Living in the Trump Era: What Happened?
I saw it coming. In conversations with friends and strangers alike, if the topic of the election came up, I’d say something like: “I know the polls show Hillary with a huge lead. But something feels off and I think he could win. I hope I’m so profoundly wrong.”
There were a number of things I observed that led me to form this conclusion in my head and feel it in my heart and gut.
When Brexit happened earlier this summer, I saw analogous conditions in the UK that were brewing here in the US:
When I was living in Chicago this summer and traveling through the Rust Belt for work, I saw this with my own eyes and felt it viscerally. I drove through and spent time in the cities of Milwaukee, Detroit, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Cleveland. There was no shortage of Trump signs adorning lawns, freeways, and car bumpers. I remember reading Michael Moore’s essay 5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win over the summer. Although I am not a huge fan of Michael Moore on every aspect of his work — I felt the tenets he outlined were spot on. Like Mr. Moore, I also wanted to desperately be proven wrong.
As always, when American capitalism was thriving, these aforementioned cities were boom towns. Money was flowing and wealthy elites and workers alike were populating these cities at a fast pace. But when I was wandering the streets of the Rust Belt this summer, I felt its relative desolation. Numerous storefronts were boarded up and I sensed from people that they felt forgotten about. And that feeling of desolation was rapidly turning into frustration and anger—and Trump’s campaign was like igniting a match to a building already saturated with gasoline.
I am a second generation immigrant and immigration rights attorney. A year and a half ago, I left the progressive bubble of Oakland, California and embarked on a journey giving pro bono legal services throughout the United States. Supported entirely by crowdfunding, I’ve been very privileged to have lived and worked in many different parts of the United States—rural and urban communities alike.
I have been doing this project because I’ve always felt that American communities often tend to exist in silos—these vertical containers that don’t frequently collide and intersect with each other, leading to misconceptions and misunderstandings about one another.
The United States is a wildly diverse country. Much of it can be attributed to each region’s own unique Eurocentric history, as described in the Washington Post article, Which of the 11 American nations do you live in?. Where I grew up in New England, communities tend to be more close-knit, some may even say exclusive—largely owing to early Puritan and colonial roots. Living in coastal cities of California for 10 years, I saw a more individualized way of living—largely pioneered by the Gold Rush in the mid 1800s, which is now reflected in the modern day tech industry in Silicon Valley. This history is critical to understanding the deep schisms in our varied communities within this country—and is necessary to grapple with in order to heal.
After the election results a week ago, I’ve been deeply processing why this happened, what is at stake, and what to do now. Most of the following has already been analyzed and written about extensively—my intent here is to offer what I think were the main contributory factors—as well as relevant personal experience and further reading suggestions.
I also have no interest or intent in starting a debate about any of the following—our toughest work lies ahead. I am, however, interested in figuring out how we can constructively work together and build a vision that is truly all-inclusive of those living within the United States.
What Happened: 10 Factors
A question that we’ve all gotten over this past week is: what the hell caused this? I’ve been laying low this week—trying to read as much as possible and hear what my friends and acquaintances from all across the political spectrum had to say.
The reasons for what led to a Trump presidency can best be described as layers of sedimentary rock—each layer in and of itself is separate but undeniably intertwined and part of the overall rock itself. One layer can directly contain another layer. The following is in no way an exhaustive list of contributory factors—but I feel this covers the essence:
- The Democratic Party ran an establishment candidate over a populist one
Perhaps Robert Reich recently said it best:
“It was always going to be a contest between authoritarian populism and progressive populism, eventually. For now, authoritarian populism has won. That’s the real meaning of Donald Trump. But if we are united and smart and disciplined, progressive populism will triumph because it’s humane. Do not give up the fight. The real fight has just begun.”
It was clear when I was traveling through America’s heartland that the working class had little faith left in the current political establishment. Once a boon for America’s manufacturing and industry in automobiles, steel, coal, and more—working class Democrats were disillusioned because the party didn’t seem to have their best interests at heart.
