This election just past reminds me of the faith I have in America; less so the faith I have in fellow Americans. It’s an amazing thing, this experiment in participatory democracy. It’s also amazing how we survive some pretty incredible mess ups and mistakes.
America is a nation whose greatest accomplishments are often happy (or unhappy) accidents. We praise ourselves for our wonderful qualities, while often trying to ignore the wreckage in our wake. We’re the nation that came together after a Civil War (try not to think about the senseless death and destruction), ended slavery (pay no attention to that area at the back of the lovely plantation where the people they owned were housed in shacks), and gave women the vote (but will not enshrine gender equality in an amendment to the Constitution). When we’re good, we’re admirable, and when we’re not… it’s a really complex problem that’s probably too difficult for society to fix.
Already the media and our success oriented mindset is rewriting the history of the election. After a bruising, brutal campaign by Donald Trump, who came down an escalator on day one and said Mexico was sending “rapists and murderers… and some, I assume, are good people;” spent the primaries humiliating one opponent after another; and held rallies week after week marked by derisive jeers, random violence, and calls for things like a ban on the entry of Muslims into the US…. after all that, we can now be told that the election was about “economic populism and a desire to clean up Washington.
“Drain the Swamp” became Trump’s rallying cry in the final weeks, a popular rallying call of the right before he locked onto it, though beyond the slogan it’s always been hard to say just what this drainage project is meant to accomplish. It seems primarily aimed at assuming corruption and unchecked illegality are the sole products of Democrats, hence complaints about misuse of union funds for political purposes, lobbying by liberal groups, the political activism of teachers. Questions about corporate money, lobbying by conservative favored groups, the influence of major right wing billionaire donors, the misbehavior of Republican lawmakers… that’s a little less of a problem.Trump did suggest, admirably, that he wouldn’t be “beholden to special interests” because he was “self funding” his campaign. He said this less after raising millions of dollars from traditional GOP sources, and he seems oblivious to the fact that “self funding” does not mean “paying your own corporate entities from your campaign’s coffers.” But hey, drain that swamp!
Time will tell just what “Drain the Swamp” amounts to; like pretty much all of the Donald’s campaign rhetoric, his line was a slogan in search of policy detail, a big “TK” where the specifics will eventually be. The same is generally true of the economic populism - there’s some vague plans to rewrite tax law, maybe take a stab at infrastructure spending, some theoretical talk of upending US trade policies… but Trump’s plans were thin and vague throughout the campaign, a cloud of shouts and bluster mainly aimed at telling people everything they wanted to hear. Maybe “he told us everything we wanted to hear” could be the real reason he won?
Oh, and he says he’ll “repeal and replace” Obamacare. Let’s come back to that later.
In the end, Trump’s victory can, I suppose be explained away as that mix of economic populism and swamp drainage. That is the upbeat side. The downbeat side is all that stuff Trump said about law and order and cleaning up the terror filled inner cities, the lines about Muslims and Hispanic immigrants, and black people, and various comments about women and their bodies and those who wound up in his sights for criticizing him in one way or another. That’s the hate that drove his campaign, that created the sea of white faces at his rallies, encouraged white supremacists and the “Alt Right” online, and led to those rowdy cries, jeers, and scattered violence. Is that all his voters saw? Did they see it at all? Or is that just what the horrified people who opposed him saw?
Our history is littered with moments of backlash, the moments when the white, native majority resoundingly restated their majority rule over the rest of us. It’s the string of events that led to the Civil War, it’s the way Reconstruction went from a hopeful reconciliation to a reemergence of of the worst ways of the South, it’s the way hopeful signs of integration early in the twentieth century led to Jim Crow… and how the progress of the sixties led to the right’s Southern Strategy, Nixon and ultimately Ronald Reagan. Since the Civil Rights Act, the most racist parts of the nativist white crowd have hidden themselves in the corners of the right wing, every so often reminding us that they can’t win it alone, but they can help win it. It’s easier when you’ve got a Donald Trump, who ran with the “Obama birth certificate” nonsense to gain a political foothold, and felt little compunction to steer clear of appeals to the worst impulses of working class white voters. Blame the other. Blame the brown people. Blame the immigrants, and the Muslims (and less loudly, blame the Jews). Blame the gays. Blame those uppity women.
It’s all a cloud now, a haze, a blur. And some Trump voters express, as self aware Republicans often do, amazement that now, suddenly, accusations of racism, misogyny and bigotry fly. A year and a half of a hate-filled, name-calling campaign… and no, it was all about economic populism. Drain the Swamp. We’re not racists. How could you think that? Why is Trump’s victory based, pretty much entirely, on the votes of rural, less educated whites, mostly older white men? How did less educated white women move from consideration of electing the first woman president to resounding support for a billionaire? Could it be, even remotely, that appealing to base racial prejudices and class resentments can be excused by a few swipes at sky high promises of economic rebirth?
The point isn’t that white voters, these voters, are racist; the point is, really, that this story is not new. Faced, often, with the hard economic challenges of rapid change, America’s native population has often moved to rein in the others - immigrants, Indians, blacks… whatever “other” is convenient. It’s not that “economic populism” didn’t drive this election… it’s that “economic populism” is cover for the very appeal of those race and class based resentments. We don’t like to think we’re bad actors. In our American history, most of us think we’re the good guys. And often, we’re nobody’s heroes, except our own. It’s actually a thing I love about our nation - our good intentions and our faith in ultimately getting it right. Hope is our birthright, greatness is our mantle. We’d be so good, if we could just stop being so very very bad.
So here’s to draining the swamp. Who knows what we’ll find? Maybe a business man with terrible personal and business ethics is just the man for this job. We’ll see. Maybe the swamp we need to drain isn’t in DC - maybe it’s the swamp of resentments, hatreds and anger we foist on each other. Just something to consider, while we rewrite our history yet again and find a convenient spot to put a happy ending on this thing, the story of our greatness so far.