The top two political upsets of this year, Brexit and the rise of Trump had some themes in common. Yes, racial strife was one of them, it would be ridiculous to ignore that, but the antagonism towards minorities by what are commonly described as working class majorities, was about finding useful scapegoats for why jobs in rural UK and US disappeared, and why all those diverse, large cities were humming with renewed economic vigor while the countryside languished. We covered the basics of this dynamic in America, and much of this seems to apply to the UK as well. As many analysts said in the wake of the Brexit, a lot of newly motivated voters who saw themselves as outsiders in their own country decided to protest the march of the future and defy the predictions and advice of the experts. We saw the same thing here in America last week and will hopefully learn from it.
Question is, of course, what is our partisans learning, to borrow a grammar quirk from a former president. It’s really tempting to sum up the one reason to rule them all for why someone so grossly unqualified and unpresidential managed to win while the old guard did their best rendition of the Keystone Kops. But the truth is there’s no one single reason why the election actually unfolded the way it did. Party platforms are huge and people seldom share a single issue when voting for a candidate. Some people who voted for Trump are undeniably out and proud bigots who are hoping for white supremacy to rule the day, and have been celebrating their victory by harassing minorities and defacing their spaces. Some supported him because they’re desperate for an archconservative Supreme Court justice who can enforce a radical fundamentalist agenda to curtail secular laws. And some simply had such a hatred towards Clinton, they would have voted for anyone who opposed her, whether it was someone as far left as Bernie, or as far right as Cruz.
But if you look at the exit polls, where you can find statistical backing for all the reasons laid out above, one issue jumps out and that issue is the state of the economy. While Trump voters cited terrorism and immigration as what should concern the country most and economy second, they worried about immigration because they thought it takes away jobs, and a stunning 8 in 10 of those who said their financial situation was worse in the last four years voted for him. And for the white rural men with a high school education at most, there’s very little way for the situation to have improved, which is why Trump swept their vote so decisively. Of all the common themes we can see for Republicans is that immigrants are taking away jobs, bringing in would-be terrorists, and their financial situation is either worse or not improving whatsoever. In every election, people for whom the economy is not working vote for the party that doesn’t hold the presidency.
So there you go pollsters, there is an established model we can use here. No need to go back to the drawing board and rewrite all the history books. In what seemed like an existential crisis to rural white voters, they would have voted for anyone different, and Trump seemed angry with them. His attacks on Mexicans and Muslims, and his seeming disdain for everyone who wasn’t him or a loyal fan, didn’t matter because they weren’t the important parts to his voters, even though they energized the white supremacy and neo-Nazi contingent. His VP pick of a man who decided to use his office to dedicate an unholy amount of effort in implementing reproductive care laws cribbed from the fantasies of foaming at the mouth fundamentalist zealots while he furiously penned homophobic screeds of suspicious length and quantity, was also irrelevant. He was going to stop globalization in its malicious tracks, or so they thought, and that’s what really counted.
But hold on, you might say, what about all the racist and homophobic stuff, not to mention the misogyny? Surely not all Trump voters are evil racists or women hating chauvinists, right? Well, like the Daily Show’s Hasan Mihnaj put it when asked the same question…
You may not personally be a racist, sexist xenophobe, but that comes with the package […] so if you take that deal, what you’re telling me is, ‘Hey man, I don’t hate you. I just don’t care about you.’
When minorities talk about casual racism or unconscious racism, this kind of action is what they mean. Trump voters aren’t all wishing those who aren’t like them harm, or even wish them ill. They simply don’t care about them or their safety, or think about their future in a country where a now president declared open seasons on them multiple times during his campaign. They’re now shocked, just shocked, that these minorities are upset and many women aren’t too pleased with them, chalking it up to these people just being sore losers, and have forgotten how four years ago, so many of their Republican fellows took to social media to drown a freshly re-elected Obama in vicious racist invective. Don’t blame me, they said, I’m not out there spray painting swastikas on mosques, or calling minorities all sorts of nasty names on social media, I just voted to get my way of life back! Which is also true.
