The detritus in the wake of the Trump presidency: Our work continues
The reign of Donald Trump was unconventional and unpredictable. He didn’t host state dinners. He didn’t showcase American artists. He didn’t extend an olive branch to those who dissented. He wasn’t polite; he mocked people for their appearance or foibles. He wasn’t loyal; he dismissed or fired countless people because he could. Hyperbole infused his grammar; he unabashedly created or embellished information to support whatever point he was making.
Donald Trump, however, did not create the structures that he used to sow mistrust, disdain and contempt amongst people throughout the USA. At an instinctual level, he seemed to understand that white hegemony, misogyny and pernicious lying were structural weapons that could be deployed with lethal consequences. Opponents were vanquished. In the instance of Covid-19 and immigration policy, opponents and sometimes bystanders, lost their lives.
Let me explain what I mean by these terms and how I see them at work in the Trump administration.
Whiteness, in the USA, is the coin of the realm. To be white is to be automatically inducted into the concept, “We the people”. Regardless of economic status or other life conditions, to be white is to have a currency not bestowed on those “others”, the ones with dark skin, or whose parents had dark skin. It sounds so strange to say that in 2020, the hue of one’s skin has value beyond all else. It is the entry into America’s bounty. Chris Rock offered, “None of you would change places with me and I’m rich! That’s how good it is to be white!”
The meaning of whiteness started to seep into the national conversation following the spate of recent killings of black men by police officers. Most particularly, the killing of George Floyd shone a spotlight on the mechanisms of white supremacy. Even without a conversation, the intrinsic worth of whiteness was deeply understood. The election of Kamala Harris as Vice-President was cause for jubilation for some and derision for others. Whatever one’s reaction, it comes from the fact that the door to the highest levels of political office have never been opened to anyone without white credentials. It is THE qualification to gaining access to wealth and power. We can name some exceptions, “Oprah is wealthy; Barack was president.” And yet, we all know that whiteness rules.
Donald Trump manipulated the currency of whiteness with a mixture of finesse and strong arm tactics. He positioned himself as the guardian of whiteness, defending it from the incursions of multiculturalism, internationalism, elitism, science and other assaults. All he asked in return was loyalty. Complete loyalty. Attendance at rallies, shouting whatever he had scripted. Support of his choice for the Supreme Court. Displays of militarism toward enemies like Black Lives Matter and those who stood in support of BLM.
In so many words he said, “Without me, Whiteness is at risk and in its’ place will come a multicultural country.”
Of course, he didn’t need to use all of those words. He just blew the metaphoric dog whistle with its’ unmistakable message.
· He ordered federal organizations to cease diversity training, likening education about white privilege to “drinking the Kool-Aid.”
· He said, in a soft voice, that both sides had merit, white supremists and the other side.
· He talked about immigrants as rapists and murderers
· When asked if he would disavow the white supremacist group Proud Boys, he looked into the TV camera and told them, “Stand back and stand by.”
White hegemony is part of our national legacy. I believe, it is the responsibility of all white Americans to learn about this legacy; understand its purpose and power, and work toward dismantling the notion adage that intones, if you’re white, stick around and if not, stand back. In many ways, this work of undoing white supremacy is deeply personal, calling on each of us to unearth how we each benefit from being in the power group and then stepping aside to hold the door open for others.
Misogyny is the disdain of women and things that are women-like. We don’t learn to disparage women, as much as we inhale the sense that women aren’t as smart as men, or as strong, or as capable, or as emotionally stable. With another breathe we learn that women are indecisive, waiver when making tough choices and wobble under pressure. These ideas are in the air, all over the media, in our households, schools, places of worship and permeate our economic and governmental systems.
The performance of what Jackson Katz calls “hyper-masculinity”source is closely connected to, and often inseparable from, misogyny. The masculine ideal has been portrayed as a strong, hard-driving, often foul-mouthed and fearless man. The Marlboro Man. We have inhaled this image.
These representations were as readily available to Donald Trump as to anyone else, and particularly rampant during the post WWII era in which he came of age.
I don’t know what level of insight he has into how these gender stereotypes have played out in his life. He has demonstrated, though, an uncanny ability to use them to dismember political opponents, and create a larger-than-life image of himself as the Marlboro Man, without cigarette or a horse.
He mocked Carly Fiona’s face, “Look at that face? Would anyone vote for that.” He said of Hilary Clinton, “She doesn’t have the look,” and described her as “skank.” He called Kamila Harris “a monster”. The list could go on. Each person smeared in gendered terms, each term signifying an inferior person.
Meanwhile, he performed the representation of a hyper-masculine man. He would say or do anything he chose with no regard for the impact on others and with seemingly no consequences. He was the tough guy saying that Russia feared him more than anyone. He pulled the US out of treaties and challenged leaders in other countries. Threatening to take care of protesters if local mayors were man enough to handle the job. He commented on women’s bodies and surrounded himself with young, attractive white women. The unspoken message, “Trump is a real man.” Outspoken women, like the four women of color in the House of Representatives known as “The Squad”, were referred to in a tweet on July 22, 2019 as, “Racist troublemakers.” Later that day, during in a meeting with Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Trump said of the squad, “Nobody knows how to handle them. I feel they’re easy to handle.” Protesters may require police intervention, but complaining women he could deal with alone.
His message to men is clear. Woman can be difficult. I can handle them. Men like us know how to handle them. A vote for me is a vote for real men.
While we watched these performances, aghast by their nastiness, policies that protected women, policies that protected people whose gender did not conform to conventional norms, were being systematically dismantled and those who spoke out, quickly dispatched.
I heard an interview with a voter on election day who, when asked why she supported the president said. “I don’t want two women in a powerful position, Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi.”
Two women is too much.
Kindergarten teaches us that lying is wrong. As with his adroitness with dispatching dog whistles and his hyper- masculine acting skills, Trump brought lying while in public office to stratospheric levels. His lying was pernicious and hyperbolic. He used half-truths and out-right lies as weapons that would enter the mind or soul or heart of a listener, spreading confusion, self-doubt and fear. His lying was malicious, intended to distract the listener into believing that only he, Donald trump, could be believed and that everyone else was a false prophet. With over a quarter-million people dead from Covid-19, and more than 100,000 new infections per day, he warned American’s not to trust Dr. Anthony Fauci and his scientific ideas.
Trump was guided by lessons from his mentor, Roy Cohn: When a lie is told over and over it starts to be believed; when there is pushback, increase the lie and repeat it more stridently. Attack. Never apologize. Never admit. He learned these lessons well.
The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice
The arc needs help. Like the lyrics from an old mining rulebook, put to music by Pete Seeger, source“Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none.” There is a lot of work still ahead and many hand, minds and hearts are needed to do the job.
White hegemony, misogyny and pernicious lying are not immutable. Donald Trump has unwittingly helped by making more vivid some of the cultural debris and toxicity that obstructs the path to justice. American history is rich with the stories of woman and men who have worked and died to make room for decency and fairness to rise out of the detritus of injustice. The task ahead is daunting. Donald Trump received over 70 million votes, second only to Joe Biden for votes received in a presidential race. Voters chose between two vastly different realities. Dismantling structures of oppression has never been an easy task. Conviction, determination, stamina and concern for the humanity within both realities is required.
Let’s get to work.
Katz, Jackson. Tough Guise. Documentary by Media Education Foundation, 1999
Parkinson, John, “Trump calls the squad a very racist group of troublemakers.” ABC news, July 22, 2019
Rock, Chris. Who wants to change places? HBO Special, January 3, 2018