My partner and I have been fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to be travelling in the United States since Trump’s election. For the past few months, we’ve had interesting conversations about the rabble rouser with individuals from a range of backgrounds.
We’ve wined and dined with family, friends, historians, scientists and even a senior federal judge. Nearly all are self-proclaimed fair-minded democrats and/or liberals, with a few Republicans thrown in for good measure. All, including my partner, are white middle or upper middle class Americans, relatively well off, safe and sane. The following account is based on conversations at these ‘all white’ dinner tables where I was always the only woman of colour.
The conversations tended to follow a pattern. To begin with my fellow diners expressed shock that Trump had won. A slew of rhetorical questions were fired off: How could this happen? How could they vote for that idiot, the buffoon? My God! We thought Bush was bad! How could they reject Hilary – though she ain’t exactly perfect? ‘Libya’, ‘Benghazi’, ‘Whitewater’, ‘private server’, ‘hawk’, ‘cold woman’, ‘lacks charisma like Bill’ were all thrown into the melting pot of opinions.
At least one person at the table would quietly interject a change in the topic of conversation because it was all too much, too depressing. Best to lie low, keep going with one’s daily life for the next four years and hope it all goes away. The mild supplication ignored, Trump talk continued.
Invariably, there was debate over whether the Democrats would be able to take back the House and a third of the Senate in two years, or win the next presidential race. Some were hopeful, others were not. Various concerns about the state of American democracy, infrastructure, poor working class voters, and healthcare were aired. Could he be impeached? Bets were taken as to whether he would be led out of the Oval Office in handcuffs, a straightjacket or both.
Disbelief was unanimous that 53% of white women voted for Trump and no one could explain this ‘strange behaviour’. I mean what the hell was that about? Trump’s a misogynist. How could these white women vote for a misogynist?
I only smiled and nodded. If they had asked me, a postcolonial feminist, I could have explained that historically and socially white women demonstrate loyalty to their race or their whiteness, before their gender. They will side with their white men before siding with their fellow women, white or otherwise. Patriarchy is not the preserve of men alone; women aid and abet oppression. As bell hooks aptly puts it, ‘Patriarchy has no gender’. Furthermore, fighting for voting rights, abortion rights, equal pay rights, has not included the needs and rights of sisters of colour. Breaking the glass ceiling was and remains a largely white feminist project.
But no one asked my opinion. My nationality (I am not American), ethnicity and gender precluded me from having informed opinions on the matter. Neither did I feel obliged to offer my theories to educate. It was entertaining and instructive to just listen, to play the “positioned observer”, attentive to words, ideas, emotions, partaking of the nutritious and proverbial grub on offer.
Invariably, the question would come up again about how it was that Trump had got elected? Who in their right mind would choose him? In response, someone would pipe up – “the great unwashed of this land”, “the uneducated”. Why did they elect him? The ailing economy, the disenfranchised working class male who had nothing left to lose, the Russians hacked the system, not many Blacks and Latinx came out to vote, Hilary was not good enough, Hilary was overconfident and did not run a good enough campaign, the Greens and angry Bernie supporters helped bring in Trump (They’ve lost their EPA now!).
Of all the possible explanations hurled passionately across the table, only once did someone mention the words “race” and “racism”. A middle-aged history teacher at an exclusive private school declared it was NOT about race; that racism had nothing to do with Trump’s slithering ascent to the White House. She knew many people, decent people who voted for Trump and they were not racists. They were her friends and her parent’s friends – wealthy, well-travelled southerners, Jewish people who knew about discrimination. They just wanted a ‘strong man back in the White House’.
I thought of author and activist W.E.B Du Bois’ Strong Man, Submissive Man concept. This election was a call to a return to the ‘millennial primacy of the Strong [white] Man’. As Du Bois explained in his monumental Biography of a Race, “Under whatever guise…as race, or as nation, [the Strong Man’s] life can only logically mean…the advance of a part of the world at the expense of others”.
The 2016 US elections signalled it was time for the civilising work of the Submissive Man that had gone on for the past 8 years, under the Obama Administration, to be crushed by the “Teutonic Strong Man” in the guise of Trump and his followers. Trump’s Birther Movement, his attempts to dismantle Obamacare and advances in climate change, his accusations of wiretapping, are ways in which he seeks to discredit his predecessor, a Black President, as a fraud. A recent poll found that only 62% of Americans believe Obama was born in the US, a shocking 38% still think he is foreign born. 3 in 10 think he is a Muslim.
White people will “figure out some way to reshuffle the deck”, admitted Kenneth Prewitt, a former director of the United States Census Bureau. It was time for the “Teutonic Strong Man” to claim back the power of white privilege and make America great again.
I contemplated sharing this argument with the history teacher, but she chirped on unrelentingly about her global history class and how confused her students were about what was happening in their country. They couldn’t tell what was fake news and real news on Facebook, and she didn’t know how to help them figure out the truth. Betsy DeVos, the controversial Secretary of State for Education, would have approved this teacher of American history – singularly shallow and misguided. This is how history is mis-told, mis-written. This is how history repeats itself, in careless talk and careless thought.
Trump and the reasons for his success were discussed at every meal I was invited to, yet not one American referred to the deeply troubling racial overtones of Trump’s rhetoric, beliefs and practices. No mention was made of the undocumented souls who would be detained and deported, of the break-up of their families. Of the black and brown people insulted, threatened or gunned down since the inauguration. Of the demonisation of Muslims both home and abroad. Of the discarded human beings escaping famine, violence and death in wars largely of our making.
No one talked about taking action, resistance, about going on the offensive.
Black Lives Matter didn’t matter because the matter was someone else’s fight, not theirs. These are individuals who seemed unaware of or reluctant to admit the circumstances of their nation’s birth; the genocidal foundations upon which America was rapaciously built, and made great for all the world to marvel.
Instead, they were shocked, confused and unable to understand why Trump was happening to them in their comfortable white middle-class bubble of a world. One gentlemen droned dismissively, “It’s so Un-American”. They seemed blissfully unaware of their historical, and daily, complicity in the structural, cultural and everyday violence of white supremacy that continues to sustain their orderly lives at the expense of others. They were surprised by Trump and his uncouth shenanigans. But James Baldwin reminds us that “people who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned”. Today, Trump is America’s floating poison, and he might very well symbolise its decline.