the US Presidential election: symbols and shards

by kris straub of

1. The centre of the universe

I don’t often write about events the United States of America. This is a conscious choice. It’s too easy to slip into a completely US-centric worldview. I rarely feel a pressing urge to add my point of view to the endless, echoing din of thinkpieces and hot takes.  My own small country, despite its relative insignificance on the international stage, has its own host of social and economic problem that could use my time and energy. The USA is not the centre of the universe, even though it sometimes feels that way.

But sometimes something happens and you have to mark it, even if you have nothing new to say.

Sometimes you just have to howl.

2. To be clear

I’m not here to discuss the various merits and/or failings of Clinton and Trump. I’m not interested in Clinton’s emails or her lack of charisma and all the ways she wasn’t perfect enough to secure a precarious victory. I’m not going to write a lament for an alternate timeline in which Sanders trounced Trump. I’m certainly not here to rehash every single racist, sexist, selfish, underhand, outrageous thing that Donald Trump has done or said in his career, because you’ve heard it all before and you’ve already made up your mind. And because I’m fucking tired, and anyway, it’s over. She lost and Donald Trump is President-Elect.

3. The world turned upside down

I’ve been drowning in the deluge of opinion pieces, each pundit scrabbling around for a narrative that answers the terrible question: How could this happen? It was misogyny! It was racism! It was a white working class revolt! The last gasp of neoliberalism! The end of the establishment! Except the establishment is now a woman who worked too hard to get what she wanted and the saviour of the working class is a billionaire bully  who only cares about the working class as long as they’re screaming his name in adulation and baying for the blood of his opponents.

I don’t have coherent opinion. I don’t have a pithy analysis or satisfying explanation for what the fuck is going on. Sorry. And because of that, I almost decided not to write anything.

But you know what? Neat narratives about why things happen the way they do are part of the problem. Things are too fractured for neatness, too cracked for coherence. All I can offer is shards.

4. Unimaginable

I was one of the people who didn’t see it coming. I thought I did. I was worried. I thought my loins were girded. But the moment I saw the result, I realized that deep in the core of my flawed little progressive-socialist heart, I didn’t really believe that Donald Trump could become President of the United States of America. I was one of the ones who lost my entire morning to feeling physically sick. I spent Wednesday stumbling around in a daze that felt a lot like grief, sharing stares of mutual disbelief with friends and acquaintances over cold cups of tea.

Even post-Brexit, my gut didn’t believe that it could happen, even though my intellect knew perfectly well that it could. This is my blindspot. This is the blindspot shared by many white, privileged, well-meaning but ultimately apathetic liberals. This is why the fractured left is crumbling under the rise of the ethno-nationalist right. We have not been listening to our brown and black brothers and sisters who have been saying THIS IS REAL and THIS IS HAPPENING and IT’S GETTING WORSE for years. Oh sure, we’ve heard them. But we haven’t been listening. You cannot successfully counter a threat if you don’t believe it’s real.

5. Chomsky 101

The office of the President of the United States of America is, almost by definition, the office of an imperialist warmonger. This holds true regardless of the personal character of the individual who holds that office. It was true for Genuinely Nice Progressive Man™ Obama and it would have been equally true for Clinton and yes, even Sanders, and it will be true for Donald Trump when he assumes the office. The machinery of Washington will ensure this is so. In recent decades, the office has become intrinsically linked with protecting and promoting the interests of corporations. Short of burning down the White House and everything it stands for, any change in this area is going to be gradual. It would not have changed under Clinton and it certainly will not change under Trump.

6. Hillary the Warmonger

So, of course, Hillary Clinton got good at war. She had to, because she wanted to be president, and the US President is also Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, and women are always being told that they don’t have the stomach to run a war and that’s why they can’t be President. So Hillary acquired a stomach.