I supported Bernie in the primary. And I will admit: I had misgivings about Hillary as a candidate. But as Election Day grew closer, I felt increasingly worried about a Trump presidency. I decided to volunteer and canvass in greater Philly to help Get Out The Vote (GOTV)—I felt electing Hillary Clinton was our best strategy to ensure a Trump defeat.
When I was canvassing that last week, I talked to a lot of people who said they weren’t sure if they were going to vote, or that they were turned off by both candidates and didn’t feel any enthusiasm for voting, or that Hillary was more of the same ol’ thing. The energy was remarkably low considering what was at stake.
Right-wing vs. progressive populism: How to win in these populist Trump times, Salon, November 13, 2016, by Jonathan Matthew Smucker
Clinton aides blame loss on everything but themselves, Politico, November 10, 2016, by Annie Karni
Tear up the Democratic Party, CNN Politics, November 11, 2016, by Jonathan Tasini
2. Liberal elitism
Last fall, I was working at an immigrant detention center in Tacoma/Seattle. I had met some new friends and one night they invited me over for dinner. I drove up and saw Bernie and Black Lives Matter signs and was excited to get to know them more because it seemed like we already aligned quite a bit ideologically.
One of my new friends had asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the American factory—and has subsequently seen the ups and downs of American capitalism and urban renewal.
In all seriousness, he then said to me: “Isn’t Lowell the shittiest town in Massachusetts?”
This. All of this. So many progressives are living in bubbles and often fail to realize: hey—I effing grew up in that town and am damn proud of it. And people—regardless of “education” level—can pick up on a person’s insufferable condescension. Progressives need to take note.
- When Liberal Elites Spurn Populism, Trump Happens, The Nation, November 15, 2016, by D.D. Guttenplan
- For years, I’ve been watching anti-elite fury build in Wisconsin. Then came Trump, Vox, November 16, 2016, by Katherine J. Cramer
- Video: Unboxing Liberal Elitism!?, YouTube, Seriously.TV
Being a female attorney, I experience microaggressions about being a woman in the profession frequently. And there’s always the more blatant displays of sexism and misogyny.
When I was looking for a pro bono placement in greater Seattle, I cold called a male attorney who was listed on the Department of Justice’s list of attorneys who would represent detained immigrants pro bono.
I gave him my 30 second elevator pitch and the first question he asked me was: “Are you single?” Completely caught off guard, I asked him: “What does that have to do with anything?” He then continued to dig himself further into a hole—saying that if he was a woman, he probably wouldn’t go do such an endeavor by himself and so on, and so on…
I do think Hillary was the target of unwarranted misogyny and sexism — and instead of articles dissecting her proposed policy—were articles of “her iconic style” weeks before the election—among other things.
- Don’t call Clinton a weak candidate: it took decades of scheming to beat her, The Guardian, November 14, 2016, by Rebecca Solnit
- Fear of a Female President, The Atlantic, October 2016, by Peter Beinart
- A Comprehensive Guide to Sexist Attacks on Hillary Clinton From The 2008 Campaign, Media Matters, February 5, 2016
4. Systemic racism
I don’t think the majority of people who voted for Trump did so out of self-proclaimed white supremacy. There is no doubt in my mind, though, that there was a significant number of white voters in this country who voted Trump because they were fired up after 8 years of having a black president.
But those who still cast their votes for Trump were still enabling and condoning systemic racism. Impact > Intent.
As a country, we struggle so badly to talk about racism and be able to properly define it (e.g. there is no such thing as reverse racism—a more accurate term would be prejudice)—and acknowledge that we all carry unconscious biases.
There were many people who were shocked last Tuesday night that Trump was elected. For many communities of color and impacted communities that have been marginalized—a Trump presidency was not shocking. Surprising, maybe—but not shocking. Communities of color deal with the effects of systemic racism in this country each and every day and the majority of white voters voting for Trump was another intentional or impactful move towards upholding white supremacy.
- Get Your People, Crunk Feminist Collective, November 9, 2016
- This “Late Night” Writer Just Said What Most Black People In America Are Thinking Right Now, Buzzfeed, November 11, 2016
- How slavery became the basis for the Electoral College, The Grio, November 10, 2016
5. White feminism and internalized patriarchy
This past summer, I was in Austin, Texas, after finishing up a project along the US/Mexico border. I unfortunately got into a car accident and last minute decided to book an Airbnb using a credit for the night because I was coming into town so late.
