What will American society look like two or three years from now, in the age of Trump? It’s hard to know, and there are many good reasons to fear the worst. The nation has never been more sharply—or toxically—divided into an “us” and a “them.” We need to analyze who “they” are, how they came to be, and why they support a terrifyingly ignorant brute. But we are also obliged to take a long, hard look in the mirror, too.
Let’s start with them. It is hard to make generalizations about millions of people; Donald Trump’s supporters are not a monolith. But from what we know, what we’ve read, and what we’ve heard (when we listen to them), he has tapped into a sense of grievance, bewilderment, loss, and anger among white workers, especially males. Of course the phrase “white working class” is itself a loaded one: “privilege and disadvantage crammed into a single phrase,” as George Packer wrote in The New Yorker. And for years—in fact, decades—this has been the left’s most-yearned-for group, the golden ring on the carousel. If only those folks in Kansas would awaken to the ways in which the Republican Party has duped them! Well, they have—but they have turned to the bully-in-chief rather than to us (the left-liberals of whom I am one and who, I assume, are most of the people reading this). This is the bitterest of rejections, and it represents our failure. We can and should despise Trump, but we must also, I think, look inward. In the 1930s, Ernst Bloch wrote that the German left’s failure to create a compelling social vision left an empty space that fascism filled. We need, urgently, to think about this.
Much has been made of the fact that, according to surveys, Trump voters are not among the most economically deprived. So what? Neither were Bernie Sanders’s. In this country, the most economically deprived—the real poor—rarely mobilize and rarely vote. More important, to harp on this is to devolve into the kind of economic reductionism that Thomas Frank argued for in What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank viewed social issues—culture—as “bait” to ensnare white workers into supporting the Republican economic policies that harmed them. But culture—the ways in which we experience the world, the things we hold most dear, the values we pass on to our children—isn’t bait: It is the essence of who we are. Why shouldn’t this be as true of them as it is of us?
Of course, a sense of grievance isn’t always real (think of the Serbs in the run-up to the Bosnian war). But in this case, some of the losses—not just of jobs and income, but of a sense of worth, of honor, of respect, of security, of community, of possibility—are real. They have been sadly ignored, or at least poorly addressed, in the eight years of Obama. Again, this is not just a matter of money; lost, too, is the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that certain jobs, now disappeared or disappearing, once fostered. Regardless of what it pays, stacking boxes in an Amazon warehouse will never be as sustaining as welding steel or building a car or laying a building’s foundation, even if those jobs are sweaty and hard. The rise of alcoholism, depression, and suicide among white working-class men—what Barbara Ehrenreich called “the great blue-collar die-off”—has been largely ignored by people like us. This social decline has coincided with the rise of a black middle (and political) class, the empowerment of women, and increased immigration. Of course, it is not black civil servants, or female lawyers, or Mexican farmworkers who killed off industrial, high-wage, unionized jobs. But the two trends have occurred simultaneously, which easily leads—especially when “explained” by someone like Trump—to the certitude that the rise of some has generated the fall of others. In a zero-sum society, your gain must be my loss.
That these real grievances, and the sense of humiliation they have bred, have been harnessed and exploited by Trump is a true American tragedy: the deepest one of my lifetime. The vitriol, contempt, and cruel taunts that Trump has hurled against “the other”—which includes just about all Americans—has been a knife thrust into the gut of our body politic. Leadership really does count: It matters whether you have an FDR or a Mussolini, a Mandela or an Arafat. Trump has exulted in striking the match to the tinder of a divided America, and has laughed as the fire spread. To say that some of his voters’ grievances are real is not for a moment to excuse their elevation, much less adoration, of a “big mouth, half-insane rascal” and “malignant narcissistic personality” with a brazen “capacity for barefaced lying.” (Ominous note: the first quote is from a description of Hitler in 1930, the last two from the Guardian’s obituary of Slobodan Milosevic.)