There’s a non-trivial contingent of Trump voters who want to pretend that a candidate whose first campaign speech called Mexican immigrants rapists, criminals, and job thieves, until finally graciously assuming that some may have been decent people, didn’t light up millions of vile bigots who really do want to ethnically cleanse America, and that they aren’t using the outcome of the election to justify harassment and violence. For them it’s out of sight and out of mind because honestly, all they want is their jobs back and they will never have to deal with questions like the availability of birth control or being harassed on the street or on social media solely because they have a darker skin color or a “funny-sounding” name. But the left, being far more ethnically and racially diverse, has some strong opinions about that…
And there’s a pretty important moment here. We could take the view that we just live in a super bigoted country where people voted to once and for all restore white supremacism after slowly trying to suppress it for half a century. We could also say that the country really misses treating women as second class citizens too, and this is why Trump won; that it was a triumph of angry racist rednecks who want the women in their lives to get back in that kitchen and make them a goddamn sandwich and those damn, overly comfortable minorities to give them back their jobs. It’s an easy, convenient story that fits in with many lefty narratives and easy to digest for those who were blindsided by the election results. But it’s also terribly flawed because Americans have very complicated and conflicting views on race nowadays, and many are still working on expressing their disdain at the most vocal and outrageous racists among us, and seldom think about this. More often than not, it’s just an issue they don’t want to deal with. Same with sexism.
Unfortunately for them, the chatter that leaked out from major liberal echo chambers was very aggressive in pushing these issues. From a purely social sciences point and activist tactic of raising consciousness of this subject, it’s a good idea to confront these things. But it seems that when met with hushed consolation and lackluster participation, the PC pundits started getting really aggressive. Even if you can be mistaken for a liberal (because seriously, the official line between right and left today keeps moving so far to the right, it seems to be coming full circle by this point), and generally agree about how upsetting and problematic slights against maligned groups are, or are a part of one, you may well end up in a game of priveledge poker by activists who won’t hesitate for even a moment to turn on their own allies over even the slightest imperfection in terminology. The change from casual awareness of a problem and dislike that it exists to hypersensitive insta-correction, could only be described as whiplash-inducing.
What exactly is privilege poker? It’s a far left game in which whoever had the most challenges in life owns the podium and whose opinion is said to have the most sway. In their attempt to give voices to marginalized groups, they swung the pendulum so much that the more marginalized the better, and the more important what they say is. It’s the same game from which we get ardent and misguided critics of cultural appropriation, and vociferous protests in response to talks in which writers defend their choice to write about things they may have never personally experienced as not to offend those people by something they might say. And not only did they want the world of entertainment to get on board with this, they also wanted to make sure scientists and skeptics preached the same doctrine, while we were also being told that science as we know it today is just cultural colonialism.
This and variations of this is what so many viral far left think pieces were concerned with, and of course many people balked and wanted nothing to do with it. Actual, real racists who think that having to look at immigrants a shade darker than them or deal with a minority leading character in a comic book is “white genocide” viciously pushed back on social media. And rather than realize this, the far left wanted to see societal changes that are usually glacial, now. As in right now. To prove that we weren’t bigots, we had to buy into everything they said about other people, cultures, and terminology, and get it perfectly right. As a Russian Jew whose ancestors were being blamed for the Black Death, and are currently blamed for globalization and reckless big banks, I can tell you firsthand that bigots are very slow to vanish and the work required to fight them takes generations. But the far left did not have this patience and met any disagreement with aggression.
Now imagine that you’re a struggling person in a small town who really has no time to ponder the implications of race relations in American history. In the last decade, the factory that kept the town humming closed and moved on. The right wing establishment has no solutions for you, in fact they’re all in the pocket of the people making billions from closing the factory. The left talks about student debt and the slow economy, empathizes with the loss of jobs due to globalization and how the 1% is running up the economic score on all segments of society, but then immediately pivots away to talk identity politics and privilege. Those are important topics with noble goals, but they are academic topics, and are misdirected for those looking for a way to fill a fridge and pay down some debt without a steady job. Telling them that they are privileged from a statistical standpoint and generationally wealthier on average is about as useful to them as telling a fish that if it had an umbrella, it would be a really nice umbrella many other fish couldn’t afford.
