This story must be told

Okay, one more obnoxious post-election lecture and then I’m going to get back to what I was supposed to be working on before the bottom fell out of the world. That’s not a retreat, by the way, it’s actually my first point: the way we get through this is by recognizing that we have better things to do than to pay attention to fucking politicians all day. The way we defeat Trump is by resisting where we can but otherwise continuing on as though he has no power over us, because he doesn’t. Living well is the best revenge.

The problem right now is that people are making various points about everything but nobody’s really connecting the dots. The question isn’t why the media guessed wrong about the outcome, that obviously doesn’t fucking matter, the question is why the media was unable to convey to Trump supporters the fact that he was not actually going to help them. Especially seeing as that’s the exact thing that the media is supposed to be for. Like, of course the Democrats aren’t doing anything to help people who are economically struggling, of course Clinton didn’t offer people anything in this regard, and of course we are required to address this issue if we are to have any hope of constructing a society that works for people. It would be one thing if Trump were a racist/sexist/authoritarian/etc. who was actually going to try to help people who are getting screwed over by technocratic globalization. In that case we would have to have a conversation about tradeoffs and symbolism and soforth. But everyone who’s been paying attention agrees that he’s bad for all those other reasons and he’s also going to be terrible for poor people. So this is not about signing on to Clinton’s agenda, it’s just that anyone concerned about any issue should have recognized that, on whatever issue that was, Clinton would have been less bad than Trump. Asking “whether” Trump won because of racism or economic anxiety is a stupid question, both because the answer is obviously both and because either issue should have disqualified him: his administration is going to be super racist and it’s also not going to help poor people in any way. We do still have to go through all of the usual political nitpicking and maneuvering and everything, but the fact that the worst possible candidate won is a critical issue all by itself.

When Trump started getting popular based on racism, the various branches of the political establishment noticed it, and their reaction was to support other candidates. So there was the “never Trump” movement during the primaries, and then there were all the newspaper endorsements of Clinton during the general. The logic was: “Trump’s campaign is racist, and that’s unacceptable; therefore, you should vote for someone else.” But this is backwards right off the bat: what Trump’s support indicated was precisely that racism is acceptable. Hence, the syllogism fails to hold: people who never thought that Trump’s behavior was beyond the pale in the first place were given no reason to change their minds. Rather, the response to realizing that people are more racist than you thought must be to start doing better at fighting racism. There’s been some complaining that the media just wrote Trump supporters off as racists without trying to understand their concerns, which is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t actually get us to the place where we’re doing something about it. If a better candidate than Clinton had adequately addressed the concerns of working-class voters and thereby won them over, that would not have addressed this issue. It would not have reduced the acceptability of racism. We want it to be the case that racist demagogues are rejected by the general population.

The argument against calling Trump supporters racists is that, sure, people noticed that Trump was running a racist campaign, they just didn’t think that was a big deal; they voted for him for other reasons. Any given voter may have done something to indirectly promote racism, but that doesn’t make them A Racist. But this is an absurd distinction: what can possibly define a racist person other than engaging in racist behavior? If I, during a friendly visit to your home, steal a $20 bill that you left on your dresser, I am a thief, regardless of whether I have ever stolen before or ever will again, and regardless of my opinions on the merits of private property or the conditions under which coercive economic redistribution is justified. And of course all the times I respected your property do nothing to absolve me. I am a thief because I am a person who has “engaged in stealing behavior.” When you find out about this and respond by calling me a thief to my face, you are correctly assessing the situation. In precisely this sense, everyone who voted for Donald Trump is a racist. They engaged in racist behavior.

I really hope this doesn’t come across as a brag, but if you call me a racist, that’s going to be the start of a conversation. If I have some sort of racist tendencies, or I’m making an argument which is racist in some way (both of which are probably true some of the time), I’d like to know about that, and I’m more interested in this than I am in defending myself against charges of being a big bad racist. For most people, being called a racist is the end of any possible conversation. “Racist” is a pure insult, like being called a shithead or human garbage, so once that word comes out, there’s nothing more to talk about. You have no option other than to get offended and angry. The reason for this is that most people have no concept of racism as a structure, which means they have no means with which to analyze claims of racism. So yes, calling people racists doesn’t help, but the solution is not to avoid the issue, it is to start talking about that structure, such that the relevant types of conversations become possible to have.

