So now Barack Obama takes leave of the stage — our studied, self-possessed president of class, restraint, and charm, the mixed-race embodiment of the picture of U.S. diversity — and next comes Donald Trump, a billionaire of dubious success who brings chaos, vanity, and misogyny, to the delight of white nationalists.
Trump’s victory, which he secured despite losing by 2.8 million actual votes, marks a new chapter in the American culture wars, a story of sharp turns.
In American pop culture, the narrative of impending white racial apocalypse is never far from revival. In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s landmark film The Birth of A Nation depicted the Ku Klux Klan as rescuing and restoring a fallen nation from the incivility and degradation of Black Reconstruction. About a half century later, the seeds for Trump’s victory were planted when Richard Nixon summoned the apocalypse against the civil rights and antiwar movements with two words: crime and disorder.
Trump, whose earliest campaign placards read “Trump Stands With The Silent Majority,” could not duplicate Nixon’s call with facts. Crime is at historically low rates, and since the Great Recession, net migration from Mexico has dropped below zero. He won on affect, not facts.
In 2008, Barack Obama was elected in part as a figure of racial reconciliation. But as soon as he was elected, the apocalypse narrative returned. In 2012, Trump tested his presidential chances with a strange campaign to prove Obama had not been born in the U.S. It was successful, stirring the passions of the fringe right who saw Obama as a symbol of all things Other — not just black, not just the product of miscegenation, but also a Muslim, a socialist, an “illegal alien.”
Over the past half century, as the U.S. has transformed demographically, American pop culture has become desegregated. But the triumphal picture of diversity masks the fact that inequality amongst Americans has grown dramatically over the past 50 years, most starkly along racial lines — whether in incarceration, schooling, housing, health, wealth, income, premature death, or life expectancy.
Yet the picture of diversity is also now hegemonic, and it has produced two paradoxical and opposite reactions.
First, Trump used it to mobilize a declining white majority. This decline is affective: an emotional miasma in which real economic woes conjoin with an existential dolor, seen in tragically rising rates of opioid addiction and suicide, and the zero-sum logic of American meritocracy, where a gain for communities of color signals a loss for whites. But the decline is also demographic. In less than a decade, all Americans under the age of 18 will be numerical minorities. From this perspective, Trump’s election is a step back from the onrushing apocalypse.
“This moment is different from other post-presidential election moments in that justice movements are activated and at high alert.”
Trump’s cabinet picks mirror his pathologies. Some of the appointments would be funny if they weren’t so consequential. Rick Perry, his pick to run the Department of Energy, once ran for the presidency stating (and then famously forgetting) that he would disband the Department of Energy. The best and the brightest, these are not. Other appointments, though, make the blood run cold. New housing secretary Ben Carson opposes his own department’s mandate to end racial and economic segregation as “social engineering.” National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has argued that Islam is a “political ideology” and “a cancer,” and has stated, without any evidence, that Shariah law is spreading across the U.S. Then there’s Steve Bannon, the Breitbart vet and Trump campaign director who has single-handedly made white supremacists and racist conspiracists respectable again, now acting as the president’s most trusted whisperer.
If Trump voters hoped he would end the swampy collusion of big government and big business, they are in for disappointment. This is the wealthiest cabinet ever assembled in the history of the nation. Trump doesn’t even pretend to be about the little guy.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson brings an antagonism to slowing climate change from his previous job as CDO of Exxon Mobil. After Trump stumped against the influence of Goldman Sachs on his opponents, he appointed no less than four of its former executives, including Bannon, Treasury Secretary Seth Mnuchin, advisor Anthony Scaramucci, and National Economic Council head Gary Cohn. Goldman both helped cause the Great Recession and profited, bigly, off of it. Trump seems to relish this kind of “good for business” cynicism. Anything to stay on top.
His cabinet picks tell us how terminal the fixation on preserving whiteness could be — even to embattled whites. If the apocalypse is coming, it is not from the swarthy barbarians of feverish white supremacist imaginings. It is coming from the interconnected, slow-rolling disasters shaking out from the faultlines of inequality, the longest and widest of which open along racial lines.
Even before Trump swung the country back to whiteness, the image of a happy post-racial rainbow nation was fading. A new generation of young organizers of color, for whom the picture of diversity is a false image of rising fortune against the reality of rising inequity, has mobilized to call out the gap between the two.
They have served as the social-media savvy core of the Movement for Black Lives, contrasting images of clothing-ad diversity with those of Blacks mercilessly killed by the state and vigilantes. Last year, they walked out of over 100 universities to protest the gap between the diversity they were sold in college marketing materials and continuing campus realities of inequity and hate.
This moment is different from other post-presidential election moments in that justice movements are activated and at high alert. Trump’s presidency could mobilize an opposition ready for the mainstream the way that the symbol of Obama consolidated the fringes of the right.
Enter an angry coalition of the willing: feminists fighting for reproductive justice, indigenous people protecting water, environmentalists holding strong on climate change agreements, Muslims standing for civil rights, African Americans pushing against policing and mass incarceration, Latinos and Asian Americans demanding immigration reform, and all of them opposing economic turbulence, reactionary jurisprudence, and clientelist governance. If this movement can call in the white working and middle-class, perhaps a real cultural shift and political realignment is imaginable.
When Obama was elected in 2008, people took to the streets in spontaneous celebrations. Music filled the air. Strangers danced together. When Trump was elected, people took to the streets in rage and defiance.
In Portland, Oregon, after I had given a talk on race and resegregation at a liberal arts college, I returned to my hotel downtown. Through the city grid, hundreds of marchers were playing cat-and-mouse with police. They waved signs reading “Not My President” and chanted, “Peaceful protest!” even as breakaway protestors put hammers to the windows of new cars and furniture stores. In my room I succumbed to exhaustion, falling asleep to the sound of cops firing flash-bang grenades and tear-gas canisters.
I dreamt of a wall. Walls, the urban planner and public intellectual Richard Sennett reminds us, need not only be there to keep people out. They can mark porous borders rather than hard boundaries. Walls enclosed the ancient cities and turned them into fortresses. But they also created areas that were alive with music and subversive ideas.
He writes, “Houses were built on both sides of medieval town walls; informal markets selling black-market or untaxed goods sprung up nestled against them; the zone of the wall was where heretics, foreign exiles, and other misfits tended to gravitate towards, again far from the controls of the centre.”
I did not dream of Trump’s border wall, but one that students had actually made that day in a lecture hall. Onto this wall they had posted questions — “What are you feeling today?” or “What will you do next?” — and hundreds of people taped pastel index cards with their answers. I dreamt the wall was winding through the country, filling up with stickies, enfolding people not pushing them out.
I awoke the next day to learn the dream was real: people were taking walls in subway stations, community centers, and dormitories, and filling them with colorful notes. They wrote of their anger, their sadness, their fears, their hopes. They were telling each other: hold on, we will all make the next turn together.