Trump voters feel neglected. Trump voters feel angry. Trump voters feel abandoned after “decades of neo-liberalism.”
Take your pick of the above statements. Perhaps combine some or all of them. In any case, they essentially imitate the plethora of excuses aired in recent weeks as US liberals struggle to accommodate themselves to a shift in political fortunes. Trump is set to take up residence at the White House and US “progressives” seem unable to get over the shock. America, the land of the free and home of the brave (?!) has lost its way. Again.
Yet there’s something missing here. Absent is any real analysis of what Trump’s support base might actually constitute, socially, politically, economically and indeed ethically. Rather than delving into the deep-rooted causal factors behind Trump’s success, blame is being shifted onto recent policy decisions that apparently left an otherwise faultless number of people out in the cold. Trump’s voters are thus conveniently brushed off as an amalgamation of desperate and frustrated individuals who voted in defiance of an otherwise “out of touch” establishment. They are good Americans. They just made a mistake.
The only problem is that this makes absolutely no sense. It’s a complete cop out; a total refusal to grapple with the composition of American society and its status as a historically colonial, racist and habitually aggressive nation predicated on exclusion, self-entitlement, genocide and imperialism.
Take the primary slogan of Trump’s campaign as an example. Make America Great Again. What does this mean? The US remains the sole superpower, possessing staggering destructive capacity and maintaining garrisons of tens of thousands of troops stationed in myriad parts of the world. US nuclear armaments can be found in a plethora of nations and amid the world’s oceans, with the outgoing Obama administration having ensured a vast influx of funding in upgrading and expanding American destructive power for the foreseeable future: an interesting legacy for a man who entered the White House as a supposed opponent of WMDs. If America is no longer “great” than it certainly isn’t disarmed.
The US also remains the largest economy on the planet, with its financial tendrils ensnaring multiple nations in debt bondage, dependency and subdued compliance. Commodities from across the world find their way to the American consumer, with the average Walmart store brimming with items fashioned from the super exploited labour of the Global South. The American appetite for drugs has fuelled ongoing catastrophe in Latin America, whilst their penchant for animal flesh, in addition to costing the lives of billions of non-human sentients, contributes decisively to food insecurity across swathes of the “developing” world. If America is no longer “great” than it certainly isn’t going without.
Traffickers in human persons have also found an expanding market among Americans willing to pay for the pleasure of abusing the helpless, either by forcing them to work or ensnaring them within an evidently sizeable “sex industry”. The famous American “life style” has ensured that US citizens are the world’s most prolific wasters, producing some two hundred and fifty four million tons of garbage per annum and throwing food away in abundance whilst hundreds of millions elsewhere remain chronically malnourished. If America is no longer “great” than it certainly isn’t failing to make an impact on the world. Indeed, in terms of having the rest of the planet by the throat, America has not ceased to be “great”, if greatness can be equated with predation, exploitation and murder.
So what’s behind the slogan? Unpicking the logic behind Trump’s campaign and indeed the sentiments of his supporters is a hard task. It would no doubt take multiple studies to actually identify any real coherence of thought behind Trumps own personal efforts to become President. What does seem to be the case, however, is that by making “America Great Again” his supporters are speaking of a deep-rooted, collective angst, one that alludes to a perceived loss of both privileged (white) status at home and eroding national standing abroad.
America’s relative global decline has been well documented already. The fact that the US has, at times and in contrast to previous epochs, had to play ball with major powers rather than simply threatening to annihilate them, has not gone unmourned. This loss of perceived status and power no doubt irks a considerable number of people who remain committed to a project of ethnic and global hegemony. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Trump is one of those people, and that he is far from alone. This seems self-evident from not only a quick glance at the composition of some of his allies, but a brief look at the political developments of recent memory.
Indeed, the repeat election of a Barack Obama sent a veritable wave of panic across the southern states, with an outpouring of racially motivated outrage serving to again highlight that, in America, race is more than skin deep. The re-appearance of a politicised and defiant black community has also served to antagonise white conservatives, with the latter evidently unsettled at the mounting assertiveness and courage of the former. To make “America Great Again” in this context speaks more of a threatened and panicked sense of identity more than any factors pertaining to genuine dis-empowerment.
