I first moved to America, Washington DC, in March 2004. But I have had a close connection and interaction with all things American since 2001, both on a personal and an academic level. The diversity of people I encountered, including my wife, while living in various places; Washington DC (17 months), Honolulu, Hawaii (39 months), Portland, Maine (3 months), and finally Boston, Massachusetts (68 months); has certainly shed some light for me on the current situation in the United States, as the world grumbles aghast at the man inaugurated as the American President.
Indeed, America has been here before in recent memory. I not only lived in George W. Bush’s America but studied it closely while completing a PhD in American history and culture. A resident of DC in 2004, I expected that the appalling manipulation of the New York tragedy in September, 2001, which led to even more horrific, mass suffering and death in Iraq, would bring an end to the Bush reign that November. Not only was I off the mark on that front, but my surprise at who voted for Bush and why was palpable. For all of that country’s apparent progressiveness, the Bush reelection underscored the strength of conservativism in America. More to the point, those I thought were liberal minded elites, those on the left of social issues, voted Republican! But how and why? What about the war; the wasted money and the corruption over contracts; the emerging stories of torture, murder; the cuts to social programmes in order to fund the perpetual “war on terror”?
The old adage, “all politics is local” is very much the lynchpin that too often is overlooked by us, the global audience, when it comes to America. People who would correctly be labelled progressive (in their social views), and elite (in wealth and privilege), those I managed to coax an answer out of anyway, very often voted Republican. I am positive this is a much more frequent phenomenon than perhaps even Americans themselves confront. What they talked about in answer to my queries regarding such politic leanings was, (and it seems so mundane), their taxes; money; the need for a healthy economy, (seemingly at any cost).
Now, I don’t mean for this to sound entirely judgmental; nor does this insight apply to everyone we might identify as the ‘progressive elite’. Indeed, one only has to watch the protests since Trump’s election to understand that there is a substantially more progressive cohort in the United States than in a small island like our own. But, what of the incredulity that emerges with the inauguration of Donald Trump? What is it that we should focus on? After experiencing the Bush reelection in 2004 and from a decade living in an America under President Obama, the “local politics” today is not about the same “mundane” issues as taxes or even the economy. It is a much more sinister feeling on the ground that I, at least, have felt and believe is prevalent.
The aforementioned incredulity about the fact of President Trump, for me at least, is tinged with a sense of confirmed suspicion. That is, in the kind of off-hand conversations I’ve had since the beginning of Trump’s inroads into the Republican candidacy, I always held caution about the too-easy dismissiveness of so many people. I prefaced any conclusions to a conversation on Trump with the running line, “I have more confidence that the Brits will vote no to Brexit, than I have of the Yanks not voting Trump in as president.” Thus, when the former bombshell came to fruition, with the Trump election I had that little voice in the back of my skull whispering “I knew this was going to happen.” Why is everyone so surprised? The first obvious answer is the fact that the news media, especially the US coverage (apart from Fox News perhaps), had convinced so many people that he was unelectable.
As everyone around the world gathered to witness the inauguration of someone, who I have no qualms in saying represents the very worst of American society and culture, the moment should be one where serious questions are asked. This is a teachable moment of how so-called liberal governments have ignored a large swathe of working and middle class people. But I don’t just mean their real fears about practical things like work security and decent wages. I am also talking about the rising hate, racism, misogyny and bigotry among a very large faction.
From the outside looking in, the US is a very, very different place on the ground than the ways in which people consume it. That is, our fascination with TV, film, music, and the various online incarnations of American life are largely illusions. Our holidays to the big cities are not the reality in “small, medium or even large town” America. No less than the visitors to Ireland experience a touristic landscape and celebratory version of our own life, they do not interact with the everyday concerns of homelessness, addiction, housing crises and to plainly say it, an inept government. And that is what we may forget or at least not fully understand about America. Just as Ireland markets herself as a place of majestic green spaces and friendly people, so too America projects an image of wealth, prosperity and multiculturalism. We seem to hold tight to the myth of the land of opportunity, believing poverty or xenophobia is incidental. And yet, one barely needs to scratch the surface to see that we have bought into a great myth.
What Donald Trump’s election has shown is that the apparent rising tide of progressiveness Obama seemingly heralded is far, far off. The white disgruntled voter and the indelible stain of America’s past that created a hard-to-shake, race-based society burgeoned when Obama became a candidate in 2008. Added to this is the extraordinary prescient realization as expounded in August 2010 by the late Christopher Hitchens in an article titled White Fright: “One crucial element of the American subconscious is about to become salient and explicit and highly volatile. It is the realization that white America is within thinkable distance of a moment […] when different nonwhite populations will collectively outnumber the former white majority. […] nobody with any feeling for the zeitgeist can avoid noticing the symptoms of white unease and the additionally uneasy forms that its expression is beginning to take.” How missed the late Mr. Hitchens’ voice has been it would seem in 2015/16! The zeitgeist was wholly, if not willfully ignored, probably, in Hitchens words, “lest the hard-won ideal of [American] diversity be imperiled.”
What I think we can fairly and justly say is that Trump became the punching bag, while too few confronted ordinary Americans who actually agreed with his utterings; or at least not with any great gusto or ingenuity. Instead, the media elite and the privileged elite (in their gated communities and/or from within their celebrity circles) initiated Twitter wars, and damning condemnations of a rodeo clown. Those who had the same viewpoints were not tackled or taken seriously enough. That somehow those who agreed with outrageous Trump rhetoric were a minority block and then dismissed, became the running commentary. The bigots in their various guises got various passes. They were not shamed for, or ashamed of, their prejudices. The racism, sectarian bigotry, chauvinism, and even the sexual predator. The brother, sister, cousin, uncle, aunt, or in-laws. All were excused. “He doesn’t hate African Americans, he just does not like illegal Mexicans; he has nothing against immigrants, but we can’t trust those Muslims; just look at the way those young girls flaunt themselves, they obviously want that kind of attention.” And so on, shifting blame to the victims of prejudicial attitudes, which will and has spilled over into actual crime.
Early studies show Trump probably won because of an increase in less well-educated, white voters. His appeal is not just about any economic message promising to bring jobs back to America. Let’s be very clear; the message was bring jobs, wealth, and privilege back to white males, and/or those who conform to an imagined white culture. To that end, Trump’s absolutely shameful use of xenophobic, racist and sexist tactics resulted in his drawing support due to Americans’ racial and cultural anxieties born of a lack of education and a lack of tolerance. That little voice in the back of my head, “I told you so” is the echo of Christopher Hitchens and more presciently of Langston Hughes. Trump’s idea of “Making America Great Again” is stark in its race-based vileness when juxtaposed to the eloquence of Langston’s poem, Let America be America Again.
The fear and anger generated by scapegoating via an appeal to the baser elements of American racism, nativism and misogyny, or simply, hate, are what brought Trump to the White House. For those Americans who voted for Trump, then; regardless of excuses, defenses, or apparent disdain for Clintons; in the end we know it was the worst human traits that the Trump candidacy appealed to and asked the people to exercise on voting day. You might say that you are not racist, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, sexist, chauvinist, homophobic, misogynist or intolerant of cultural differences; but if you voted for Trump you are at least one of those – whatever the dog whistle was that coaxed your underlying prejudice. And that is the President who was inaugurated, this January 2017. Make no mistake, whatever happens going forward, if the kind of hate and scapegoating being celebrated in America with this inauguration is not confronted, I defer to the Manic Street Preachers: If you tolerate this, then your children will be next.
By David Doolin