David Coates

Second Thoughts on the Victory of Donald Trump

(First posted on the blog site of the UK Political Studies Association)

You were good enough to let me share with you my first thoughts on the Trump victory, and I am hoping that you might be equally kind a second time. But this time, I want to share thoughts not about those who supported Donald Trump but about the very many of us who did not support him, do not support him, and will not support him in the months and years to come.

I start in this personal way, which I realize is not normal in blog entries geared to political science or political economy, because this not a normal moment in political and economic life on either side of the Atlantic. I start in this way because I believe that – if, in the wake of the votes on Brexit and on Trump, we are ever to develop joint political campaigns in defense of progressive values – it is important for you to know now just how much pain the election victory of Donald Trump is currently causing on the Left in America.

I well remember how easily activists on the British Left can quickly develop their own brand of anti-Americanism, tarring us all with the same brush: Vietnam and Watergate in one generation, Iraq and ‘the village in Texas missing its idiot’ in the next. Donald Trump’s Administration will doubtless provide endless new copy to sustain that long-established disdain, which is why – before it does – I want to remind you of the other, better America, and remind you too of its pain.

I

When Hillary Clinton gave her concession speech last week, to a man who had won fewer popular votes than she did and fewer than his Republican predecessor had won in 2012, she told her audience that being defeated “hurts.” If you saw any extract of that speech, you will know that her audience did not need to hear that to know that it was so. The faces of everyone in that room were in torment, and in many instances were actually in tears. The tears were not limited to that room, however. On the contrary, tears, despair, unease and fear have been commonplace among all the people I know – and the vast-majority of people that I know here are (or were) Clinton supporters. That grief, thank goodness, is mixed with anger and determination, so that already people have taken to the street in their thousands to demonstrate that whoever else Donald Trump claims to represent, he does not represent them. And as the grief eases, I am sure that those protests will grow; but before they do, for you to understand their significance more fully, it might help to hear something about the differing causes of that grief.

As far as I can tell, there are at least three such causes. Many people of my acquaintance are currently experiencing a complex mixture of all three.

The first is grief caused by, and already focused on, the important policy reversals that are likely to lie ahead – reversals (on climate change, healthcare provision, LBGTQ rights, and a woman’s right to choose) and innovations (on the targeting of illegal immigrants, tighter voter ID laws and police militarization) that will cumulatively represent a serious erosion of 50 years of successful civil rights reform and the incremental gutting of an already inadequate welfare state. The thought of having to refight those old battles, and to do so in the context of a Republican sweep of all the organs of power in Washington DC, is already leaving many of us not just distressed, but also weary and frightened of more failures to come.

For fighting Republicans of the Trump and Tea-Party kind is not like fighting Theresa May’s Tories. There is very little noblesse oblige here. What there is rather more of here right now is a revitalized libertarian anti-statism, particularly evident among college students from privileged social backgrounds. What there is also more of is a resurgent white racism, especially pronounced in the small towns of rural America. The Ku Klux Klan will this weekend hold a public rally of celebration in a town not 70 miles of where I write this, as forms of political slime we thought expunged to the margins of American life assert their right to centrality again. Driving through a string of small towns in North Carolina this weekend, it was hard to avoid feeling an enhanced sense of apprehension at the thought of that revitalized racism, or about the gun culture into which so much of it is still embedded. I happen to be white, male, heterosexual and ostensibly Christian. If I had been black, female, gay and/or Muslim, that apprehension would – to put it mildly – have been greater still.

II

The second source of grief surrounding me now is both more focused and more intense. It is a desperation about the inability of the United States to allow women to attain full political, economic and social equality with men. Donald Trump got away with proclaiming Hillary Clinton’s inadequacies and even criminality, when in truth any serious inadequacies and character flaws were his, and where even today his lawyers (not hers!) are battling to delay his court case for fraud over the claims made for Trump University.i Given that context, the Trump victory points to the perpetuation of an appalling double standard in contemporary America – women have to be perfect to be elected, men just have to be men – and it points to something else too. It points to how close Hillary Clinton came to breaking the ultimate glass ceiling, only to have victory snatched away from her at the last hour on the most dubious of grounds and by the most misogynistic of presidential candidates.

