Opinionista Saul Musker 10 November 2016

US 2016: This was not a change election

There was a thunderous hailstorm in Johannesburg yesterday afternoon, as though the heavens were expressing their anger. Earlier, I had watched with growing horror as more and more states fell to Donald Trump, and as it became clear that he would be the next President. Not just horror, but terror, and anger, and disbelief.

Like many others, I am angry from a distance. But imagine the experience of an undocumented immigrant somewhere in the United States, watching the announcement of those same results. Imagine being a Muslim American, fearful for your future in a hostile society. Imagine yourself as a Syrian refugee, your last hope of resettlement finally extinguished. Behind the dramatic headlines on cable news channels, there are millions of real human tragedies unfolding as we speak.

We now seek to understand why this has happened, how the unthinkable became the fact. As the hired analysts on CNN and other networks realised the inevitable outcome, they began visibly to scramble for explanations, groping in the thick dark for the reason of things. What they came up with, and what they have since been repeating ad infinitum on television screens across the world, was simple: “The people of the United States voted for change”. They voted to tear apart the establishment, to bring about a revolution, and above all to express their frustration with an economic system that has excluded them. This, the pundits insisted, was “a change election”.

This is an easy explanation for what happened, quickly made and readily digested. It makes the whole thing seem almost reasonable – this was a failure of the political class, an exposure of its distance and corruption, a cry of help from what Trump has called “the forgotten men and women of America”. People are simply desperate for change.

And yet something is missing from this account. Why would such a result occur just as incomes are rising, as unemployment is at its lowest in memory, as the US economy continues to grow and expand? Why would exit polls suggest that Clinton won the votes of a significant majority of the poorest Americans, those who earn less than $50,000 per year, while Trump won most of the rest?

This was not a revolt of the working class, supposedly angered by globalisation and an economy that has left them behind. This was instead a revolt of white America, including those wealthy and educated, both men and women, employed and unemployed, young and old. The vote was divided most starkly along racial lines.

The available evidence suggests, in fact, that this was the very opposite of a change election. Instead, this was a rebellion against change – it was an outpouring of visceral anger from conservative white Americans who perceive that their country has been changing, and feel threatened by its transformation. These voters wish for an America of the past, their rage propelled by an ethnocentric vision of a white Christian nation in which nobody else belongs. Across class divides, they voted overwhelmingly against their own rational interests – against more affordable public education, subsidised healthcare, higher taxes on corporations, regulations to protect consumers. In Donald Trump, the so-called “silent majority” found its champion, someone to restore their former glory. This was identity politics at its most extreme.

In casting “the establishment” as the source of the problem, we fail to point out the real, altogether more terrifying reality that this election has exposed. The United States, which in recent years seemed to have become more and more open and progressive, remains home to millions of racists and misogynists. As Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times, “There turn out to be a huge number of people – white people, living mainly in rural areas – who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about. For them, it is about blood and soil, about traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy.”

This election has exposed the dark underbelly of American society, the regressive energy of its heartland, the anger of those who – not because they are excluded from the economy, or denied access to education, but because they are white – feel threatened by a changing world. They have elected a new host of establishment figures (a billionaire and a governor, hardly the people’s candidates) to repair their wounded pride. Above all, they have issued a loud repudiation of progress, of tolerance, of openness and equality.

We are entering uncharted territory. Our first task must be to tell the truth of what has happened. A nativist, nationalist movement has elected a racist misogynist to the most powerful position in the world. This is not just a working-class rebellion against the political elite – to call it that is to miss its real danger. Change was indeed on the ballot, and change lost. DM


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