The grief before the storm

05 December 2016

David Coates - Professor of Anglo-American Studies, Wake Forest University, North Carolina

Overcoming the grief caused by Trump’s victory requires us to analyse the sources of our pain

When Hillary Clinton gave her concession speech on November 9th, admitting defeat to an opponent who had received a lower share of the popular vote than she had, many of her supporters in the room with her, and those watching from afar, actually wept – so deep was their grief. That grief, and its causes, needs to be both recognised and recorded before we plunge again into the struggle for a better America.

Photo by Jose M on Unsplash

As far as I can tell, the grief being felt across the US centre-left has at least three causes.  Many people are currently experiencing a complex mixture of all three.

The first is grief caused by, and already focused on, the important policy reversals and new policies that are likely to lie ahead – reversals (on climate change, healthcare provision, LBGTQ rights, and a woman’s right to choose) and new initiatives (on the targeting of illegal immigrants, tighter voter ID laws and police militarization) that will cumulatively represent a serious erosion of 50 years of successful civil rights reform and the incremental gutting of an already inadequate welfare state.  The thought of having to refight those old battles, and to do so in the context of a Republican sweep of all the organs of power in Washington DC, is already leaving many of us not just distressed, but weary and frightened of more failures to come.

For fighting Republicans of the Trump and Tea-Party kind is not like fighting Theresa May’s Tories. There is very little noblesse oblige here.  What there is rather more of here in the US right now is a revitalized libertarian anti-statism, particularly evident among college students from privileged social backgrounds.  What there is also more of is a resurgent white racism, especially pronounced in the small towns of rural America.  Soon after Trump’s victory, the Ku Klux Klan held a public rally of celebration in a town not 70 miles from where I write this.  Forms of political slime we thought expunged to the margins of American life are asserting their right to centrality again.  Driving through the small towns of North Carolina this month, it has been hard to avoid feeling an enhanced sense of apprehension at the thought of that revitalized racism, or about the gun culture into which so much of it is still embedded.  I happen to be white, male, heterosexual and ostensibly Christian.  If I was black, female, gay and/or Muslim, my apprehension would – to put it mildly – have been far greater.

The second source of grief surrounding me and others is both more focused and more intense.  It is a desperation about the inability of the United States to allow women to attain full political, economic and social equality with men.  Donald Trump got away with proclaiming Hillary Clinton’s inadequacies and even criminality, when in truth any serious inadequacies and character flaws were his.  Given that, the Trump victory points to the perpetuation of an appalling double standard in contemporary America – women have to be perfect to be elected, men just have to be men – and it points to something else too.  It points to how close Hillary Clinton came to breaking the ultimate glass ceiling, only to have victory snatched away from her at the last hour on the most dubious of grounds and by the most misogynistic of presidential candidates.

The result of this is a generation of women (those not much younger than Hillary herself) despairing that they will never see a woman president in their lifetime. Their pain rests in having something so vital to them snatched away (and not just from Hillary Clinton herself) so unexpectedly and by Donald Trump of all people!  The result too: pain and the fear of intensified sexism and sexual violence among a younger generation of women, and among many members of the LBGTQ communities, many of whom supported Bernie Sanders over Clinton, but all of whom feel less secure and safe now than they did before November 8th.  Pain especially among minority women dealing with oppression on at least two fronts, and often fearful of (and already exposed to) individual acts of verbal and even physical abuse.

But there is a third level of pain that I see around me.  There is still in America, on both sides of its political divide, a general and deep pride both in the country and its defining values, and in what it purports to stand for in the world around it.  There is also a generalized belief, among white Americans at least, that the vast-majority of their fellow-citizens are good, open-minded and intelligent people, and that people can be relied upon both to support their neighbours in times of distress and to sustain inadequate public welfare provision by the generous provision of private charity.  So when, on November 8th, it became apparent that half of the American electorate are not so open-minded – or that if they are, they are nonetheless capable of putting their intelligence to sleep for a while to vote blindly for the most ‘change-oriented’ candidate, regardless of the direction of that change – that discovery then left some of the most progressive white Americans that I know shaken to their very core.

They were shaken by the result, distressed by the ugliness that accompanied it, even ashamed of some of the Americans who voted for Trump, and for the moment not altogether certain that Trump’s America can ever be fully silenced or curtailed again. Shaken, distressed, and worried that in pushing back against Trump-inspired bigotry and welfare-erosion, those of us who did not vote for Trump might inadvertently reinforce the hate that now scars American politics and sets Americans one-against-another.

The pain that the scale of the white working-class Trump vote created for black Americans, and for Americans of other minority backgrounds, had to be different.  American minorities needed no further education in the capacity of white America to close them out. That education has gone on for generations.  What the scale of the white pro-Trump vote demonstrated was the degree of latent racism in so many of the white people whom they may individually know.  As one young minority woman put it after reading an earlier version of this note: ‘54% of white women who voted cast their vote for Trump. Most of my close friends are white women.  That means statistically, I just learned that chances are half of my so-called friends are racists and I don’t even know which ones they are.’

The existentialist crisis triggered by the Trump victory clearly has more than a single face, but it is no less deep because of its complexity. Three sources of pain – programmatic, symbolic and existential – all flowing into the tears, and into the anger, that I see around me now.  Given time, it is likely that all three streams of this grief will crystalize into a revived Democratic Party offering a new, younger and more radical candidate to follow Donald Trump into the White House.  But for the moment there is just grief and genuine pain.

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