In a few days Americans will head to the polls to decide who their next commander in chief will be. Millions have already cast their ballots early in what seems like the longest presidential election in recent history. Debates have been held, punches have been thrown, epithets have been hurled and lives have been threatened. To most people, such a description of an electoral campaign would best fit a nation governed by repression and instability. And of course – it wouldn’t be in the West and certainly not in the United States. However, everything conventional about this election has been turned upside down by one man, Donald J. Trump.
From the beginning of his campaign, Trump has used division and scare tactics to gain a following. By manipulating people’s fears and tapping into a deep tradition of populist racism, Trump has skyrocketed from the status of obscure candidate to potential President in the matter of a year. He has called Mexicans “rapists and criminals”, called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, used a variety of vile adjectives to describe women and cannot imagine a world in which African Americans do not live in the inner city. Still, despite this – Republican elites continued to back him.
That is until he started to joke about sexual assault, talked about using nuclear weapons and sucked up to Vladmir Putin. At that point, Trump had crossed the line from being “unhinged racist who can win” to “unhinged racist who may destroy the country”. The welfare of people of colour apparently does not factor too much into the decision about whether a candidate is acceptable.
While Trump has become a face of this hodgepodge movement, what he is doing is not new. Indeed, this is not the first time someone has used dogwhistle racism to win an election; both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this. Ronald Reagan famously in the 1980s, referred to “welfare queens” as a stand in for “black women”. The United States has a long deep seeded history of racist rhetoric and violence in politics, and this often took the form of voter suppression and disenfranchisement. In a Rolling Stone interview, Berkeley professor Ian Haney-López, the author of Dog Whistle Politics said “They’ve been walking a finer and finer line, trying to use coded racial language to mobilize anxious white voters,” he says. “The Republican Party draws roughly 90 percent of its support from whites, so they are working really hard, and strategically, to motivate those white voters, but at the same time they are trying to find language that is sufficiently coded and sufficiently moderate not to completely antagonize especially Latinos and Asians. The African-American vote they’ve largely given up on.”
To those who think we have progressed into a post racial era, Donald Trump may come as a shock. But really, all he has done is expose what was lingering beneath the surface.
Opposite of Trump is Hillary Clinton, whose candidacy has come to be defined by the fact that she is not Donald Trump. Her campaign has offered criticism of Trump’s racism and is justified in pointing out the dangers that a Trump presidency will bring. But her own campaign has been lackluster and propelled by the fact that people do not want to bring on the Trumpist apocalypse. Clinton’s own record when it comes to non middle class white voters is less than impressive; she has been an advocate of a hawkish foreign policy, has cozy relationships with Wall Street and has supported initiatives that target Black and Latino communities in the past. At the same time, during this campaign she has talked about mass incarceration, about implicit bias in policing, about the need to stop deportations and about debt free education. This is commendable (and thanks in part to Bernie Sanders).
If Trump loses on Nov 8th and we all breathe a collective sigh of relief, his supporters will still be there. At least 30% of the country would have voted for him and some of them will be angry. While the predictions of violence and rioting may not and hopefully will not come to fruition, this does not change the fact that Trumpism is here to stay. The New Yorker calls the Trump movement ‘a reaction to the socially liberal, polyglot America that is rapidly emerging in the twenty-first century. Representing an older, whiter, and more embattled tradition, it is constantly evoking what it sees as a lost Valhalla—a place of plentiful jobs, rising living standards, conservative social values, fewer immigrants, and minorities who knew their place. To a large extent, this lost America is a myth.’ His supporters will continue to function as a political movement based on a mythical past that will have chilling effects on American society.
While Clinton has been dogged by questions surrounding her legacy, if elected President, there is an opportunity for her to set the record straight and this is by engaging in a strong push for racial and economic justice. The lives of people of colour demand more than just empty platitudes on “race relations”, it’s time to follow up with concrete material action. Ending the Drug War, halting deportations, demilitarizing the police, denying permits for pipelines and pushing legislation and programs that directly addresses economic inequality are just some of the things she can do.
This would also provide a strong counter to the Trump movement. Taking steps to address racial and economic inequalities will benefit the white working class too. Liberation for the most marginalized will bring liberation for all.
Of course, this is an ideal scenario that is unlikely. However, the good news is that it does not mean the end of progress. Concrete action in the United States has always been pushed by people power. Working in communities, people can organize to pressure the government to fulfil their demands and provide a strong alternative to the Trump movement, to those who feel that the government has left them behind. This applies to Europe too, where far right parties are taking hold. Trumpism may not disappear immediately on Nov. 9th, but through the power of collective organizing – we can defeat its divisive ideology, dispel the myths Trump has shamelessly played to and push our elected leaders to do better at the same time.
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Abdullah Shihipar is a writer and organizer based in the Greater Toronto area. He frequently writes about issues pertaining to race, equity and social justice. You can find out more at his website, abshippy.com, or follow him on Twitter @AShihipar.