“America, think of this election as your IQ test,” the meme went. “And it’s not looking good.”
But it’s not really about IQ or education level, although it may be comforting for the liberal to tell themselves so. Beyond the far-reaching potential consequences worldwide, the US election result also represents an identity test. Hillary Clinton, at the tail end of her campaign, urged Americans to vote for the kind of country they wanted to become. For better or worse, they made their choice.
Many media outlets have explained the seemingly inexplicable rise of Trump and his unpalatable politics as the natural consequence of a growing tide of anti-establishment anger. There’s also been a great deal of emphasis on the impact of white non-college educated voters on securing Trump’s victory, with the Guardian, for example, headlining a post-election analysis of battleground Ohio: “White, working-class and angry”.
One US columnist wrote, “Donald Trump realigned the country the same way he realigned the Republican Party – with an improbable takeover many political professionals saw as hostile, but one Middle America embraced as a chance to swing a sledgehammer at the status quo”. A number of those supporting Trump, polling data showed, perceived themselves as left behind by an economic system with no room for them. USA Today described Trump as the “anti-establishment outsider”; of all far-flung spots to send congratulations, the Philippines sent forth best wishes to a “fellow curser”.
But not all who stood behind Trump were left behind, not by a long shot; and Trump himself in no way represents the left-behind nor the anti-establishment. He is, any way you spin it, enormously privileged and enormously powerful. In some ways this result couldn’t be more predictable: it was, as Kevin Bloom has pointed out elsewhere on these pages, foreshadowed in Idiocracy. What could be more American than to be born in Queens from immigrant ancestry, build up a business empire from nothing, notch up a series of beauty pageants, marry a string of probably entirely interchangeable wives, wind up with (naturally) a reality TV career, sport a trademark hairdo and top off your 15 minutes of fame as president? What could represent the American dream better than that?
So no, Trump is no rebel, and it is a kindness to paint him as such. The primary way in which he is anti-establishment is the extent to which he has the cheek to say unpalatable things about the vulnerable, which is not so much anti-establishment as that it tries – without the vaguest attempt at respect – to protect existing power dynamics, existing narratives of victimhood, and therefore reinforces the status quo, at all costs.
It’s a far more useful exercise to attempt to understand the identity that America has chosen by choosing Trump to lead them; why voters believe that he is the soundest representative at all. Pope Francis, not referring to the election directly, earlier said:
“Citizens are walled up, terrified, on one side. On the other side, even more terrified, are the excluded and banished.”
Fear, he said, is fed and manipulated – because “as well as being a good deal for the merchants of arms and death – weakens and destabilises us, destroys our psychological and spiritual defences, numbs us to the suffering of others, and in the end it makes us cruel.”
It’s a kinder assessment than I myself would have used for Trump, of whom I am no supporter. But it’s also true that fear and anxiety – whether rational or irrational – often explain the seemingly inexplicable.
“Nationalism is not the rising of nations to self-consciousness,” the late Benedict Anderson wrote. “It invents nations where they do not exist.”
Nowhere, currently, is this more apparent than in the America of today: the desperate desire to return to “greatness” a nation that never existed in the first place; and to do this by exclusion and through the vanquishing of vastly exaggerated threats.
This is a pattern with which South Africans are intimately familiar. The initial rise of Afrikaner nationalism occurred in the wake of the South African Wars, at a time of perceived threat to group identity. It should come as no surprise, then, that a new brand of white populism is rising in Europe, the US and elsewhere. Summarising current research on the trend, The New York Times’ Amanda Taub writes:
“[C]onclusions all converged on three key factors that explain what is taking place: fear of social change; fear of terrorist attacks and other physical threats; and the crisis of identity that many whites are experiencing as they struggle to maintain their position.”
Zoom in on those factors:
- The fear of change (i.e. the desire to maintain the establishment, not to challenge it);
- A fear of terrorist attacks (mostly unfounded, according to data, unless one is living in Iraq or Syria as opposed to Ohio);
- Or a crisis of identity (which occurs in the psyche; the comfort of conservatism is artificial).
“The truth,” writes columnist Sister Joan Chittister, “is that it is openness that is our best defence under threat. Otherwise, we prove that what those who want to destroy us say is true.”
And yet, where there has been insecurity, where the group identity has been perceived as threatened, to lash out against the perceived threat proved the automatic recourse. Tweeting from a Trump rally in Manhattan, Simon Rowntree wrote: “[T]housands are chanting, ‘We hate Muslims, we hate blacks, we want our great country back’.” The chanters seemed under the impression that the country was theirs in the first place. An ignorant position? Undoubtedly. But in many cases, you may be sure, a wilful ignorance.
“What does it mean to be an American?” the Washington Post queried, post-election. “This election, more than any other in recent decades, is revolving around a fundamental disagreement over American identity. And its outcome will communicate to the world — and to Americans ourselves — what the answer to that question is. Are we a nation that looks inward, that builds walls, that turns away those fleeing persecution and violence? Or does the United States aspire to be the leader of the free world, a refuge for those seeking asylum and a symbol and destination of hope for those seeking a better life for themselves and their children?”
The answer to that has been given loudly and clearly.
So no – let us not fool ourselves that Trump is “anti-establishment” or that he is the voice of the “left-behind”. He has risen on a tide of fear, and has exploited it expertly. But it is not the fear of the disenfranchised, the uneducated or the broken. It is the fear of those who sense their power has been held onto unfairly, and for too long. DM