Trump and the Age of Epistemic Closure
Like most others in my social circle, I took the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump as a kind of elaborate joke, a vaudeville act seemingly designed to demonstrate everything that makes us Canadians feel smug about our neighbours to the South. Even more so, it was the kind of candidacy that seemed to confirm every single precept that a certain kind of educated, implicitly liberal mindset took to be true about the “out there” beyond the bubble of our university campuses, our downtown apartments and office buildings. He seemed an amalgamation of every conspiratorial forwarded email from a relative you only ever see at Christmas and try to keep the conversation on trivial, uncontroversial matters with; every point-and-gawk bubbling up of racially-charged paranoia from some backwater elected official that could be safely boxed away as an anomaly of the past even as it served to reinforce the superior intellectual and moral standing of the person outraged by it; everything we tried desperately to either escape to escape from when we went to university or that we always viewed ourselves (by dint of upbringing, ethnicity, gender or some other identity marker or combination of them) as in opposition to. Surely, everyone, or at least enough people, would see through the con game that Trump and his various interlocutors were playing: that his claims to be able to bring back jobs in steel mills and car factories were supremely disingenuous given his own business history, that his crude, jocular attitudes and speech were unbecoming of the world we had all bought into building and, most of all, that the bigotries that fired up his campaign were dying out, soon to be replaced by the bright future led by a multicultural, meritocratic and, above all, rational Us .
Whatever the criticisms many of this Us had of Hillary Clinton, we held a faith that the teleology of history would unfold, in its Hegelian triumph of reason-as-cardinal-virtue, and reject the antediluvian nature of Trump’s entire campaign. It was that faith that kept us up through election night, desperately constructing scenarios of surging turnout in Detroit or Dade County whereby we wouldn’t have to face the kind of world where We didn’t win, where history wasn’t on our side, where we couldn’t simply write-off those odd Facebook outbursts from our uncle or high school acquaintances we long since left behind. It isn’t possible to say we weren’t warned, often by those same exact media forces that formed the building materials of our neatly constructed reality bubbles, but we had to believe that our education, our worldliness and our openness to what we termed “diversity” meant that we would be right.
And then we were the ones who were wrong.
The explanations for why have been in a certain sense predictable, depending on the political and greater ontological worldview of the people making them. “America is an inherently racist/sexist/xenophobic/homophobic nation, what can we expect?” say some. “This is the fault of a gerrymandered electoral system which favours the old, the White, the rural at the expense of the real majority of us enlightened and the people we, ostensibly, want to see rise with us”, say others. “The Rust Belt has exacted a terrible revenge for years of deindustrialization and decay at the hands of neoliberal policy”, say still others. All of these seem to contain some degree of truth, but in their attachment to particular narratives of how politics and the world more broadly work speak to some of the same problems that made Trump into a joke, rather than a seriously considered threat, to us in the first place.
Moreover, though, I feel that I personally should have seen it coming, because, as much as a legitimate dispute exists on how much credit or blame the “White working class” deserves to shoulder for Trump’s victory, it is undeniable that a particular strain of racialized, class-stratified rage characterized a portion of Trump’s path to victory. True, the majority of Trump’s voters could not be called “working class” in any meaningful sense of the term, having average incomes of around seventy-thousand dollars a year, but it is also true that his unique path to victory relied on a surge of support amongst lower-income White voters in a set of particular communities that I know all too well from childhood. It was that land of shuttered factory gates and disability cheques, that land of prescribed painkillers and under-the-table marijuana, that land of backyard grills and mass market beers. At least some of the resentments that Trump trafficked in were familiar to me, as I think they would be to anyone who grew up in the same areas: it’s a sense that a vague “they” is screwing the common man over and making things just a bit too easy for “outsiders”, it’s that sense that everyone is too “sensitive” or “politically correct” nowadays and can’t “take a joke”, it’s where a narrative of bootstraps self-reliance collides with an underplayed reality of scraping by on odd jobs and waitressing tips. This is not to say these communities and the people in them are any worse, or better, in some absolute sense than people in other places. I’ve long thought that the main difference between the people I grew up with and the lily-White McMansion suburbs of people who wouldn’t be caught dead saying a racial slur is that the latter have learned to code their prejudices in zoning laws and tax cuts. Indeed, as many of the people in my hometown would be keen to remind you, they have friends, neighbours, colleagues and even romantic partners of different backgrounds that they would do anything to support and they often have more genuine solidarity with them as a matter of social positioning than someone who understands oppression though a purely academic lens.
