Forzana Khanom looks back on the failure of white allies and feminists in the US election and looks forward to the bleak future of a global resurgence of far-right politics.
In 227 years, Americans have never had a female president. Yet, it still wasn’t the right time for Hillary Clinton and won’t be for at least another generation. As baby boomers again steered a great western democracy and major power to the right, political pundits scrambled to explain the outcome as the categorical rejection of neoliberal political, economic structures and the elite establishment by the white working class. This false narrative and the surprise felt by mainstream media, society and commentators convey a great misunderstanding of the issues at heart.
The difficulty of expressing my devastation requires the dissection of a complex body of systems and failures that led to this result. There’s the media and failure of politicians to critically examine Trump’s policies, Hillary’s failure to reach out and clasp the hands of minority voters in the numbers that Obama did in 2012, the rise of the alt-right – their racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and bigotry cloaked in white nationalism and ‘Make America Great Again’ – but also the failure of the media and politicians to challenge their divisive and hateful rhetoric.
Indeed, during the BBC’s election coverage, a commentator continually reiterated how much of a shock Trump’s ascendency is. The exit polling predicted the wrong outcome just as it did during the EU referendum, but the problem here lies in two things. First, that the media and politicians have failed to listen to concerns by white, rural, Middle Americans and those in Middle England, but also minorities’ concerns about these concerns, choosing instead to rely on data. Second, politicians have failed to act sufficiently to challenge the anti-politically correct rhetoric that has found a figurehead in Trump.
Before addressing those two points, it is worth noting some of Trump’s policies and what it means for the world. 72 years ago, the US created institutions to prevent another world war – the UN, IMF, and WTO. Today, it elected someone who wants to pull the US out of them. It may even spur Europeans to reconsider closer co-operation in the uncertainty – be it in trade, defence, and immigration – arising as he embarks upon the White House. Worryingly, Trump’s presidency may encourage Putin to consolidate Russian power in a region bordered by EU states by ordering troops beyond the Crimea and into the Baltic states. If Marie Le Pen wins in France, there will be a right-wing, populist, and authoritarian Axis of Powers propped up by fascists. On this day, 9 November, in 1989, we tore down walls in Berlin and unified a divided Germany. Today, a man has been elected on a platform to build one. We have regressed to our former disgrace.
Trump’s election is hailed as the antidote for those alienated by the elite political establishment. However, behind him, and by his side, stand Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Pence. He and his associates have benefitted from neo-liberal economic and political policies. Indeed, Trump famously stated that he was smart because he avoided paying his federal taxes. Instead of choosing someone who has worked in public service, advanced civil rights, and has experience of making policy and is thus qualified for the office of US President, an outsider with no significant experience, lesser education, and who was born into the 1% has been chosen instead. While watching Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, it dawned on me that she was once again being told that she is not good enough to do the same job as her husband.
I and many other minorities saw Brexit and President Trump coming, having witnessed the trend of right-wing parties sweeping up votes in local elections across Europe. We experienced bigotry as thoughts became whispers with those whispers later becoming a virulent political statement. We have spoken out, again and again, with our concern about the rise of white nationalism and the alt-right – a media-friendly soft term for their flirtation with fascism – across Europe and the US, a trend we have foreseen since 2000, but our concerns were ignored. Banter and locker-room talk is often met with silence or laughter and so every bystander becomes complicit in bolstering their power as they feel more comfortable publicly asserting their truths. Moreover, social media – Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Reddit – has helped racists, sexists, and homophobes feel more emboldened by failing to act on their egregious gas-lighting remarks.
Had the political class and media been more diverse and inclusive – with more women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, LGBTQ+ and the disabled – they would have heard those concerns. The inert discrimination we have been subjected to countless times became mainstream because those with structural power – white men and, where other minorities are concerned, white women – failed to sufficiently challenge these views. In doing so, they gave oxygen to the alt-right, the KKK, and Trump’s campaign. These views gained a loudspeaker in Trump and still it largely went unchallenged. Cheers and claps grew louder as he proposed building walls, creating a database of Muslims reminiscent with 1930s Europe, a Muslim ban, mass deportation, ending birthright citizenship, putting trained gunmen in schools and giving teachers guns, climate change denial, refusing refugees entry into the US, and bringing back waterboarding despite international human rights law. As Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has repeatedly stated, anti-Muslim and other forms of bigotry have ‘passed the dinner-table test’.
Consequently, it is important to ask if incumbent leaders in France, Britain, and the US have done enough to challenge the rise of white nationalism and stand up for minorities. Compare, for example, Theresa May’s statement to Trump’s presidency with Angela Merkel’s – the former focuses on trade, security, defence and ‘the special relationship; the latter emphasises the importance of co-operating but only based on values such as human dignity, racial equality, tolerance, and respect and independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. Merkel’s statement resonates and challenges Trump to be better, whilst May’s accepts the new status quo.
