This op-ed is a reply to: Dear left, stop contributing to the nightmare world you think you are fighting
There’s no question that class snobbery and social inequality are critical issues that need to be addressed in the wake of rising populism. After Trump’s election, calls for a serious reevaluation of the left’s failure to connect with those let down by a crumbling economic system is a critical next step in political soul searching, particularly amongst the left wing. So fair enough that it’s a point currently being echoed by a veritable chorus of writers across the board.
But furthering that point by scapegoating the people who resist racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia is absolutely no answer. In fact, it’s what Trump did.
Make no mistake: those who seek to separate the bigotry in Trump’s politics from his evocations of a populist class struggle are treading a dangerous fine line. To see Trump’s appeal to the lower and middle white classes as being forged despite his attacks on immigrants, Muslims, and Americans of colour – as if racial prejudice was purely incidental to the broader message of a fairer economy – is plainly wrong.
Racism and sexism were central to his message. His vision of an America reinvented – where immigration, globalisation, and modern political correctness would be rolled back and the white American worker restored to his rightful position – inspired his voter base.
As Jamelle Bouie of Slate writes: “This wasn’t ‘populism’; it was white populism.” It did not seek to appeal to black, Latino, Muslim and foreign workers – although some of those groups were ensnared into its net and voted for him. It did not attempt to elevate those rights in the same way as it did the white working class.
Latino and Black communities also form part of the ‘forgotten’ underclass, yet overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, it was overwhelmingly the white community – across class lines and fuelled by tribalism – who delivered Trump his victory. They may not all be racist individuals, but they voted for a man who quite demonstrably is. Or in any case, is willing to harness racist rhetoric for a win.
His campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” appealed to a longing for a bygone era where racial and sexual hierarchies were clear and unapproachable. The character of Trump, with its male bravado, macho appeal, political incorrectness (how many voters lauded his ability to “tell it like it is”?) and unadulterated wealth, taps into a fading vision of American identity that many still hold dear.
Certainly, any card-carrying member of the human race should currently check themselves and how their votes contribute to growing economic and social inequality. This is not the time to dig in our heels and fail to acknowledge the legitimate struggles of people let down by the economic and political establishment. Nor, however, is it the time to bow down and become an apologist for racist and sexist bigotry in the name of political change. To do so leads us down a dangerous path towards normalising, and even rewarding, nationalism as a legitimate political approach. In matters of bigotry we must call a spade a spade – to do otherwise will set acceptable political discourse back by several decades.
Moreover, the belief in equality across race, gender and sexuality isn’t simply a piece of social capital yielded by hypocritical leftist elites to advertise their own superiority via public twitter lashings of the working class. They are fundamental standards for our society, and now – especially now – is not the time to water them down.
Moving forward in these troubled times, we agree that it is going to be productive to call out rhetoric, debate or comments which are classist, even in the appeal for human rights. There’s definitely room for an argument that it’s time to look at forging new kinds of conversation.
But let’s correct something:
To preference one struggle over the other is hugely counterproductive. The struggles coexist. That is why they need to be tackled together. That’s why the discourse of intersectionality is more important now, than ever.
That’s why diversity in power structures needs to be normalised, now more than ever. That’s why people, in engaging with the needs of the working poor, also need to stand up to racism, sexism and LGBTQI phobia – Especially as this kind of bigotry rears its ugly head and becomes increasingly visible, legitimised at the highest levels of US government.
Because of arguments like the one made in that op-ed, those who seek to silence criticism of oppression now have a new weapon: to tell advocates of equality that they’re attacking the poor.
Furthermore, when writers encourage the ‘left’ (ideally, everyone) to modify their tactics in the wake of political disaster – which is a productive conversation – the very least they can do is recognise the huge emotional labour that it will cost certain minorities and identities to use those modified tactics.
Imagine what it’s like to have to calmly and civilly defend your right to equality to a system that doesn’t presume you equal and which tells you that you’re being hysterical.
We should give the marginalised all our sympathy, and all our support – especially the minorities who were just as oppressed by the system as their white neighbours, but who, by and large, did not choose to sell other communities down the river with their votes. Now, under Trump, many of these marginalised communities face greater oppression.
The working class struggle is not a singular struggle, but an interlinked one. Good luck combatting populism next time around if the only solution to tensions along race, gender and privilege lines is to paper it over with widespread economic security instead of striving for a total cultural transformation.
No. Weakening our standards on sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination in the face of legitimised oppression is absolutely never an answer. M