If you ever find yourself on the road in rural Northern Michigan, you’ll see a swath of small towns that look like a plague devastated them. Many houses are unkempt, quite a few are boarded up. White people in worn hoodies sit on porches with a ten thousand yard stare, seemingly having nowhere to go and nothing to do. During the day, the streets are eerily silent, not in a that soothing bedroom community way, but in a classic Lovecraftian, “concealing a presence rather than revealing an absence” way. Poor white America is an extremely real thing and it suffers rom chronic joblessness, crime, and drug abuse, not to mention alcoholism and all the other downsides of being left jobless and forgotten. When you want to lecture these people about all the privilege they have based on statistical trending averages across decades of data on the subject, their response will be “Oh yeah? So if I’m so privileged, where the fuck is my cushy, high paying job, six figure inheritance, and new house? Because I sure as hell don’t see any of that!”
While the left is really good at identifying current problems, it sadly has few long term solutions. The one candidate on the left who was even close to some semblance of it was Sanders with his push for funding higher education for everyone instead of letting college costs keep soaring into the stratosphere. Every macroeconomic report that takes a really sober look into how automation and globalization are affecting the world agrees that those lost jobs aren’t coming back because they no longer exist, or are doomed to extinction by automation anyway. We may have short term job programs in certain regions to stay afloat by investing in infrastructure, but even there with mechanization the way it is today, similar programs during the Great Recession didn’t do more than prevent total employment free fall. Trump’s loyal base expecting an economic miracle will be sorely disappointed since the jobs they’ve been led to believe can just be transferred from China and India account for only 12% of all lost jobs and are also being quickly given to robots as cost per worker rises in the developing world.
As tempting as it may be to start piling on Trump before he even takes office, the truth of the matter is that it won’t be his fault if any job gains under him are extremely modest, if they happen at all. It’s also tempting to look at his most racist followers and believe in his rhetoric, and assume that he will be a dictator with a rubber stamp government to do his malicious bidding, but just watching the grim look on his face and noticing his sudden change of rhetoric and behavior from something akin to what we’d expect from some drunk, horny baboon, to a pale imitation of a TV shock jock’s rough idea of what a statesman does, I wouldn’t be too surprised if that won’t happen. He seems to have realized that bullshitting time is over, his honeymoon period may be very brief, and that he’s now in way over his head because his only successful business ventures were leasing his name on something others did for him, and collecting the royalties.
He’ll be dealing with very complicated technological and economic forces on a global scale. Until there’s a way for all those left behind by globalization’s new order to transition into new jobs, it will be a Sisyphean task to revitalize their home towns, and their way of life may well be lost forever because the economy is pushing people into urban hubs. Nothing personal, that’s simply where the most efficient exchange of goods and services takes place. No one has come to them with a plan for how they will cope with the future, and all the voices on the left able to articulate why they’re in trouble would write off the rural Midwest as a lost cause election and campaign-wise, ceding the ground to angry voices from the right ready to scapegoat minorities, coastal liberals, and activists trying to give them a bigger voice and role in how the country can move forward. Fox News and Breitbart appealed to the 45 and older rural and suburban voters with a mix of nostalgia and blame-shifting, much like South Park’s Member Berries, but with a lot more racism.
In the bubble of right wing partisan media, which is so full of outright false stories they account for a third of its entire output, America was the quiet post-racial utopia so many millions hope it would be, and the bigotry of old was long forgotten by all but a few entitled lefty shysters who decided that now it’s their turn to extract revenge on white America, aided by spineless politicians wracked with post-colonial guilt, and fueled by demagogues in search of reparations from an already struggling working class. They took handouts, they fed off welfare, they lived in dens of sin and crime, and if their wallets ran low, they’d ransack honest, hard-working Real Americans’ paychecks for more. The excesses of identity politics activism mocked with the PC Principal character on, you guessed it, South Park, was abused by the peddlers of this narrative to pretend that racism, sexism, and bigotry were all slain villains. That is until all those evil minorities and radfems from the taking class unearthed them with their seemingly irrational hatred of cops, men, and an honest day’s hard work, which they were promptly told that all those in coastal megacities haven’t done a day of in their lives.
