Donald Trump’s quasi-apocalyptic victory marks the end of American exceptionalism: a certain idea of America, as a model of democracy and freedom, is dead. Trump didn’t kill it; he declared it dead with a campaign that was as surreal as it was reactionary. ‘It’s a nightmare,’ a French friend wrote to me in an email. ‘It’s worse than a nightmare,’ I replied. ‘It’s reality.’
But how to explain this reality? How did Trump – the least qualified candidate in American history, a narcissistic, desensitised bully who could not put together a complete sentence, much less an argument – seduce the American electorate? Some see his victory as a misdirected working-class rebellion, staged by resentful middle-class whites who were effectively proletarianised by neoliberal policies promoted by both of America’s major political parties. Others see it as a racist, xenophobic uprising, led by a vanguard of white nationalists who have rallied around Trump as their figurehead.
Both explanations have a kernel of truth. Trump is inconceivable without the 2008 financial crisis, and Obama’s reliance on Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers and the other ‘Harvard boys’ reinforced the impression that American liberalism was an elite ideology, and globalisation a luxury that working people could no longer afford. Popular resentment against elites has increasingly been deflected towards vulnerable minorities, especially immigrants and undocumented workers supposedly coddled by liberals.
But neither explanation captures the profoundly nostalgic dimensions of Trump’s appeal, or his animal magnetism among his supporters. Looking at Trump, American liberals see a barroom lout, a pig who boasts about grabbing women ‘by the pussy’ and threatens to jail his opponent. But Trump taps into an ideological fantasy among voters who would like to return to a world in which borders counted for something, white men were the ‘natural leaders’, and women and minorities knew their place. A black man in the White House, for them, was an intolerable insult. That he was the son of a Kenyan with a Muslim name, raised in Indonesia, only rubbed salt in the wound.
More than any other campaign in recent American history, this was a story of winners and losers. No one suffered more from the 2008 financial collapse than black Americans, and during Obama’s time in office black people saw little improvement in their fortunes; his defence of black interests rested mainly on his rhetorically admirable but, as it turned out, quixotic attempt to set a new moral tone in American life, and to bring together Americans of different races. Yet a strange, phantasmagorical story emerged and spread, even before Trump’s candidacy, that poor whites were the true losers of globalisation.
Liberal journalists went out to the heartland, much as they had once wandered through the ghetto, and found that the white poor had succumbed to the same ills that affected poor people of colour (drugs, violence, broken families, joblessness). Yet their suffering was not acknowledged, much less glamorised as a rebellious sub-culture: not only were whites being reduced to the conditions of black people (the horror!), they could not even count on white liberal solidarity. Betrayed by ‘the system’, viewed with contempt by elites in New York and Washington who considered them incapable of adapting to the new economy, the white wretched of the earth attached themselves to Trump as if he were Moses leading them out of Egypt. This story, which J.D. Vance popularised in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, isn’t wholly untrue, but it isn’t the whole story either.
According to the polls, Trump’s most devoted supporters aren’t the very poor but the lower middle class – the class traditionally most attracted by fascism. However much they have suffered since the recession, they aren’t ‘victimised’ as the very poor are, or as black people are in the most deprived parts of our cities, where the police behave like an occupying force. Since (and before) the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, hundreds of unarmed black men have been killed by the police.
If America were another country, with a less toxic racial history, poor whites might have joined forces with blacks in protest against police violence, and the system of mass incarceration that Michelle Alexander has called a ‘new Jim Crow’. But movements like Black Lives Matter have proved anathema to them. For Trump voters, BLM is an almost existential menace, because it calls into question the sanctity of the forces of law and order. It is hardly surprising that one of Trump’s most vocal supporters is Rudolph Giuliani – no ‘hillbilly’ but a New Yorker born and bred. The former mayor of New York and spokesman for Police Lives Matter is hated by African Americans, who remember the Giuliani era as a time of widespread violence and harassment at the hands of the police. Giuliani is likely to be our next attorney general.
Restoring law and order is a theme that the Republicans have harped on since Nixon’s ‘Southern strategy’, but in Trump’s hands it has taken on a new psychological force. Listening to his ravings, his admirers feel less weak, especially when he attacks the people they like least – Muslims, Mexicans, refugees – as if it were a boxing match, or more precisely a Western, the foundational genre for the reactionary imagination in the United States.
The freedom of speech which black campaigners have exercised to insist on their right not to be executed without trial is a source of unbelievable rage for Trump’s supporters, who claim that their suffering isn’t recognised (indeed, is suppressed) by the media, and that, because of political correctness, they have been effectively muzzled. Listening to Trump they are filled with jubilation because he isn’t silent, as they were – according to their worldview – before this election. Liberals see a lout without qualities; his supporters see a patriot without inhibitions, who not only makes no secret of his racist, islamophobic, sexist and violent convictions, but appears proud of them. Liberal intellectuals expressed their shock that a man of such belligerence and vulgarity could find favour with the electorate, but Trump’s admirers love him not despite his belligerence and vulgarity but because of those attributes, which they recognise in themselves. This is the source of his irresistible charisma for his voters.