Regarding Trump specifically, he always does the normal thing were he “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body” and is “the least racist person you’ll ever meet” and etc., and for most people this resolves the issue. Sure, he may “go a little too far” sometimes, but the fact that he says he cares about helping black people means he must necessarily not be a racist. In the same sense, the fact that he hires women for executive positions sometimes must mean that he’s not a sexist.

Let’s follow up on that notion, seeing as it’s become kind of a thing recently to assume that a woman climbing up the corporate ladder is “empowering” and therefore feminist. There’s a specific reason why money is a feminist issue, which is that women being able to support themselves means they are not dependent on men for survival. It does not follow that a woman earning a lot of money is necessarily freeing herself from oppression. If, for example, two paychecks are needed to support her family and she’s still tacitly required to do all of the housework and childcare, then her earning money is in fact not liberatory, but merely another, shinier-looking chain. Understanding things in this sense makes it very easy to understand why “leaning in” is bullshit: it encourages women to embrace rather than resist oppression. (I mean, it’s right there in the name. I was initially very confused as to how anyone calling themself a feminist could view “leaning in” as anything other than a con. I hate hippies, but it’s pretty depressing that we’ve fallen behind the point of “turn on, tune in, drop out.”)

Which brings us back to our point: the fact that these things are structural problems and not ice cream flavors is why, properly understood, they are not competing interests but rather the same issue; they go together. To address them, then, requires a unified approach, which itself requires a cohesive accounting of where we are and where we need to go from here. This sort of thing is commonly referred to as a “story.” A story is more than a plot; it’s not just an A-then-B explanation. It’s also the context in which that explanation makes sense. A story implies a world, and we have not yet established a narrative for a better future. Hence the power of the notion that America can be made great again: the slouching inevitability of neoliberalism, dragging us all into the dullest future, makes such a thing appear to be the only alternative.

Clinton’s story was: everything is fine, we just need to keep gradually doing better. Trump’s story was: everything is not fine, so we have to resort to whatever grotesque measures are required to get back to the imaginary perfect society of the past. As you know, neither of these is the real story: everything is not fine, and the reason for this is because of all the stuff that we fucked up in the past; therefore, what we require is a different future. What was missing from this election was the idea that the world can be made other than as it is. Of course, that’s missing from every election, and that is the central point: politicians will never be able to make this case for us. They’re not the sort of people who are capable of it, and it’s not their job anyway. They’re bureaucrats: their job is to collate the series of forms and signatures required to put things into practice. Our job is to create the world as it must be, and then force them to do the paperwork that makes it so.

Let’s try one of the less charged examples to understand how this can work. The media was very, very concerned about Trump’s failure to release his tax returns during the election. This was supposedly “disqualifying” behavior, because we need that information in order to judge whether a candidate is fit to hold office. But as Tom Scocca pointed out, if the media really believed that, they sure weren’t acting like it:

“There is supposedly a consensus across the entire mainstream press on what the terms here are. It is unacceptable for any candidate to conceal their financial situation. To be a candidate, a person must disclose their tax returns.

Yet reporters continue to ask Donald Trump questions about subjects other than his missing tax returns. When they do this, they are conceding that Trump can be a presidential candidate, after all, despite refusing to release his returns. It is a losing strategy.”

In short, a political crime is not disqualifying unless you actually disqualify someone who commits it. If it’s just one bullet point among many, then it’s merely what business assholes call a “nice-to-have” rather than a requirement. Ergo, nobody cares (I seriously doubt that anyone voting against Trump did it because of the tax returns either).

The same analysis applies with even greater force to the campaign’s more dramatic issues. The Access Hollywood tape and the ensuing accusations raised what should have been the only issue of the campaign: whether Donald Trump is in fact a serial sexual assailant. Surely if anything is to disqualify someone from the presidency, behavior that is both illegal and misogynist is it. Yet the whole thing was treated as just another “scandal,” and the reason for this is that the media – including the Clinton campaign – did not push any better narrative. During the second debate, immediately after The Tape came out, the issue was raised, but it was raised as a Debate Question. Clinton and Trump yelled at each other about it for a while, and then the moderator moved on to the next question. The next day, the “spectacle” was described as follows:

“Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton collided in an almost unremittingly hostile debate on Sunday night, a 90-minute spectacle of character attacks, tawdry allegations, and Mr. Trump’s startling accusation that Mrs. Clinton had ‘tremendous hate in her heart.'”

