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14 September 2016updated 07 Sep 2021 10:20am

Fighting Words

Donald Trump is still a reality-TV star who rigged the game show. Now the whole world can see what it has won.

By Laurie Penny

The writing was on the wall, for those who knew how to read it. Specifically, it was on the wall of a black church in Mississippi, which was sprayed with the words “Vote Trump” and set on fire the week before the election. The democratic sentiment in the United States has been twisted into a dark and violent thing. That does not make it undemocratic. It also doesn’t make it right, or just, or fair. Donald Trump has conned his way into the White House by saying what a lot of people were thinking, but just because a lot of people are thinking something doesn’t make it right. The people have spoken. That does not mean all the other people have to shut up.

Facts and figures may not win votes the way feelings do, but the polling tells us that the result was not just about class, or gender, or partisanship. This election was about race. It was about white resentment, which is now among the greatest threats to global security. It was about white rage.

When they told those of us who had the cheek to suggest that maybe immigrants weren’t the problem that we weren’t listening to “ordinary people”, they meant we weren’t listening to white people. When they told us that we didn’t take their concerns seriously, they meant that we didn’t agree with them. “White, working-class” voters have been given plenty of airtime in this election, just as they were during the EU referendum, including in the mainstream press that they claim to despise.

The time for complacency is long gone. So, too, is the time for pandering to the hurt feelings of those who were willing to fire at the elite directly through the stomachs of their neighbours. Every effort has been made
to sympathise with their distress at a perceived loss of privilege that is felt, wrongly, as prejudice. The media everywhere have fallen over themselves to consider whether the boiling bigotry on display might somehow conceal “legitimate concerns”.

Somehow, the concerns of working-class people are considered legitimate only when they reflect a reactionary strain that does not threaten vested interests. Somehow, the concerns of working-class women who want basic reproductive rights and the concerns of working-class people of colour who want the police to stop shooting them with impunity have been landscaped into the territory of the “liberal elite”. That rubbish needs to stop right now.

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Donald Trump told us who he was from the start. If the new president-elect has any redeeming feature, this is it. He made no ­attempt to hide his narcissism, his affection for dictators, his vision of the world as the next acquisition in his dodgy property portfolio. He was openly racist, sexist and xenophobic, and willing to become more so if it played well. He has vowed to jail his opponents, to destroy freedom of the press and to deport Muslims. If you’re disgusted, that doesn’t mean you hate freedom.

It is not elitist to look fascism in the face and reject it. This election was pitched as a populist revolt against an “elite”, which somehow also included the parts of society which have had the least for the longest. Resentment against the political class is real, and it was fatally underestimated by those within the Democratic Party who were determined to have their anointed successor at any cost. It was decreed that the only alternative to fascism was the status quo. Despite her gender, Hillary Clinton was the status quo candidate. She also looks like what she is – a woman in politics – and that enraged as many people as it inspired.

It is hard to tell an exciting story about the status quo at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. It was hard to cheer unequivocally for Clinton, just as it was hard for conscientious British progressives to bang the drum for the EU. But the actual elite – the people with real money and power – are not the ones who are now struggling to retain their breakfasts.

America has always transposed its class tensions into cultural violence, and that is how racism and xenophobia serve the same “corrupt elite” that Trump voters claim to have defeated. Donald Trump is still a ­reality-television star, and he knew just how to rig the glittering game show of American realpolitik to his advantage. Now we all get to see what we’ve won.

It is no longer accurate to speak of dog-whistle racism. The whistle is now audible to everyone. A number of people have taken the time to let me know that, despite having voted for a man who has whipped up a wave of racial hatred and surfed it all the way to the White House, they are not racist. They didn’t put it delicately, and nor will I: I’m done with caring what the people prefer.

This was a revolt by white Americans and their allies, but it is not going to be a victory for most of them. In his victory speech, Trump promised his supporters that all their dreams would come true. He promised to double growth, even as stock markets tumbled around the world. He will not be able to deliver on those promises. The moment when that becomes clear will not be the moment when Trump and his followers get humble: it will be the moment when people start looking for scapegoats.

It will also be the moment when we get serious. The rest of us, I mean. Because there are a lot of us, and we’re “the people”, too. Hope is possible, and necessary, and remarkably tenacious, but in the meantime there is always spite. We can carry on living, carry on looking after one another, carry on working towards a world beyond this mess. We can carry on to spite them, and in spite of them. The bullies have won, but they will not win for ever, unless we let them into our hearts as well as our governments. “The people” have spoken. “The people” will continue to speak. But if freedom means anything, the other people – all those inconvenient millions of us, all over America and the world – cannot and will not be silent. 

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