When I arrived, I was greeted by my host—a white woman who looked to be in her 60s. We sat down and talked, and she self-proclaimed herself to be a feminist/community activist and was talking about some of the women’s circles she participated in.
Then, she said: “I really feel like I can relate better to black people than white people because of all the trauma I’ve gone through.” I squirmed in my seat uncomfortably. She then asked me what my racial background was. I told her I was half Asian and half white. She then responded: “Oh yeah, I can see how your eyes are a little…” She then proceeded to take her index fingers and pulled her eyes to the side to appear “slant eyed.” What the hell happened to that all-inclusive feminist unity?
53% of white women—1 in 2—voted for Trump, despite the latest occurrences on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, 94% of black women voted for Clinton. And historically, many white suffragettes during the women’s rights movement harbored racist ideologies, tainting the overall women’s movement.
Why would so many white women vote for Trump? Certainly internalized patriarchy and subconscious upholding of white supremacy—are contributing factors to putting up with such blatant misogyny from Trump.
- White women voted for Trump in 2016 because they still believe white men are their saviors, Quartz, November 14, 2016, by Marcie Bianco
- The Great Schism, The Atlantic, October 18, 2011, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Once again, black women did the work white women refused to, Very Smart Brothas, November 9, 2016
6. White liberalism
On Election Day, there was a white woman whom I met who was also a volunteer. I am self-aware of my respective privilege: I have a very Anglo-sounding name and have light skin/white passing privilege while being half Asian/a person of color. I don’t know if she knew if I identified as a person of color, but during our entire conversation, she was whitesplaining to me what the “election situation” was.
She came from an affulent background and was the editor for a well-known organizational publication. Ideologically, she appeared to be on the right side of progressive issues, but she really didn’t bother to ask me what my viewpoints were—she preached hers to me nonstop for 20 minutes:
“I know this is going to sound racist,” she began. Oh God—please just stop right there, I thought. Then she continued: “But every person of color I see, I just want to ask them if they’ve already registered to vote and if they’re actually voting.” She then continued to lecture me on how important it was to turn out the black and Latin@ vote—when I did not get the impression at all that she herself had spent a significant amount of time in communities of color. Although I may have agreed with her ideological points, she came across to me as highly self-righteous, preachy, and well—it was pretty damn insufferable. More listening, please.
White liberalism tends to exist in an echo chamber—generally unaware of tone and audience.
- The Unchecked Racism of the Left and the Platinum Rule, Huffington Post, March 18, 2016 by Jesse Benn
- White People Whitesplain Whiteslaining, MTV Decoded, November 4, 2016
- Next Steps to Stop Racism and Hatred in the Elections, Showing Up for Racial Justice (a national network of groups organizing white people for racial justice)
7. Capitalism/the 1% oligarchy and the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party
American capitalism is currently at its most extreme. The current CEO to worker ratio can be beyond 644:1. There is a huge number of working poor in this country—those working multiple jobs and barely being able to scrape by. People are exhausted. Struggling financially. Trying to make sense of the overwhelming disparity.
The tired scapegoats of the poor, communities of color, and immigrants—to name a few—have been prime targets for the far-right/Tea Party members of the Republican Party. It’s a major distraction from the real situation: that Wall Street, corporate interests, and the top 1% are responsible for what is happening to the 99% of us.
This irresponsible rhetoric has activated a carrier virus of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc. It’s always been there and many members of the Tea Party/Republican Party laid the groundwork for Trump’s inciting rhetoric of hate.
- Donald Trump, American Oligarch, The New Yorker, October 3, 2016 by Jane Mayer
- Major Study Finds The US Is An Oligarchy, Business Insider, April 16, 2016 by Zachary Davies Boren
- America’s mad dash to oligarchy: How government became a protection racket for the 1 percent, Salon, April 22, 2014, by Bill Moyers
8. Mainstream media/polls and voter suppression
There is something that algorithms, graphs, and numbers cannot capture—and that is human emotion.