Yet the dominant liberal narrative often confines itself to excuses and abstraction, much of which speaks more of a burning need to present Trump’s victory as either a mishap or a perversely justified result of years of political mismanagement. We are told that Trump voters are apparently confused, sad, angry and so on and so forth. This is just superficial. Absurd. An exercise in wilful obfuscation. We are not dealing purely with the disaffected, slow-witted or intemperate. What we are dealing with is a vindictive narrative that harks back to an idealised past of racial supremacy at home and imperial dominance abroad. That is the core of Trump’s message and the politicised sentiments, already evident on the American social landscape, that he has successfully tapped in to.
This shouldn’t be too difficult to work out. Trump’s campaign has proven to be a rallying point for the most reactionary bilge of colonial society, even dragging the unwelcome spectre of American fascism back into the limelight. He’s acted as a veritable catalyst for an upsurge in xenophobic attacks, with a resurgent white supremacy evidently on the cards. He’s given a crass and unsightly morale boost for misogynists everywhere, with his astonishingly sexist rhetoric more suited to the world of criminality than high politics. He’s already taken the first steps in a blundering and aggressive foreign policy approach, intentionally offending China and openly threatening the entire planet with a renewed nuclear arms race. The man’s racism, sexism and belligerent nationalism are thus well established.
Yet his success points to some hard truths. No matter how some might like to obfuscate matters, millions of Americans voted for a racist because millions of Americans ARE racist. Millions of Americans voted for a sexist because millions of Americans ARE sexist. Millions of Americans voted for a nationalist because millions of Americans ARE nationalists. Being poor does not make you this way. Feeling alienated does not make you this way. Not liking Hillary Clinton (an opportunist psychopath if ever there was one) does not make you this way.
Endorsing a cultural paradigm of superiority, entitlement, exclusion and violence, however, does make you this way. And the US has played host to such wonders in considerable abundance for the entirety of its existence. Americans are susceptible to such ideas because their country is based upon, engenders and reinforces them. They are integral to the experience of living within and identifying with a structurally violent, expansionist colonial entity. If it were any other case the American populace would behave in a markedly different fashion, historically, presently, at the ballot box, on the streets and on the battlefield. They do not. The very existence of their global empire, coupled with the barbarous aftermath of their incessant invasions, from Iraq to Vietnam, shows they do not.
Indeed, this is a nation that violates international law on a regular basis. It wilfully overthrows uncooperative governments to suit its own interests. It subjects foreign peoples to brutal “shock and awe” bombardments in displays of deadly force intended to subdue any and all defiance. It imposes murderous sanctions as an afterthought. It supports literal fascism. It forcibly restructures the economies of entire nations, turning them into export hubs for cheap produce whilst the needs of their own people go unmet. It openly defends apartheid in the Middle East, with politicians across the spectrum speaking glowingly of their relationship with Israel, itself an incessantly violent settler state that only exists due to the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of people. “Manifest Destiny,” itself another sweeping slogan originally designed to justify American expansionism, is thus habitually employed, in fact if not always in word, time and again.
This is the reality, whether a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House. This hasn’t changed. It shows no sign of changing. Trump’s victory has simply exposed the vitals of something fundamental to the American experience. The task at hand now is to refrain from making yet more attempts at superficial adjustments. Putting a Democrat back in the Oval Office won’t help. Raging at foreigners for criticising you won’t help either. What’s necessary is to engage in a radical assessment, taking the structural elements of American colonial society apart and fully confronting the evident reality of racism, imperialism and self-entitlement. Democrats are loath to do this. For all their recent hand-wringing, liberals in general will avoid such a process at all costs. Yet this must happen. We can ill-afford another “American Century” of hegemony, privilege and violence. To (mis)quote Trump, “it’s a disaster”. America is a disaster. And it will continue to be so for the peoples of the world until we change some fundamentals. Getting real about the causes of Trump’s victory is a start.
Daniel Read is a UK-based journalist specialising in human rights and international affairs. He originally studied journalism at Kingston University, London, prior to obtaining post-graduate degrees in both human rights and global politics. He blogs at uncommonsense.me and tweets at @DanielTRead.