“The reason Trump won,” the man at the head of the table said, pounding his fist to emphasize the point, “is that America is in crisis, and he was the only one to acknowledge it.” Around him, the group of men and women nodded, young and old, in agreement. The problem is that none of them could agree on precisely what the crisis was.
One man, a retired cop, ventured the changing nature of their neighborhoods. People were insular, he said. They didn’t talk to one another, much less respect and care for their fellow residents. There was a general deterioration in the fabric of American unity.
There were less nods this time. After all, some ventured, that community spirit was brought together more by proximity and often by the ethnic character of neighborhoods in the first place. The great American unity he spoke of, another man said, never existed in an Italian neighborhood if you were black, or Latino, or Irish.
The youngest woman at the table, in her thirties, born and raised in Queens and Brooklyn, spoke up. The real crisis facing America, she said, was the combination of a lack of opportunities for the young, coupled with unbearable levels of debt and long years spent in education that retarded their development into adults.
Others spoke of a lack of jobs, of education, of macro political developments that had reduced America’s status on the world stage, of the results of economic depression and the advancement of liberal agendas over eight years of an ultimately ineffective Democratic administration. One pointed to long existing, deep divisions in American society over race, gender, sexuality and other areas.
But then a softly-spoken woman, in her fifties, pointed to the lack of investment in Middle America. These are towns and cities where, she argued, the politics of the coastal urban just don’t apply. Take a young family in a poor town who are struggling to afford even basic groceries after their father’s plant closed down, who are forced to endure the humiliation of welfare, for whom the idea of a vacation in the next state over, let alone another country, is a pipe dream.
Try explaining to them ideas of white privilege, or how globalization has helped them. Try telling them that their lives are made better by immigration and by spending billions on foreign aid and military adventures in the Middle East.
That was the reason why Trump won, she said. It wasn’t because people were inherently sexist, or racist, or that they supported what he had said on the campaign trail. It’s because Americans are politically and socially alienated from their own country.
Of course they are, she continued. They see policies being made in Washington for the benefit of the cities when they struggle to get money from the government to resurface their roads. They read about billions of dollars appropriated from Federal funds to prop up expansions of subway systems, or build airports in places that already have several. They look at aid being sent abroad when their children are starving, and nobody can explain why.
Then they are condescended to by journalists at the New York Times, who run op-eds blasting the only system that gives them a voice at a national level, insinuating that they are holding the population hostage because a vote in Iowa counts more than a vote in Los Angeles under the Electoral College.
They are further insulted by celebrities acting as unelected and unqualified politicians, who slam them for being xenophobic, uneducated racists and misogynists. Who insist that they voted the way they did because they were impressionable dupes.
They are attacked economically, socially and politically every day, and then sneered at because they have benefited in the past from being white in America, or by living comfortable lives as a result of American global hegemony. How dare they speak about hardship when they’ve known comfort, however remote in the past it may have been.
These weren’t the reasons that the people at the table voted for Trump. Their concerns were predicated on an instinctive dislike of Clinton, a lifelong commitment to the Republican Party, or because they saw a sacrifice of realpolitik on the altar of social politics. Their choice was rooted more in what can be interpreted as a desire to return to conventional conservative politics, even if that requires an unconventional choice to accomplish.
But they were coastal voters, and unrepresentative of the broad swathes that came out in support of Trump. This was because, the lady argued, they hadn’t experienced the deprivation and the lack of opportunity in the South, the Midwest, or the ghettos of cities like Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago. As such, the powerful and formative desire for change expressed at the ballot box by these voters was just as alien to them as it was to liberal voters, often clustered in these centers, who had even less of a chance of understanding why Trump was elected.
Liberal politics (and by proxy, the Democratic Party), after all, had failed the mainstay of Trump’s support. His nomination in the primaries came about largely because nobody in the Republican Party really wanted Ted Cruz on the ballot, but he won the wider battle because people, simply, do not care about the views of not just the Iowa cattle farmer or the Michigan steelworker, but the bank clerk in North Dakota, the receptionist in Missouri, the teacher in Louisiana or the unemployed, single mother in Wisconsin. And this is recognized by those people, who used the vote as both a means of expression and a way of committing political violence against an establishment that had long ceased to look out for their interests.
There are distinct similarities in the rise of President Trump to any number of other political and social phenomena that have occurred in recent years. The UK referendum to leave the EU, for instance, was a shock vote primarily because nobody bothered to consult the mood of people living in the forgotten parts of England and Wales, their very own Rust Belts that had atrophied and decayed after industry packed up and left, after control continued to concentrate in the affluent and alien capital city.
In other areas this has expressed itself as interpersonal violence, with online movements such as Gamergate, where female journalists in particular have been subjected to horrific abuse, or the movements in science fiction literature, where a backlash against the supposed orthodoxy of multiculturalism has been running strong for years now.
The warning signs have also been there, from the sudden and rampant growth of the Tea Party movement, dismissed as an amusing sideshow by most political observers until it roared into life in the form of Donald Trump, or the British National Party in the UK, dismissed as modern-day Brownshirts until they put on suits and engineered political change in the country that will be felt for generations.
Trump is not an end to this. His pseudo-Objectivist rants are indicative of a wider malaise, but the liberal left has no solution other than to keep doing what it did before his election. Women’s marches are good, protesting the inauguration is admirable to an extent, but there is still no specific action to address the root causes. Nobody cares how many thousands pounded the concrete of Third Avenue when the main street in their town is boarded up, and the last major employer pulled out to relocate to another country.
Neither will there be any action in the immediate term, as activism is generally a lazy occupation practiced by urban intelligentsia. Direct action to oppose Trump means mobilizing a support base and converting that into votes, but a continual lack of interest in engaging outside of the city limits means that much of America will continue to go unheard. And as such, we risk the repeat performance of tyrants and demagogues, who will pay lip service to them, and ultimately betray them, until the end result is a dissolution of trust between Americans.
Back at the dinner table, the conversation continued, until finally, the man at the head of the table sat back.
“At least we can all agree,” he said, “that we didn’t want to vote for Trump, but we did. And for the good of the country, we all hope that he makes it work.”
And as the lights of Manhattan burned in the distance, for a little while at least, liberals and conservatives worried about the forgotten voices of America, until the rain on the morning commute drowned out the noise.