‘I hope you’re surviving in these dark times. I don’t seem to understand the world any more. I don’t seem to understand its rationality. I feel all I can do is hunker down.’ So emailed a friend a few days ago. I can understand why she feels that way. After all, America now has as President-elect a truth-shredding, conspiracy-mongering authoritarian demagogue who has promised mass deportations, a wall to keep out Mexicans, a ban on all Muslim immigration, and a route to the Oval Office for the alt-right. Yet, it is also the kind of sentiment that has helped lead us to where we are. The kind of vision that has led many first to ignore the depth of anger and disaffection with the mainstream that fuelled Trump’s advance and then to dismiss that victory as simply a whitelash, the rage of racists and bigots fuelled by hate. The US journalist Matt Taibi observed after the Brexit vote that contempt shown by many towards working class voters revealed why so many voted Brexit in the first place. Much the same can be said of the US election.
I argued in my previous post that it is misguided to look upon the Trump victory merely as a ‘whitelash’. Not only did Trump gained just 1 per cent more white support than did Mitt Romney in 2012, not only did large numbers of white working class voters support Obama in 2012, but in the key rustbelt states there is evidence that not just white voters but black working class voters, too, seem to have deserted the Democrats, though not necessarily voted for Trump.
The most significant political divide in America is probably not that between white and non-white voters but, as in Europe, between those who feel at home in – or at least are willing to accommodate themselves to – a more globalized, technocratic world, and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless in such a world. This is not just a political faultline, but a faultline, too, of the imagination. A faultline in the ways in which we are able to think of ourselves and others and of our place in society; and of the kind of society and of social change it is possible to envision.
On one side of the divide, many regard migrants merely as threats, stealing jobs, corrupting culture and fostering criminality. ‘When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending you’, as Trump put it in a campaign speech. ‘They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.’ On the other side, many liberals view large swathes of the electorate who voted for Trump as bigoted, ignorant, irredeemable, mere food for fascism, people whom it is impossible to imagine in terms of anything but contempt. There is no point reasoning with the ‘dumb hicks’, the journalist Hamilton Nolan wrote last year, because they ‘wouldn’t listen’: ‘My words would go in one ear and right out the other. Like talking to an old block of wood.’
Having spent much of the past few years defending freedom of movement and challenging the idea that migrants are source of our social ills, I now find myself having to defend many of those who oppose freedom of movement and view migrants as the source of their ills against what journalist Emmett Rensin has called ‘the smug style in American liberalism’. (And not just in American liberalism).
‘Working class voters may be furious with mainstream politics’, a friend observed recently, ‘they may see Hilary Clinton as an embodiment of a Washington insider, but how is it possible for them to ignore his racism, misogyny, and sheer contempt for the Other?’ It is a fair question. But it is one that could be asked of liberals, too. After all, many liberals were willing to put aside Clinton’s fawning to Wall Street, or her hawkish foreign policy, because they were drawn to her broader liberal view, or because they despised Trump so greatly.
Many liberals rightly react with horror at Trump’s immigration policy. Yet, take away the rhetoric, and in many ways it is not that different from Barack Obama’s. Trump has promised to deport 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants. In the eight years of Obama’s rule, 2.5 million have already been deported – more than that under all twentieth century presidents put together. Obama’s policies, as one detailed survey of immigration policy since the 1990s observes, have ‘created a massive deportation machinery and militarized border, and reinforced an ascendant right-wing explanation that helped suffering or anxious people make sense of their problems and the precarious world around them.’
Similarly, Obama during his time in the White House has greatly expanded his executive powers, engaging in military action without Congressional approval, rolling out an enhanced programme of targeted assassinations, enlarging a system of state surveillance and silencing journalists and whistleblowers. When Trump wields these powers from next year there will inevitably be outrage – from the very people who have been largely silent about it during the Obama years.
This is not to suggest an equivalence between Obama and Trump or that Trump’s policies are not repugnant and dangerous. It is rather to suggest that Trump supporters are not that different from Clinton or Obama supporters in ignoring their candidates’ obnoxious qualities or policies in favour of aspects that they admire.
‘I can’t empathize with those who want to take away my rights’, said another friend recently during a conversation about Trump’s victory, in which I had suggested that we need both to recognize the real grievances endured by many working class communities while also challenging the bigoted forms those grievances often take. But the ‘I can’t empathize with’ argument also plays the other way. Many working class voters might find it equally difficult to empathize with those who seemingly have ignored their plight or supported policies destroying jobs and communities.
Back in 2008, while on the stump for the Democratic Party nomination, Barack Obama raised the issue of the plight of working class communities:
You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Eight years on and such communities have fallen through two Obama administrations too. Many in these communities have indeed clung to an ‘antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations’. Many liberals have clung even more fiercely to their view of such communities as made up of ‘dumb hicks’ driven simply by bigotry and hatred. What we seem to lack is the imagination to redraw the faultlines, to see the need to challenge the elite without succumbing to bigotry, and to challenge bigotry without defending the elite; the imagination to defend the interests both of migrants and of working class communities, and to recognize that their interests seem opposed largely because of the way that the political faultlines have been drawn.
The photos are of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals in the Detroit Institute of Art.