In the days that have followed since election night, numerous explanations for Donald Trump’s victory have circulated. Some political analysts have pointed to methodological errors in polling, while others have argued that the decisive factor in this election was the simmering grievances of the “White, working-class.” I want to offer a different explanation for the election results: massive dissonance between what we dream of becoming as a nation, on one hand, and the material and ideational conditions of our reality, on the other hand.
The norm in American public discourse is to prioritize civility and tout diversity, tolerance, and equality. While admirable, this practice obscures the tense reality of living in the United States where income inequality remains high, gendered and racialized disparities are present in every aspect of daily life, and marginalized communities are routinely harmed. Civil political discourse is desirable, but it entails a danger: a shrouding of deviant views under our metaphorical national rug. That is, in order to maintain the appearance of a “neutral” and “progressive” public, we silence women and minorities who air their grievances by accusing them of falsehood and hysteria; while simultaneously, we stifle expressions of overt intolerance in favor of sophisticated and subtle intolerance. In doing so, we suspend critical engagement and treat bigotry as an anomaly and largely, a fragment of our past.
To be clear, my goal in writing is to not endorse overt bigotry. Instead, I write to challenge the myth that intolerance and bias are symptoms limited to the rural, poor and uneducated in America. Trump’s victory should alert us to the dangers lurking beneath the facade of civility and tolerance, especially among the educated and the elite.
In the United States, discussions of racism, misogyny and homophobia are treated as slanderous because the dominant view is that racism only exists in the presence of white hoods and burning crosses, misogyny only exists in the presence of domestic violence, and homophobia only exists when anti-LGBTQ slurs are spoken. In each of these scenarios, it is tempting to imagine the antagonist as morally decrepit, uneducated, poor, and rural white. Yet, our soon-to-be-president is incredibly wealthy, Ivy League educated, and hails from New York City.
To further drive this point, consider Trump’s adversary, Hillary Clinton. She was critiqued for a series of issues, but largely, her campaign was cast as “non-racist” and “progressive.” Yet, as legal scholar Khaled Beydoun observes, Clinton spoke of Muslim Americans in conjunction with the “War on Terror” and called on the “terror-hating” segments of this community to “be on the front lines” and defeat terrorism.
Clinton’s statements about Muslims rest on the wildly incoherent and deeply orientalist assumption that everyday Muslim Americans are privy to specialized knowledge of who is a potential terrorist, when the next crime may occur and how to effectively prevent it. Clinton, like Trump, is wealthy, Ivy League-educated, and among the elite, but her brand of bigotry was presented in a more subtle, sophisticated, and palatable manner. Thus, many of us simply did not think through the implications of her claims.
From my perspective, Trump’s victory forces us to contend with these uncomfortable questions: What if, it is not just low-income, under-educated White Americans who sincerely subscribe to Trump’s politics? What if Trump’s support base is mainstream America? It is true that Trump established a maverick persona by virtue of his unwillingness to honor the established norms of our public discourse. But ultimately, he won the election because the response to his campaign has been a mixture of curiosity, dismissiveness, and disbelief.
Many severely underestimated support for Trump’s stated views. As the months went on and Trump outlined increasingly concerning political platforms, jokes were made about the outlandish nature of his politics and the fringe character of his followers. No one paused to consider the possibility that Trump’s platform, while often vulgar, nevertheless resonated even with educated and middle-class Americans.
Rather than denying the existence of such views, which are likely held and hidden by a substantial segment of Americans, it’s time that we re-assess: will we be content to wear safety pins to discreetly signal that we are “non-bigoted allies” to the marginalized? Or, will we shake off our collective aloofness and begin to assess our deeply-entrenched, contentious politics? Will we sit idly as the ranks of the Trump administration are filled with conspiracy theorists, Islamophobes and White nationalists? Or, will we begin to pay close attention to our local politics and elect representatives who can act as a check on institutionalized bigotry?
The upcoming four years will be challenging and likely frightful. We can no longer afford to shove uncomfortable facts about our country under our metaphorical national rug.