We were told that this was a high point for postwar democracy: a moment in which an entire nation sent a clear, unambiguous message that the politics of hate, racism and ethno-nationalism would be rejected in favor of decency and restraint. And the result of the second round of the 2002 French Presidential elections certainly seemed to support these lofty claims, with incumbent Jacques Chirac beating Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National by the unheard of margin of 82.2 percent to 17.8 percent. French honor had, we were told, been restored.
At the time it struck me that a neo-Nazi who had once called the gas chambers “a detail of history” making in through to the second round of the French Presidential election was hardly a triumph. Nor was it a triumph that in that runoff he managed to attract the support of almost 1 in 5 French voters. This was not crushing loss for the politics of xenophobia and racism, this was one of a number of key moments in contemporary European history (such as the successes of Pim Fortuyn and Jörg Haider) when such politics broke through and became mainstream. Fifteen years later, Marine Le Pen has kicked her father out of the Front National and adopted a slicker, more PR-savvy variation of racist politics. So, 2002 was a start, not an end.
In a victory that will have shocked most of the world and a great many of my fellow Americans, our own Le Pen won. And, it’s worth noting that, because of a large difference in voter turnout in the US and France (55% versus 82%), Trump’s 47.5% translates into only 26% of votes from all possible voters (the same calculation would put Le Pen in 2002 at 15%). But, win or lose, Trump had already changed the face of US politics and society. In an understanding of politics rooted in competition and commodification, the only thing that matters is the win or loss. But this sports-like worldview is as dangerous as it is naïve, and one in which long-term impacts are ignored in favor of short-term celebration or despair. Yes, of course it matters who won the election, and there are real — and likely severe — political, social and economic implications of Trump’s victory. With his nomination by the Republicans, however, a line was crossed that can never be uncrossed. And, it is important to note that Trump was not created in a social or political vacuum, but rather was the by-product of a process that has been underway for years.
The use of racism and xenophobia in high-level US politics is nothing new. In his 1976 campaign for the Republican nomination, Ronald Reagan pointed to the problem of “welfare queens” who illegally gamed the US entitlement system to get money and housing. Reagan’s main example was an African-American woman, and his “welfare queen” imagery exploited long-held racist notions of lazy African-Americans living off of the tax dollars of honest, hard-working white citizens.
In 1988, the Republican nominee George H. W. Bush ran ads against his opponent Michael Dukakis making reference to the fact that convicted murder William Horton (who is African-American) had raped a white woman while on “furlough” (on leave) from prison in Massachusetts: a practice supported by Dukakis while governor of the state. The Bush campaign ads showed a threatening mug shot of Horton, and critics contended that the campaign stoked racist sentiment in the US by suggesting that black criminals would be released under a Dukakis presidency.
Then, let us fast-forward to the election of Barack Obama in 2008. At the time, there was much discussion that the election of a black President in a predominantly white country would herald a “post-racial” era in the US. The last eight years with have shown this to be a sad joke, with shockingly large numbers of US citizens believing that Obama is a secret Muslim, not a US citizen, or both. Then there is the Trump campaign which over the past year has cynically and consistently used xenophobic, Islamophobic and racist language and imagery to garner support.
From re-tweeting white supremacists to insulting the Muslim parents of a dead US soldier to claiming that a judge from Indiana could not be impartial in a case against Trump University because of his Mexican heritage, the Republican nominee showed that explicit discrimination appealed to a much larger portion of the US population than experts thought possible…or were perhaps willing to admit. Trump’s bigotry was not the softened, PR-savvy bigotry of Reagan and Bush. The language was coarse. The expressions of contempt were explicit. And yet his popularity did not wane. The US was turning ugly.
And, on the sidelines of the circus that ended Tuesday night sat the US media, wondering how a person like Trump could not only get the nomination, but actually maintain support. How someone with his brand of racism, sexism and aggression could possibly succeed in US politics. The problem was that, while on the one hand condemning Trump, on the other the US media provided unlimited media oxygen to the Trump fire.
In what must be classified as one of the most cynical — but honest — comments of the 2016 campaign, the CEO of the national broadcaster CBS, Les Moonves, said of Trump’s success: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” In other words, it was in the financial interests of media conglomerates like CBS that Trump was not only in the race, but that he maintained his stream of offensive, anti-democratic rhetoric. It was great, profitable theater, even if the tragedy would eventually leak off of the stage and flood the entire country. As for Trump’s steady exploitation of anti-Muslim sentiment, the US media would do well to ask itself what role their own failures after September 11 played in stoking these fires.
After broad and uncritical support for the occupation and destruction of Iraq, the US media basically ignored the subsequent deaths of over half a million Iraqis, as if these Muslim lives were unworthy of attention. It was this type of dehumanization that Trump would leverage throughout his campaign. Leveraged, it turns out, into a victory, making Trump’s victory also a brutal condemnation of US journalism.
So, as the US elections come to a sad, tragic end, it must be said that the loser of the elections was actually decided many months ago: it was, and will be for years to come, the citizens of the United States. On the evening of November 1, exactly one week before voters went to the polls, a black church in Greenville, Mississippi was set on fire, and the words “Vote Trump” spray-painted on the side of the building. What made the event so poignant was not the shocking violence and apparent racism of the act, but rather the sense of its inevitability and banality, and that US politics had come to a point where supporters felt both the need and the entitlement to burn down a church in support of their candidate. The people who committed this act, and people like them, will not disappear now that the election is over and their man has won.
The horse has bolted the stables. The train has left the station. The ship has sailed. Pick your metaphor. We have seen a vision of America’s dystopian future, and it’s a future that won’t last for only four or eight years.
Elections are often framed as celebrations of democracy. Like most celebrations, however, the tough question is: Who will be willing to clean up the mess once the party is over?