It can be easy to get depressed with the rising polls for Donald Trump.. The Trump phenomenon really does seem to be a moment where we all think “It can’t happen here… can it?” It’s a far-right, reactionary racist upsurge that evokes fears of everything from Le Pen to Mussolini. Forget any kind of multicultural diversity or expanding our society’s impact on the less fortunate: we are now battling for the very heart of democratic pluralism.
However, as with anything else, it can be easy to get so sucked into the war in the trenches that we can’t look back and see what territory we’ve gathered.
Last weekend, I was reading an excellent textbook on globalization, Cultures and Globalization’s 2007 edition (Conflict and Tensions) edited by Helmut K. Anheier and Yudhishthir Raj Isar. In it, an excellent paper on concord organizations (organizations that are trying to build contact between competing groups instead of competition and recrimination) points out that many societies going through globalization, even as they are having nasty battles that include gender and race and sexual orientation, are starting to ask the question “Who belongs?” rather than the question “Who dominates”?
If you look at Trump’s rhetoric and the rhetoric of his more moderate core, as ugly as it is, they are actually asking this question too. Yes, there’s all sorts of implicit racism in the “law and order” appeals and the way that the RNC demonized Black Lives Matter and those forces trying to question the drug war and the brutality of the criminal justice system to the poor, the disabled and to ethnic minorities. Yes, people in the Trump camp and on that particular ugly segment of the right routinely say awful things about whether or not African-Americans were better off under slavery or who try to say that white folks freed the slaves without having to mention that other white folks fought to keep them (and without having to admit that those who fought to free the slaves often resented it and after the war ended up imposing Jim Crow anyways). Yes, Trump himself had the gall to imply that African-American communities are worse off now than under slavery, Jim Crow, redlining and when the Klan had millions of members. Yes, we are seeing some Trump supporters insist that racism has only come about thanks to Obama while repeating the same racist myths about black folks having children out of wedlock and not being hard-working enough that have been around for decades. And yet, despite all that, Trump is still not discussing how to restore white racial dominion, or how to exterminate enemies of the state, or even how to specifically recover some kind of white cultural control. Trump’s alternative-right followers may be doing that, but they are the hateful extreme wing and mostly thrive on the Internet where they can be anonymous and can exaggerate their views. (Believe me, I’ve met enough of these clowns to know).
Asking if we should let in Muslims or asking if we should deport Hispanics, especially in the particularly ugly ways that Trump is doing it including with the blatant threat of torture and the routine contempt for international law and the Constitution, is a threat to democratic pluralism. Even as Trump’s immigration position has softened, that still has put him closer to the Republican mainstream that doesn’t care that they are imposing global capitalism through free trade deals yet somehow finding it acceptable to then restrict the rights of workers to seek out jobs globally (since apparently money has more rights than people). Not taking in Syrian refugees because of fear that some may become terrorists is to let fear trump humanity, and it is truly below contempt.
And yet all of it is still asking the question “Who belongs? Why does anyone belong?”
The fact is that even Trump’s nakedly self-aggrandizing and narcissistic, grotesque, stop-and-frisk justifying outreach to the black community, the Hispanic community, and other communities is actually a good sign for America. Even the ugliest rhetoric that we’ve got in the mainstream that can get overtly racist is still not about mass expulsion, or about some kind of white independence. In fact, the Brexit camp was far more toxic and grotesque in their speech. Trump supporters are by and large not overtly trying to figure out how to exert more direct racial dominance. Even Kathy Miller’s reprehensible comments that asked blacks to take responsibility didn’t say that blacks didn’t belong in America, but that they should work harder. Yes, it was racist; no, it was not a clear claim of dominion.
Yes, this may sound like a slim hope. But actually, much of human history has been about who dominates, not who belongs. Everything from the Bible to the history of European colonialism to the history of Islam to the history of Africa has been a history replete with conquest, extermination, and naked imposition. Even the Romans, who centuries of propaganda have made many of us remember with rose-colored lenses, had a very clear understanding of who dominated versus who merely got to be tolerated. Most empires globally had some kind of ethnic or religious core and then other people tolerated at the periphery if they bowed their heads. And in Europe, they’ve never quite been able to shake that sentiment about domination, power and control of the dominant ethnic group.
The Trump phenomenon must be crushed. It will take years to work through the demons he unleashed. But I personally feel it is a good thing. I think a lot of people will be waking up after November slowly starting to have it dawn on them what they (hopefully merely almost) brought about. But even if they’re not, even if this movement sticks around as a powerful force despite the clear writing on the wall regarding American ethnic balances, the fact remains that we are still discussing who we want to let in, who we want to honor, and who we want to think is part of the national fabric, rather than discussing explicitly who gets to actually be in charge.
Don’t get me wrong: that sentiment, that white straight Christian people actually have the right to dominate, is deeply embedded in the psyche, and it is there to be pushed out. But the civil rights movement and other forces have won enough battles that that remains a largely subconscious neurosis, flaring up loudly from time to time and constantly present in the worst corners of the Internet sewer or elsewhere in the American public discussion.
We are winning, even if the margins are a lot smaller than we’d like.
Democratic pluralism is here to stay. It’s going to expand.
It’s just a question of time.
This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.