In other words, the New York Times does not give two shits about whether or not Trump has actually committed sexual assault. Framing the problem in terms of “hostility” and “startling accusations” is a complete evasion of what those accusations are actually of and what reasons people might have for being justifiably hostile. Calling Trump a “divisive” candidate implies that there’s no real problem, that different people simply have different, equally valid opinions. To the media, it’s all just “character attacks.”

So one practical takeaway here is that the way we conduct debates, and indeed the election in general, basically guarantees that issues of substance cannot be raised. Trump’s one-man vaudeville show didn’t change anything; the media had already smoothed out the path so that someone like him could stroll carelessly down it whensoever they chose. We were lucky that this hadn’t happened until just now, so what we ought to do is stop relying on luck. The reason we have these constant back-and-forth shifts based on confused signifiers like “jobs” and “taxes” and “regulations” is precisely because we are not addressing the real substance of the issues. To avoid calling things as they are is to go further down this road, to retreat from the truth. Rather than news personalities carving out space for soundbites, the electoral process ought to be a matter of experts making real assessments of the candidates’ various attributes and relaying these assessments to regular people by means of understandable narratives. Of course, Americans don’t like this sort of thing. They don’t like “being told what to do” by “elitists.” We report; you decide. But the thing about experts is that they actually possess expertise. They have knowledge that most people lack, and disseminating this knowledge into the broader population is supposed to be a major part of what the media is for. Lumping real knowledge into the general concept of “elitism” is perhaps the one true failing of the American media. If we believe that the current lowest common denominator is not good enough – and this belief is strictly required in order to avoid basic nihilism – then we are morally obligated to reject the tactics of dumbing-down and pandering to know-nothings and to instead raise the level of discourse.

You may be thinking that this is too much to deal with all at once. Certainly, that exact point was made during the election: so much was so wrong with Trump that none of it stood out; it all just faded into particularly annoying background noise. But dealing with situations like this is exactly what stories do. They organize a huge amount of information into something that is understandable as a whole. In this case, the story is a simple matter of what all of Trump’s sins have in common: they’re all symptoms of privilege. Trump can get away with things that others cannot because he is a rich white male. This is why pointing out the individual issues didn’t matter to his supporters. Because they believed in privilege, they were already making that excuse for Trump. What must be targeted, then, is those beliefs, and the way this is done is by changing the parameters of the conversation in which we discuss them. Calling Trump “abnormal” gets you nowhere if you continue to treat him normally, and labeling his behavior “disqualifying” is meaningless if you continue to act as through he is qualified. Trump was allowed to plausibly proclaim “I am your voice,” when his supporters should have been made to realize that he is exactly the person who has been picking their pockets all this time. Norms are only functional if you do them rather than merely saying them; you have to actively denormalize behavior that you consider to be unacceptable. Otherwise, what you are actually doing is accepting it.

And the specific issue of sexual assault is really the perfect example, because we actually have seen a major shift in the way the mainstream narrative about sexual assault works, and it has happened very recently. Feminists have refocused the conversation around sexual assault such that it proceeds from the perspective of the victims rather than the perpetrators, and this has had practical consequences. Bill Cosby was about to die beloved as America’s Goofy Dad, but now, thanks entirely to this refocusing, he and his reputation are on a one-way, nonstop flight to secular hell. Now, this was an extreme case: Cosby’s behavior was maxed-out sociopathic, he was already a washed-up relic lacking anyone with a real interest in defending him, and the fact that he’s a black man shouldn’t be discounted, either. But of course our first victories are going to come in the easiest cases. This should still be encouraging: it proves that this strategy works, and that we really can change things by pursuing it. Unfortunately, we still have quite a ways to go. With Trump, we saw a reversion to the usual pattern. A bunch of accusations popped up, it was considered a “scandal” for a little while, and then it all went away and Trump went right back to doing whatever he wanted, which in this case just so happened to include winning the presidency.

