“Clinton & Trump are just cartoon characters”
Just hours after the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States, I found myself on an early flight to Montreal to attend the National Women’s Studies Association conference, an annual professional gathering of over 2,000 feminist scholars, teachers, and activists. It was a surreal experience. In the first workshop that I attended there was no mention of the election results. I found it disorienting to try to discuss “the dream course that you would like to teach in the future” when it felt like our (those whose values are rooted in diversity, social justice, and human rights) world had been turned upside down. During the course of the conference, some participants talked about imagining the conference as “returning to the Mother Ship” expecting comfort and transformational action; they were disheartened that the conference went on as usual, as if the U.S. had not just elected a leader who professed beliefs and policies antithetical, hostile really, to the values that feminist knowledge and work stands upon.
As the conference went on, however, speakers were angry and expressed their anger in keynote and panel presentations: an indigenous speaker called out the shock that many were feeling, particularly addressing White feminists among us: “If you are surprised that the U.S. is built upon racism and violence, then I feel sorry for you. We experience this violence every day.” While the election may have made visible historical racial fissures in our contemporary social fabric, that have merely been pushed underground—for some giving a false sense of progressive social change and for others only masking the racism of their everyday lives—it may have also unveiled identity politics as the center of gravity in feminist relationships. In Montreal, concepts like intersectionality, generally foregrounded in feminist discourse, shifted to the background as participants grappled with coming to terms with recent events. Conversations at the conference, and since in feminist blogs, challenged White feminists to take a measure of responsibility for the group of White women who voted for Trump; after all, my colleagues charged, this was a failure of White feminism. In my view, this charge does not get us closer to understanding what took place at the polls: this group of White women has always privileged their class interests and religion over their gender when voting. The group of White women who voted Republican has always voted Republican and has never identified with feminist values. We understand quite well, within theories of intersectionality, why a group of White women voted Republican; what we do not understand fully is why so many people across the spectrum were not invested enough in the outcome of this election to participate at all.
We know from election statistics that nearly half of all eligible voters did not cast a vote. We know that only one quarter of eligible voters supported Trump—one quarter of voters made this decision for all of us. This is not a mandate, but rather a result of mass alienation from the political process. It seems to me that it is critical for us to understand the conditions that led nearly half of voters to stay home–this is the central feminist concern.
“We feel dead inside”
“The government is just so corrupt—it doesn’t care about us”
Through my own process of trying to come to terms with the election, I have tried to listen closely to my students, in the same way that I have tried to understand my feminist colleagues and their perspectives on the culpability of White feminism. I truly cannot generalize across my very diverse student group, but they have had things to say that have caused me great pause. Prior to the election, in a discussion about social justice movements in the 1960s and 70s and in response to my query about how younger people feel about such movements today, one of my students said, “We feel dead inside.” That moment will be with me for a long time, as it speaks to a feeling of deep alienation from the political process. On the other hand, I have students who are politically much more involved and knowledgeable than I am, representing the other end of the spectrum. Post-election discussions also revealed a sense of alienation, but perhaps, in a different sense. Students emotionally expressed that they believe the government does not listen to their needs: “The government is just so corrupt—it does not care about us.” This is perplexing to me, because these young people have grown up with Barak Obama as their President, a President who has clearly had the best interests of young people on his agenda (health care reform, protection of undocumented young people, gay marriage, he calls himself a feminist) and who has had a flawlessly un-corrupt Presidency. How do I understand these sentiments? I see that these students have not understood and experienced those aspects of the Obama legacy that did listen to and care about the needs of young people—they are personally alienated from and do not see themselves connected to these benefits, and moreover, see the source of these benefits as corrupt.
I also have heard students say things like, “Clinton and Trump are just cartoon characters—this doesn’t have anything to do with my life.” Or, “I don’t get involved in politics—I don’t want anything to do with that.” To be fair, I have heard these same sentiments from some older people, too. There is a palpable sense in these statements that my students and others do not believe that national politics has anything to do with the realities of their day-to-day lives.
It’s Not about White Guys…
My early take on how we ended up here was that the election was a multiple systems failure, a perfect storm of sorts. And with a perfect storm, it seemed impossible to predict that disparate forces would combine in such a way as to create these unthinkable results. I have read and listened to analyses, ranging from Cuban voters in Florida who were angry at Obama, to military families in the mid-West who resonated with Trump’s pro-war tough guy talk, to Black Americans who did not rally around Obama’s legacy, to the effects of social media news bubbles and fake news. While much discourse in the media has focused on White working class men, as the deciders of this election, I disagree that focusing on this contingent of Americans explains the complex dynamics at play. While this group may have voted for Trump (as did wealthy White men, and as feminists remind us, White women) this represented only a quarter of the electorate, and a group of people who were easily motivated and stirred up by hate speech and promises of strong-arm leadership. I firmly believe that trying to understand and attend to the needs of this group is missing the point; these Americans clearly have deep seated racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, and homophobic beliefs and voted their value systems. As some say, it was tribalism, where no matter how offensive their leader, they were loyal to their tribe. We (those who value diversity, social justice, and human rights) will not change their minds or tribal mentality if we understand them better; the best we can do is out number them and keep their values out of mainstream politics and policy-making.
