Although historians like to present an egalitarian vision of America, divisions rooted in social constructs and arbitrary hierarchies of class, gender, and race exist deep in the sociopolitical systems in the United States. By digging into these structural imbalances, the bruising polemics of the 2016 election broadened the range of acceptable political discourse to an unprecedented level. Exploiting the conservative rejection of P.C. culture, Donald Trump’s rhetoric took advantage of nativist fears and marginalized others to promote his campaign. Although it appears that the president-elect has no intent to follow through on his more controversial campaign promises, if he didn’t mean what he said, does that mitigate the dissension he catalyzed? In the wake of the election, Americans need to reconcile both how the national emphasis on identity politics failed to stifle Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and why the president-elect was able to strike a chord with almost half of the US population, despite his incessant invective.
Excluding the alt-right, many of Trump’s supporters did not actively seek to advance narratives of intolerance. Rather, they had legitimate concerns about the economy, immigration, and the establishment. Almost all of the American public acknowledged that Trump’s rhetoric was unacceptable. Recognizing that Trump’s rhetoric is misguided and incendiary, his apologists argued during the campaign that he didn’t mean what he said and would not seek to institute policies that reflected his comments. Trump himself may not personally believe the things he says, but as a politician and public figure, his job is to cogently express his ideas to the public. He ran on a platform that was a combination of anti-establishmentarianism and hate: at various times, his policy ideas included breaking the Geneva Convention to fight terrorism, deporting over 11 million undocumented immigrants and building a physical wall à la China to keep them out, draining the establishment swamp in Washington, creating a registry of Muslims and banning them from entering the US, and repealing Obamacare.
Regardless of whether he intended to enact these policies or not, his rhetoric elevated the validity of hatred and provided it with a legitimate vehicle. According to USA Today, the rise in hate crimes in the aftermath of the election outnumbers the increase that occurred in the wake of 9/11. From mocking the disabled to attacking women on the basis of looks, even if Trump didn’t genuinely mean the things he said during the campaign, ultimately, the larger issue is that his rhetoric gave a voice to people who seek to marginalize others who look and think differently from the way that they do. Donald Trump ushered hate into the mainstream. He expanded the window of acceptable statements and actions by asserting the unthinkable, strategically moving the radical to the sphere of legitimate controversy. The creeping normality of Trump’s rhetoric enabled people to ask, “If a president can act this way, why can’t I?”
It’s important to note that he was able to normalize his rhetoric by campaigning on the idea that he would make America great again. To understand the validity of this argument, we must analyze what makes America great—and if we need to make America great again, that indicates that America was great at some point. While I firmly believe that we live in a great country, it’s undeniable that, historically, America has not always been a great nation for women and minorities. Our historical narratives tend to argue that America arose as a classless society, one where anyone from anywhere could do anything—what we so often fail to recount is that this reality tended to only prevail for white men for most of our history. To argue that we need to return to a time in American history when we were great argues that the era when women couldn’t vote, the span of time when we dehumanized and enslaved an entire people group for free labor on the basis of their skin color, or the period when we exploited other countries through colonization to make ourselves into an economic superpower were the apexes of our history.
The basis of American exceptionalism is our willingness to compete and to coexist. To build a nation where people of any race, creed, gender, or religious affiliation can be accepted is the great American experiment—it goes against every fiber of natural tribal instincts. While the fragmented narratives of American experience ensure routine clashes, they also enable diversity of thought. However, during the administrative transition, it is important to remember that the country did not change on Election Day. America did not become suddenly more disrespectful and intolerant on November 9th. Most Americans who aren’t impacted by their identities have other fears that—for them—outweigh the anxieties that arise from identity. While it is unfair to label every Trump voter as a racist, xenophobe, or misogynist, it is also irresponsible to ignore the impact of his rhetoric on women and minorities. A vote for Trump does not necessarily signify a vote for hate—but it does indicate indifference to it.
Perhaps instead of attacking all Trump supporters as hateful, we need to re-examine what motivates them and find out how identity-based liberalism failed—let us seek to understand first and judge second. Identity politics have taken a hold on modern liberalism. By focusing on diversity, they sought to bring acceptance to all worldviews and perspectives; by not counterbalancing this individualism with an emphasis on the threads of American commonality, they may have contributed to the deep divisions of race, gender, education, and class that emerged in election exit polls. Identity-based liberalism has resulted in tremendous social progress, but it needs to work toward transcending diversity and uniting Americans on the basis of mutual respect. Identity politics should not supersede economics and international policy.
Even after the divisiveness of the election, I remain optimistic, because I believe that we are the least prejudiced and most open generation so far in American history. Millennial voters (ages 18-34) rejected Trump by a margin of 18 points according to Pew Research exit polls. Trump may have won the election, but his rhetoric and invective don’t have to dominate our culture. Awareness and forgiveness are equally important. Let us make America great by continuing to act with candor, competence, and concern, respecting both the identities and the values of others—regardless of whether or not we agree with them, and regardless of whether or not our president chooses to do so.