In 2008 the country was on the verge of a revolution. The Bush administration had prolonged the war in Iraq and America’s global standing was at an all-time low. A man who in all likeness was the complete foil of the Bush administration appeared. Barack Obama was seen as the symbol of hope for a wayward and war-weary America. Black voters turned out at previously unseen levels to swear in the new Commander-in-Chief. America had been bestowed with softer and more representative face, one that promised to end wars and bring about new prospects for the future.
Yet Obama ultimately presided over new conflicts in the Middle East, expanded the drone strike program, expanded the reach of the security state, and most of all was unable to articulate a ground-breaking and critical narrative about race. In many ways, he was bound by the poisonous racial politics that many thought he would be able to dismantle, or at least seriously undermine.
Like the President-elect Donald Trump, Obama’s political profile was symbolic and ironic. Both these individuals occupy a space at the tenuous intersection of American self-image and American aspiration. The former idea evokes narrative, the stories and myths that Americans believe about their country in an almost providential sense. Unquestioned assumptions about benign patriotism and America as land of opportunity for people who work hard create a fairly consistent notion of the American dream. American aspirations on the other hand, ideas about what America should be, open up the many divisions in American society.
In many ways the presidential race is about who can evoke the best story, or perhaps, whose narrative is the most appealing. Presidential candidates make choices about whose aspirations matter, as they push and pull social forces for the sake of attracting votes. Obama and Trump appeal to aspirations that are in tension with one another. The general polarization along political, racial, urban-rural, and class lines makes it nearly impossible for one President to embody the wishes of some, without being perceived as disavowing the wishes of others. As campaigns quest to persuade and entertain the fancies of a disparate electorate, the presidential races must increasingly appeal to celebrity and mass media in order to tap into non-tangibles that may not always be productive or internally consistent.
For many, Donald Trump’s Presidency represents the toxic and hateful aspirations of White America lashing out at all the progress made over the past several decades. On some level this is true, as Trump routinely attacked immigrant groups with undeniably racist language and overtures. The disturbing uptick in racially and religiously motivated attacks against vulnerable groups in the past days is directly linked to Trump’s campaign emboldening these violent forces of White supremacy. However, Trump is not unique in playing to white fears and insecurities about the cultural and demographic changes of American society. The organizational base for this rhetoric, the Tea Party, started in 2010, long before Donald Trump was viewed as a serious contender for the presidency.
Donald Trump’s election to the office of president is the political consequence of the Great Recession, a referendum on the Obama administration, and a desperate attempt to assert a vision of America that is comforting to the largely white voters that put Trump in office. The difficult reality is that none of these forces exists in a vacuum. Trump was able to situate himself as the best possible ambassador for those impacted by a combination of these three developments, while also running against a highly disfavored establishment candidate.
The Great Recession, the greatest financial collapse in American history since the Great Depression, ushered in the collapse of the housing market and a massive government bailout of the financial actors that caused the crisis. Obama responded with an economic stimulus package that pumped money into the banking sector and the auto sector. There were no criminal charges brought against any of the actors or institutions that nearly caused the American economy to collapse. A complete economic meltdown was averted, however scores of Americans loss their homes, home equity, and/or retirement savings. Whatever was left of the manufacturing sector and other such industries indicative of the real economy took a serious blow. Homeownership is one of those critical elements of the American dream, and in sheer economic terms a home is the main asset most Americans will own.
States in the Rust Belt that tipped the electoral balance in Trump’s favor, largely suffered tremendous capital and population flight from small towns to the urban centers due to de-industrialization. The Great Recession was indeed the exclamation point on a bipartisan decade’s long policy of neoliberalism, tax-cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of banks, mass privatization of prisons, and trade pacts that shifted jobs to developing countries with little government oversight. The communities impacted in these states were overwhelmingly white. The aftermath of the Great Recession has fostered the movement of capital into urban population centers and largely favors the financial services industry and America’s largest corporations. Most of the areas hit hard by the recession and its deeply uneven recovery with populations that voted for Trump are rural areas or small towns in de-industrialized. The end result was that some states that traditionally give electoral votes to the Democrats instead went for Trump.
