Reflections on an American Election

Photo : Harris & Ewing (1915-1923)

Photo: Harris & Ewing (1915-1923)

By Zeke Trautenberg

Early this morning Donald Trump swept to victory in the 2016 Presidential election on a tide of white working class voters from the South, Midwest, and New England. His campaign, a toxic and—for many voters—addictive elixir of xenophobia, racism, naked nationalism, braggadocio, and old-school paternalism upended the American political system.

In choosing Trump, voters rejected of the post-war liberal order of globalism, open markets, the free movement of people, and the dominant political ideologies of the past half-century. The traditional political divides of small government conservatism and socially-liberal active government were eclipsed by an amorphous and fickle populism. This election was less an outpouring of Howard Beale’s righteous anger (“I’m as mad as hell and I’m just not going to take this anymore!”) in Network (1976), than a level-headed rejection of the status quo by millions of voters facing the slow motion unraveling of the social and economic fabric of their communities. In the midst of entrenched economic inequality, anger at the political establishment and the Clintons, the inexorable shift towards a service economy, and the dearth of meaningful work millions of voters embraced Trump’s hallucinatory visions of American exceptionalism, the prophetic self-made man, and a closed-off America protected morally and physically by “the wall.”

Although most Americans saw through Trump’s gold-sheened charlatanism, his message of a different future resonated with voters. He invoked the power of coarse nostalgia to fashion a mythic past of greatness, and he promised a future of “unlike anything you’ve ever seen.” Reason, the great tool of the educated elites since the Enlightenment, was of no use. Not even Trump’s moral failings, ranging from claims of sexual harassment and assault, allegations that he preyed on vulnerable students, phony charities, inflated wealth, antisemitism, islamophobia, and racism, could dissuade voters, many of whom had little to lose.

The results of what Mark Leibovich described as “a fever dream of an election” will profoundly reshape America and the world. Free trade, despite Trump’s anti-NAFTA pantomime, will continue. But the fate of other facets of domestic life and the global order will change. Our financial markets will operate with less oversight, a rebuke to millions who lost their homes and accumulated debt in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Millions will live under the threat of deportation. Immigrants and asylum seekers will find an even more unwelcoming country. The planet will continue to warm, unimpeded by sensible and necessary regulations. Health care will be restructured once more, likely with detrimental effects to the poor, the unemployed, and the vulnerable.

The America of the 2016 election sits atop the two bogeymen of our history: race and class. In The Fire Next Time (1963), James Baldwin writes of the reticence of Americans to examine their hopes and aspirations. At the end of President Obama’s presidency and the beginning of Trump’s, Baldwin’s words sear the intellect and heart in this new and uncertain age:

The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.

This has everything to do, of course, with the nature of that dream and with the fact that we Americans, of whatever color, do not dare examine it and are far from having made it a reality. There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves. People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all, to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here, where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to find their feet on the shifting sands of status.

Voters have chosen to rest their feet on Trump’s populism, nativism, nostalgia, and walls for the next four years. Quicksand, however, will offer little respite to a frayed and divided nation.

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Photo: Harris & Ewing, photographer. [American Flag]. [Between 1915 and 1923] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/hec2013000385/>.

(Posted simultaneously in Párrafo 451)