Many of us are waking up to a November 9 that we never could have imagined. Donald J. Trump, real estate developer and reality TV celebrity, is president-elect of the United States. Over the last 18 months of his campaign, he has engaged in explicitly racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim language that has both shocked and frightened people. The implications of what a Trump presidency could mean for ginning up racial and ethnic hatred are chilling.
But first, it’s important to understand the Trump moment, and what led to it. This is an election that will be spawn a thousand hot-takes and reams of academic papers, but here’s a first draft on making sense of this victory.
Donald Trump is not a successful businessman, but he played one on TV. “The Apprentice,” gave Donald Trump a powerful platform over fourteen seasons (2004-2014).
Since about 2000, and the premiere of “Big Brother,” the media landscape has been transformed by the proliferation of non-fiction television, so-called “reality TV.” Driven by low production costs and drawing large audiences for advertisers, reality TV shows have proven reliable media products.
Trump’s “Apprentice,” is one of many within the genre of reality TV based around work. From “Project Runway,” to “Top Chef,” viewers tune in to watch people compete to keep their jobs, or get cut. Heidi Klum tells aspiring fashion designers, “auf Wiedersehen,” Padma Lakshmi, sends hopeful chefs away with, “please pack your knives,” and Donald, of course, told would-be entrepreneurs, “You’re fired!”
The success of “The Apprentice,” and shows like it – where we watch people do a difficult job, typically for little money, under grueling conditions (or, “challenges,”) only to see them voted off or “fired,” speaks to the triumph of neoliberalism. We don’t just work at difficult jobs for little money under grueling conditions with the constant threat of being fired, we can also enjoy that as a form of entertainment.
Trump’s rise to prominence through “The Apprentice,” and the proliferation of shows like it, says something about the transformation of the media landscape. Scholars such as Laurie Ouellette (and others) argue that reality-based TV has become a mechanism that meets the increasing demand for self-governance in the post-welfare state. Ouellette writes that reality-based TV shows like “Judge Judy” drive home the message that everyone must “take responsibility for yourself.” In other words, to be good neoliberal citizens — “productive citizens” — requires a lot of work on the self, and a lot of work on work. What better evidence of the way that we’ve thoroughly internalized the lessons of neoliberalism than through our voracious consumption of reality-TV shows of people working (and getting fired)? And, now, we’ve affirmed this once again through the election of a reality TV star as president.
Of course, the imagined neoliberal citizen on these shows is white by default (the contestants of color are often the earliest to go), as is Trump’s vision of America and what will “make it great again.”
Remarkably for someone elected to the presidency, Donald Trump has no previous political experience. His emergence on the political landscape is due to his early, loud, racist denunciation of President Obama as “not born in this country,” and his crackpot call to “show the birth certificate.” Obama eventually relented to this request, and Trump counts this as one of his proudest achievements.
While most of us on the left rolled our eyes at the preposterousness of birtherism and decried the obvious racism of it, it resonated deeply with wide swaths of the populace. They, too, felt that there just wasn’t something right about a Black president with a funny sounding name in the White House.
Meanwhile, those on the right denied the clear racism of Trump’s birtherism. Although Colin Powell said “birtherism is racism” and Michael Steele, former RNC chair did call it “bullshit racism,” few on the right joined them in denouncing Trump or his tirades about Obama’s birth certificate.
Instead of disqualifying him presidential politics, Trump’s birtherism helped him build a base of otherwise disaffected white voters, whites who felt that there was something deeply wrong about a Black president. Pollsters missed these voters in the run-up to the election. And, like Nixon, Trump says that he speaks for this “silent majority.” These are also the white voters who are listening to Alex Jones’ “Infowars” , a daily talk show that airs on 63 stations nationwide, with a bigger audience online than Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck combined. Jones schtick is to connect unrelated dots into vast conspiracy theories, which often feature the Clintons or other establishment politicians as the villains. There is a short leap, some would say no leap at all, from Jones’ brand of conspiracy theories and the anti-Semitism in Trump’s last campaign ad.
