Rigged in 1787!
This essay was my attempt in the aftermath of the U.S. election to make sense of the election of Donald Trump in the context of my own history and my work in American studies. It is a necessarily personal view of this political situation, as these two categories are not separate either in my life or my work.
In the interim period we have witnessed a resurgence of political activism on a large scale, with events such as the Women’s March, protests against the Muslim ban, and the Science March. In my city of Edmonton, thousands of people showed up to the Women’s March at the Legislative Grounds. The march consisted of walking around an area not visible from the street—there was nothing disruptive about it, neither to traffic nor commercial flows. At one point the crowd started singing the national anthem; there was a noticeable police presence. Later, I asked the organizers why there was no marching at the Women’s March and they responded that that it would have required police permits, etc.—quite missing the point. My critical takeaway was that we must resist the easy feel-good liberalism of coming together only to reproduce the structures that oppress us (nationalism, the police state, capitalism, etc.). While I was heartened at the very least to see so many people from my city committed to some kind of social activism—particularly in the January cold—Canadians can too easily take politeness into complacency. We must marshall this energy, build upon this activism, while still ensuring we remain vocally critical at every step.
Media takes in the aftermath of the election have focused in some mainstream outlets on the white working class, which I view as another way to centre whiteness. Indeed, the history of the electoral college means that it privileges white voters. When I say the election was rigged in 1787, that means that the formal structures that brought about the election of a white supremacist are embedded in the foundation of the nation. While he may be extreme, let’s not pretend that Donald Trump is exceptional.
This essay is an artifact of the election, but I hope some of the ways that we can think about our place in history and how to exercise some form of agency—despite the forces working against us—has some relevance as we move forward with active resistance. Here it is in its entirety, as written on Nov. 10, 2017.
I’m writing this partly from the beautiful Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress, surrounded by all the icons of American promise and power, and partly from a communal table at Busboys and Poets, named after Langston Hughes (who used to be a busboy here on historic U Street), which also has a political bookstore in it.
I am thinking back to learning about the robustness of American institutions in middle school and its system of checks and balances. We spent months just on the Civil War, and the comforting narrative in that class was that the country came together in the end after defeating the evil of slavery (Robert E. Lee just loved Virginia, don’t you know?). As Jim Crow followed Reconstruction, a white supremacist follows the first black president; his party has control over the legislative branch and potential control over the judiciary branch.
I’m thinking about living in Massachusetts as a teenager and how safe and beautiful it was—an idyllic setting for an adolescent to test her nascent values and try to find her place in the world. In American history class, we read Howard Zinn alongside a more conventional textbook so that we would learn that history has more than one story. I fell in love with American art and music and literature, which obviously continues in my life and work today. I am thinking about reading Walt Whitman for the first time and seeing in myself that potential to contain multitudes—that, like politics, identity is not one thing. I’m thinking about my first love being a white boy from rural Vermont whose history did not resemble mine in any way but had brought him to the same school at the same time. I am also thinking about the chasm of difference between me, a brown international student, and the rich powerful white New Englanders (whose names included Bush and Rockefeller) who were my dorm- and classmates. I remember my brown and black male friends who were also at elite boarding schools being continually and brutally harassed at JFK and Logan airports after 9/11. Proximity to power and whiteness will not save us.
People have been saying that the Trump election feels like 9/11, a breakup, a terminal diagnosis, a public execution, a death in the family. It also feels very much like every time someone with power over black and brown bodies gets away with violence against us and we feel shock and not-shock: this is how the system works. Citizens United put corporations over people. The first presidential election after the Voting Rights Act was repealed saw a man elected who received fewer votes than the losers of the last three elections (including the one he won—the second time this has happened in my lifetime). If you need another reason to support criminal justice reform and prison abolition: in Florida, 23% of the voting-age black population is barred from voting due to a felony conviction. The justice system will not save us.
