The latest passionate condemnation of Donald Trump came this week in the form of an open letter from Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York on Monday (the 14th of March) – another well-constructed, facile enumeration of all the terrible things Trump has done and stands for, followed by a stern denunciation. There was nothing inaccurate or incorrect in Stanton’s portrayal of Trump, nor was there anything said that had not been said before. There was nothing said that would not be enthusiastically supported by those of us who despise Trump, and nothing said that Trump’s supporters would not emphatically reject. It was just the latest hat to be thrown into the ring.
To be clear, I agree with most of what Stanton said. Donald Trump is a scumbag. We know this, I don’t need to elaborate. However, I have two major issues with this letter. The first is Stanton’s explanation for why he is joining the growing band of journalists, celebrities and intellectuals clamouring to be the next person to “own” Trump. The letter opens with this:
“Dear Mr. Trump,
I try my hardest not to be political. I’ve refused to interview several of your fellow candidates. I didn’t want to risk any personal goodwill by appearing to take sides in a contentious election. I thought: ‘Maybe the timing is not right.’ But I realize now that there is no correct time to oppose violence and prejudice. The time is always now. Because along with millions of Americans, I’ve come to realize that opposing you is no longer a political decision. It is a moral one.”
Stanton depicts his own action as one he has been forced to take, given that conditions have now deteriorated to such a dramatic degree. If it were not for Trump, everything would be fine. Political neutrality is framed as the default position. The apolitical is the ideal. The election is “contentious”, and to be contentious is to put one’s toe outside the sphere of normality, to be controversial, to risk rejection, to risk sacrificing “goodwill”. However, this decision is no longer political, it is “moral”. He can therefore maintain his laudable apolitical stance and still use his platform to condemn Trump, because this is the exception.
This is tantamount to saying that up until this point, everything that has occurred in the political sphere has been acceptable. It is akin to saying you will not deign to involve yourself in politics while climate change threatens the world’s existence, while 46 million people live in poverty in your own country, while people of colour continue to be shot and incarcerated in huge numbers, while your country continues to bomb hospitals, torture people and send drones to kill children, while women’s reproductive rights are taken away, while your government continues to implement racist immigration policies, while students rack up debts that they can never pay off, while other young people cannot even hope to rack up the debt in the first place, while the actions of the 1% continue to crush the rest of the population. All of these issues pre-date Trump and remain unaddressed by politicians who have been bought by special interests. Yet none of these issues is deemed worthy enough to warrant the breaking of neutrality. The conditions that have led to the rise of Donald Trump are apparently irrelevant. There is also no difference between Clinton, Cruz, Kasich, Rubio and Sanders. The only point at which one may consider becoming political is when one is confronted with something that resembles fascism.
So why is this the point where an apolitical individual can legitimately become involved? Well, my more cynical side leads me to believe the answer is in Stanton’s own letter. Up until now, he has not wanted to “risk any personal goodwill” by getting involved. The question is, has he risked any ill feeling from his followers by condemning Donald Trump? My more cynical side would have me answer this question with a laugh of derision, but it would be difficult to transfer that onto paper. Humans of New York has 17 million likes and a global following. Despite his alarming support, most Americans are far more likely to hate Trump than to love him, with some polls showing he has a -27% net favourability rating. Most people outside of the US used to treat the rise of Trump with amusement and incredulity. This feeling has by now morphed into a mixture of bafflement and fear. Stanton’s post at the time of writing has been liked by over 2 million people and shared over 1 million times. I would speculate that the impact for Humans of New York has been an increase rather than a decrease of goodwill. I am not so cynical as to say that the letter was utterly self-serving, but I would submit that the letter would probably not have been posted if there were any possibility that it might have had a negative effect on the popularity of Humans of New York. Stanton said it, not me.
Lest there be any confusion, let me make it clear that I do believe Stanton’s assessment of Trump’s character was spot on. It has been frightening to watch the rise of such a vicious individual, somebody who relentlessly feeds off hatred and bigotry, who fuels people’s anger in such a destructive manner. Stanton captures this in his letter as well as anybody, and better than many. Perhaps we may also view his decision to break from passivity in a positive light to a certain degree – at least he does have a cut-off point, and has now taken the decision to use his influence for good. And if there is any individual on the American political scene worth parking your neutrality for, it is Trump.
