As I watched the historic events unfold at the national conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia, like many Americans, I wrestled with the question, “How is it possible that a man like Trump won the Republican nomination?”
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Some of my well-educated, liberal friends expect a victory for Clinton and are gleefully making plans to attend the inauguration. I’m not so sure: A whole lot can happen in the nearly two months until the election. Since the conventions, Hillary Clinton’s lead has shrunk from 8 percent to 3 percent according to Nate Silver’s average of national polls. The fact that roughly 40 percent of Americans favor Trump over Clinton in national polls, at this point, should give everyone pause.
There are powerful feelings and long-standing cultural values at play in Trump’s recent electoral success, which deserve our careful attention. Let me frame the issues with ideas from social theory:
1. The quiet power of hegemony. An idea made popular by Antonio Gramsci, hegemony is at work when the poor/weak want to become like the rich/powerful rather than remake society on a model of social justice for everyone. Gramsci used this concept to explain why the working class in Italy during the 1930s supported fascism. Today, the white working poor in the US who support Trump do not think that progressive policies can remedy their situation. They believe the system is rigged and have put their faith in a dangerous homegrown demagogue who’s promising to deliver them into the kingdom of greatness and prosperity.
2. The persistence of patriarchal culture. If a woman were to carry on in Trump’s grandiose, vulgar, flamboyant manner, she would be laughed off the stage without a second thought. One of the things that Trump’s recent electoral success shows us is that the world is still set up to elevate white men with wealth and power. A Pew study shows that 49 percent of white college-educated men prefer Trump to Clinton (42 percent chose Clinton). But this gender bias is also on display when some of my women friends, who have internalized the values of patriarchal society, say they won’t vote for Clinton because she’s a woman. Although I voted for Bernie Sanders during the primary, anyone who claims that Clinton is less fit to be president than Trump is unconsciously invested in a sexist double standard.
3. The “social death” of African-Americans. Orlando Patterson used this concept to explain how slavery deprived African-Americans of rights and standing within our society. Evidence that this conceptual legacy persists among many conservative white Americans today is most apparent in the birther movement. Trump’s allegation that President Obama isn’t really American and doesn’t have a birth certificate sought to deprive the first Black president of his legitimate standing. Then, Trump justified his call to ban all Muslims from entering the US by unleashing suspicions about what exactly President Obama was doing in the White House. The leader of the birther movement claimed that until we know “what our leaders are up to,” we can’t let any more Muslims (like our allegedly foreign-born Muslim president) into the country.
The virulence of Trump’s rapid-fire bigotry against Black people, Latinos and Muslims is particularly effective right now among Americans who want to “make America great again” by taking back the White House from a Black man who is seen as a worrisome impostor. In fact, the distinguished US historian Nell Irvin Painter has persuasively argued that Trump’s campaign is seizing upon the power of “white backlash,” and that without Barack Obama, there would be no Trump.
So, what now?
First, we must not underestimate the persistence and volatility of the emotions at work in Trump’s campaign. When reporters ask his supporters factual questions such as, “Who is going to pay for the wall along the Mexican border?” and get bizarre answers like, “China will build the wall,” they’re revealing how his supporters are motivated by fear now and not by what is likely to actually happen in the future. The question is whether a sizable number of Republicans who are ambivalent about Trump will decide that it is wrong to want their party in power at any cost.
Second, we must realize that this isn’t an election about different policies and platforms. It’s an election about the future of our democracy. In an editorial, “Donald Trump is a unique threat to American Democracy,” The Washington Post wrote, “Mr. Trump’s politics of denigration and division could strain the bonds that have held a diverse nation together. His contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.”
To be sure, there will be voters on both sides who think Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both flawed candidates, that they are both crooked and that it doesn’t really matter who wins. However, instead of examining each candidate’s flaws, these arguments are often flattened into statements like “Hillary Clinton is just as bad as Donald Trump,” which can erase the blatant racism and patriarchy that bolster Trump’s campaign, as well as the fascist overtones of his message.
No matter which candidate we vote for, the conversation Americans must have this election season is about our core values, the example we will set for our children and the integrity of our democracy.