Trump found willing allies for his brand of racism in the alt-right. In case you’ve missed the dozens or so articles and puff pieces about them, they alt-right is the latest iteration of white nationalism. They are recognized as a hate group by the SPLC, which offers the following definition:
The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization. Characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes, Alt-Righters eschew “establishment” conservatism, skew young, and embrace white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value.
While some are speculating that “the GOP was primed for a white nationalist takeover,” this gets the direction of the relationship wrong. It’s not that the alt-right launched a takeover of the Republican party, it’s that Trump found common cause in the alt-right. And, he did it through Twitter.
As J.M. Berger notes in his carefully reported piece, white nationalists were initially hostile to Trump because they thought he was Jewish or was, their terms, “a White man who wishes he were born a Jew.” During Trump’s birther campaign, white supremacists at Stormfront were debating the sincerity of Trump, “some said he was a Jewish plant, intended to deceive gullible white nationalists into supporting him, or just to make them look like idiots by association,” according to Berger.
In June 2015, Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer a popular neo-Nazi site, wrote:
“I urge all readers of this site to do whatever they can to make Donald Trump President. If The Donald gets the nomination, he will almost certainly beat Hillary, as White men such as you and I go out and vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.”
As Berger tells it, Anglin was the first white supremacist to voice support for Trump. And, the following month, Trump doubled-down on his anti-Mexican racism. This gained him even more supporters among the far-right. From Berger, again:
Trump was surging in the polls “because he is not on his knees before Mexico and Mexican immigrants,” said Jared Taylor of the influential white nationalist website American Renaissance, which under the guise of “race realism” attempts to put an intellectual face on white nationalism. “Americans, real Americans, have been dreaming of a candidate who says the obvious, that illegal immigrants from Mexico are a low-rent bunch that includes rapists and murderers.”
Over the summer of 2015, the alt-right began to accept Trump as someone who shared their views on race, as evidenced by discussions online. But this sort of thing is not new, white supremacists have talked about mainstream candidates’ views online (and before that, in printed newsletters) for decades now. What happened next was different.
In July 2015, a tweet appeared from Trump’s account showing a stock photo of Nazi S.S. soldiers where American soldiers should have been. The Trump campaign blamed an intern for the mistake, and the incident faded from the news cycle. But at the white nationalist site Daily Stormer, Anglin wrote,
“Obviously, most people will be like ‘obvious accident, no harm done, Meanwhile, we here at the Daily Stormer will be all like ‘wink wink wink wink wink.’”
It’s this media circulation that came to define the Trump relationship with the alt-right and part of what helped him win. He would say something, in a speech or on Twitter or calling into one of the television talk shows, then deny or disavow the racism (if called on it), while the white nationalists dutifully perked up and heard in those messages a like-mind. So, for example, when Trump tweeted a graphic showing false statistics vastly exaggerating black crime, white nationalists responded enthusiastically. The graphic was later traced back to a white nationalist on Twitter. Trump deflected criticism from Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly by arguing, essentially, that retweets are not endorsements. “I retweeted somebody who was supposedly an expert,” Trump said. “Am I going to check every statistic?”
In late 2015, the Trump and alt-right Twitter game changed. A white nationalist meme maker named Bob Whitaker, has worked for years to popularize the phrase “white genocide” as a meme online. Whitaker started trying to goad Trump into re-tweeting the something with “white genocide” in it. In late January 2016, Trump took the bait, retweeting a message that had been directed to him from a user with the handle “@WhiteGenocideTM.” While the content of the tweet was relatively innocuous (a light jab at an opponent), the user’s account was filled with anti-Semitic content and linked to a revisionist biography of Adolf Hitler. More importantly, white nationalists saw this as a much more overt nod from Trump to justify their enthusiasm.
From there, Trump and the alt-right engaged in a nodding and winking relationship that suggested a closeness, even as Trump occasionally and mildly “disavowed” white nationalists like David Duke. (Duke was a relative latecomer to endorsing Trump among white nationalists, but has been an ardent supporter once on board.) The close relationship between Trump and the alt-right has been so widely acknowledged that it even made it into the spoof for SNL.
