It is painful to see Donald Trump win the election, and as someone who has Muslim loved ones, it is also scary. But I do not think it’s productive to reduce the victory to racism, sexism, Islamophobia and homophobia. There are some people who voted for the tyrant because they have been seriously hurt by the “establishment.” This includes liberals who have a deaf ear to the concerns of poor whites, who seem never to register on their sympathy radars and who often are seen as the enemies of their progressive consciousness. But politics is about relationships, and when we write off a sector of an oppressed population, we should not be surprised that those people may act irrationally and turn against mainstream liberals.
I’ve been seeing commentaries and posts along the lines of “don’t despair, the future is ours because we have demography on our side.” The assumption is that as America’s white population becomes smaller in relationship to people of color, the nation will automatically move to the left. But one thing I’ve learned in my more recent studies is that rarely do social conditions determine politics. It is hard to see now, but I could envision a future of multiple possibilities: A chunk of Hispanics may move right or be navigated further to the left; poor whites may continue moving to the right or be persuaded to move to the left; white women may move more to the right or navigate to the left; or, our entire political landscape may start to be understood via religious discourse of secular vs. religion, Christian vs. infidel, and so forth.
Take the example of what is happening in some of the European countries, like Denmark, that Ferruh Yilmaz discusses in his work “How the Workers Became Muslims: Immigration, Culture, and Hegemonic Transformation in Europe.” You have folks who have been traditionally liberal now in agreement with far-right populists, who claim that in order to protect “Danish culture” a questionnaire should be developed to test whether Muslims have the correct values about gays and women before admitting them into the country. What was traditionally left of center has been appropriated by the right and is affecting the gay vote. In other words, the demographic of those who identify as LGBTQ moved to the right, not the left, and has become part of a racist, anti-immigrant campaign.
It’s clear from these examples that people’s political leanings are not determined by objective conditions like demographic shifts but by the political discourse of the time. This is why it’s so important to begin now mobilizing a discourse not around useless indicators like demography, but rather around people’s desires to transform our incredibly unequal system by challenging the true political and economic elite and giving voice to the most dispossessed of our population, the bottom 70 or 80 percent.
I do not see Trump’s victory as a win for the white poor at all. It’ll mean more misery and suffering for poor people of color, poor whites, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and women. The only victory that can come out of this is for us to stop blaming one another and to unite in challenging a political and economic system that is destroying the dreams of our families and devastating our planet. Trump is the icon, not the rebel, of this cancerous system.
Khaldoun Samman, of Minneapolis, is a professor of sociology at Macalester College.