“We’ve talked about income, we’ve talked about class, we’ve talked about region, we haven’t talked about race…This was a whitelash. This was a whitelash against a changing country”. These were the salient words of political commentator Van Jones last night as it became clear that Donald Trump was set to become the 45th President of the United States. Racism, and its bedfellow, sexism, have played a large part in bringing Trump to power. To ignore this is to legitimise discrimination. Trump ran on a racist, misogynistic platform, and he won.
Trump’s overt racism is not the only reason for his triumph, but it is a central one. Despite having run on anti-migrant, anti-Muslim and anti-women platform, his victory is already being chalked up to working-class economic disenfranchisement. This doesn’t make sense on two counts. Firstly it ignores working-class people of colour, who largely rejected Trump. Economic anxiety is not the exclusive redoubt of the white working class – African Americans and Hispanic Americans experience the highest rates of poverty in the US. Secondly, this narrative entirely ignores the middle-class white Americans who seem to have turned out in support of Trump.
Van Jones: “This was a ‘white-lash’ against a changing country” https://t.co/fVi0JzyFOr #CNNElection #ElectionNight pic.twitter.com/mWuTQqN83C
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) November 9, 2016
The President-Elect’s support base includes white nationalists who think African Americans are “criminal,” “unintelligent,” “lazy” and “violent” and who sat by while the KKK endorsed their candidate. To ignore racism as a motivation for many people voting for Trump is to overlook, for example, his calls to ban Muslims from entering the country, to deport 11 million migrants and build a wall between Mexico and the US. The underlying theme behind these policies: forcing people of colour out of America.
The election of a billionaire businessman is, in part, about protecting a racial order in which whiteness reigns supreme. The people who are celebrating Trump’s victory tells you a lot of what you need to know: Ukip’s Nigel Farage, who is on his way to the US to congratulate Trump; the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, who proclaimed that the American people are now “free”, and Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders, who congratulated the American people for taking back their country. In the US as in the UK, racist views are regularly explained away as “legitimate concerns” about the economy or over the erosion of an imagined national culture.
The decisive victory of a racist misogynist in the US Presidential race should prompt a reconsideration of the narrative that has led us to this point. There will be a temptation to further legitimise Trump’s white nationalist narrative by turning a blind eye to the structural racism and misogyny that swept him to victory. There will be a rush to defend Trump’s supporters as neither racist nor sexist – the comparatively small number of minority voters who backed Trump will be held up as an example of why this can’t simply be boiled down to race. But this will obscure what is hidden in plain sight: racism has played a significant part in this election.
In the coming days, weeks and months, we need considered analysis about the construction of whiteness and politicians’ arguments that white identity under attack from supposedly inferior and threatening minorities. This matters because rhetoric has real life consequences. As we’ve seen in Brexit Britain, when people of colour and migrants have found themselves demonised as the enemy, and nationalists also declare they are reclaiming their country, violence and hate crimes becomes more possible.
The situation in the US is by no means an exact mirror of what happened when the UK embraced Brexit. But in the initial aftermath of the presidential announcement one similarity is clear – politicians weren’t successful in spite of their racism. They were successful because of it.