7. Hillary of Wall Street

So, of course, Hillary got good at Wall Street. Of course she did. She wanted to be president, and she looked at the fucking job description and it demanded a cosy relationship with bankers and moguls and multinationals. So Hillary got cosy.

8.Hillary the Perfect

And so, how ironic, how absurdly, painfully ironic that Hillary Clinton spent decades honing her political acumen, accumulating encyclopedic levels of policy knowledge, forging alliances, biding her time, building a resume that could slay dragons, slowly and steadily navigating her way up a ladder that was built exclusively for white men, only to have her fellow American citizens tell her, as she ascends the final rung, “Nah, we’re tired of the establishment now. Maybe we would have liked you more if you weren’t everything a US president is expected to be.”

9. Intact

While we’re on it, how absurdly, painfully ironic that this woman, who did everything she was supposed to do to shatter that highest and hardest glass ceiling in the world, lost not only to a misogynist, but to the living, breathing, bloviating embodiment of old-school misogyny.

Nobody gets to tell me that the West doesn’t need feminism anymore. No one gets me to tell me that we’re fighting a piddly little nit-picking battle against manspreading and mean teenage boys on the internet. No one gets to tell me that institutionalized sexism is a done-and-dusted battle. Sexism – now in two distinct flavours, “Lewd” and “Evangelical” – is alive and well and it’s going to be sitting in the White House in the form of Donald “Blood Coming Out Of Her Wherever” Trump and Mike “Women Should Hold Funerals For Their Miscarriages” Pence. Fifty percent of Americans, mostly white Americans, decided that this is where these men belong. Congratulations.

10. Rape culture

Go on, tell me.

11. The radical notion that words mean things

There are still people out there who will try to tell you with a straight face that Trump isn’t really racist, or misogynist, or at least he’s not the bad sort of racist or misogynist, presumably because he’s not actively running around in Klan hood with a harem of nubile concubines in tow (yet).

If Trump is not a racist or a misogynist, then words don’t mean things anymore. And if words don’t mean things, society is already collapsing around our heads.

12. A feminism

This is a loss for women. Look, Clinton didn’t represent my feminism. My feminism is fundamentally incompatible with capitalism and establishment politics. But she is a woman who was never content to be defined by her relationship to a powerful man. A woman who is unapologetically ambitious, aggressively competent, tough as nails and an expert in her field. She’s a woman who worked, and worked, and then worked some more to master a game that was always going to be stacked against her because of her gender. A woman who withstood decades of intense personal and professional scrutiny, levels of slander and vitriol that would have eviscerated almost any man in her position, and she withstood it all with ironclad grace. And then she got back to fucking work.

13. Symbols

The US President cannot singlehandedly implement sweeping policy changes. Presidents are, first and foremost, symbols. They are symbols that say: this is who we are and this is what our country stands for. And in a world where words don’t mean things and facts are basically irrelevant, symbols – even imperfect ones – are more important than ever.

Hillary Clinton will never be President of the United States of America, but she’s a still a symbol. For women and especially for girls, the message is clear: you can do everything as right as you possibly know how to, you can work your ass off for decades, you can be smart and tenacious and diligent, and you can leap all over those impossibly high standards of female excellence like a fucking gazelle, and it still doesn’t matter, because you cannot be flawless. You are not flawless, and that means you will never be good enough.

14. White women

While we’re on the subject: What the actual fuck, white women? Over half of you voted for Donald “Grab ‘Em By The Pussy” Trump? Over half of you were willing to risk an out-and-proud misogynist in the White House if it meant putting all those uppity blacks and immigrants back in their place? Over half of you bolted for the shelter of a racist patriarchy rather than risk the erosion of your white privilege?

Have you already forgotten that the shelter is also a prison?