But herein lies my second major issue with this letter. We are now in a situation where every second day another big name comes out as the latest anti-Trumpeteer. Trump is attacked in articles, comedy pieces, speeches and interviews. He is repeatedly called out for being racist, bigoted, and unpresidential. Attacks that are particularly vigorous or well-constructed gain traction and are shared all over the world – shared among people who already know that Trump is scum, and do not need to be convinced. Yet his core support remains unfazed.
The mere condemnation of Trump no longer serves a purpose. Those of us who are disgusted by him will continue to be so, but his supporters will continue to become hardened in the face of these condemnations. We must therefore look to do more than create the latest think piece that exposes Trump as a liar or a racist. Condemnation of Trump needs to come with an examination of the circumstances which have allowed him to rise to popularity. It needs to come with an understanding of his supporters’ anger, and an understanding that Trump’s tactics are a continuation of the tactics that have been used to divide people for centuries.
As Tim Wise recently put it: “When we look around today and we see today in our politics, a rich white man telling working class white people that their problem is brown people, we need to understand the historical pedigree of that. That is symbolic of the entire history of race and politics in America[…] Whiteness was created to divide and conquer, to create the notion that even though you’re not much, at least you’re not black, at least you’re not indigenous, at least you’re not Mexican, at least you’re not Chinese, working on the railroads to build the transcontinental economy. You may not have much, but at least you have, as W.E.B. du Bois put it, ‘the psychological wage of whiteness’.”
In order to truly tackle Trump, we must continue to fight racism, but we must also convince Trump supporters that they are pointing their fingers at the wrong people. We must convince them that their fingers should be turned back towards the man egging them on and towards those like him. This is not say we should not confront his supporters over their racism or that those who protest at his rallies are wrong to do so. It is essential that we stand up to far right populism, and the images of people putting their bodies on the line at these rallies have been both terrifying and inspiring. However, those who wish to intellectualise and voice their protest from further afield must dig deeper in their analysis. Eloquent denunciations are useless without also seeking to understand the context within which people lend their support to Donald Trump. The most interesting statistic I have seen with regard to Trump’s support was a poll cited in an Atlantic article two weeks ago that found that 86.5% of Trump supporters felt they did not have a say in what the government does. To put this in perspective, the numbers for other candidates with regard to this feeling of powerlessness had Sanders’ supporters at 8%, Clinton’s at 7%, Rubio’s at -24% and Cruz’s at -26%, according to an Atlantic article. If one had no other information other than this statistic, one could posit that Trump’s supporters are not as stupid as they are made out to be. Establishment politics have betrayed ordinary Americans. Those who turn to Trump are right to feel aggrieved, even if their solution is abominable. Moreover, if we do not address the causes behind the rise of Trump and present an avenue that provides real hope and an opportunity for true change, there will still be large numbers of people who will latch onto him and others like him as an outlet for their frustrations. The real solution must therefore be the opposite of Stanton’s default, apolitical setting. The solution must be the building of a movement, a politicised, anti-hate movement which must simultaneously fight racism, injustice, inequality, and this vicious authoritarianism. These issues are all symptoms of the same problem, and Trump is a particularly ugly one. The Bernie Sanders movement may go some way to providing this, as long as it does not die at the point where Sanders is either elected, or drops out of the race. The success of any movement must depend not on the success of the individual at its head, but on the continued mobilisation of the people behind it.
Angela Davis hammers home this point:“Every change that has happened has come as a result of mass movement – from the era of slavery, the Civil war, and the involvement of Black people in the Civil War, which really determined the outcome. Many people are under the impression that it was Abraham Lincoln who played the major role, and he did as a matter of fact help to accelerate the move toward abolition, but it was the decision on the part of the slaves to emancipate themselves and to join the Union Army – both women and men – that was primarily responsible for the victory over slavery. It was the slaves themselves and of course the abolitionist movement that led to the dismantling of slavery. When one looks at the civil rights era, it was those mass movements – anchored by women, incidentally – that pushed the government to bring about change. I don’t see why things would be any different today.”
There is a real danger that the persistent and obsessive focus on individual actors, whether they are inspirational leaders like Sanders or demagogues like Trump, may detract from the power of collective struggle. While Sanders the individual has been a monumental force in reshaping the political conversation, it is the masses of people who have become politicised that present the real cause for optimism. Should he lose, this energy must be harnessed in new ways. Should he win, the pressure must continue to be applied. No matter how good their intentions, politicians on their own do not bring fundamental change – ordinary people and movements must be the driving forces.