The common thread that I am beginning to see in all of the analyses, whether people voted or not, is alienation. The point is not the White guys who voted for Trump—the point is to understand why nearly 50% of voters stayed home and allowed Trump supporters to win. Why were so many alienated from the stakes in this election? Alienation was a double edged sword: it kept people home, but it also shaped those who voted for Trump. For example, analysts claim that the White working class feel alienated in a highly globalized world, where they believe that they are the true victims of globalization. Furthermore, the information age has left them behind and with a nostalgic longing for the manufacturing age to return. In this case, alienation ignited this group to vote for an extremist who tapped into that very alienation.
At the eleventh hour President Obama tried with all his heart to rally Black voters, young people, and other liberals who elected and supported him. He directed his message specifically at African Americans—vote to protect my legacy, to protect the gains that we have made. With all his passionate appeals, Obama was not able to rally masses of Black voters—some were alienated from his legacy and stayed home. The same is true for young people who Obama rallied in the past—they too were alienated from his legacy and did not vote. And so it goes with other liberals…
Although President and Michelle Obama focused a great deal of attention on military families, those in the military and their families voted for Trump. I found the analysis interesting. Since the elimination of the draft, most military service has fallen on the working class, primarily living in the middle of the country, and there is a strong culture around military service and patriotism. Those associated with the military liked Trump’s tough talk about “bombing the hell out them” and “America first” and rallied for him. Obama reduced the number of troops in harm’s way, decreased U.S. involvement in war, and, along with the First Lady, attended to the needs to veterans and family members. However, similar to my students who feel that the government is corrupt and doesn’t care about them, these Americans feel that the government does not respect them—they are alienated from the very progress that Obama has made on their behalf.
Post-Truth, Fake News, Social Media & Information Bubbles…
I am not convinced that we are merely repeating a prior period of conservative rule, that we have been here before. I believe that the technology age is fundamentally changing our relationships and our attention. I benefit from and enjoy many aspects of modern technology; however, the price we pay is an alienation from close relationships with each other and a sense of community and responsibility for each other. I realize these are broad statements that are based on my own observations and experiences, and I leave the analysis to those with expertise in the areas of political theory and technology. However, when our attention is on a device and not on other human beings, something vital is lost in our investment in one another. In my view, this was the wind that blew through the perfect storm.
Particularly disturbing to me is the idea that we are in a post-truth era, where facts and science do not matter in public discourse, but rather what matters is feelings and perceptions. After all, post-truth was the “Word of the Year” in Oxford Dictionary. This alienates all of us (extremist, conservative, and liberal) from a common ground from which to debate, compromise, and seek solutions. I do not see a way forward for productive dialogue in this post-truth moment—what is the common ground that we can stand on to even begin a conversation when facts and science are denied. We have relied on science—the scientific method as a way to truth. We have relied on facts that are verified by reliable sources. Justice rests on being able to determine what is right and wrong, true and false, moral and immoral. We now have leaders that unabashedly say, “Facts don’t matter” and “Science is a hoax.” We have leaders and their pundits denying that blatant racism is racism at all. We are without a ground for dialogue…
Normalization & Irreversible Damage: “Let’s just wait and see what he does”
We have elected an extremist government. With every new appointment, Trump is demonstrating that he meant exactly what he said during the campaign. His was not a complex or subtle rhetoric. One of my students encouraged his worried classmates to “wait and see what he does.” We are watching an extremist administration unfold—to call it anything less or to compare it with past Republican administrations is dangerous. This is not Nixon. This is not Watergate. If the Trump presidency is tinted any shade of normal, then we risk normalization of extremism. Then, I cannot imagine what the ultra-extremism of the new political fringe might take up. After all, the Alt-Right is rebranding itself for participation in the mainstream. Trump is the legally elected President of the U.S., but he does not represent me or my values. I refuse of normalize his presidency or his extremist ideologies.
In my view, we don’t have to wait and see what Trump does. The moment he was elected there was irreversible damage—Assad and Putin moved on Aleppo and civilians–men, women, and children–were killed…
The Thread of Alienation…and so it goes
Finally, in this new era I am afraid of my own tendency towards alienation. The unbearable political and social realities of the election cause me moments of withdrawal in self-preservation. I think seriously about leaving the country. I have spent my career working for some aspect of social justice, so I can easily justify being done with my work life, my involvement. Leave it to others. For now, I see my students tap into their optimism and desire to be part of what’s good in the world. How can I not do the same?