I was a little drunk on Wednesday night, which was an entirely appropriate if not mandatory reaction to the US Election results. Not unlike the question of who supported apartheid and the Nats, this too seemed to fall into the definition of an immaculate election. Nobody I know, and nobody who knows anyone I know and so on down the degrees-of-separation scale knows anyone who admits to supporting Trump. Except about 50% of Americans who voted – about 60-million.
Since then I have sunk into the quicksand of the many online comments and commentaries – from staid to emotional, from considered to reactive, and have found myself a little perplexed. The descriptions of Trump – a conman, a boor, a sexist, a misogynist, a bigot, a fraud, a liar, a narcissist and so on are reasonably well-grounded descriptions based on hours of startling video and audio footage dating back decades.
But this has been conflated with a narrative that I cannot accept – that all Americans who voted for Trump are immediately tainted with that same brush. It is simply not true. I suggest that there were many who voted for Trump for reasons entirely removed from his worst traits, many for whom the Democrats cannot provide the safe harbour they all seek. Neither can anyone else in power. For these people, the system is simply broken.
Remember the pride that many of us felt when Obama got elected, twice? This was America at its best – a beacon of political and social possibility. The tsunami of words since Trump’s election would have us believe that the US crossed over to the dark side in four years, a jarring Jekyll and Hyde transition. It is nonsense. It cannot be that simplistic and it fails to explain anything.
So who are these these people who voted for this man? I spent nearly half my adult life living in the US. I foraged and scrabbled in the big cities, where aspiration and urbanity went hand in hand. Where tolerance, liberalism and moral outrage were tickets to party invitations and social circles and the warm embrace of New York Times-reading intellectuals.
But there was, there is, another whole America, which I only occasionally glimpsed as I scurried past in search of the next big thing. During the various careers into which I dipped my toes I had occasion to visit the great centre of the country – lonely nights at corporate hotel bars brought me into occasional contact with this other half. Where are you from, someone would ask. South Africa. Most had only vaguely heard of it (this was pre-Mandela). Drinks were bought, conversations had, intimacies revealed, views shared, or at least glimpsed. They were unlike me, perhaps coddling basically harmless suspicions about people they didn’t understand. But, at least on the basis of what I heard, they all drank from a common well of decency.
Of course, if you are an American bigot harbouring unchecked hatred for l’autre, then Trump’s broad church is welcoming. If you are a man who thinks women are not ready for anything but seduction or worse, then he is your man. If you think science is a neo-liberal plot, then there is a place to hang out with fellow travellers.
But there are many other people in those pews beside the deplorables. Descriptors like the “missing middle” have been bandied about, but that doesn’t capture it either. They are the people with whom I glancingly shared a beer at Best Western cocktail lounge in Lubbock, Texas all those years ago. It is basically average people for whom a piece of the American Dream, be it Republican or Democrat, was always maddeningly, heartbreakingly out of reach. It is those people who have been without a voice for so long, that any booming one would do.
These people do not care about Trump’s malodorous proclamations; they saw simply a man who said – screw this. To politicians and corporates and promises and policies and immigrants and everything else within sight. His hypocrisy simply is not an issue. He said screw this, loud, clear and with an inarticulate purity that had been rarely heard in US political history. If Sanders had been the Democratic candidate, he might have won the presidency on the back of these disaffecteds. But he didn’t. And so we have Trump.
And the the great tragedy for those basically decent people who sought succour in his church is that he will not be able to deliver, because he has built his life on dishonesty and self-regard. He doesn’t give a damn about them.
And then the question becomes – where do they find shelter in 2020? DM