This is an essay I wrote last fall, days after the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. It has gone unpublished, so I am sharing today. I hope it’s still relevant.
There are too many Americas. We like to believe there is one, a single nation “under God, indivisible,” but the lack of “liberty and justice for all” has left us a polity badly ruptured along race and class lines.
Exhibit A is the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States. Trump, an entertainer/businessman who has perfected the art of grievance, garnered less than 48 percent of the popular vote, and what could end up being about 2 million fewer votes than his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. But Trump won where it mattered as he parlayed white resentment mostly in the Midwest into a surprisingly large Electoral College win.
No one expected it — perhaps not even Trump. The polls had Clinton winning, and most of the TV prognosticators had, by Election Day, turned their attention to how big the Clinton wave would be. It may be months — if not years — before we fully understand what happened, and it seems likely that agreement on this point will be hard to come by. But his election stands as a marker of sorts, underscoring our the fractures that distort our ability to truly escape the ugliness of our past.
This is a nation built on slavery and segregation, a nation whose wealth derives from these dual sins. This is not an original idea — Edward Baptiste, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have written eloquently about the role slavery played in the creation of the American financial system and the uses of legal and extra-legal means to prevent the accumulation of black wealth in the post-Slavery era. These things remain with us — they are, in political speak, facts on the ground. America remains brutally segregated by race, ethnicity and class with little thought given any longer to altering this reality.
In this way, Trump reminds me not of Richard Nixon, but of Ronald Reagan. Trump owes his political career to the same kind of racial resentment Reagan played upon when he ran against fair housing and the Watts riots in his initial run for governor in 1966, and his use of coded language regarding “states’ rights” and “welfare queens” when he ran for president.
Trump’s focus on Mexican immigrants, gangs, hellish cities, and unvettable Muslims dispensed with the code. He was “speaking his mind,” as his supporters said, not using polite and political language. This appears to have been a central element of his appeal. He spoke to a large portion of white America (particularly to white, male America) in terms that make them believe he not only acknowledges their fear of change and lost power, but that he can “Make America Great Again,” somehow returning the United States to an earlier, whiter time. This is not to say that all Trump voters were racist or resentful, but Trump effectively merged his appeal to racial resentment with a class-based message and swept through the Rust Belt, winning states Democrats rarely lose.
The Trump victory, as unlikely as it seemed, may actually be part of a much larger narrative that goes back to the late stages of the Bush administration and includes the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president. Obama, to a degree, ran against Washington and tethered Hillary Clinton (accurately) to the political establishment. That Obama was a centrist and governed as a slightly left-of-center president is less important than what his candidacy represented. He attracted a large cohort of voters to the polls who had not been voting, who had viewed themselves as being marginalized by a political process that listened only to money.
What followed his election were a series of political revolts — the Tea Party movement and Occupy Wall Street in the United States, the Arab Spring, the Greek general strikes, Brexit — that were anti-establishment in their inception and continued to burn, threatening to ignite like embers trapped within a wall. While unemployment was generally down from its peak during the Great Recession of 2008–2009, and the economy had been experiencing modest but continuous growth, the dissatisfaction and fear for the future remained, made public in the persons of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
I refuse to wade into the debate over whether Bernie Sanders would have defeated Trump. It doesn’t matter. What does is that Trump’s election has brought the uglier elements of society out into the open and has ripped the mask from polite white society’s underlying resentment of others.
It’s no wonder that so many who are part of these other Americas — black and brown America, non-Christian America, poor white America, female America, LGBTQ America — feel like they are being crushed underfoot or pitted against each other.
Trump’s election is an indication that, despite what we tell ourselves, there is no vast, overarching narrative, no arc of history with a predetermined story. We like to believe, in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words that “the arc of history is long” and that it “bends toward justice,” but it just isn’t true. It only bends when we apply pressure and the pressure is not always toward justice.
Enter the protesters.
She was looking at her phone when I walked over to say hello. I was picking up dinner at the restaurant she runs with her daughters, family friends, and thought I’d check in.
I’ve known M. for a long time. She is the definition of “good people” — someone not only willing to led assistance to those in need, but someone who seems to court those situations. Selfless, charitable, community-minded — generally, a person who has earned the respect with which she is treated.
M.’s also a Republican who supported Donald Trump — one of the surprising number of people I know in blue-state New Jersey who did so — though, she was never a vocal backer, at least as far as I knew. Her political profile is similar to my dad’s, I assume — pro-business, anti-tax and regulation, strong on defense, an old-school Main Street Republican.
