American Survival and Donald Trump

Written by Peter W. Coulson

Will America survive Donald Trump? It isn’t a new question. I think I started hearing it on November 9—in fact, it may have even been on November 8; I was living in California at the time and it was about 9 pm out there when we all started to realize what was really happening. I remember I called my brother. He was the only one back on the East Coast who would still be up on a Tuesday night. We didn’t say anything of substance, just muttered half-thoughts carved up by silences. “I [pause] just [longer pause] Trump is [pause] it’s just [pause] I mean, he’s [even longer pause] he’s the president!”

For a while, I was convinced that the answer to that question was “no.” The summer before, when I was still telling myself that Trump was thoroughly unelectable, a family friend told me about an article he’d read. He said, roughly, “The Founders talked about America like it was an experiment, the American Experiment, and the article said, ‘Okay, we tried the American Experiment, but Donald Trump is proof that it’s failed.’” For the next few months after the election, that was how I framed its results. The American Experiment had failed, prejudice had defeated reason, America would not survive a Trump presidency, et cetera. I probably used the word post-truth more than a few times.

But I never bothered to ask myself how I defined America. Once, about a month ago, a friend said she had noticed that people often say Americans when they mean White Americans. The same logic applies here: in order to talk about America’s survival, we need to decide what America means.

Of course, America is a much fuzzier concept than American, which itself is quite nebulous. If by America we mean the people who live within the United States’ borders and its occupied territories, the answer is as clear-cut as such an open-ended one could be. No, this America will not come out unscathed. This is not a hypothetical statement. 

Last month, in my home state of Maryland, a white supremacist murdered a black man on a university campus. Sometime before, another Maryland man stabbed a black man in New York City and told police not only that he had expressly intended to kill multiple black men, but that he had traveled to New York because he thought the media coverage of his act would be greater. Today, in Portland, Oregon, another white supremacist stands accused of killing three men who attempted to intervene when he began shouting Islamophobic slurs at two women. While it would be irresponsible to suggest that Donald Trump openly encouraged this sort of violence, his frequent and unrepentant use of prejudice-driven rhetoric created an atmosphere in which hatred was reduced to a mere difference of opinion, or simply a rejection of political correctness. Bigots felt free to express their bigotry more loudly, and in some cases to act upon it. Schoolchildren got in on it: during and after the election, there were widespread reports of minority students across the country being harassed with chants of “Build a wall!” and “Trump! Trump! Trump!” And this doesn’t even begin to address the threats that the current administration’s policies pose to nearly everyone in the United States who is not a white, able-bodied man. 

However, I often get the sense that America is supposed to signify an abstract concept rather than the lived experiences of its inhabitants. Other articles that talk about America’s survival tend not to define America, but they tend to refer to the version of America that I learned about in fifth grade, the Land of the Free founded by Great Men, the Shining City on a Hill, the Nation of Laws, the Land of Opportunity, the World’s Only Superpower, the World’s First Democracy, the American Experiment. I’ll call this set of myths America™.

America™ is inextricably tied up in the system of power relations that comes out of the union of the American government and the interests of capital; when I say America, this is what I mean. In fact, America™ was the convenient bit of national mythmaking that came out of this system of power relations in order to deflect questions of the system’s legitimacy. (For example: if this is the land of opportunity, marginalized individuals have no one but themselves to blame for their struggles.) When the multitudes of commentators talk about America’s survival, they seem to think that America™ is a true picture of the United States and its values, which in turn reinforces the notion that America™ and America are totally separate. But lately, I’ve become more and more inclined to believe that the two enjoy a symbiotic relationship, and that, consequently, both America and America™ will survive Donald Trump. The only individuals unharmed by his policies happen to be the same kinds of individuals who occupy the highest positions in the American hierarchy. In that regard, Trump is not a deviation. He may be more overt than past leaders in his disregard for the wellbeing of all Americans, but his priorities are only one of the manifestations of the American system of power relations.

Certainly, past administrations have demonstrated more liberal attitudes than Trump’s, especially towards social issues. The Obama administration, for example, extended civil-rights protections to trans people and vocally supported marriage equality. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions rescinded many of the former within the first month of the new administration. I supported Obama’s social policies and was angered to hear that Sessions intended to roll them back, but reforms can only go so far. No presidential administration to date has made an attempt to actively and radically alter the system of power relations that marginalized queer and trans people in the first place. Trump and Sessions' policies are not a retrograde attempt to return to the 1950s; rather, they represent a continuation of the system. Trump is not a deviation. If he is, he is a relatively minor one at most.

“But what about his ugly campaign? But what about his disregard for facts?” Let’s not mourn a lost age of civility and reason. Or, rather, let’s not pretend that Trump’s particular combination of incivility and unreason is totally unanticipated. Consider the notorious Coffin Handbills of 1828, in which supporters of John Quincy Adams accused Andrew Jackson of being a war criminal and the son of a whore. Consider George H.W. Bush’s ‘Willie Horton’ ad of 1988, commissioned by Southern Strategy proponent Lee Atwater, which used racial fears and prejudices—Horton always went by William, not the stereotypically Black ‘Willie’—to stoke animus against Michael Dukakis and prison reform. Consider the rampant use of misinformation to justify the invasion of Iraq. (I find it darkly hilarious whenever I read a commentary bemoaning the decline of America™ whose author worked for the Bush administration.) The use of incivility, unreason, and prejudice to get votes isn’t new by any means. In fact, it paved the way for Trump’s ugly campaign. In fact, slogans like, “When they go low, we go high”—which I find laudable, make no mistake—are the real deviation.

But let me come back to the question of survival. America, as a system of power relations, will survive Donald Trump. Americans will almost certainly be worse off, but America has never been terribly concerned with others’ wellbeing, especially when those Others belong to the communities most threatened by the Trump administration’s policies and priorities.