15. Stay alive

Black women showed up hard for Hillary Clinton. 93% of black female voters showed up for her, as did 80% of black men, in the only real demographic landslide of the election. Anyone who regularly listens African-Americans knows they didn’t vote for her because they like her. They voted for her because, when faced with the prospect of Donald Trump in the White House, they didn’t have the option to sit at home and wait for the perfect candidate. It wasn’t an endorsement, it was an act of urgent political pragmatism. For the African-American population, a vote for Clinton was a bid to stay alive.

And if you think I don’t mean that literally, you haven’t been paying attention. This is a demographic who have had to form an entire fucking movement to assert their right to not be summarily executed in the streets. They’ve never had that much tangible support from Washington, but at least they had a black family in a White House and a president who could state, with simple and appalling clarity, that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin.

That’s the thing about symbols.

16. Honest vs. transparent

On the campaign trail, Trump garnered a lot of praise for his transparency. No, not the sort of transparency where you release your tax returns to the public! The other kind. The kind where you vocalize every half-formed excuse for a thought that blips across your mind and yell a lot when people criticize you.

And in some ways, he is transparent. He’s transparently dishonest, transparently thin-skinned. He is transparently willing to say whatever will elicit the loudest applause from the audience he happens to be addressing at the time, even if it contradicts his previously stated views. Transparently narcissistic. Transparent about the fact that he doesn’t really believe in anything or care about anyone beyond himself.

17. Head first into the abyss

No one actually know what a Trump presidency is going to look like. No one knows which of his “policies” will become realities. That’s why it’s so scary. Will he build that wall? Will he deport 11 million immigrants? Will he indeed lock “the bitch” up as he promised? Will he drain the swamp of Washington bureaucracy, will he bring prosperity to the Rust Belt once again? Will he get bored after a few months in office and let his cabinet take on the bulk of the difficult decision-making? Who the fuck knows.

18. Retroproductive

I’m calling it now. Roe v. Wade will be overturned in the US Supreme Court within the next two years. As a woman who lives in a country where abortion is completely illegal, I am so so sorry.

19. The wall

Here’s the thing about the wall. He doesn’t have to build it. It’s already been built, in every sense but the physical one.

It may be impractical to deport 11 million immigrants, but that doesn’t make much difference to every single person who has to live with very real possibility of losing their home, their job and their family in the next year or so. They’re already living in the shadow of the wall.

That’s the thing about symbols.

20. Whose revolution is it anyway?

The white working class revolt narrative is comforting. If we tell ourselves that disenfranchised and uneducated white Americans voted for Trump to protest an establishment that has left them out in the cold, we don’t have to deal with the more obvious explanation. The obvious explanation is significantly more disturbing. If we apply Occam’s razor to the US Presidential Election of 2016 then we have to acknowledge that the majority of white Americans really are that racist. At best, they are comfortable enough with racism that they’re willing to embrace it wholeheartedly if it also means telling The Establishment (in the form of a woman) to go fuck itself.

I know it’s not nice to think about it – but also, is it really that surprising? We’re talking about a country that was literally founded on native genocide and black slavery less than 250 years ago. We’re talking about a country that didn’t get around to abolishing racial segregation until 1964. That shit doesn’t just evaporate overnight.

21. What about the men?

The majority of white men, regardless of income-bracket or education, voted for Trump. In fact, Trump had slightly more support than Clinton from voters in higher income brackets. Yes, the white working classes voted for Trump, but so did a huge number of middle-class college-educated men. I know these men. They’re the ones who have learned how to intellectualize their personal insecurities into vicious resentment of women and minorities, the men who rubbish “identity” politics and harass women for sport online. Do not underestimate how heavily invested these men are in preserving the status quo.

22. The thing about racists

The thing about white racists is that they believe that all white people are secretly racist. They believe that we are all innately repulsed by people with brown skin, it’s just that most of us don’t say it out loud because we’re too cowed by the “PC” establishment to really speak our minds. White racists truly believe that Trump is just saying what everyone is thinking and that’s why they love him. And this is why we have to prove them wrong.

