Sixty million Trump voters can hardly be thought to have a wide common denominator. In fact, the only thing they likely have in common is having voted for Donald Trump on November 8th 2016. Yet, a significant fraction of these voters seems to share a deep sense of discontent. This shared discontent may be framed as deep existential humiliation which Trump actively cultivated, and for which he successfully presented himself as the remedy: the savior who will revive American honor.
Trump presented his humiliation narrative throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Once upon a time Americans had been the chosen people: they were the nation blessed with superior land, morality, power and prospects. Theirs was the unlimited American dream of success and prosperity. Yet recently The Elite cut them off from their dream with an impenetrable wall of privilege and corruption and unfair loss of jobs due to globalization. Cultural forces perceived as unfair, especially political correctness encompassing multiculturalism, feminism, affirmative action, incomprehensible “climate science”, came together to rob them of their rightful heritage of the American dream. This is the condescending “crooked” system that ruthlessly victimized and mocked decent, hardworking “true” Americans.
In Trump supporters’ minds, President Obama came to symbolize the villainous (racial and religious) “others” that have been pushing “real Americans” out and taking “our” places, while Secretary Clinton came to personify the corrupt system, as well as nasty feminism and political correctness. Furthermore, they were cast as the bad guys in the classic American epos of honor.
Hollywood’s Western genre – together with its heroes, villains, plots and politics –embodies the American notion of honor. In Western terms, Trump’s campaign succeeded in portraying Obama and Clinton as the big businesses and the smooth-talking city politicians that had ganged up to outsmart the earnest yet helpless folks and rob them of their land and rights. Against these shady villains who mock and threaten noble Americans and the American dream, Trump successfully marketed himself as the fair, manly John Wayne-Clint Eastwood cowboy-knight, arriving on the scene to save the day and the God loving, hardworking, desperate townspeople.
In this fantasy, Trump heroically sacrifices his precious individualism and being committed to the good of his people, gallantly come to the rescue. Very differently from the East Coast swindlers (Obama and Clinton), who use trickery and deceit (including “professionalism” and “political correctness”), he is authentically powerful, straightforward and relentless. Admittedly, the casting is unorthodox: the elderly, hedonistic millionaire is not the typical silent, monastic Western hero. Yet in the face of the perceived catastrophe closing in – he was the only lone rider on the horizon, and so he rose to the challenge.
Trump’s campaign encouraged Americans to feel defeated by “the system”, mourn America’s (mythological) honorable past, long for the Western’s happy ending, and vote for Trump to make it come true.
Sadly, Trump’s myth of the American honor glorifies white American heterosexual men at the expense of women, minorities, whether racial, religious, ethnic or sexual, immigrants, and all “Others”. For Trump’s American man to regain his honor and be great again everyone else must be dominated and subdued, or in contemporary legal terminology – discriminated against, disempowered, disadvantaged.
Yet hope springs eternal: Trump’s victory may hold the possibility of change. Frustrated people preoccupied with their stinging humiliation cannot afford to be fair, generous or gracious. Humiliation desperately itches to avenge. But when the burning sensation is soothed, when people feel great again, even for a moment, they may become approachable. They may see the other. They may listen.
Trump’s victory on November 8th was the big show-down on Main street. His astounding triumph against all odds redeemed some of his voters’ sense of lost honor: they beat the system; they were finally in power and control; they no longer needed to feel shame. For other voters, only the prosecution of Hilary Clinton and/or the undoing of “Obama-care” and/or the overturning of Supreme Court decisions regarding abortion or same-sex-marriage and/or expulsion of millions of migrants may begin to appease the consuming humiliation. Only then will those Trump supporters perhaps be able and willing to respect their fellow Americans and begin to negotiate a common grounds.
But for this to happen, Trump opponents must undertake a thorough, sincere process of soul searching. They must genuinely acknowledge that whereas the Trump honor redemption scenario is but a fantasy – nevertheless there was substantial merit to the popular outcry. The political, administrative, academic and economic systems have, indeed, been flawed and biased in many ways: grossly privileging some while dismissing the dignity and crushing rights of many. Opportunity and wealth have not been justly distributed in the United States, and all citizens are somewhat implicated; especially members of the educated elites, many of whom silently benefited from their unequal opportunities, turning their backs on the others.
To approach the victorious Trump supporters bona fide, in a manner that may induce them to listen and eventually negotiate, liberals must subdue their own honor impulses and not give in to the burning itch to avenge their own current humiliation. They must refrain from manifesting their despise for the new administration, gloating at its inevitable failures, criticizing it with condescending disgust. Such responses may vindicate them – but will only perpetuate the “feud” between the warring American “tribes”.
To be constructive, Trump’s opponents must learn to genuinely respect their “Others” and show it. They must sincerely wish and vow to engage in fixing their country’s system so that it truly cherishes everyone’s equal human dignity, developing and protecting extensive social, economic and cultural rights.
It will be excruciatingly hard for Trump’s opponents to be generous, gracious and humble feeling humiliated by loss and defeat. They must rise to this heroic challenge, change, and embody their own ideals.