I don’t know if there ever was a time when an American presidential election was mainly about hope. However, I believe that in 2008 and 2012 US presidential elections centered on resentment.
President Barack Obama won thanks to a coalition; call it the “resentment rainbow”, built on ethnic, religious and ideological minorities that together account for 32 per cent of the electorate.
The current Democrat Party standard-bearer Hillary Clinton hopes that the same coalition consisting of African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, ecological militants and crypto-Socialists will carry her to the White House. Only this time, Obama’s “resentment rainbow” has a mirror-image in a rival “resentment rainbow” symbolized by Donald Trump.
This rival “rainbow” consists of a different set of minorities, notably white men, Christian Evangelists, gun enthusiasts, rust-belt working classes and people regarded by leftist elites as “the poorly educated”, not to say “the unwashed.” (Trump says: “I love the poorly educated”.)
To mark out his “rainbow of resentment” from that of Obama and Clinton, Trump needed to identify the “others” who are the objects of hatred for his constituency. He chose two: Muslims and Hispanics. He has said he would ban the former from entering the US until further notice. As for the second, he promises to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
There are many similarities between Obama and Trump. Both are outsiders who hovered on the margins of the American elites thanks to expensive education in Obama’s case, and family wealth in Trump’s case. Both entered the presidential race with little or no political experience and both won the nomination of their respective parties against heavy odds. At the same time, neither could be fully identified with his “resentment rainbow” coalition.
I remember chatting with Reverend Jesse Jackson in Evian, France, in 2008 when he was castigating those who said “Obama isn’t black enough”. Many also said that Obama wasn’t “poor enough” or “Socialist enough” or “pro-Israel enough” or “Muslim enough”. The “coalition”, however, ignored such quibbles.
As for Trump, he certainly isn’t “Christian enough”, if only because he is a thrice divorced self-boasting philanderer who claims the Bible as his favorite book but puts his foot in his mouth when trying to offer a quotation.
Nor is Trump the typical rust-belt victim of globalization, being an Upper Manhattan tycoon surfing the waves of globalization. Also, despite his talent for showing off, Trump isn’t rich enough to symbolize the ever-receding Eldorado.
Trump isn’t even Republican enough, having joined the party a few months before the primaries. Yet, 78 per cent of self-styled Evangelists say they will vote for him, the highest for any Republican nominee. Jerry Falwell Jr, heir to a Bible-touting dynasty, describes Trump as “God’s man to lead our nation.” Former Education Secretary Bill Bennet, one of the Republican intellectuals I respect most, endorses Trump without qualms.
Trump’s anti-Muslim pose isn’t surprising. Rightly or wrongly, in the US today, Muslims don’t have a good image. Having emerged as a noticeable minority only in the past two or three decades, Muslims are easily excluded from the American historic-national narrative.
It is different with Trump’s attacks on Hispanics. For the United States has contained a Hispanic element almost from the start of its history or at least since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Being overwhelmingly Christian, Hispanics cannot be pointed out as “outsiders” with the same ease as is the case with Muslims.
Had he studied American history a bit more seriously, Trump would have found Hispanics in all walks of the nation’s life. He would know of such military figures as General Beauregard, Admiral Farragut and John Oretga, the “sailor hero”. In literature, Trump would have noticed the novelist John Dos Pasos, the poet Juan Felipe Herrera and the writer Richard Blanco. In the Hall of Fame, Trump would have seen Hispanic sports champions at the peak of honor.
Could Trump ignore Aida de Costa, the first woman to fly a solo motor aircraft? And, what about one of baseball’s greatest champions Al Lopez? Cinema, the quintessential American art form, offers a galaxy of Hispanic stars. Would Trump keep Rita Hayworth, Maria Montez, Joan Bennet, and Dorothy Lamour behind his wall? Or, to be politically correct and respect gender equality, would he banish Rudolf Valentino, Ricardo Montalban, Cesar Romero, Mel Ferrer and Anthony Quinn?
Being old enough, Trump must have shaken a leg with music by Xavier Cugat and his wife Abbe Lane of heavenly legs, or at least Gerry Garcia’s The Grateful Dead, and Manuel Perez.
In affixing identities on people, Trump would do well to use Ockham’s razor. Trump describes Gonzalo Curiel as “the Mexican”, although the judge was born and bred in Chicago. Also, the Curiels were originally from France; the judge’s ancestors moved to Mexico sometime in the 19th century just as Trump’s German forebears left Europe for the New World.
In politics, nostalgia can be a powerful potion, hence Trump’s slogan of “getting our country back.” In real life, however, rewinding history is a futile pursuit, much like trying to re-run yesterday’s river. The river is always there but you never swim in the same river twice.
A nation is both a being and a becoming, with the latter defining the former.
The US is what it is because of what it has become.The essentialist approach to identity could only lead to hatred, violence and, in sadly not so rare cases, mass murder. Only an existential approach could teach us to accept each other as we are right now and not as our ancestors were in their times.
In many walks of American life today, things are not as Trump and some of his supporters might like. But, so what? In other walks of life, things are not as Trump’s opponents would like.
Whether Trump likes it or not, the concept of gender equality has become part of American culture. A majority also accept gay and lesbian marriages. In many places, soft drugs have become legal, and no one could push the genie of abortion back into the bottle. Gun control is stricter than ever before. More and more states are abolishing capital punishment and adopting environmentally friendly laws. And, horror of horrors, this primary season millions of Americans in 22 states voted for a self-declared Socialist as their favorite to be the Democrat Party’s nominee.
No one can revive the Rust Belt industries by reversing globalization. A wise way would be to move beyond old industries by further building up “brain” industries of which the US is already the pioneer.
Having appeared from the 1960s onwards, hyphenated identities have done damage to social cohesion in the US, making it easy to create “resentment rainbows” based on real or invented identities.
The US is the first country created as a corporation in which every citizen has a share, and the first not to name itself after any ethnic group, race or religion.
The rival “resentment rainbows” should learn to live and progress together. To do that they would have to stop excluding each other with hyphenated identities and move the debate to the political rather than subliminal racial, gender, life-style and, yes, grievance arenas. A pious hope? Maybe.