By Terence Zhao
It’s time. It’s time for us to turn our glances backwards, and do some soul-searching: Instead of looking into the future, and latching onto the increasingly improbable possibility that Trump will not be the GOP nominee, we are now forced to look to the past. We must now come to terms with the fact an outwardly racist, misogynistic, and fascist-leaning billionaire with no experience in public service is now the presidential nominee for one of America’s two major parties, and ask ourselves this:
How in God’s name did we get to this point?
And by that, I don’t mean how did he convinced nearly 11 million Americans to vote for him. Trump did not come out of a vacuum: His message resonated the way it did not because he was a skillful politician or has a great marketing team — it resonated because a set of historical circumstances has made his rise possible.
Trump did not make America racist; he merely tapped into a reservoir of racist energy that has always bubbled just below the surface of American public discourse. And even if a Trump nomination had been prevented, that energy would still continue to exist, readily available for the next racist egomaniac to exploit. The real question is: Why is America racist? We had Emancipation and Reconstruction, then we had the Civil Rights movement; and granted, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was by no means inconsequential (and neither was Reconstruction, for that matter) — but, in resolving the root cause of the issue — that is, racial hatred that’s been etched deep into the psyche of so many white Americans — we largely did nothing. Sure, we provided limited institutional fixes, but those fixes were never thorough because we weren’t willing to go the extra step. When we integrated schools, white parents started their own private schools to keep their kids in white-only schools, and we let them. Instead of combatting the clearly bigoted depictions of minorities, we’ve allowed politicians to embrace them, and use them to their advantage (Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona still treats all Latinos as “illegals,” if you are not aware). Instead of trying to remove some of the deeply rooted racism in the South, we’ve allowed organizations like the League of the South and the KKK to continue to exist without even designating them as the domestic terrorist groups that they are.
Instead of confronting racism — that is, taking real, dramatic, substantive, thorough action — we did just enough to push it below the surface. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s back to bite us later on — and well, the “later on” of 40 years ago is unfortunately right now.
Similarly, the economic populism that Trump has benefited so much from is not a phenomenon of his own creation, but a product of decades of economic mismanagement and mistreatment of the American worker. When the coal industry left West Virginia, and tens of thousands were laid off, the politicians did nothing. When the auto industry left Michigan, and hundreds of thousands were laid off, the politicians did nothing. When a high school diploma became increasingly insufficient to qualify for decent-paying jobs while the cost of college ballooned, the politicians did nothing. When cost of living rose, and millions of Americans are struggling to get by due to not a periodic downturn, but a structural stagnation in wages, the politicians did nothing.
Everyday Americans are struggling to get by — struggling to eat, struggling to afford housing, struggling to send their children to college — and for the most part, the political process has ignored their struggles. President Obama has been going on and on about the so-called recovery like a broken record for six years now; and I’m not a Fox News maniac who wants to deny him credit even where it is due. Yes, Obama did get the economy “back on track,” if you measure that accomplishment by the official unemployment figures or how high the Dow is today. But for so many in this country, there has been no recovery. Wages are still stagnant, economic opportunities are still scant. You know the rest: The people are poor and without upward mobility, they want change, and at this point, they’re down for just about anything. And if somebody like Trump comes along and tries to focus this economic resentment into political energy through shameless race-baiting, it shouldn’t be surprising that it works.
America, Trump is the GOP nominee. That nightmare scenario that seemed outlandish only a few months ago has arrived. And we can whine about it all we like, but at the same time, it is also very important to make this utter debacle of a Republican primary season a learning experience for the future. Yes, the 11 million votes that have been cast for Trump so far is a tremendous problem, and unless the Republican Party is willing to accept Donald Trump, with his disgusting views, as its standard bearer, it needs to do a lot of soul-searching if it wants to remain a serious political force in this country.
But, more importantly, we need to look at the root causes of the Trump surge, and begin to tackle the complex problems that we have hitherto been too timid to face. Because if we don’t, then this whole mess will have been in vain, because we will have failed to heal this country’s wounds, which Trump has been so kind to uncover for us. If we don’t, come next election, another Trump will come around, and it’ll be another fiasco, another 11 million votes, and another cycle of classless, barrel-scraping politics.
And I hope we’re better than that.