The result: a generation of women (those not much younger than Hillary herself) despairing that they will ever see a woman president in their life-time. Their pain rests in having something so vital to them snatched away from them (and not just from Hillary Clinton herself), so unexpectedly and by Donald Trump of all people! The result too: pain and the fear of intensified sexism and sexual violence among a younger generation of women, and among many members of the LBGTQ communities, many of whom supported Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton, but all of whom feel less secure and safe now than they did a week ago. Pain especially among minority women dealing with oppression on at least two fronts, and often fearful of (and already exposed to) individual acts of verbal and even physical abuse.ii Pain – both for the women and for the progressive partners with whom so many of them live.

III

But there is a third level of pain that I see around me too, a depth of pain that I, as a trans-Atlantic transplant, find it hard to generate within myself. After all, I lived through the elections of 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992 – I am used to people I dislike winning power at the expense of those whose programs I care for and whose values I share. It happened again in 2010 and 2015. But then the UK is visibly post-imperial in its global stance and its popular culture in ways that the United States currently is not. For there is still in America, on both sides of its political divide, a general and deep pride both in the country and its defining values, and in what it purports to stand for in the world around it. There is also a generalized belief, among white Americans at least, that the vast-majority of their fellow-citizens are good, open-minded and intelligent people, and that people here can be relied upon both to support their neighbours in times of distress and to sustain inadequate public welfare provision by the generous provision of private charity.

So when, on November 8, it became blindingly obvious to everyone that half of the American electorate are not so open-minded – or that if they are, they are nonetheless capable of putting their intelligence to sleep for a while to vote blindly for the most “change-oriented” candidate, regardless of the direction of that change – that discovery then left some of the most progressive white Americans that I know shaken to their very core. Shaken by the result, distressed by the ugliness that accompanied it, even ashamed of some of the Americans who voted for Trump, and for the moment not altogether certain that Trump’s America can ever be fully silenced or curtailed again. Shaken, distressed, and worried too that in pushing back against Trump-inspired bigotry and welfare-erosion, those of us who did not vote for Donald Trump might inadvertently reinforce the hate that now so scares American politics and sets Americans one-against-another.

The pain that the scale of the white working-class Trump vote created for black Americans, and for Americans of other minority backgrounds, had to be different. American minorities needed no further education in the capacity of white America to close them out. That education has gone on for generations. What the scale of the white pro-Trump vote demonstrated to them was the degree of latent racism in so many of the white people whom they individually happen to know., As one young minority woman put it after reading an earlier version of this note: “54% of white women who voted cast their vote for Trump. Most of my close friends are white women. That means statistically, I just learned that chances are half of my so-called friends are racists and I don’t even know which ones they are.” When well-meaning white liberals tell her to respect Donald Trump as her president even though she disagrees fundamentally with his views and values, reassuring her that “we have survived bad presidents before,” she wrote: “the fact that white people are insensitive enough to tell us this not only reveals that they are stupidly unaware of their privilege” and “that problems that we minorities are likely to face and have faced throughout history are relatively trivial.” Trivial? You think so? Really! When “many blacks did not ‘survive’ the bad/racist presidents of years past.”

The existentialist crisis triggered by the Trump victory clearly has more than a single face, but it is no less deep because of its complexity.

IV

Three sources of pain – programmatic, symbolic and existential – all flowing into the tears, and into the anger, that I see in centre-left circles around me now. Given time, it is more than likely that all three streams of this grief will crystalize once more into a revived Democratic Party offering a new, younger and more radical candidate to follow Donald Trump into the White House. But for the moment there is just grief and genuine pain. To help speed this grieving process to a quick and more productive conclusion, therefore, it would no doubt help us here in the United States to know that even at a distance you feel our pain, and that you promise to remember this: that whenever Donald Trump as President claims to speak for all of America, unless he fundamentally changes when in power he certainly will not be speaking for its better half. He will certainly not be speaking for me.

i Roxana Popescu and Rosalind S. Helderman, “Trump’s lawyers seek to delay fraud case – until after he is sworn into office.” The Washington Post, November 10, 2016: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-lawyers-seek-to-delay-fraud-case–until-after-he-is-sworn-into-office/2016/11/10/8a1c109e-a784-11e6-ba59-a7d93165c6d4_story.html

ii See Lilly Workneh, Countless Acts of Hate Have Been Carried Out Since Trump’s Win, posted on The Huffington Post, November 11, 2016: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/countless-acts-of-hate-have-been-carried-out-since-trumps-win_us_5825ee38e4b02d21bbc86211

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David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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