But in this same sense, Trump’s victory actually demonstrates that the type of thing that we want to achieve really is achievable. He changed the narrative. Ever since the Republicans decided that he wasn’t worth the fight and instead sent Pence in to manage things, Trump has been an agent of the establishment, but in the beginning he was just some asshole on an escalator. He won in the face of unified mainstream opposition, and since then, the political establishment has had to rearrange itself to accommodate him. It hasn’t had to move very far, because his campaign was never based on any real convictions, but the general shape of these events is what needs to be possible in order for anything to get better. Trump is the bizarro-world version of what we ought to be aiming for. So it’s crucial to remember that he didn’t win by being a great marketer or whatever. He really did bungle things about as badly as possible. He won by coincidentally tapping into a huge, throbbing vein of resentment. The disadvantage we have is that, for us, no such vein is flowing just yet. People know what holding on to their own privileges is like, whereas nobody knows what living as a responsible citizen of a just, caring society is like, because no such thing has ever existed. But there is enough blood for us to work with; we just have to get it pumping. The fact that people can feel that things are wrong and that “something ought to be done” is also to our advantage. Yes, it makes fascism possible, but that’s simply because it makes change in general possible. Maintaining what we have now for fear of something worse also means maintaining what we have now for fear of something better. And since what we have now is really just anesthetized decay, it’s long past time to let go.

So the long and short of this is that there’s no point in arguing for or against the individual candidates themselves. We know this for a fact now: Trump as an individual was argued against as hard as possible, and it didn’t matter. Vox.com, where ideology goes to die, infamously insisted that the only issue in this election was that Trump was an “abnormal” candidate and Clinton was a “normal” candidate, and I hope we can all understand at this point why this is the wrongest possible perspective. Trump’s victory indicates precisely that he is normal to enough people to matter. You can find a handful of weirdos who believe pretty much anything (hi), but it is just flatly implausible that anything approaching 50% of the country voted for chaos. The overwhelming majority of people do not want to remake society. They want jobs, they want low taxes, and they want to feel safe, and it is for these conventional reasons that people voted for Trump. The slogan “make America great again,” a slogan which Trump supporters took much, much more seriously than people normally take slogans, is the exact opposite sentiment to “burn it all down.” It’s been much noted that Clinton’s rejoinder, “America is already great,” was a massive strategic blunder. This is exactly correct, and this is why: what we consider “great” is the entire substance of the issue. Our task, as people insisting on a better tomorrow, is to redefine greatness.

That is, the information needs to be out there; it needs to be known that, for example, The Wall wouldn’t actually have any effect on either immigration or unemployment, and you don’t know that until you run the numbers. But if someone supports The Wall for other reasons, this information doesn’t do anything. That’s what we have to get at: people’s reasons. The problem is that lots of people tried to demonstrate Trump’s racism, but because the situation was so obvious to everyone who cared, nobody bothered trying to explain why Trump’s campaign was actually racist. I know that sounds weird to you, but that’s exactly the point: other people have different ideas about racism than you do. The fact that you think they’re wrong is exactly why you have the responsibility to prove it.

Specifically, the common working notion of racism is that some people just suddenly manifest a snarling fury whenever they see someone with a certain skin color, and anyone who doesn’t do this is perfectly fine. This is why the Black Friend Defense is something that makes sense to people, even though to you and me it’s a transparent joke. A few particularly dense people have taken the fact that a lot of Obama supporters voted for Trump to mean that those people must not have been motivated by racism, which is another version of this attitude. Obama voters had one positive attitude towards one black person one time; therefore, they must not be racists. This is the story that we need to rewrite. The correct lesson to draw from this fact is not that racism is less of an issue than we thought it was, but that racism operates differently than the explainer class has been assuming it does. We need to make racism understandable in terms of its effects as part of a social system, which means synthesizing it with everything else, including our own behaviors. It’s certainly easier to treat racism as an individual pathology, because then those of us who don’t manifest the symptoms can be assured of our purity. Don’t blame me; I voted for Obama. But this is exactly the formulation by which Trump supporters absolve themselves. If we’re going to be better than them, then we need to do better than them.

And again, we have to do this ourselves; the establishment will not help us, because engaging the issues in this way implicates them. It prevents Clinton from glossing over the fact that she helped create the mass incarceration system that is one of the primary vectors of today’s racism. So I guess this is kind of a silver lining: Trump won on racism, sure, but there wasn’t actually an anti-racist candidate opposing him. Same deal for feminism and capitalism and imperialism and everything else: none of these issues are really being addressed in the mainstream conversation yet. To be honest, I’m not optimistic about what the results of a real fight would be. The great mass of humanity has not historically demonstrated any particular capacity for wisdom or discernment, or even basic kindness. But we haven’t lost yet.

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