As I sit on the deck of my partner’s family’s bach, gazing over the tops of the harakeke and out towards the water I am impressed by the insulation that such privilege provides. While the average wage for a New Zealand worker stagnates, while a full-time job does not guarantee economic security, while child poverty and crime continue to increase, and while a nation wakes up to Donald J. Trump as their President, the harakeke still blows back and forth, the blue inlet shimmers on and despite my best intentions to solidarity my thoughts turn to lunch, or that new purchase, or to the frustrating instability of my wi-fi.
These preoccupations aren’t egregious per se, in fact they are very normal and very human. It is entirely possible to enjoy the fruits of a broken society and bemoan that such a society is so terribly unfair. You’re unlikely to be canonised a saint, but that is a rare honour. But what is intolerable, and what the ascendency of Donald Trump in particular has revealed, is that it is not acceptable to be surprised that people have turned against this society.
I do not mean that to be dismayed about Trump’s victory is wrong, indeed it is the first legitimate response, along with anger. But to plaintively pine “how could this happen?” is to betray a startling naivety. It is reminiscent of the intellectual waste bin that George Bush threw the national discussion into following September 11 with his “why do they hate us?” speech, a question promptly answered by himself and the supplicant mainstream media – “because of our freedom”. Aside from the fact that hating freedom makes little sense, this kind of sanctioned denial ensured the country could avoid having to look directly at itself. Today, the United States cannot afford to make such a mistake again. To admit an analogy, like Perseus, we must shine our shield, steel our hearts and bravely venture into the Gorgon’s lair.
The first thing to squarely face is that the left must disabuse itself of the notion that a legion of ignorant, sexist racists wrested this election from the Democratic Party and the forces of tolerance. Were some people motivated by these factors? Of course. Were they the main factors behind the outcome? Of course not. What should be obvious to anybody paying attention is that these people were given the chance to smash a style of economic and political governance that has steadily ruined their lives and jeopardised the future of their children’s lives. Thirty years of neoliberal diktat, globalism and vulture capitalism has eroded the social contract, frozen wages, siphoned off larger dividends at the expense of investment, accelerated climate change and exploded the gap between the rich and poor to levels not seen since the Gilded Age. The sunny, liberal, globalist dream has brought a steady stream of nightmares to the working class and swelled the ranks of the new population often referred to as the ‘precariat’ – those that eek out a shaky and uncertain existence above the ever-threatening abyss of bankruptcy and destitution.
In the richest country the world has ever seen, 50% of the population is poor or in poverty. It is these conditions that bred the resentment that propelled Trump into office, and the more the left obfuscates this with shrill generalisations about half of the country, the more they begin to imitate those they seek to defeat.
At a time in history when it is more crucial than ever before to understand people, the reaction amongst those liberals, right now, for whom these people are purely misogynistic, racist cretins is not “Why did they do this?” but rather an incredulous “How could they do this?” This is a dangerous response and all but precludes the ability to really learn anything. The fact of the matter is that liberals overestimated the extent to which Trump voters actually cared about his horrible statements and behaviours, and this is because these voters simply did not see racial harmony or minority rights as more important than the destruction of the status quo. Of course many did, and voted specifically for the racist and sexist aspects of his policy, but the majority did not. The reason that despite constant gaffes and politically toxic acts Trump’s support did not diminish is not because his base broadly supported that kind of behaviour, but rather they were willing to turn a blind-eye for what they saw as the greater good. Poor judgment? At the least. Malice? No.
It is perhaps an uncomfortable thought, but those on the left must also realise that the Democratic Party, and in particular the Obama administration, is well aware that a deft way to divert attention from regressive economic policies, extra-judicial killings, drone attacks, environmental abrogation, the repeal of habeus corpus, the persecution of whistleblowers (including the disgraceful torture of Chelsea Manning), the persistence of Guantanomo Bay, and the TPP is to tout your enlightened stance on social issues and individual or minority rights. Before I am misunderstood – the acquisition of rights for LGBT groups, the adoption of gay marriage and the calls for more religious and ethnic tolerance are obviously progressive decisions that a mature world should embrace. If I were being gracious I would say that Obama, Clinton et al. do honestly care for the rights of these people, but then that immediately raises the question, almost never asked by the mainstream media, about those rights around the world.