Obama, with his academic, lofty airs, embodies absolute evil for them: a black man, probably African, profoundly cosmopolitan, with a gift for oratory, who rules with the support of a neoliberal elite, many of whom are Jews. Obama is the pure expression – though not ‘pure’ in the racial sense, which only makes it worse – of the ‘Eastern seaboard elite’, a group increasingly composed of immigrants’ children whose citizenship is now being called into question. A product of Harvard, he is part of ‘the system’, which has fallen into the hands of suspect foreigners: Obama’s elevation is a sign, for Trump’s followers, of the disappearance of their country, the ‘real’ America where people have Christian names.
Trump doesn’t really represent a challenge to the American system. He isn’t a billionaire version of Eugene Debs. But his campaign took us into the logic of fascism, and it’s no accident that there are strong echoes of the 1930s now: economic crisis; a social class that, having lost its status and privileges, is keen to find scapegoats; violence, both physical and verbal, directed against movements of the left led by people of colour; a systematic ambiguity regarding his intentions, for example when he said that he would leave us ‘in suspense’ as to whether he would accept the election result if Clinton won. Trump’s acceptance speech was typically banal and superficial, but touched on the central themes of the nostalgic fascist imagination: praise for the family and for strength; promises of reconquering the global economy and restoring at last a lost hegemony.
As Tuesday night wore on, it was increasingly clear that Clinton should never have been the Democratic candidate: she was identified with a neoliberal project from which middle America has suffered since Nafta, and which the inhabitants of the heartland consider almost a plot against their interests. Never mind the emails, or the less than savoury dealings of the Clinton Foundation: Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speeches were enough to convince most whites that whatever her promises on the campaign trial, a Clinton presidency spelled more deindustrialisation and an invasion of foreign workers. Bernie Sanders knew how to talk to this section of the electorate, and Clinton finally recognised that she needed him, adopting his language of economic justice as her own, with somewhat limited results. She tried to distance herself from the neoliberal orthodoxy to which she had adhered with her husband, admitting that Nafta had ‘not lived up to its promises’.
She went against her past also by allying herself with Black Lives Matter, which had strongly criticised her for her inflammatory references to African American criminals as ‘super predators’ and her support for Bill Clinton’s Crime Bill, which severely exacerbated the crisis of mass incarceration (one black man in three serves time in prison). Her changes in position attracted some voters, but they also contributed to the impression, already widespread, that she was opportunistic and untrustworthy. Men are allowed to flipflop – they want to win, it’s their right (and no one has been more inconsistent than Trump) – but Americans are much less forgiving when the candidate is a woman. She becomes ‘unscrupulous’ or, if she is too close to black movements, for example, she is denounced as ‘soft’, incapable of asserting herself and holding them in check.
Would Sanders have been able to defeat Trump? We’ll never know, but the thesis isn’t very convincing. A Jew in his seventies who calls himself a socialist, he never had a chance in the face of opposition from the Democratic National Committee, which did everything it could to ensure he wouldn’t be the nominee. After Clinton’s defeat, intellectuals on the left are claiming that Sanders would have done better against Trump because of his message of economic justice, and his ability to talk to white working-class voters without disdain. But Trump’s voters – one of whom chanted ‘Jew-SA’ at a recent rally – might well have seen him as a Jew and therefore a foreigner from the ‘birther’ point of view, and certainly as a defender of ‘losers’ and minorities.
Although class resentment is one of the ties that bind the inhabitants of Trump world, the greatest injustice for Trump’s followers isn’t that society is deeply divided along class lines (a fact hidden by the dominant but increasingly fragile ideology of the ‘middle class’) but that power is sliding out of their hands, a weakness evidenced by their demographic decline. What they want from their strong man isn’t to transform society, but to recover their position of natural dominance in the order of things, not only economically but also politically (the White House had not only been confiscated by a black family, the ultimate disgrace, but was being contested by a woman) and symbolically (restoring a white, monocultural image after the multicultural break of the Obama years).
In choosing Trump as their saviour, they have chosen a man who talks like a loser – and is therefore familiar and reassuring – but is also a winner, without pity for the victims unless they are the whites who have been deprived of their historic role to ‘make America great again.’ He has no ideas, but neither do they, because they cannot imagine themselves as part of a common political project with people of colour, who will eventually compose the American majority, a future they dread. Trump has given them hope, for now, but it is an illusion: a dream of virility, the fantasy of absolute power. For them, it was a night of joy and vindication. For us, it is the unimaginable beginning of a nightmarish reality.
A version of this piece in French appeared in Mediapart.