Around this time last year, I had a dark premonition: Trump might actually win. I was half listening to NPR (because of course, I am that guy) and I heard a Clinton surrogate say that they were not worried about Trump’s appeals to racism. Hate and fear don’t win elections, they said, policies do. I remember thinking “Oh, really?” Hate and fear have moved armies and nations since the beginning of time and won elections as recently as 2014, but sure, your spreadsheets are stronger. I pushed it aside with the rest of my intrusive thoughts. Everything would work itself out.
The trends and forces which propelled the grotesque mediocrity that is Donald J. Trump into a position of global power demand careful examination. Unfortunately, the flood of think pieces in the year since has produced more heat than light. While the sort of wide-eyed wonder with which Vox writers greet the possibility that anyone might disagree with them is itself a clue to the results of this election, I don’t think there is much to be gained from the sort of amateur demonology and early 2020 positioning that we have been offered.
What happened last year wasn’t the result of a criminal conspiracy, or Hillary’s DNC shenanigans, or a white working class coup or black and Latino voters not working hard enough or any of the other stories we’ve been told. These are all merely comforting, face-saving stories for the people who, in their negligence and hubris, paved the road to this fresh hell, bigly.
So, how the hell did we get here, and how do we get back?
It would be nice to see this as a case of human error on the part of the Clinton campaign. You could make the case that at every critical juncture, they underestimated the appeal of their opponent and overestimated their own. They placed too much cash and effort into their much-vaunted data operation and too little into actually selling their candidate to the voters. It was painful watching the Clinton campaign reckon with her dismal likeability numbers; rather than do anything to help her connect with the masses, they concluded that it was the masses who were wrong. It was like watching a restaurant try to sell hot dog pizza. People love hot dogs, people love pizza, why on earth isn’t this selling? Liberals have the distressing tendency to think that their opinions are so self evidently correct that they don’t even need to present a case for them, and the campaign wasted the opportunity to make a compelling closing argument. Unfortunately, I don’t think that any of these points fully explains the result. You could fix all of these problems and still end up with President Trump.
What I believe happened was both more basic and more insidious. In order to have a national election, everyone needs to agree to believe in a sort of shared fiction. We all need to agree that we are each a legitimate part of a civic whole and that We are going to work on this project together. This notion has never been perfect or even entirely true, but it is important to the continued functioning of our system of government. It is the only thing that stands between our current civic order and a fractious, balkanized landscape of failed states. We can’t survive without this fiction. But We The People are falling apart.
The fault lines aren’t new, but they are easily misidentified and oversimplified. The most common argument since the election has been over whether the white working class voters who switched their votes from Democrat to Republican in the Upper Midwest were motivated more by racism or economic anxiety. This is an obviously facile dichotomy and is framed in this way because it corresponds to ongoing arguments within the Democratic party about where and how they should spend their money. This is how every major figure in the Democratic Party has managed to miss the point.
If it’s true that history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce” there are few more perfect examples than the parade of malignant, polo clad dorks and aspiring date rapists who attempted to recreate the fearsome torchlight marches of the Nazis with discount tiki torches from Garden Ridge. If Charlottesville hadn’t climaxed with a tragic death and presidential applause it would have been laughable. The so-called “Alt-Right” is such a mess that it’s hard to take it seriously, but if you sift through the unintentional self-parody and absolutely crushing pathos of 4chan and Breitbart long enough I think you can start to see the outlines of the central fear that gave us Trump.
The chant in Charlottesville was “Jews Will Not Replace Us.”
Donald Trump never said anything like that on the campaign trail- for all his many and varied flaws, I don’t believe he is a literal Neo-Nazi- but his campaign was all about appealing to voters who are afraid that they will be replaced- by robots, by women, by immigrants, by black people. The instinct at the root of Trumpism isn’t a confident belief in racial supremacy, it’s deep insecurity. The weird FEMA camp eliminationist fever dreams of the Obama era were an expression of something deeper: a fear that the future doesn’t have a place for them, ideologically or even physically.
Our ideologies play out across our bodies and on the landscapes we inhabit, so let’s take a moment to survey the landscape of Trump’s America. Following fifty years of neoliberal politics, tax cuts, service cuts, the concentration of wealth in the financial and technology sectors- the politics of “I don’t care if you die”- the true geographic divide is between wealthy, growing urban centers and a depopulated, aging, and poor hinterland. If you take away the state lines and look only a density map, the US increasingly looks like a series of loosely joined city states supported by pockets of population that mainly exist to extract resources for the cities. Once whatever useful resource they have is depleted, many county seat towns across the country, but especially in the states Trump flipped into the Republican column, have gone from being sustainable communities all by ceasing to exist.
Communities of color have been hit harder by the status quo, but haven’t descended into the sort of wholesale conspiratorial delusions that have entranced the far right; it’s not that Trump didn’t make a half-hearted play for those voters, but they rejected him wholesale. The difference is that these communities have long decades of experience in activism and actual far-sighted leaders who can speak to these issues and dispel the con artistry and demagoguery of a Trump-like figure. These leaders and the movements they represent need to be amplified and brought into the leadership of left-wing politics. Wealthy white technocrats don’t have the ability or inclination to speak to the issues that are tearing apart the American working class. And to people who say that the white working class will never support a movement led by communities of color, I reply that they already have, in the recent past.
Trump voters in Wisconson didn’t suddenly develop racial anxiety when Donald Trump announced his candidacy, they have had these anxieties and beliefs probably since childhood, and they had them when they pressed the touch screen for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. The idea that white people can only have two possible modes of attitude towards race- Racist and Not Racist At All- is itself part of how we manage to have a nation with glaring, persistent racial inequality across almost every metric, while most white people will tell you that not only are they themselves not racist, they don’t even know any racists.
There are people who will tell you with absolute sincerity that they don’t have a racist bone in their body, Citibank should pay more in taxes, abortion should be safe and legal, and there needs to be a militarized Berlin Wall-style fortification along the southern border because Guatemalan children might be sleeper agents for ISIS. In their mind, none of that is a contradiction. In 2016, for the first time in living memory, they had a candidate who told them that their worst ideas were not only good, they were great and important. The pushback against that has to be two-tiered; we both have to repudiate the pathological, paranoid, and hateful rhetoric and also speak to the basic wounds at the heart of our civic culture. We have to offer something other than “Not Trump”. We have to offer a vision of what we want the country to look like that people can believe in and dream about.
The vision Donald Trump sold to voters was a return of America to a mythical former time, when jobs were plentiful, no one in your family was addicted to pills, and you didn’t have to press 1 for English. (This is a specific complaint you hear from people who are avowedly Not Racists; they see the act of having to press a button on the phone to select a language as some sort of totemic slight against them) But even if such a return was possible, that is not where 8 years of Donald Trump and a Trumpian political party will get us.
The true end state of Trumpism is a collection of immiserated absurdistans surrounding walled off Disneyfied cities, ruled over by mafioso plutocrats and connected only by fealty to and dependence on The Leader. Sort of like Modern Russia. We don’t have to accept that. We can offer a different vision. We can have a cooperative commonwealth where people care if you die. We can diversify the economy, we can provide health care for everyone, vocational training, and a decent education, we can break up the Monsanto and Cargill monopolies that depopulate the countryside, we can have fair trade and a fair shake for all workers.
I’m not saying it will be easy; if polls are any indication, there is a third of the electorate that has given up on the project of a civic whole. There may be no recovering the Trump dead-enders, but if we can look past our anger at our political enemies long enough to care about their kids, and if we can speak passionately and fearlessly about our values, we can stop being a country of scared and angry people and work together to build something great. We can be better. We have to be.