Needed Conversations and Ungrounded Narratives
On the 2016 Presidential Election
There is so much to be said about this election, but where to begin? Perhaps with the fact that white America threw minorities under the bus because of their own financial anxieties and frustrations. Were the polls so off because white Americans were ashamed to admit that yes, I’m voting for Trump despite every racist, xenophobic, and sexist insult he unashamedly voiced for the past two years? At the very least, this speaks volumes to all of the scholars positing that we live in a post-racial society; obviously we have a lot of work ahead of us.
Nevertheless, the question still stands: how did “we” — political pundits, academics, and ordinary citizens — get it so utterly wrong? The New York Times inverted its forecast within 12 hours, from an 84 percent Clinton landslide to a Trump victory. If you want to see something unnerving, watch Representative Keith Ellison on ABC’s “This Week” in July of last year, when even the thought of a Trump Republican candidacy incited farcical laughs.
The mainstream media is certainly at fault for helping to create this nightmare. Where was the pressure to keep Trump honest, to hold him accountable to the facts? Then again, how do you attack affect? Clinton, a policy wonk at heart, someone that I think no one denies knows the job of president, couldn’t lay a finger on Trump, despite how infantile his attacks were.
It’s one thing to suggest that Americans were entertained by Trump’s crude antics. I think it’s much more difficult to grapple with the reality that most Americans were openly okay with, in fact, relished his complete disregard for the facts. This acceptance of embellishments and lies may speak to something more troubling than the rise of someone like Trump.
It’s important to underscore that Trump did not create this right-wing revolution. He simply knew that the Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, was out of touch with the struggles of working class Americas. What made Bernie and Trump popular candidates was their outsider mentality. They voiced a critique of politics-as-usual, and yet I think it’s equally urgent to realize that Trump also mobilized and organized economic and political frustration on non-economic lines. While too many Americans voted for Trump because he stands for racism, xenophobia, and sexism, we must not lose sight of those Americans who voted for him despite his racism, xenophobia, and sexism because he spoke to their fears, frustrations, and anxieties.
Our energy should not, however, be directed at why those who voted for Trump are abhorrent people. I’ve been to a few protests both in the Lehigh Valley and New York City, and I will say that the shouts aimed at Trump supporters (such as “trailer park trash”) does nothing to understand how this election outcome was made possible. Such outrage only invites a deeper divide to open between these two very divergent groups of Americans. I do, however, stand by my fellow protesters who are rallying in the name of solidarity with their fellow Americans who are now experiencing the ugly hate that Trump has unleashed and legitimized in this country. Certainly a conversation needs to be had about the all-too-real racism, xenophobia, and sexism in this country, both immediate and structural.
As liberals, and whatever remains of leftists in this country, we must also direct our critique internally. We must speak about Clinton’s failed identity politics, where “stronger together” never really meant stronger with working class Americans. Class still matters and we simply cannot afford to have working class fear and frustration mobilized and organized on non-economic lines. Furthermore, this anxiety must be placed in a global framework. Look at Hungary and Poland or what’s germinating in Great Britain and France. This hate, while particular to the cultural and historical reality in the U.S., also has a global context that cannot be ignored if we are to understand what this election means for the future of politics. We must also acknowledge that the DNC ran a hawkish candidate against the changing base of the party, the future of the party. Democratic voters turned left and the establishment stayed put in its comfortable centrist position. If there ever was a time for the party to respond to the base, that time is now, although it is still up to ordinary citizens to place that pressure on the party through the hard work of grassroots organizing.
This is uncharted territory in U.S. politics and it might be wise of us as scholars and citizens to wait to see what unfolds. It’s worth mentioning that as much as the media narrates this election as a great mobilization of angry, disenfranchised, white working-class Americans, the data says otherwise. Before forming narratives, let’s look at the data, pose the uncomfortable questions, and mourn for a while. Certainly, white America needs to have a conversation with one other when it comes to the racism, xenophobia, and sexism of which reared its ugly head in this election. In a way, this is what the protests are geared towards; we will not accept this kind of behavior. We are not going back to 1965, we will move forward. Nevertheless, let’s not rush into accusations without first examining the facts, because, well, we all know where, or better yet who, that led us to.