Since the social forces—the sense of dislocation and of losing ground—that Trump has fed off will continue way after Election Day, the real question is how they will be addressed, and by whom. Which brings me to the question of “us.” Though I am not devolving into moral equivalency or relativism, it is time for some introspection, some humility, on our part. We have been far more dedicated to shouting “out now!” and brandishing our anti-imperialist credentials than to addressing the wounds and despair of our veterans—a large majority of whom support Trump, according to a New York Times article published just days before the election. (And by the way, what kind of democracy is it where only 1 percent of the adult population serves in the armed forces?) We mock Sarah Palin’s pregnant unwed daughter as white trash, but would never disparage a black teenage girl in the same situation. Indeed, the pathologies that have flourished in the black underclass—teenage motherhood, functional illiteracy, crime, drug addiction—are called pathologies only because they now characterize the white underclass too.
We celebrate our diversity and cosmopolitanism, without understanding that those who value community, continuity, roots, and love of place may know something that we don’t. We rail at “white privilege”—among white workers, of course—yet we are among the most privileged people in the country and, therefore, the world. We celebrate every kind of identity politics, slicing ourselves into smaller and smaller groups, and then decry the emergence of white identity politics, which is what Trumpism represents. We assume that anyone who is afraid of Syrian refugees is a bad person if not an outright racist. We mistake bathroom access as the great civil rights struggle of our time. We decry the bubble of alt-right media, with its toxic irrationality, 24/7 nastiness, and fact-free conspiracy theories, without understanding that we live in a bubble of our own, albeit one that is far more fact-based. It has occurred to me, for instance, that I don’t know even one person who lost either their home or their job in the great recession of 2008, though this was the fate of millions of Americans. It has occurred to me that aside from my father, my uncle, and their friends—the World War II generation—I don’t know anyone who has ever served in the Army. It has occurred to me that I’ve never heard a friend say that she loves America or is grateful to be a citizen of it.
Trump boasts about his supposed bravery in assailing political correctness. But the opposite of political correctness isn’t insulting or degrading others, as Trump does: It is honest debate about the most vexing and uncomfortable problems. The opposite of white privilege is not to moralistically hector or try to punish those who presumably benefit from it: The opposite of privilege is, simply, equality. The opposite of male chauvinism isn’t a denial of the need men have for self-respect: It is a feminism that shows them that self-esteem and superiority aren’t synonyms. But we are, let’s face it, in uncharted territory here. For many men, the jobs, family structures, gender relations, and social norms that defined manhood are crumbling. This doesn’t mean we should rationalize or kowtow to misogyny, only that we should recognize how hard it will be to find new ways of working, living, being. What other choice do we have?
The ascension of Trump has been the shock of my lifetime: He has shown that “it” really could happen here. The challenge for us is to oppose Trumpism with every tool we have while, at the same time, not demonizing its adherents. Frankly, I have no idea how to do this, but I find inspiration in the early civil rights movement. The black activists of the South fought racism with astonishing courage, but without hating the supporters and beneficiaries of Jim Crow. Those activists recognized—and herein lay their moral and political genius—that even the most fanatic, violent racist was a fellow American, too. (And, often, a neighbor.) Unfortunately, that insight devolved into the Fanonesque fantasies of Eldridge Cleaver, which is another story. Or maybe not.
The great left thinkers of the interwar era—Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse, Gramsci, Reich—sought to understand the emotional and psychological appeal of fascism: They knew it wasn’t just the economy, stupid. They probed fascism’s sexual appeal, too: The ruthless strongman is, for many, a compelling image of masculinity; to deny that this is so because it shouldn’t be so gets us nowhere. Those twentieth century European thinkers faced a different set of circumstances and a different society than we do, and their answers may not be ours. But we need to follow their lead and start thinking about our country, and our countrymen, in far deeper ways than we have thus far. Alas, Americans are particularly bad at discussing class (not just economics) and acknowledging loss; both, for different reasons, are considered un-American. We prefer to insist that “we’re number one,” or to assail each other, rather than do what Freud called the work of mourning.
The biggest mistake we could now make would be to think that a house (this) divided will continue to stand—or, at least, will continue to be a house that we can or want to live in. Many tasks await us—tasks upon which our lives and our democracy depend. I hope we are up to the challenge.