Was that why she supported Trump? Was she a supporter or a Republican whose disdain for Hillary Clinton dictated her vote? Did she buy into the Trump narrative — the immigrant bashing, the attacks on women and Muslims — or was she animated by dislike for a Democratic Party she viewed as being too liberal? Was it about Trump’s self-proclaimed strength, or his outsider status? Or was it all of this? I honestly don’t know, and I’m not sure M. — or my father, or many of the people who voted for Trump — could coherently disentangle the various threads that she may have used to weave together her vote.
I say “not sure,” because the conversation never went there. Instead, I was greeted by a criticism of the nascent protest movement that was rising in opposition to Trumpism around the country.
“These protesters, they need to get over it,” she said.
I winced. I was there to pick up an order and was not looking for a political argument. “It’s their right to protest,” I told her. “They are protesting because they do not agree with what Trump stands for.”
“Blocking traffic,” she said. “That’s just not right. It’s not right.”
“If they break the law, they can be arrested.”
“All those knee-jerk liberals, they should be arrested.”
Her daughter pointed out that I was one of those knee-jerk liberals — I’m not. I’m a socialist with anarchist leanings, whatever that ultimately means — and the conversation petered out. I grabbed my food and left.
But I wonder if my response was the correct one. I made a basic point about protest, but did not directly engage on the dangers of a Trump presidency, or offer an analysis of what I thought happened the previous Tuesday. Does that make me complicit? It’s something I can’t answer, though I feel like it does.
I have to wonder where my reticence came from — was it because I did not want to create tension, or damage a long-standing friendship? Is that a legitimate response? Or does it, as I suspect, represent a failure on my part to push the conversation forward, to push for change, to apply pressure?
Pressure. Direct action. The creation of tension to create momentum for change. The protests taking place around the country in the wake of the Nov. 8 election of Donald Trump are about creating pressure and making it clear that, while Trump is president, Trumpism will not be allowed to succeed. Those carrying signs saying “Not My President” are not calling Trump illegitimate, but instead are calling the Trump of the campaign out and saying Trumpism — the appeal to resentment and fear and hate and its personification in a man as unthinking and lacking in self-awareness as the New York real-estate baron — is illegitimate. Trump will take office on Jan. 20, but the protesters are making it clear that he does so without a blank check to turn back the clock.
These protests — which have been criticized by supporters of the president-elect as temper tantrums — and the protesters — who have been called sore-losers — are part of a tradition in which Americans have taken to the streets to bend “the arc of history” toward justice.
“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal,” King wrote in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
This aspect of King’s philosophy is often elided, glossed over, his legacy reduced to the simple if inaccurate call for equality. But King’s focus went beyond equality to justice — and he was willing to act in a radical manner to ensure that justice could be won and that the “hidden tension that is already alive” can be brought “out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with” and “cured.”
But what is to be cured in this case? The election was won, after all, and no amount of protesting is going to alter the results. But as I said, the protests are not about vote totals. They are about attitudes, about coming together.
“This election was a wake-up call that things aren’t anywhere near as progressive as we thought they were,” Remigio Mateo, a social worker in Los Angeles, told The New York Times. “I feel confused, disheartened, shocked and afraid of what comes next. I felt I needed to be around others who felt the same way, not only to protest, but to think of how to move forward.”
This is why much of the criticism of them misses the point, as the criticism of football player Colin Kaepernick did and of the protesters in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlotte and elsewhere. Protests are a show of solidarity and a stripping away of the curtain that hides the way in which power works in the American system. Howard Zinn, the radical historian, acknowledged in an interview with CounterPunch that “dissent and protest are divisive, but in a good way, because they represent accurately the real divisions in society.”
“Those divisions exist — the rich, the poor — whether there is dissent or not. But when there is no dissent, there is no change. The dissent has the possibility not of ending the division in society, but of changing the reality of the division. Changing the balance of power on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.”
The fight now is not about whether Donald Trump will enter the White House. That fight was waged, and the Democrats and liberals lost. It is about pulling back the curtain and revealing the notion of a united America to be a myth, a sham, making it clear that there are many Americas, too many, and that too many have been edited out of the idyll.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Letter From Birmingham Jail (2009): 1–12. Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
Mele, Christopher. “2nd Night of Trump Protests Brings 29 Arrests in Oregon.” The New York Times. 11 Nov. 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/12/us/trump-protests-election-portland.html. Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.
Zinn, Howard. Interview with Wajahat Ali. “Zinn Speaks.” Counterpunch. 19 April, 2008. http://www.counterpunch.org/2008/04/19/zinn-speaks/ (via Dave Zirin’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/edgeofsports/posts/10154801556218474?pnref=story). Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.