Since minority communities were disproportionality impacted by the economic crisis, it should follow logically that they would also break with the politico-economic establishment and vote for Trump. The Democratic Party has skillfully played on the insecurities of minority voters by promoting itself as the vanguard of minority advancement and protection from the racial abuse of the masses.
Aspirations for what America should be illustrate the tension between white working class voters and others also negatively impacted by the financial crisis. One reason why white working class people support Trump, as opposed to other working class Americans, is directly related to the divergent perceptions of Obama, in reference to his actual policies and perceptions of his cultural symbolism. In the days since Trump won the presidency the overwhelming focus has been on white voters and their support for Trump; however, black voter support for Obama, and their eventual lukewarm support for Clinton, are equally if not more telling of where America really stands.
The Obama presidency brought a historic and deeply cathartic expression of racial pride for African Americans. This was the first time in American history that African Americans had the type of psychological validation that comes with a president who shared their socio-politico experience. Obama married an African-American and very much embraced black America on his own personal terms as well as during both his presidential campaigns. Also the long-standing view of the Democratic Party as best-representing African American interests helped reinforce support for Obama. Many minorities migrated to urban centers in large numbers throughout the twentieth century, and such urban centers, though plagued with economic inequality and police violence, were not decimated by the Great Recession like rural areas with limited economies. One exception to this rule is the state of Michigan, where cities like Detroit and Flint, the town made famous for its toxic water supply, were impacted by de-industrialization decades ago.
Obama was a black messiah. His presence masked the deepening economic inequality and increasing Carceral State that disproportionally affects people of color. In reality the Obama admiration was beholden to the interests of neoliberal corporatism. The pain was intersectional: working class people across the board suffered, yet black people have suffered more and longer. As that suffering turned into renewed anger toward police brutality and mass incarceration, in the minds of many white voters, the familiar role of law and order had been challenged by emboldened minorities and an ever looming foreign threat embodied in the form of anything associated with Islam.
The real truth is that Donald Trump was able to do for white Americans what Obama did in 2008 for black Americans. Trump was able to muster enough star-power and mass media focus to promote his being as essential to the aspirations of most white Americans. He not only was able to present himself as the political outsider that would fight against crony capitalism, he was able to marry protectionist language with a guarantee that he would placate the fears of white America about loss of position and sweeping changes in the cultural landscape. Trump was also successful due to the perceptions of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. The Clinton campaign actively worked to sideline and alienate Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Primary race. Sanders provided the anti-Wall-street message while divorcing it from fears rooted in white supremacy. Hillary Clinton was seen as the epitome of an untrustworthy corporatist candidate. She turned off white working class voters and failed to excite minority voters the way Obama did.
Both Obama and Trump operated from within the same universe of unchallenged expectations of an American self-image. This makes Donald Trump’s victory that much more difficult for many to process.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both had unfavorability ratings over sixty percent. This election indicates that most people were unhappy with the choice of candidates. Working class and increasingly middle class people across the American landscape are disenfranchised and increasingly disillusioned with the entire political system. Slightly more than half of the eligible voting population actually voted in this election. Political and cultural actors, however, have still managed to tug at the sensitive heartstrings of an America drawn along deeply embedded lines of racial exclusion. Make no mistake, while most people that voted for Trump did so out of frustration with the system, racial tensions that were exploited by Trump during this election helped propel him into the Whitehouse.
Race, more than any other factor, defines the differing aspirations for most Americans. A genuinely populist anti-neoliberal movement was transformed into a divisive and venomous campaign due to the strategic exercise of white supremacy and self-interest for political gain. Now all Americans face the impending reality that there may never be a genuine movement against the forces that caused the Great Recession, because that movement has been co-opted by white nativism. No people’s movement against destructive capitalism can be successful without the support of the majority of working class rural and urban America. Both political parties have utilized racial fears and hatreds to score political points. Both parties deepen the chasm between aspirations for what America should be by provoking fears over who can access the American Dream. In this election one party used racially provocative tactics to stoke the fires of white supremacy and the other party cleverly used support from minorities to literally “color” its neoliberal and interventionist agenda. President Trump is America’s just desserts.