The week and a half before the election, I volunteered for the Hillary campaign as a canvasser in greater Philly. Election night, I initially was at the local campaign office getting ready to watch the returns. At the beginning of the night, the New York Times poll stated that Clinton had an overwhelming (+>90%) chance that Clinton would win. And other pollsters such as Nate Silver backed that general assertion up.
Then, one of the field organizers exclaimed across the room: “The barometer on the NYT changed! It’s now reading 53% Trump!” And about 30 minutes later, the barometer inexplicably dropped to >95% Trump. I was incredulous at how inaccurate the polls were yet it confirmed my initial suspicions which I wished were not true.
On that note, the American people need to overall be more discerning and critically think about news disseminated through mainstream media—such as the New York Times initially announcing that blatant white supremacist Stephen Bannon is part of the “alt-right” instead of saying outright that he is a white supremacist. This type of media normalization is unacceptable.
Furthermore, Republican efforts to thwart voter turnout in the form of voter suppression was apparent throughout the country—also not fully reflective in polls.
- Why 2016 election polls missed their mark, Pew Research Center, November 9, 2016
- Republicans were wildly successful at suppressing voters in 2016, Think Progress, by Alice Ollstein
- How Many People Didn’t Vote in the 2016 Election? Low Voter Turnout Remains a Huge Problem, Bustle, November 9, 2016 by Maya Parthasarathy
9. The American education system
We need more educators and schools that pose more critical thinking questions to students—asking students to question any given premise and to truly evaluate for themselves whether or not it is true. Our curriculum also needs to include more than a Eurocentric view of our country’s history and a more thorough understanding of capitalism/our current oligarchy.
I have been lucky to know a number of these educators personally—and we need many more of them.
Speaking of feminism—I had a remarkable high school teacher who helped me open my mind. She played Madonna’s “Express Yourself” one day in class—a song that was supposedly about female empowerment.
She then zeroed in on: “all you need is a big, strong man // to lift you to your higher ground.” Then, she simply asked: “What do you think about that?”
I remember my brain more or less exploding in that moment. I never thought about it like that before. And now I can name that as internalized patriarchy. Thank God for teachers like Ms. Sadowski.
- Is Trump’s Victory the Jump-Start Civics Education Needed?, The Atlantic, November 10, 2016 by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey
- Ignorance Does Not Lead to Election Bliss, The Atlantic, November 9, 2016, by Jonathan R. Cole
- Disgusted with Trump vs. Clinton? Blame America’s civic education, The Hill, October 4, 2016 by Rebecca Burgess
10. American exceptionalism and cognitive dissonance
Being a US born citizen, I feel like I have inherited a set of American ideals and virtues that have been instilled in me since I was a very young child. But what does this actually mean? How are these American virtues enacted?
A reason for my present cognitive dissonance in the new Trump era is that we now exist in an autocracy. To a number of people, did the reality of a fascist state feel like an impossibility?
I would also be remiss if I didn’t directly state that American exceptionalism has not been wholly inclusive of marginalized groups. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” as the founding fathers wrote in the Declaration of Independence—but what about colonization, slavery, and much more?
This is America’s opportunity to continue to build resistance against the current authoritarian state and create a progressive populism that truly aspires to be the all-inclusive version of American exceptionalism that never quite was.
- History Tells Us What Will Happen Next with Brexit and Trump, The Huffington Post, July 25, 2016, by Tobias Stone
2. Donald Trump has killed American exceptionalism: Why this election was the deathblow for our great national myth, Salon, November 15, 2016 by Chauncey DeVega
3. Donald Trump and the Death of American Exceptionalism, The New Yorker, November 4, 2016 by Jelani Cobb
So, now what?
Within the next few days, I’ll be publishing another article about what I think is at stake/what to do while living during a Trump presidency.
And the theme of this upcoming article is: we must perform strategic, consistent acts of resistance. Immediately.
Speaking of which, please sign this Southern Poverty Law Center petition demanding that Bannon, a white supremacist, be removed from his chief strategist role. And let’s keep an eye on the rest of the cabinet, too.