Opinion: Wake Up Call

February 7, 2017

News

By Matt Kalt

Listening to Trump’s, Hillary’s, and Obama’s speeches, one would be forgiven for thinking a national tragedy had just occurred. The tone of these speeches was unusually somber and reserved, reassuring citizens that everything would be OK if we all work together.

This election was historic for all the wrong reasons. Approval ratings for both candidates are at historic lows. When Obama’s approval rating dropped below 50%, it was national news, but neither of this year’s candidates could even reach 50% on any of the major opinion polls.

Whichever of the two was ‘better’, there is no denying that the one we got is widely disliked, by Republicans as well as Democrats. The Republican party was split over whether to support Trump. Many cite Trump’s attitude towards women and minorities, but many also cite his policies: former Republican senator Norm Coleman said about Trump that “He isn’t a Republican. He isn’t a conservative. He isn’t a truth-teller.” Libertarians are particularly worried by Trump’s authoritarian foreign policy, and his rhetoric centered on national greatness rather than individual freedom. Of the Republicans that did pledge support to Trump, many were reluctant but felt Hillary was worse.

Echoing the candidates’ speeches, many major news networks are blaming the current situation on “divisive” and fearful rhetoric, urging voters to keep their worries to themselves and “unite” around the new status quo. To put it more cynically, they want us to shut up and pretend nothing is wrong.

However, it is patronizing to assume that the dissatisfaction of millions of Americans is all in their heads. Unity can never come from denial. We need to reflect and ask ourselves, “How did we get here? How did such hated candidates become our only choices?”

And, now more than ever, we need to avoid lazy scapegoating and straw-manning, like “dumb rednecks” or “annoying PC liberals”. We need perspective.

In order to get this perspective, we need to look at history. This is not the first time an unpopular president was elected. People were dissatisfied under Obama, and under Bush before him. In fact, this frustration with the status quo played a major role in this election.

If we ignore this dissatisfaction, just as Trump wants us to ignore our current troubles, we will be doomed to repeat our mistakes.

We tend to speak fondly of presidents’ accomplishments after the fact, but we forget their flaws–like Obama’s treatment of whistleblowers, Reagan’s policy of installing right-wing dictators in foreign countries, Kennedy’s actions in Vietnam that pushed the US towards war, and Lincoln’s reluctance to free the slaves even when it was of strategic importance.

So, in the past, how did the American people deal with government that wasn’t operating in their interests?

The hope-inspiring, and often overlooked answer, is that American history is full of these examples of people doing just that. In fact, looking back at the history of social progress in the last century, the government’s role was hardly the deciding factor. The government has dragged its heels on almost every issue, from the Vietnam War and veterans’ aid to LGBT rights, implementing reforms only after years of constant agitation from its citizens. Even the New Deal, cited as a prime example of good government by liberals, was originally much more geared towards bankers’ interests, and would have stayed that way if not for tremendous pressure from the labor movement.

In fact, movements such as the Civil Rights movement and the turn-of-the-century labor movement prospered in the face of harsh government repression. While state authorities stood waiting with attack dogs and clubs, disenfranchised Americans were organizing. In the long run, Americans’ ability to organize and take action has a much bigger impact on our future than who sits in the Oval Office.

But the flip side of this perspective is that, if America is divided and apathetic, elections like this year’s are inevitable. And this year’s elections provides a grim view of how poorly equipped we are to stand up for ourselves.

In an analysis of voter demographics, law professor Jebediah Purdy wrote that white men “did not support [Trump] in meaningfully greater numbers than they did Romney. That wasn’t what was distinctive in Trump’s victory.” Instead, the biggest change was among low-income voters.

Some of this shift can be blamed on disillusionment with Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.

Hillary was already described as a ‘career politician’ before her campaign, and her Wall Street connections and the particularly well-timed investigation of her leaked emails certainly did not help her trustworthiness. The Democratic Party’s failure to recognize Clinton’s flaws shows a disconnect from most Americans.  But that doesn’t explain why Trump was able to win the Republican nomination.

Working-class Americans whose livelihood never recovered from the ‘08 crash are apt to be desperate for change. Trump addressed their fears directly, declaring America no longer great. In particular, Trump called out Democratic politicians, illegal immigrants, media figures, and other unpopular scapegoats for anger. There was also a hint of populism, with accusations of other candidates being ‘bought’ by Wall Street tapping into discomfort surrounding the state of growing income inequality.

But the key factor of Trump’s scapegoats is that opposing them never put him in a position of rejecting power. He only had to reject the people who currently wield it. In stark contrast to other Republicans who promised limited government, Trump embraced the might of a more authoritarian government willing to go ‘tough’ on its foes.

Trump proudly called for a more aggressive foreign policy, in terms of both military intervention and economic pressure, while embracing a more militarized police force and a (possibly metaphorical) wall to keep out unwanted immigrants. He mocked other politicians as ‘clueless’ and weak for not being able to stand up to threats with the same ruthlessness as him. Combined with an attention-grabbing style of speaking and bombastic patriotism, Trump created what can only be described as a spectacle.

Another point emphasized heavily by Trump’s campaign is that “the media” is biased against him and nothing they say can be trusted. The definition of “the media” is nebulous enough that any piece of journalism critical of Trump is viewed as suspect.

In fact, just the opposite is true: Paul Waldman of the Washington Post reports that scandals that Trump was involved in were assigned a few writers and then forgotten. These included business scandals, such as refusing to pay contractors and a Trump University fraud case, as well as un-factual and inflammatory statements.

Each story was given attention that quickly faded from public view, even while the events were still unfolding. These stories would have stuck with other candidates, like Christie’s Bridge-gate or Rubio’s prepared speech, but Trump remained widely known as “rude” and “slightly racially charged.”

One question that seems to be on everyone’s mind is whether Trump’s supporters are racist. Some pundits, including Clinton herself, point to the current Internet fad of being “anti-PC”, similar in scope and demographics to the New Atheist movement a couple of years ago. Yet it is unclear whether this trend has any relevance to the mostly 30-and-older Trump voting base.

In any case, this question misses the point entirely. Authoritarian racists do not need universal support to win. They only require their opposition to be silent, and give them the benefit of the doubt.

While the average Trump voter may not be racist, the fascist movement in the US is celebrating. The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported over 400 incidents of vandalism, threats, and hate crimes since the election, many directly referencing Trump’s victory.

This wave of hatred is bigger than the wave of backlash against Muslims after 9/11, and it shows no signs of stopping.

Much more worrying than the rowdy extremists themselves is the growing normalization of their ideology. Despite technically committing an act of terrorism by armed occupation of a public building, the Bundies were acquitted by a jury of their peers. And with Trump appointing “alt-right” nationalist Steve Bannon to the position of Chief Strategist, the fringe white supremacists have secured a position of political power.

It is too early to tell what will happen. Maybe nothing. Maybe Trump didn’t mean the things he said. Maybe the fascist movement dies out before they can cause any damage. But no matter what happens, we must recognize that Trump is not a mistake. He is a symptom of American’s desperation for change, our susceptibility to the spectacle of might, and our willingness to look the other way and ignore unpleasant realities.

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