Rebecca Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was openly racist and sexist*. That claim seems so obvious that I don’t feel the need to back it up with evidence. Anyway, it seems to have been sufficiently obvious to sufficient people, that, even if it weren’t true, it’d remain something we should address. That accepted, the next move – as uncomfortable as it may make us – seems to be to ask what this might mean about the people who voted for him. Does voting for a candidate who is explicitly racist and sexist make you those things, yourself?
I dislike generalisations. Indeed, generalisations often feed those most unjustified and destructive forms of hatred, such as racism and sexism. And I also dislike the way in which, thanks to our understandable obsessions with big data and superstar pollsters, we’ve become increasingly confident in claiming we can know exactly why people – sometimes grouped as some kind of collective consciousness – have made electoral choices. (While beginning to realise that we shouldn’t always trust those methods of assessing human behaviour…)
Moreover, isn’t suggesting that Trump’s election shows America to be racist and sexist as dangerous an assumption as it is to suggest that the Brexit vote means that Britain has given up on liberal values? (Not just because both results involved tight margins.) This isn’t to excuse the 60 million people who voted for Trump – they knew what they were voting for, and are completely responsible for having done so – but mightn’t it be more important to think about why those of them who aren’t typically racist and sexist voted for someone who clearly was, in spite of that?
The obvious counter-argument is that the way in which those 60 million voters didn’t care sufficiently about Trump’s racism and sexism is not only extremely disturbing, but also seems enough to make them racist and sexist, themselves, to some extent. And that, therefore, any present or future assessment of America should take into account all of that newly ‘proven’ racism and sexism, on top of any of which we were already aware.
But, if we stop for a moment, we might rather conclude how useless these kinds of terms can be. We’re looking to use ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ to define people in a concrete unchangeable sense – and as things that totally determine their decision-making — instead of seeing those terms as representing current attitudes those people might have. Sure, to us, those attitudes seem important, or even, most important; for us, they may well override the other characteristics those people have, becoming deal-breakers in our assessments of them. But to the people who voted for Trump, yet wouldn’t necessarily class themselves as racist and sexist – and, in many cases, don’t display other behaviours suggesting they are – the very point is that those attitudes clearly don’t seem that significant.
Recognising this alarming truth afresh is different from thinking that 60 million Americans want to beat up women and black people, or prevent them getting jobs. Again, this is not in any sense to condone those voters’ appeasement and implicit support of something that could indeed lead to that. They are responsible for having elected a candidate who not only exudes and promotes racism and sexism, but whose election legitimises those things. Neither is any of this to suggest that America mightn’t indeed suffer seriously from those problems. But those points are different from saying that people voted for Trump for those specific reasons. And it’s important we make the distinction.
One pressing reason to do so is that, if we don’t, we leave ourselves vulnerable to people in positions of influence exploiting these problems to push their own chosen narratives. And that’s what I’d like to consider now, rather than trying to assess how many of the Trump voters are racist and sexist, and to what extent. Because, if politicians – and the media, and others – propagate the ‘knowledge’ that he was elected for those reasons, then those reasons are at risk of becoming legitimised even further than his election allows.
That returns us to Brexit. I’ve written before about how I think comparisons between it and Trump’s election are overdone and often unhelpful. (Sure, there may be overlap on some of the reasons why some of the people voted for those things – yet they just aren’t comparable events, either in terms of what they were, or what they could possibly mean.) Nonetheless, the way in which the results of votes like these are interpreted – or indeed any big votes’ results – is of significance to us all.
It seems important to recognise that having voted for Brexit doesn’t mean agreeing with how that vote’s result is being cashed out. And, also, that disagreeing with how it’s being cashed out doesn’t mean you’ve changed your mind about it having been the right choice.
That said, this is, again, where we must differentiate between the result of a referendum – in which you’ve voted on a binary tick-box question – and a general election – in which you’ve voted for a candidate, party, manifesto, and message. Yes, we can argue all day about the influence of the EU referendum campaigns, but it seems that one of the biggest problems remains that many people didn’t get that they weren’t voting for a team and a padded-out solution: that that wasn’t the type of ballot it was. That misunderstanding may not only have affected the way some people voted, but is also certainly affecting how some are responding to the way in which that vote’s result is being realised.
It frustrates me that that result has been manipulated into representing all kinds of massive unsubstantiated messages: not least that the ‘liberal consensus has lost public confidence’, and that people ‘voted to change the way our country works’. I don’t have time now to clarify why I’m increasingly worried about how this is happening here, but I’d like to use that thought to point up resultant fears about America.
We must fight to ensure that politicians don’t exploit votes’ results in order to prop up their self-interested messaging. Authority figures playing into unreliable divisive narratives is not only fundamentally wrong and risks stability, it can also lead to distrust of, and disillusion with democratic government itself. What standard interpretation will we accept for the reasons a racist and sexist like Trump was elected? What will that mean, and what will it legitimise? Will that message be what we should worry about the most?
We need to talk about these things more – and more openly. It may seem a naive get-out to say that whether voting for someone who’s explicitly racist and sexist makes you racist or sexist, yourself, depends on our understanding of those terms. But the best way to counter hatred remains recourse to law, education, discussion, and the promotion of the kind of liberal values that refute it. The worst is to pander to, sensationalise, and exploit it for political ends.
* Of course, there are other things we could accuse Trump of, too. I’m using these two traits largely symbolically, in that I’m not going to consider them as themselves – semantically, situationally, historically, etc – in any depth.