More significantly, the left’s discourse on immigration, Muslims, and multiculturalism has completely failed to sufficiently address the concerns of the larger white population. Where experts point to statistics showing the benefits of having immigration and equality for women, politicians have failed to boost the signal. When looking at the exit polling data, it is clear that immigration and terrorism were the two biggest policy concerns for White Americans and Britons. Another thing becomes clear: Trump has been elected into office by middle income and wealthy, Christian, less educated, conservative, middle aged, rural White people concerned by the demographic threat of brown people, be they Muslim or Mexican.
However, it would be wrong to state that Republicans are inherently racist and we can look to Senator John McCain as a positive model – first, following the racism targeted at his adopted Bangladeshi daughter during his presidential campaign, and second, in robustly challenging Republicans, even at his own rallies and constituency events, who regurgitated Trump’s ‘Birther’ theory denying Barack Obama’s US citizenship. This raises wider questions about the efficacy of the Republican electoral system and its failings – primarily human failures – as evidenced by the reactions to Trump’s ‘locker room talk’ about his sexual assaults. It made it glaringly obvious that Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan and McCain, whose statement about Trump’s sexual assault was unyielding in its condemnation, were too slow and too late. Trump’s ascendency would not have been possible without their tacit support.
Finally, the penny dropped for white women. Leaked audio of Trump saying ‘You can do anything… grab them by the p***y’ directly degraded and threatened white women. White female Republicans urged women to vote for Hillary or at the least not to vote for either, announcing ‘He is not my candidate’ as if to seek absolution. Yet they supported and endorsed Trump as he degraded and insulted Mexicans, Blacks, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, refugees, LGBT, the disabled, and even his opponent, Hillary. We sounded the alarm after the first Republican Primary in March 2015; only now had people noticed the fire had spread to their house.
Significantly, white women overwhelmingly voted for Trump. It tells us they do not care when deportation is threatened. They do not care that we are verbally assaulted with statements like ‘Go home back to your country!’ They do not care that we are characterised by sweeping generalisations – as murderers, rapists, criminals, corrupt – that encourage a ‘whitelash’. They do not care when Muslim women identified by their headscarves feel unsafe and feel victimised because of their appearance, with their bodies and independent minds a petri dish on which to unload ideas about what a woman should be.
White liberal feminism – embodied in popular culture by Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, and Lena Dunham – has failed. White liberal feminists failed to convince their fellow white women to vote for Hillary Clinton, but they also failed to be inclusive. They did not reach out to ethnic minority women; instead, ethnic minority women voted for Clinton despite that. Black women – embodied by #BlackGirlMagic – overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton with only 4% voting for Trump compared to 52% of white women. Only in 19 states did white women vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. In essence, white women’s voting patterns tell ethnic minority women that they value their white privilege more than their right to equality as a woman. White women were not our allies.
However, worryingly, as a South Asian woman from a Muslim and immigrant family, I am dismayed that 25% of Asians and 24% of Hispanics voted for Trump, with Sajid Tarar of American Muslims for Trump and an immigrant, rallying behind him. Similarly, in the UK, we saw Zac Goldsmith’s attempt to divide South Asians during his campaigns for the London Mayoral race. A sizeable number of Asians voted for Brexit, and Raheem Kassam, born to an Indian Muslim family and writer for the alt-right Breitbart News, who ran for UKIP leadership. Something is amiss. Though the highest glass ceiling wasn’t shattered, I am heartened that four newly elected women – Catherine Cortez Masto (the first Latinx senator), Kamala Harris (mixed ethnicity – the second black and first Indian female senator born to immigrant parents), Pramila Jayapal (an immigrant and also the first Indian elected to the House of Representatives), and Tammy Duckworth (a disabled veteran with Thai and Vietnamese lineage from her mother’s side) – will be a source of light for the Democrats.
Ethnic minority Britons and Americans, whether they were born there, grew up there, and/or moved there and adopted it as their home, have embraced liberal values in the belief that these were the values everyone was moving towards. It is now clear that most do not share those values.
To borrow from a friend:
‘Shame on Us: an Ode to the GOP’
First he came for the Mexicans, and we did not speak out –
Because we were not Mexican.
Then he came for the disabled people, and we did not speak out –
Because we were not disabled.
Then he came for the Muslims, and we did not speak out –
Because freedom of religion is only for Christians.
Then he came for the African Americans, and we did not speak out –
Because we have struggled for decades against African Americans’ civil and voting rights.
Then he came for the immigrants, and we did not speak out –
Because our grandparents were a different ‘type’ of immigrant.
Then he came for the Jews, and we did not speak out –
Because Jews usually donate to Democrats.
Then he came for the women, and we did not speak out –
Because we have never felt unsafe or victimised in our bodies.
Then he came for the freedom of our press, and we did not speak out –
Because fact-free propaganda has long whipped up our base.
Then he came for our democracy, and we did not speak out –
Because we cared more about winning than about our integrity.
Then he came for us –
And we voted him in.
Image by Rivka Cocker