What are we to make of the election of Donald Trump? Does his rise from outer-borough New York real estate heir to President of the United States (with a reality TV star period in between) represent a backlash to the racial and gender equality movements and to social progressivism in general? Or is it a visceral, primal scream of economic distress from largely rural and white working class Americans who have seen their jobs, and livelihoods, radically reshaped by the forces of globalisation?
It is both.
Throughout Trump’s improbable run, there has been much discussion as to whether the man himself holds racist views. In the beginning, he was portrayed as a relatively socially liberal Manhattanite, one who might play to the racial fears an animus of others, only as a means to an end. This argument is rubbish. Individuals are judged by their actions. No one can know what lies in Trump’s heart, but ultimately, if he is saying racist things and advocating racist policies, he is being racist.
Whether or not he holds personal biases, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he does, Trump has clearly normalised and allowed to ferment racism that had been largely relegated to the fringes of public discourse. He denigrated Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. He proposed and later (sort of) walked back, a ‘complete and total shut down’ of Muslims entering the United States. He launched his run for the Presidency by spouting the complete fiction that America’s first African-American President was not born in the United States. It does not seem a coincidence that the election of Barrack Hussein Obama is to be followed by the most openly racist candidate in decades.
Trump also appealed to misogyny within the American electorate. It is a great, bitter irony, that the first female major party nominee, Hillary Clinton, was thwarted by the most openly sexist nominee in decades. Trump repeatedly questioned Clinton’s stamina. Worse, he did nothing to disavow supporters who wore shirts bearing lude, misogynist insults directed at her. He declared that if Clinton hadn’t been a woman, she would not have received more than five per cent of the primary vote. Of course, this is nothing compared to his claim that his power and status allowed him to sexually assault women by forcibly grabbing their genitals. It is not difficult to see Trump as a personification of a backlash against both the racial and gender equality movements.
Yes, it is true that Trump appealed to white working class voters by acknowledging the economic hardship they face. He railed against trade deals like NAFTA, which saw their blue collar manufacturing jobs shipped to low wage countries He promised to ‘Make America Great Again by bringing jobs in steel mills and coal mines back to the Mid-west. Trump, like Bernie Sanders, railed, without a hint of irony given his own personal finances, against a corrupt financial elite, one who he claimed cared not at all for the people he, in his election night acceptance speech, dubbed, the ‘forgotten people.’ He channelled the people’s anger at a governing culture in Washington DC that say saw as self-serving and utterly incapable of doing anything to help people like them. The success of both Sanders and Trump on this message should be instructive for the Left going forward.
Yet in making this case, Trump stoked anti-immigrant sentiment. He encouraged these voters to blame their problems on Mexico and on China, on immigrants who were getting a better deal. As such, Trump’s call for a return to former greatness cannot be separated from the racism and nativism present in his campaign. For Trump and his supporters, when America was greater, it was also whiter and more patriarchal. It was less diverse. Women, African-Americans and gays did not enjoy equal rights. Trump’s appeal to a time in which good, decent paying jobs were much easier to come by could have been a positive rallying cry. His candidacy could have given voice to those who both Republican and Democrats have ignored through neoliberal economic policies. Instead, his brand of nostalgia was steeped in nativism, racism and misogyny.
By voting for a candidate who so openly flirted with white nationalism and the ‘alt-right’ world of preppy white boys who see themselves as enemies of a rampant ‘political correctness’ and in doing so find themselves cosying up to the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, voters endorsed his positions. Better educated, better off white voters with college degrees, who many pollsters predicted would break decisively for Clinton, endorsed these positions. These white voters presumably supported Trump for the same reasons they have supported ‘traditional’ Republican candidates; the supply side economic ideology and the tax cuts thus delivered. These voters inadvertently highlight the hypocrisy of Trump’s working class appeal; is not clear that Trump will do anything to actually benefit the base (who in many cases swung from supporting President Obama) to elect him.
Deplorable things were said and Trump did not do anywhere near enough to distance himself and his campaign from them. For this reason, Labor leader Bill Shorten’s response, in condemning Trump’s bigotry, yet acknowledging the failure of the Democrats to hear and respond to the pain of a rural, white working class, is encouraging.
If nothing else, it is clear that Trump is a reaction; that he is reactionary. He represents a toxic cocktail or resentments. It is true that many Trump supporters hold legitimate economic grievances. As such, these traditionally democratic voters, aided by disappointing millennial and African-American turnout, punished the traditional party of the working class.
Yet, such grievances should not, and cannot be allowed to give license to racism, misogyny or xenophobia. It is for the left, not just in the United States, to determine what is legitimate within Trumpism, or Hansonism for that matter, to determine which concerns need be addressed. However, a popular endorsement (such as this is, given the popular vote total) of racism, misogyny and xenophobia does not make it right. Economic grievance and hardship must not be accepted as an excuse for bigotry and hatred. In the Left’s reaction to Trump, these principles must not be sacrificed.