Monday, July 25, 2016

Who We Thought They Were

The post convention bump has pushed Donald Trump into the lead in the presidential race. While it's worth taking that news with a grain of salt -- polls bounce around tremendously around convention time, before settling back into place -- it is also a fair moment to think a bit about what a Trump victory would tell us about America.

The Republican primary caused several GOP loyalists to admit that Trump's victory essentially "proves that every bad thing Democrats have ever said about GOP is basically true." Democrats had long alleged that the core of the Republican Party's base was built on simmering white resentment, bigotry, xenophobia, intolerance, and a thirst to get at a diverse range of "thems" who didn't count as real Americans (gays, religious minorities, people of color, women ... the list goes on). Republican elites had viewed this charge as basically a political smear, right up until the monster that they had created through baiting the Tea Party and playing birther-curious broke free of their constraints and ran away the nomination.

But a primary is just a primary. What happens if Trump wins the whole thing? Well, in that case it may well "prove every bad thing leftists have ever said about America is basically true." The left narrative about America, after all, is precisely that the organizing feature of American politics is racism and white supremacy, and that we're deluding ourselves if we think that it did anything but go into a minor hibernation for the last fifty years or so. What does it say about our national trajectory if we can easily turn back George Wallace in 1968 but can't keep Donald Trump out of office in 2016? What retort would we have to the simple statement that racism and xenophobia, as electoral rallying cries, really are what gets folks to "stomp the floor"?

Yet we wouldn't only be learning something about the right, or even America as a whole. If Trump -- a historically bad candidate, with historically low approvals, open in his bigotry and contempt for large swaths of the American public -- wins the election, it would also "prove every bad thing centrists have ever said about the left is basically true." What's been the core of the center's charge? That the left isn't politically serious, that it prefers its own sanctimony to the much scarier work of getting things done, that it is more seduced by the thought of rebellion than the staid and square work of slowly mining in the hard rock. If the left -- too besot with its own "purity" or inchoate resentment against "the establishment" -- can't coalesce to beat back this candidate, it would verify once again its complete and utter impotence as a meaningful force for improving the nation or the world. We have, after all, gone through this dance time and again: Walking away from universal health care in the Nixon administration because it wasn't single-payer and then waiting 40 years to claw our way back to the same basic deal; letting the Freedom of Choice Act fall to interleft squabbling in the 1990s and never getting it near passage since; watching the Occupy movement put economic justice on the political agenda for the first time in a generation and then seeing it promptly collapses in on itself because of an ingrained aversion to sullying itself with actual making a political demand (and let's not even get started on Ralph Nader in 2000). And now we're set to go through it all again.

Finally, we can also draw one lesson if Clinton wins. It would "prove" (not that we'd need proof) "every good thing that the center and left has said about minority groups in America". For it is almost assured that, win or lose, Trump will gain a majority of the white vote. And at that point, it might be worth dusting off William J. Wilson's 1860 essay What Shall We Do With the White People?, asking "are they fit for self-government?" If democracy "is the theory that the people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard," straight white Christian men want Trump; with all the implications that entails for their commitment to (what we've told ourselves are) the basic tenets of the American creed. If Clinton wins, it will be due to passion and commitment of non-white voters going to bat for her in the general election. Given the stakes of this election, it'd be no exaggeration to say that it will have been the American Others -- African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, and more -- who will have ultimately saved the American experiment.

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