It’s a gross distortion of the real state of affairs: that it’s become less and less acceptable to be a bigot in public and real discrimination came with excuses and was more subtle. No longer “no [insert minority here] need apply,” as much as “whoops, we didn’t get your resume” and fewer “we don’t cater to your kind around here” as much as “well, for you, a special rate [that’s far higher than for those they do cater to]” are seen by minorities every day. If you never have to deal with it, it’s easy to sweep under the rug and pretend it’s not happening because you haven’t seen it. Which is exactly the point, so the actual graying white supremacists and their ilk could make anyone who calls this out sound paranoid and use as a scapegoat in a crisis. The biggest, most important bullet point in their version of current events? If you are the white, working class avatar Republican elites pretend to be, you don’t need to change or do anything different. It’s the world around you that forgot its way, driven by delusional liberals who cry bigot and ransacked by those evil and untrustworthy Je… umm… bankers, that’s it, bankers. So just vote for us and we’ll make everything better by putting you back in charge.
In an alternative world, where the Electoral College didn’t exist or had some instrument to account for the popular choice better, and Clinton’s advantage of more than 2 million votes actually put her in the White House, it’s hard to see how things would be any better. She didn’t support education plans that were as aggressive as Sanders rightfully claimed are necessary, and had no regard for the plight of rural voters, seeing them as yokels stuck in the past and desperately trying to resist the future our of sheer obstinance. She also plaid exactly zero attention to automation of the workforce or acknowledge the challenges it presents. Since she and Trump are the same age, they just can’t seem to understand just how much the world has changed and fail to see the extent of the undergoing economic shift. It’s folly to expect senior citizen politicians to be computer scientists in their spare time, but they’re horribly out of touch with the modern technological world at a time when this ignorance is downright dangerous for the entire nation.
We’re in a transition even more drastic than the Industrial Revolution and their solution is to open more factories and keep the existing ones open. If you think about it in the grand scheme of things, it’s similar to politicians in the 1880s calling for more farms to keep those in small towns employed. It would’ve been great for farmers, but with increasing mechanization, they’d be much better off leaving for the factories, which they eventually did. But what makes the current shift to post-industrial economics more dire that it’s no longer as simple as moving to the city and taking a new job. Jobs are not shifting from place to place and type to type, they’re disappearing, and new ones requiring lots of specialized training are being created while training is in short supply and cost-prohibitive for many who could benefit from it. Our future is more research and education, not just a platitude to hard work, or creating new jobs by playing with trickle down economics or unions.
Because we haven’t adapted to the future and millions are having trouble making ends meet, racism and bigotry are growing more vocal because the people most afflicted by the changing times are looking for someone other than themselves and their chosen leaders to hold responsible. Pundits drone on and on about how these are unpredictable times where nothing makes a bit of sense and voters have become irrational, but when you look at all the exit polls of seemingly unthinkable elections, you find a common theme. If you’re financially stuck in place or deteriorating, you voted for the wildcard candidate hoping to go back to the way things were. It’s about the economy and globalization’s effect on it first and foremost. Note that liberal ideas are still popular, with the majority of the citizenry who mostly vote pro-choice and pro-pot decriminalization, support gay marriage, and want healthcare reform that’s open to public options.
What we saw with the Brexit vote and the election of Trump were basically votes of no confidence in the existing establishment over the tensions from growing worldwide economic inequality. Nostalgic bigotry, misogyny, rabid religious fundamentalism, and anti-Semitism were just the toxic cherry on a shit sundae, things that mattered greatly to the people who were targeted, excited the hateful conspiracy theorists and bigots who hated anyone who isn’t a clone of them, and fell on deaf ears for those who saw their thriving home towns fall into hopeless ruin with no help on the horizon. It will be a most interesting (in a bad way) time when doubling down in outdated ideas by the new leaders of America and the UK will inevitably fail to bring new jobs to those who voted to turn back the clock. Will they suddenly find new faith in experts and their projections? Only time will tell…
[ waterfall illustration by Taylor Castle ]