How Trump won not because he violated American values but because he upheld American vices
This week, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to win the US presidency. This is especially intriguing because Trump had been vilified by America’s powerful weapons of mass propaganda; the gigantic corporate owned and controlled media. Every pundit, journalist, academic and politician of any heft came out to denounce him including fellow Republican Party heavyweights. Trump just didn’t care: he belittled his Republican critics, insulted the journalists, denigrated women and threatened ethnic minorities. The elite accused him of “violating” every code of “American values.”
Yet in spite of all this, and I think also because of it, Trump won. Contrary to widespread media propaganda that he was largely supported by poorly educated rural white males, Trump got 50% of the vote of college educated males, 53% of white women, 29% of Hispanics, 8% of African Americans (polls had given him 2%) etc. In practically every voter segment where we had been told he would poll poorly, Trump proved media doomsayers wrong and outperformed former Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.
The point is US citizens know their politicians very well – their hypocrisy, lies and deceit when they openly feign values or being liberal-democratic, inclusive and post racial. These politicians – both Republican and Democratic – subtly and strategically indulge in racial pandering to win votes. To many Americans, Trump was not different from other politicians except that he was frank in expressing overtly what US politicians say and do with subtlety – using coded racial language to secure the support of white voters. These politicians are foxes in sheepskins.
Trump won not because he understood the fears and prejudices of white America better than his opponents but because he expressed them bluntly and more candidly. He understands that people do not vote to express policy preferences per se but rather as members of particular groups – racial, regional, religious, or even ideological. White America is suffering from anxiety insecurity resulting from low household incomes that have not grown in real terms since 1973. He became the choice for American white voters because he appealed to their prejudices more honestly and bluntly than his opponents.
In spite of the well-choreographed narrative of liberal democratic values, the USA state is an instrument of a small wealthy, white patriarchal order. However the system is sophisticated and adapts to changing circumstances – not through a genuine reform of its core character – but through cosmetic adjustments to its external appearance. Hence in appearance the state in America looks inclusive, colorblind, liberal democratic and gender sensitive. But this only disguises the racial propertied patriarchal structure that forms its foundation.
America’s white, wealthy patriarchal order has always successfully resisted any fundamental reform of this system. Whenever reform has been successfully attempted, it has equally and quickly been reversed. Thus when America abolished slavery in 1865, it was immediately followed by convict leasing, a brutal system that was worse than slavery, alongside Jim Crow, America’s version of apartheid. Major civil rights legislation of 1965 has also been reversed and replaced with mass incarceration where one in every three of black males is destined to go to jail in their lifetime. So, today more African Americans cannot vote.
Politicians from both the Republican and Democratic side have been instrumental in promoting these racist laws and practices all aimed at keeping ethnic minorities – blacks and Hispanics – in their place as a racial under caste. Trump is the quintessential embodiment of the character of this state. I prayed for him to win not because I shared his values but for subversive reasons because he would help the world see America for what it really is. By removing the sophistication, the Trump presidency may launch a genuine movement for real reform of the American state and its vices.
Trump is a product and beneficiary of this rich white patriarchal order. He understands the system so well and how to game it. Once in office, the different institutions of that power structure will force him to govern through the same hypocrisy, lies and deceit they have always used. This is because they know it is dangerous to govern with the overt bigotry he used to campaign. So we are most likely going to see Trump begin to use racially coded language like the rest of them.
Yet America and the world need Trump to govern exactly as he campaigned. Overt bigotry can ignite international hostility and internally, a social movement for genuine reform. America is blessed with many high-minded people of all races who would like to see fundamental reform of the status quo. But they have limited legroom to promote their cause because on the face of it, the system wears the mask of fairness, equality of opportunity, democracy, inclusiveness etc. In fact many Americans who would otherwise be critical of the system acquiesced to its vices for their own good.
Thus, to openly oppose the status quo is to invite heavy sanctions whereby you are denied access to opportunities for self-advancement. If you are a journalist no major media house will employ you or publish or broadcast your views if they diverge from the grand narrative of America being beacon of democracy. You get sidelined to small and inconsequential media outlets. If you are an academic, you may be lucky to keep your seat at a major university. But you will be systematically marginalized, your research will not find funders and your writings will not find space in mainstream and “respected” journals or publishing houses. So you will be relegated to the sidelines from where you will once in a rare while be invited to a seminar or conference or media house to give your views – not so much that they can be heard or even give an appearance of balance and diversity – but to show the world that there exists a minority and lunatic fringe within American society which, because of liberal democracy, is tolerated.
I have interacted with Americans from the highest politicians and businesspersons to the most prominent journalists and academics. The journalists, especially those in mainstream powerful media, are less thoughtful but the academics in the best universities are. Most hold back their true beliefs if only to be accepted by the system. The system, though outwardly liberal and democratic, is tightly controlled to systematically suppress divergent views. It is highly sophisticated in that it suppresses alternative views without being overtly repressive.
For decades, politicians on both the right and left in America, backed by concentrated wealth, have used coded racial appeals to win white voters. Once in power, they have pursued policies that help large corporations and the super-rich to become even richer while impoverishing the poor and the middle classes. Race has been used to forestall class solidarity between poor working and middle class whites and other ethnic minorities, the majority of whom are poor or middleclass.
Consequently, there has been no real growth in average household income in USA since 1973 in spite of considerable economic growth. This racial politics has reached its apogee in Trump. But it is wrong to see Trump as an oddity. His actual contribution is to bring into the open what American politicians across that nation’s political spectrum have been doing – indulging in racial pandering to secure white votes. Trump may be a crude representative of this kind of politics but he is not its architect. It has been the politics of America for decades.