The most important (but silent) character in The Great Gatsby is Tom and Daisy’s child Pam, who Gatsby—believing so much in the mutability of history and myths of individual agency and mobility—can hardly believe exists: she represents the reproductive futurity of white supremacy. Daisy is an object under patriarchy; her value lies in her whiteness and her ability to reproduce whiteness. She would have been a Trump supporter to maintain that value. The lesson of Gatsby is that money won’t save you if you cannot prove your genealogy (your whiteness). Kanye says that even in a Benz he’s still a n*gger; the first black female billionaire was racially profiled at Hermès. The sufragettes supported eugenics by leveraging the fear of black and brown men to gain power for white women—they believed in the importance of motherhood and reproductive futurity, but only for their own race (other women should be sterilized). A majority of white women voted for an admitted sexual assaulter because white supremacy was more valuable to them (made them more valuable) than solidarity with trans women or women and people of colour. Divorcing patriarchy from white supremacy only reproduces both. White feminism won’t save us; a belief in capitalist meritocracy won’t save us.
The first (competitive) female candidate for president had to be an establishment candidate because a woman needs so much more social capital (think of other elected female leaders historically and you’ll see many of them are part of political dynasties too). Hillary was never going to save us, but she pushed against the patriarchal bullshit that was always threatening to drown her. Trump is chaotic form; he admits the content doesn’t matter (I could shoot someone on 5th Ave and not lose any votes, etc.). It also doesn’t matter that he doesn’t use logic or clarity or have any policy. Calmness and the appeal to reason or empiricism won’t save us, at least not on their own.
I’d like to make a few requests: Don’t reproduce what you are ostensibly critiquing. Don’t call Trump or his supporters crazy. Apart from the ableist language, “crazy” absolves you of the responsibility to understand and fight. Don’t tell people to love each other if that love doesn’t include actively building solidarities—which means listening and learning and then acting with others. Please don’t ask brown or black or trans or disabled or otherwise marginalized people to do extra work for you: for some people, being in the world is exhausting enough without being asked to explain why that is so. Do ask people who have historically had to do less work than you for help if you need it and they are there to give it; please give help if you can. I have sometimes thoughtlessly used the word “ally” as a shorthand but it creates distance from the struggle; we must all recognize how we are not adjacent to but inhabit structures of oppression. Also recognize that our relationships to health care and the university and other putatively equitable institutions are not same for everyone; for example, a Trump administration will actively harm reproductive rights and put trans lives in immediate material danger. If your history does not include the violent oppression of colonialism and exploitation of your ancestors’ bodies and cultures, we may have similar education and jobs, but our paths and experiences here are very different: please recognize that. A man who has admitted to sexual assault will inhabit one of our most powerful offices: believe and actively support rape survivors. I will unfriend people who troll or attack me without backing up their points, but I welcome discussion in good faith; in person is better than on the internet. However, I suggest that white people consider not unfriending other white people, because it is your work to call them out; we are tired of not being listened to and we have our own work. I am infinitely grateful to my friends who have been doing that for me the last few days, and also to those who have been checking in with me and texting and calling.
I am not a citizen of the U.S. but I have permanent residency and am still considering moving back someday. It is true there is violence here that will escalate, but also true that America contains multitudes. Strangers have gone out of their way (sometimes literally, walking me to my bus stop or destination) while I have been in Maryland and DC this week. My American teachers made me a critical thinker. My American family and friends are fierce. I do not blindly love or have faith in a country founded on the theft of land and bodies, but my horizon is not despair—that leads to complacency. There is no moral arc of the universe and if there was, it most definitely does not bend towards justice—that is a fairy-tale comfort. Whatever arc we are on we must build ourselves and struggle over; we must seize and force it into a just direction. Supporting structures of oppression won’t save us from them. Our struggles are not new, but the imperative is intensifying. Solidarity and struggle might save some of us, some of the time. We cried and mourned but now we fight. On every scale and in every way we are able.