This perspective isn’t just talk or denial, it’s genuinely how, bone deep, questions of racism and xenophobia are understood there: as matters of personal respect and formally equal treatment, not unconscious bias or diversity as a self-evident good. I can still remember my father imparting to me the importance of never to be prejudiced towards anyone, and being visibly angry at our government’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, just as easily as I can his remarking that there were “too many immigrants” in Toronto or cracking jokes about a cab driver’s accent. I don’t know how many of the people that voted for Trump would fit into this framework, versus how many would be what my father would term a “bigot”, but I do know that as I read more and more of the profiles of Trump-supporting communities, the shape of their dominant worldview took on an eerie clarity.
What, then, is the responsibility of the media in this environment? We should first ask how we came to believe that an ascendant coalition having sole claim on truth and morality would win the day against a certain kind of reactionary populism. In fairness, many outlets did do stories on “left-behind” communities from the Rust Belt to Coal Country that were stumping big for Trump, and these were fairly reported for the most part. To the extent that the job of journalism is to open up other worlds and other experiences for the reader, these reports did their job, but both the writing itself and the commentary around it retained a whiff of condescending superiority. Though they managed to profile these communities well enough, the journalists nevertheless failed to bring their stories into conversation with the daily grind of political and policy jargon that typically fills column inches. Truth be told, those commentators likely avoided that analysis because it would implicate them, and by extension that collective, cosmopolitan Us in the suffering of these places. Globalization appears to Us as hip new restaurants to eat at and a world of seemingly boundless educational and travel opportunities, but appears to the forgotten as outsourced jobs, decaying downtowns and lost dignity; the two are intimately linked. This lack of real, critical engagement betrays the overall democratic deficit in our society, which the media is too often in the business of perpetuating as opposed to working against.
The media also failed a democratic test in another, more critical, manner. Much like myself and my peer group, it failed to take Donald Trump’s often horrifying, sometimes simply banal, evil as a genuine threat to the democratic character of our society. Treating ideas like deporting millions of people or imposing a religious test for entry to the country as merely matters of policy disagreement akin to the capital gains tax rate is a dereliction of duty. The true pain of the Trump presidency will not be borne by either his supporters or the journalists and chattering classes now aghast at his victory, but rather by the poor, the people of colour, the radical dissidents, who were not and never have been adequately sought out by media organizations. The genuinely hard-done Trump supporters at least got the rough dignity of a New York Times profile, his likely victims didn’t.
We are then left with a few things. The first, and most obvious, is that Trump will, in fact, be President of the United States for the next four years. As far as this goes, I can only hope that the media does a much better job of substantive engagement with both his supporters and the implications of his policies than they did during the campaign. The second is that the nature of democratic engagement in a society depends on at least a rudimentary understanding of how our fellow citizens live. Too often, we fail to have this, both for our own political myopia and for failures of journalism, and thereby we end up with policies that exacerbate the very conditions that make such polarization possible in the first place. Finally, it is that media must, now more than ever, become a vehicle by which the two social worlds I have lived in can be brought into conversation with each other, rather than one by which those worlds become ever more insulated from each other.
On the night of Donald Trump’s election, my apartment was a scene of despondency and self-doubt, but it was in that that I received the first twinge of recognition that, somewhere else, there was a celebration amongst actual human beings at the result. I want to know them, at least some of them, and to be able to figure out how we can live together in this society. It is a failure of both myself and the media institutions charged with protecting that society’s democratic character that I do not.