New York City
On election night a week ago, I tried hard to stick to the facts, with no shortage of opinionated content available to those following at home. But I’d be lying if I said that as the result became clearer I wasn’t overcome by a sense of unease.
Unease because the man just elected to the world’s most powerful office is untested; unease because he has consistently demonstrated poor character; and unease because I’m not convinced this is the solution to the deep divisions I have documented throughout this thread.
These are the reasons I would not have voted for Trump. But obviously my sense of discomfort was mild compared to the sheer hysterics that would follow the announcement – the social media meltdowns, the cancelling of classes for “traumatised” students, the hyperbolic comparisons of Trump to history’s greatest villains.
Some of this response is understandable, given the aggressive campaign the president-elect ran to get there. But it is also based on myths, generalisations and even prejudice, fuelled by a news media and political elite that was desperate to maintain its grip on power.
The most common of these is that, having voted for a man that has made inflammatory remarks regarding illegal immigrants and Muslim Americans and often treated women disgustingly, his supporters must therefore also be racists and misogynists.
The charge is both untrue and offensive to millions of people. Like every country, there is a racist element within American society and that niche group of people with abhorrent views was vocally supportive of Trump. But they are small in number and largely inhabit safely Republican states. It was not these people that made the difference in Tuesday’s election.
Instead, Trump’s victory hinged on working and middle class people in northern (non-Confederate) states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – people that voted for Barack Obama twice.
I realise the definition of racism these days is broad and subjective, but people who vote for a black man to be their president are quite simply not racist.
The misogyny thesis is also unsupported by the facts. According to Pew Research, 42 per cent of American women voted for Trump – that is only two percentage points lower than Mitt Romney received in 2012 and roughly on par with the support Republicans usually get. I know it is difficult for many liberal, city-dwelling women to comprehend, but that is millions upon millions of adult females who knowingly voted for an anti-feminist pariah. Surely true feminism requires us to respect the independent decision making processes of these women and try to understand it, rather than accusing them of hating themselves and being pawns for the global patriarchy.
Finally – and most disturbingly – a common explanation has been they simply must be stupid. I have heard no shortage of comments suggesting if only we could raise education standards then maybe these silly, ignorant, downtrodden fools would become enlightened and vote correctly. It displays a shocking lack of respect for the values and intelligence of millions of people – especially since so much of this argument comes from people that claim to be advocates for the working poor.
So the question is: if they are not racist, sexist or simply ignorant, how then did rational beings vote for someone with no political experience and an endless list of scandals and controversies?
The answer is threefold.
First, considerable blame can be placed on the alternative ticket. Hillary Clinton is an impressive woman who has worked tirelessly throughout her life to achieve the things she has and has put some mighty cracks in the glass ceiling. But she is also symbolic of America’s permanent political class. When voters went into the polling booth on November 8 they didn’t see gender – they saw Hillary Clinton and the corrupt political machine she and her husband lead.
While the international press portrayed this election simply as ‘psychopath against female’, the American people were forced to do their own journalism and look more deeply at the person who would be the first woman president. For many, her suspicious destruction of classified information and her acceptance of millions of dollars in donations from foreign dictators and Wall Street bankers (despite her stated feminist and Keynesian ideals) was all too much.
They ultimately made a call that corruption is a worse crime than offensive speech – something the media would have once agreed with.
Second, that frustration was not only with the Clintons, but with the cult of power they belong to. Trump was unprecedented in a number of ways but perhaps the most significant was that (despite being a billionaire) he disproved the theory that money is king in American politics – with significantly fewer campaign resources than his opponent.
The people are fed up with crony capitalism and professional lobbyists, with media bias and collusion, with pork barrelling and paper bagging – with the “swamp” that Trump said needed to be “drained”. So much so that they were willing to roll the dice on an outsider (even one with so many apparent flaws).
Third is the culture of political correctness, which has reached new heights in university lecture theatres and media boardrooms. While I dispute that most of those that cast their vote for Trump would privately endorse his more unsavoury views, I wage that almost all of them enjoyed his nonchalance about the verbal norms imposed by the intelligentsia and support his right to be a pig. Unlike Australia, the United States (or at least a thin majority of it) still believes in freedom of speech, including offensive speech.
These factors go part of the way to explaining the result and, while they may not be reflective of the values of New York City (where I currently write and where morale is visibly low) or those of the inner suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, they are a still a rational and legitimate way to vote.
And yet, there are thousands of people just a few blocks from the Lower East Side apartment where I type that are assembling right now to protest the election as illegitimate. Protest is their constitutional right, but the implication is that they oppose the validity of their own democracy.
I saw this same sentiment rear its head often this past week, as those who supported Clinton and feared Trump publicly questioned whether the system needs to change and whether democracy itself is flawed.
I don’t remember these dissenters having a problem with democracy on November 4, 2008, when Americans voted very differently to elect their first African-American commander in chief.
On that historic night, millions of people around the world publicly rejoiced and the TV reporters could hardly hold back their tears. Then a student, following from the other side of the world, I’ll admit that my cheeks were also wet and salty with emotion at that time.
But many Americans were not feeling elated. They felt uneasy and dejected – nervous that their compatriots had just elected someone who would take their country in a direction they did not want. Not because he was black, but because his outlook is inherently internationalist and his trust in big government solutions is out of touch with the common folks and their culture of volunteerism.
Last Tuesday the same system that elected Barack Obama gave the other side of the culture wars a win. In four or eight years, the pendulum will likely swing back the other way, just as the founders – in their wisdom – designed.
This election is no more significant than that.
Memes and statuses comparing Trump to Hitler are shockingly disrespectful, not to Trump (who deserves all he gets) but to the victims and survivors of genocide. To compare campaign trail rhetoric to the systematic murder of men, women and children shows just how detached from reality so many commentators and consumers now are.
They also reflect a lack of historical understanding.
If Trump turns out to be a tyrant and monster – and I too fear there is a chance – the US constitution is equipped to deal with this in a way the Weimar Republic’s laws were not. This should give comfort to all of those experiencing distress.
There is much about Trump that is worrying, but far more worrying is the undercurrent of anti-democratic sentiment and lack of mutual respect that has accompanied this election.
Mark my words, that is the fight yet to come – between those who believe the people are capable of choosing and those who believe the educated and ‘enlightened’ should make decisions on their behalf. It is a fight that will make this election look like a schoolyard scrap by comparison.
In the meantime let us hope Trump can adopt a more statesmanlike tone and the media will at least allow him to briefly govern before judging. The cohesion of these United States depends upon it.
Additional reading on the Rise of Trump:
Graffiti as Manhattan comes to terms with its new president amid mass protests.
Published on 14 November 2016