What Are We Trying to Figure Out?

Newspapers React to Trump Victory

By Nikil Saval

Since the election results of November 8, shock has compounded shock. The initial shock was the surprise victory of Donald Trump, and the Republican Party throughout the country. The second has been the immediate turnaround on the part of commentators from shock and surprise to confident analysis and prognostication. It took virtually no time for the intelligentsia—pseudo- and otherwise—to reheat an old dish and serve up the culprit to be feasted on: the white working class. Endlessly discovered and rediscovered, from the hardhats of 1972 through the Reagan Democrats of 1984 and the Angry White Men of 1994, professionals have also wasted little time in projecting fantasy after fantasy onto this impossibly vast and intellectually diverse group of people (around 42 percent of the country). Barbara Ehrenreich dissected the lurid imaginings of the middle classes about the working classes in Fear of Falling (1989) in the wake of the victories of Nixon and Reagan. Now, as then, writers have launched blithely into trivial essays on what the voters wanted, more often through modes of inquiry resembling divination than actual reporting or analysis.

Actually speaking to voters, turns them—like magic—into real people. One encounters, top to bottom, across race, class, and gender, a morass of inchoate opinion, at times difficult to square with electoral choices, often more eloquent than anything I could begin to say. People act on this mass of opinion, but it is no way immediately coherent or conclusive in its implications. Submitted to statistical reality, it crumbles—the social world does not fit, in these instances, the statistical world. The gap between statistics and social reality has somehow made licit every variety of professional projection, every empirically suspicious idea about working class life and opinions. A vote against the establishment, they say; a vote for white supremacy. This is despite the fact that votes—boxes ticked once every four years by a minority of the voting-age electorate—are not obviously legible. It hasn’t stopped otherwise perspicacious figures from reading into them nonetheless.

The writer Adam Shatz, in a rather hot take for the London Review of Books, tried gamely to correct the notion that the white working class was responsible—arguing that, based on income levels in exit polling, it was in fact “the lower middle class.” This is the class, he reminds us gravely, “traditionally most attracted by fascism.” But the reminder, like many other deep thoughts in hurried circulation, is false. It’s a holdover from Fifties sociology, whose wrongness is easily confirmed by the quickest consultation of scholarship (like Thomas Childers’s The Nazi Voter), which would show—again—that the ranks of fascist voters tended to come from elsewhere, and act in combination. The distinguished historian Joan Scott, commenting favorably on Shatz’s essay, opened up the dustiest can from way back on the Freudo-Marxist shelf. “Trump’s appeal to both men and women rested on his promise to impose a lost or threatened order of racial and gender hierarchies,” she writes. “The appeal was made not rationally or programmatically, but libidinally—it was the erotic call and response that won the day.” How many millions of people did Scott speak to such that she could discern the truth of the election through mass Freudian psychoanalysis?

Even to the extent that a particular group of voters turned, perfidiously, from Obama to Trump, to focus on the issue is to miss the point. We are describing the preferences of a marginal percentage of a group that barely votes expressed on two days separated by four years. In between, the number of this disparate group that actually votes plummets even further, and expresses itself in vastly different preferences. It might even have been different preferences for different candidates within the same ballot. In the rest of their lives, they will hardly be contacted by any campaign. At this very instant, they are being demobilized. And this is still a fraction of people: most “working-class” people still don’t vote. Why this is the case, in a country that blares its commitments to a democracy that apparently very few people care to participate in, seems not to be at issue.

The wisdom that it takes a “coalition” of varying groups to win the Presidency—to say nothing of the House, Senate, state legislatures, et cetera—remains antithetical to the demographic slicing being done to account for Trump’s election. No single group wins an election, a fact that writers have been slow to reacquaint themselves with. By now you may have heard about college-educated whites, who also voted in a majority for Trump; perhaps less about white college educated women, whom Hillary Clinton won—but only by a slim majority (45 percent voted for Trump). There are still percentages of other voters who may not, in a majority, have turned out for Trump, but who did partly turn out for him, all of which also contributes to his victory. If blame is to be cast, why not blame the supposedly 30-odd percent of Latinos who voted for Trump in Florida? Why not the rich Republicans? One does not win Presidential elections in the US on the strength of one sliver of the electorate. All are punished.

Compounding the mode of analysis is the fact that the problem is an international one. Far right parties are on the march across the countries of advanced capitalism. And lo, it happened right here, the richest and most powerful nation in world history. What’s more, this is the worst version of all of them. The farthest right administration in living memory, with nearly every branch of government in hand, helmed by a sociopath, a loon, a man with fascist tendencies (to put it generously)—who has promised, among many things, apartheid, deportation, pogroms, torture, expulsions. Even if nine-tenths of this turns out to be bluster, the emergence of this government is an existential threat to what many of us had planned and believe, and we will have to answer it with our lives.