Almost 59 million people voted for Donald Trump yesterday. On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will become the 45th president of the United States.
Simply put, a lot of white people learned last night that white supremacy is everybody’s problem. Black people have been saying that for generations, but now it seems to finally be abundantly clear. But this isn’t the world of forecasting. There is no satisfaction or reward in “I told you so” — the constant signal flares were not sent in the name of being right; they were meant to hopefully prevent this from happening. We said it partially to urge you to “get your people,” but what was under that was “Please, just once, bail us out.”
It didn’t happen. White people who are appalled by every facet of Trump’s existence: You didn’t come through. And that wasn’t an Election Day ask; that was a please, convert a few family members by November 8 ask. You didn’t do that. And you didn’t do it because it’s uncomfortable. And you didn’t do it because it’s hard. And you didn’t do it because you don’t want to feel in any way connected to the people who represent the opposite of the things you stand for.
So now we’re here, trying to figure out what’s next. We’re desperately looking for answers, and with that comes the urge to point fingers. We want to simply blame sexism. Or simply blame racism. Or just say this is the fault of white people. These things are all partially true, but they’re also too easy, and they play into a familiar trap that doesn’t get at what just happened.
More than any speech, debate one-liner, or piece of pseudo-policy, Trump’s campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again” is what won him the presidency. It’s nothing short of evil genius, because it tells the story of what just under half of the voting population wants: to feel in control again. Because “great” really means nothing more than “slow down.”
Barack Obama faced incessant bigotry for the duration of his two landmark terms, but the focus on his blackness (and his perceived ties to Islam) masked an additional threat he posed — one that is steeped in racism but isn’t just about skin color. Barack Obama is the embodiment of two things: what happens when a maligned group successfully plays catch-up, and what happens when a space that’s always been whites-only suddenly has its party crashed.
These two realities may help explain the support of Trump’s truest base of working-class rural/exurban whites, which he won by a huge margin, according to exit polls; and also the portion of the traditionally Republican white upper class whose support he managed to hold on to, outperforming predictions that Hillary would win that group.
The reason this election makes it inaccurate to simply blame “white people” is because there are white people who are not part of either of those groups. But more important, it allows the white people who rallied behind Trump to remain an amorphous part of the whole, instead of treating them for what they are: a massive, like-minded sect.
In recent elections, these two groups have voted Republican, but Trump was able to turn them out in record numbers with two strategies. He rearmed the white working class with a confidence that both an ignorance about and intimidation of others was a sign of patriotism. And he weaponized that ignorance: His base of voters, egged on by foul statements in rooms across the country, did not have a single target. For over a year, their hatred was a revolving door. The did not discriminate: They hated black people, they hated women, they hated immigrants, they hated Muslims, they hated Jews, they hated gay people, they hated Hispanic people — and if you could be white and any of those things, they hated you, too.
In the numerous civil-rights movements of the 21st century, a degree of savvy about how to deal with racists, or homophobes, or Islamophobes, or sexists in isolation developed. But this expertise, from years (or in some cases, generations) of experience, was typically learned one form of oppression at a time. Progressives talk a lot about intersectionality — meaning, thinking about race and sex and class simultaneously — but Trump won the presidency by making hate intersectional. He encouraged sexists to also be racists and homophobes, while saying disgusting things about immigrants in public and Jews online. Hate, like love, is infectious, and it is contagious. And for so many, the adrenaline felt by blaming one group for one’s personal ills bled into blaming all the others.
The story of America for many is a seemingly never-ending process of playing catch-up. The perspective of those at the back of the line has been a tunnel-vision reality of knowing who is holding you down. Black people focus on white racists, gay people are consumed with protecting themselves from homophobes, women struggle to exist freely in a man’s world, Muslims and Mexican immigrants feel the weight of the world against them from “true” Americans. This created a complicated ecosystem for the historically abused — a shared understanding of what it means to be discriminated against, but also a quiet resentment over who has it worse. Because if you’re the worst off, you’re at the bottom, but you have a reason to scream the loudest, avoiding perhaps the most frustrating status: invisibility.
Now we’re faced with a clear reality: one group that hates us all.
Trump’s appeal to rich and powerful whites — the Giuliani and Gingrich types — was demonstrated when he described his misogynistic comments about sexual assault last month as “locker-room talk.” Working-class whites probably got an imaginary kick out of that, but it epitomized the privilege of a certain type of powerful white person who relies on all white spaces in order to stay powerful, and to stay unapologetically unchanged.
So many men hate the idea of a capable women breaking into all-male spaces, because with her comes instant accountability. It’s harder to talk about grabbing women by the pussy if there’s also a woman in the circle, and that in turn makes it harder to blindly assault. It’s harder to casually say nigger when there’s a black person in the circle, and that makes it harder to beat a black kid senseless without fear of repercussion. It’s harder to say faggot when someone queer is in the room, which lessens the ability to casually bully a gay person to the point where they take their own life. Yes, there’s hate spread throughout this country, but it stems from the sickness that involves stopping at nothing to keep spaces fully white, allowing white people to continue with behavior that is no longer universally accepted in the real world.
Yeah, it’s hate — but white supremacy has always been based in fear. Trump’s election is a sign that every other group in this country was getting too smart, too skilled, too American — too fast. This outcome was a panicked victory, a necessary win for white people who don’t have much going for them outside of the historical advantage of being white.
Growing up, I always found an odd pride in how white slave masters would stop at nothing to prevent slaves from learning to read. There was always this clear (but unspoken) undercurrent that, should enslaved black people get smart enough, they’d figure out a way to rid themselves of this inhumane experience we subject them to, and then we’re done for. Slaves helped build America while white people sat and watched — but beneath that hate lay white paranoia and insecurity over their ability to compete on an equal playing field.
We saw those same two emotions — paranoia and insecurity — throughout 2016, and they were such powerful emotions, they resulted in Donald Trump becoming the president of the United States.
You don’t see America, the melting pot of cultures, genders, religions, beliefs, as a good thing if you can’t keep up. You hate it with an aggressive irrationality — typically while being unable to explain why you feel the way you do — if you’ve never met anyone who isn’t just like you. And you resent it when the systems you created to make people become overqualified just to attain near-equality come back to threaten your relevancy, your status, or your power.
All of the groups that felt the wrath of these white people in 2016 have to somehow find a way to fight back, to save America. The reason it’s so hard for the country to actually change is because these white people have so little left, whether it be economic or cultural relevancy. This election was potentially their final hand, and they pushed their chips all in. And wouldn’t you know it, it fucking worked. But know their celebrations aren’t confident ones, filled with true elation. On the contrary, this is a very real sigh of relief, one that you get from a new lease on life, the one that stands between bringing back the archaic ways of old and permanently becoming a fossil.