On the morning of November 8th, the world was assured a Madame President, the first woman leader of the free world, a second Clinton Commander-in-Chief. On November 9th, we learned that Hillary Rodham Clinton was far from America’s choice. For many, business mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election is as shocking as it is unpalatable. However, the truth is that shock rests upon a number of assumptions— erroneous assumptions— people have held about American politics, government, and society as a whole. Dispelling these assumptions is key to unpacking what the Trump vote entailed.
To begin, we assumed that Clinton was the most qualified for the job. Her résumé boasts an impressive breadth of experience: a former First Lady, Senator of New York, and Secretary of State for sitting President Barack Obama. For these reasons, we assumed she’d be elected. But does the electorate measure qualifications for their elected officials by their years of public service, or by the extent to which those officials are able to speak to their worldview? The outcome of this election seems to point to the latter. Clinton and her campaign were decidedly not representative of what every-day Americans want for their country.
They didn’t like her endorsement of free trade agreements that leave workers in the dust. Nor how the media and the FBI’s critiques of her questionable conduct as Secretary of State seemed to be conspicuously lukewarm. They didn’t like the seemingly rampant corruption and collusion in and between the Democratic National Committee and her campaign, revealed through periodic email dumps by WikiLeaks. Lastly, they particularly didn’t like her ties to Wall Street, her corporate donors, and her deference to the influence of big money in politics. A vote for Trump encompassed at least one, if not all, of these anxieties.
The surging popularity of not only Trump but Senator Bernie Sanders in the primaries was the first hint that these anti-establishment sentiments would play a central role in America’s decision this November. But, whereas the Republican Party eventually embraced their populist candidate, the DNC seemed eager to dismiss the Independent from Vermont and his “political revolution”. The Clinton campaign instead opted to recruit Sanders and his fellow champion of the left, Senator Elizabeth Warren to stump for the Democratic candidate on the campaign trail. However, in the end, Clinton still was unable to shed the “Crooked Hillary” tag. Perhaps she expected, as many of us did, that her message of unity and progressiveness would tip the scales in her favour.
And this highlights one of our more toxic assumptions: the assumption that racism was a thing of the past. Perhaps not the institutional or systemic sort, but surely at the very least individual racism was on the cusp of social extinction. After all, didn’t America elect a Black president, not once but twice? Trump’s victory is the most violent rebuke to this post-racial fantasy.
There was no shortage of ugly unambiguous hate that could be attached to Trump’s name come election day. He constantly vilified Mexicans, proposed a ban on Muslim immigrants, refused to disavow the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan (who eventually endorsed the Republican candidate), and ran attack ads with anti-Semitic undertones— and that was just his campaign. Trump’s pre-politics history reveals two lawsuits filed by the Justice Department against his real estate company for anti-Black discrimination and, of course, it was Trump who spearheaded “birtherism”, a movement predicated on the conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in the U.S. This account doesn’t even delve into the bigotry demonstrated by his supporters at rallies and in their communities, or Trump’s gendered, queerphobic, and ableist attacks.
Still, Trump’s win carried 290 electoral votes, past the required 270, and 47.41% of the popular vote in America. Were those votes in spite of Trump’s racism, or because of it? And either way, how do you justify supporting a candidate that antagonizes your friends, neighbours, coworkers, and peers? This election was a blunt admonition that American society still suffers from gaping racial wounds and that, all this time, tensions merely simmered beneath a façade of tolerance. In fact, perhaps the greatest failure in all of this was assuming that history and social progress follow a linear, upward trajectory.
So, what now?
Defeatism is so tempting. When one fully appreciates the conflicts and injustice that might be exacerbated by Trump’s presidency, it is overwhelmingly easy to become hardened by cynicism.
But Americans, and perhaps all of us watching this new political climate unfurl, need to be reminded: the democratic process does not begin and end with voting. For disadvantaged peoples, especially, it never has. Even at its most generous, the government is incapable of ever being at the forefront of progress. Active political engagement is about community organization, civil disobedience, and unending learning about issues and ideology. Though the government might pose significant challenges to these activities, it has become as important as ever to strengthen grassroots networks for women, queer people, racialized people, religious minorities, those with disabilities, and so on. Triumphs in social justice rarely start with people in office— they start with the oppressed— and the enduring relevance of this assumption has propelled the most fruitful movements toward better societies.
The United States’ next president consolidates an American identity markedly different than the one espoused by those before Trump. Now that the dust is settling, a new path for the global leader will be forged— one that is ambivalently less open, one that is less tolerant. However, what is definitively clear is that, as Americans ready themselves for the Trump administration, they will have to grapple with the remnants of the world’s assumptions about the U.S. that their vote effectively shattered during this election.