Hillary Clinton loved to discuss her passion for women’s rights, LGBT rights and children’s rights. Is she aware that there are women and children in other countries? Is she aware that some of her closest friends and donors, such as the leaders of Qatar and the UAE preside over authoritarian regimes where oppression and violence against women is systemic and where homosexuals are thrown from buildings? Is she aware that her unfettered rhetoric in favour of the current right-wing, racist and extremist Israeli government stands at odds with her professed love of tolerance and children, over 800 of whom were murdered in the latest Israeli incursion into Gaza? Is she aware that women and children also drink water, a precious commodity threatened by the expansion of fracking, technology Clinton hoped to “export to the world.” Indeed arguments can be made for these groups inside America also. When she sat on the board of Walmart for seven years, was she aware of the starvation wages they pay to their employees, and that those wages disproportionately affect women? Is she aware that a lack of universal healthcare, something she said would “never happen”, also disproportionately affects women and children? Is she aware that the repulsive behaviour of the pharmaceutical companies threatens to limit the access to crucial antiretrovirals for LGBT people and others living with HIV AIDS?
The answer to these rhetorical flourishes is that of course she is aware, as are all of the politicians on both sides of the aisle. The question then is why they don’t rescind their support for these purveyors of injustice and the simple, brutal answer is that they genuinely don’t care about minority rights. Or at least they only care about them for Americans and not others. As George Carlin put it the only way he can, “they really don’t give a fuck about you.”
It is this that made the blind endorsement of Clinton, Obama and the Democratic Party in general by these minorities a somewhat painful thing to watch. Because what is critical to understand is that the success of these struggles for social equality under recent Democratic administrations is substantially enhanced, perhaps only ever achieved, because the demands of these groups often, but not always, don’t come into conflict with the demands of the Democratic Party donors. It has nothing to do with a gradual enlightenment of the political class, although of course it has a great deal to do with the gradual enlightenment of everyday people, but is rather a kind of no-risk giveaway and a smokescreen for the nefarious practices that simply continue on, or even worsen. The very sad reality is that minorities gained these rights not because they are owed them by the constitution and by moral decency, but because it didn’t upset the flow of money into the Democratic Party.
The primacy of these corporate interests over the people’s interests is best illustrated currently by the Dakota Access Pipeline. There can be no doubt Obama is aware that Native Americans are right now being violently suppressed by paramilitary groups at the behest of corporate power. But because this perpetually oppressed people are up against the will of the Democratic donors, then the heartfelt platitudes about minority and ethnic rights simply do not apply to them.
This craven and unprincipled mode of governing needs to be held firmly in mind when the impulse to label Trump supporters as x,y and z arises. And it needs to be held because it reminds us that the real battle is not between Republicans and Democrats, but between the people and the ‘principle architects of society’ as Adam Smith put it, in his time the landed gentry, and in ours corporate power. As long as politicians remain beholden to this power any notion that their social ‘evolution’ on certain issues represents a genuine progressive attitude is laughable.
We gain little and lose a great deal by buying into the narrative, sure to solidify over the next few weeks, that Trump’s horrendous statements should have disqualified him and that support for him is tacit support for this discrimination. It is not – Trump supporters are responding to a very real and very deep pain, felt all over the world by the victims of neoliberalism, skilfully manipulated and funnelled into fear of the other by whichever charlatan has the gall and moral depravity to do so.
If you are someone who fights hard for the rights of your particular minority you must be cognisant that the majority of Trump voters are not your enemy. Trump doesn’t care about you, but neither does Hillary, and neither did Obama. The recognition you received from the Democratic Party was simply a politically expedient policy decision, and you and everybody else’s needs will always play second fiddle to the gravy train.
Of course, there was a candidate who recognised the anguish of average people and believed in the right for all Americans to be free from discrimination and intolerance. Bernie Sanders represented the best aspects of both candidates, and it is in the spirit of his candidacy that people must come together to forge a new political movement. Trump supporters must understand the concerns on the left about the rhetoric employed and tolerated by his voters, and Clinton supporters must understand the real concerns of Trump voters and recognise that they share those concerns too. Trading in divisive black and white narratives only gives power to the monster. Medusa must be shown her horrible visage, turned to stone, and smashed by the hammers of a new progressive future. And we must all shine our shields and enter her lair together.