23. Empathy

People keep saying we need to have empathy for Trump supporters, even as they celebrate their victory, even as they gleefully anticipate the unraveling of every hard-won scrap of progress the Obama administration achieved. Anger will only causes deeper divides, they tell me, as though a vote for Trump wasn’t already a massive middle finger to any semblance of unity the country still possesses.

They tell us that we can’t just dismiss Trump supporters en masse as racist and sexist bigots, because people don’t like being called bigots! That’s othering! After all, Trump supporters are just ordinary (white) people who are angry and scared because they think real (white) America has been left out in the cold. The left must attempt to understand their point of view. Of course, the left is also comprised of ordinary people who are also justifiably angry and scared, but they do not have the option to express their anger and fear in destructive ways. The onus lies on them to reach across this ever-widening chasm of distrust and suspicion and heal the divide.

But the thing about empathy is that it has to go both ways. The people on the other side of the divide have made it abundantly clear that they have zero interest in healing anything. And why should they? They won.

24. Personal responsibility

Let us please dispense with the narrative that white working class people are somehow too thick to understand what they were voting for when they voted for Trump. “Oh bless them, they didn’t mean anything by it, they just don’t get it because they’re poor and ignorant!” Nope. Stop it. Do not strip Trump supporters of their agency. It is classist and condescending as all hell. You do not need a fucking degree to understand who Trump is and what he stands for. His supporters did not have to read between the lines. They knew. And they either actively embraced it or they didn’t care (which is almost worse). They’re not lacking in comprehension, they’re lacking in that much-vaunted empathy we’re all supposed to be extending to each other right now.

You can’t have real empathy for someone while also absolving them of responsibility for their decisions. You can’t make a real attempt to understand another person if you privately believe that they’re too backward to understand the consequences of their actions and the impact of their beliefs. This is the exact same patronising neoliberal bullshit that isolated so many working class people from the left in the first place.

25. Empathy, Pt. II

Empathy is not indulgence. Empathy does not call for equivocation on basic humanity of others. Empathy does not shy away from hard truths or hurt feelings.

If empathy means that we cannot confront Trump supporters and say, “When you voted for him, you endorsed racism and you endorsed misogyny and a lot of people are going to suffer as a direct result of your actions”, then we may as well give up now.

26. Twilight

Of course, this is really bigger than Trump or Clinton. Much bigger than two people, much bigger than one nation. I live in a tiny post-colonial English-speaking country that is both politically and physically nestled between the USA and the UK. Twice in one year, I have watched those countries, at the behest of a slim majority, take a sharp turn down the path of regressive isolationism. And I am terrified.

And here’s the thing. I can understand the fury at establishment politics. I feel it every day as I watch my own government hum-and-haw over whether to grant women one of our most basic human rights and whether it’s “practical” to take in refugees, as rents soar and public servants strike. I can understand the impulse just to burn it all down and start over. One might even say I empathize. But I can also acknowledge that this impulse comes from a place of privilege. The people who voted to set the world alight are not the people who will be consumed by the flames. For now, they can afford to sit back and feel smug.

But sooner or later, everyone will be choking on the smoke.

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about the global anxieties I experience as a millennial living through the twilight of neoliberal capitalism. I almost called that post “the fall of the west”, but ultimately decided against it because it sounded too dramatic.

Today, I’m not so sure.

27. Bibliography

2 thoughts on “the US Presidential election: symbols and shards

  1. This is a very good response and you are right in your concerns in what is a terrible result.

    On that matter of Roe v Wade, however, I wouldn’t give up hope. There was a 5–3 majority striking down the Texas restrictions earlier this year, so even with a Scalia type to fill the vacancy, it should remain for a few years yet.

    While three of that majority, Ginsburg, Kennedy and Souter, are aged 78 to 83, even if they were to leave the court, it would take a few years for a challenge to Roe to make its way up to the Supreme Court, so it may be the 2020 election that decides the future of Roe.


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