The relationship was cemented when Trump chose Stephen Bannon, of Breitbart Meida, to run his campaign. Unlike a mainstream GOP operative or campaign strategist who might have suggested a more “presidential tone,” Bannon assured Trump he should stick to his overtly racist messaging. The alt-right rejoiced when Bannon joined the Trump campaign. And, Bannon turned out to be correct about what appealed to voters. Trump’s campaign, from start (Mexicans “are rapists,”) to finish (the anti-Semitic last ad) has used overtly and sometimes not-thinly veiled racist language to appeal to voters. And, white people showed up by the millions to vote for him and his message.
More White Women Voted for Trump than Clinton
Over the next weeks and months, there will be a lot written about the angry white male voter, and deservedly so. But white women voted for Donald Trump, too.
In fact, more white women voted for Donald Trump than for Hillary Clinton. Here’s how white women voted:
That’s 53% of white women who voted for Trump. There is an official “Women for Trump” website. And, drawing on that as evidence, it doesn’t seem that most of the women who support Trump are concerned with what he has said about (or done to) women. One white woman who supports Trump, Jane Biddick, reportedly said: “Groping is a healthy thing to do. When you’re heterosexual, you grope, okay? It’s a good thing,” (New York Magazine).
White women voted for Trump for the same reasons as white men. As the Washington Post reported in April 2016. Trump’s rhetoric of “taking back the country” and “banning immigrants” appealed to the white women of the Tea Party. And, a poll from January 2016, found that white women are the angriest voters, angrier even than their male counterparts.
For the most part, mainstream journalists (and documentary filmmakers) miss the reality of the angry white woman who votes GOP because of silly, wrong-headed notions about “womanhood.” In a related mistake, people often make in thinking about “women voters” is that women are going to vote as a block. It’s a mistake the suffragists made in the early 20th century. They thought once women got the vote, they would all vote the same. Because…. women, you know, shared interests.
But research has shown again and again that class and race are more reliable predictors of voting behavior than gender. In other words, women respond to economic and racial issues in much the same ways as men do. And, if you’re surprised that more white women voted for Trump than for Hillary Clinton, then you haven’t been keeping track of the trouble that white women are in (here’s a guide to the trouble, in case you want to catch up).
Shocking, Frightening… but Not Surprising
The election of Donald Trump is shocking. It is a deep jolt to the soul to realize that a man with no qualifications, no human decency, no compassion, no moral center, is going to be the next president of the U.S.
The election results are also frightening. I fear for all my friends, my chosen family, the people I love, the students I teach, who are among those that Donald Trump wants to stop-and-frisk, deport, exile, ban, and keep out with a wall. I feel the need for better, more practical, skills to enlist in the resistance to a Trump regime. I want MacGyver-like skills to be able to bust my friends out of the camps. But there is no re-tooling my way out of this fear. It is set to run for four years.
As shocked and frightened as I am, I can’t say that I’m surprised. I’ve written about the overlap between extremist white supremacy and mainstream politicians for over twenty years (White Lies, 1997). As the groups I studied in the early 1990s moved online, I followed their transition there (Cyber Racism, 2009). So for me, the emergence of an alt-right that’s cleverly used the Internet, or a candidate that’s made deft use of Twitter isn’t surprising.
Trump’s victory should remind us that white supremacy is not new and it is not an aberration. It’s a consistent feature of our political landscape. Yet, there’s a kind of naïveté among some (white) writers covering Trump who are shocked at his success. But we should not be surprised. In the U.S., we cling to an illusion about our inevitable progress away from a past of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and overt racism. Some of us even hoped that electing the first African American president would mean a post-racial era, but the fact that Stormfront’s servers crashed the night Obama was elected should have made us more circumspect about how transformative that was for us as a nation, and who felt left out of those celebrations.
This election, white people — including a majority of white women — voted for a candidate endorsed by the KKK. This is a mirror.