on each other, so that none of us will be tempted to give up on ourselves,” to offer that “each other” without restriction, and to fight every attempt to make it conditional tooth and nail.
That last clause is important, because it means that it is not enough — necessary, but not sufficient — to respond to Trump’s victory with a progressive economic agenda. The racialized repertoires of American political culture mean that, absent further specification, the phrase “working class” will carry with it a presumption of whiteness even if it isn’t intended. The realities of the distribution of power in this country mean that, absent active resistance, the compromises and sacrifices that inevitably happen in the political process are likely to be borne disproportionately by black and brown people. To say this is not to pit race against class; it is to insist that the commonality of interest across a multiracial working class has to be constructed from the ground up, not assumed from the top down, and that this construction will involve repeatedly, forcefully, and explicitly challenging white supremacy both because of its intrinsic injustice and to keep it from being used to deflect a radical economic agenda onto a narrower and ultimately more conservative path. In this way, the promise of unconditional solidarity must also be a fighting creed.
There is no way to know in advance who might be animated by this promise, or what coalition might be built out of the rubble of this election. But, at the moment, the prospect of this kind of experimentation in ignorance — combined with urgent, militant opposition to Trump’s emergent regime — feels like the only alternative to despair.