It was naïve to believe that enough white people would hear everything Donald Trump has said in the last 18 months — let alone five years — and stand in opposition to it. Instead, they stood with it, at a rate of 58 percent. Not necessarily because they’re racists, misogynists, xenophobes or anti-Islam, exactly, but because Trump made it in their interests to do so. They did so as people who felt abandoned by both major political parties, as people who felt under attack by a black president and a female opponent and by Mexicans and Muslims — as people besieged by too much we.
They didn’t have to see racism for what it was, because racism could be someone else’s problem. If people heard bigotry in Trump’s blasts of hate, oh, well. Denunciations of his campaign were beside the point of their self-interest. And the voters who came out for him did so as a bloc — not to stand against African-Americans, immigrants, women, American Indians, the queer or people with disabilities, per se, but to stand for themselves as white people, poor, middle class and millionaires alike. They have formed an interest group that now spreads well beyond the South. They are a “we” again.
And they look mighty foreign to other white people, the ones who’ve never entirely considered themselves “white people” — the urbanites and cosmopolitans, the white people who feel they belong to a different “we,” who work with and talk to and live among a more varied nation.
It was among those people that, during the Obama years, terms like “woke” and “privilege” flourished — ideas that bestowed enlightenment on the formerly clueless and gave white people a language of culpability that made them more conversant with people of color. But it also left them open to the shock of something like a Donald Trump presidency. It left them freshly awake to the enduring power of their race.
To the extent that a vote for a black president was a vote for progress, it was a nonbinding resolution. That vote wasn’t a duty; it was a favor. A white person is free to let go of a Muslim or Latino hand and rejoin Ye Olde Party of “We.”
A lot of white Americans are confused about how race works, how it can corrode and corrupt. But many of them might have been secretly excited to discover a man running a presidential campaign based on their basest thoughts, to hear an invitation to join his rollicking, vitriolic party of “we,” to become a “longtime listener, first-time caller” on Trumpism’s silent-majority radio show.
I live in New York. There’s a way in which the city can feel like a bubble, a place disconnected from everywhere else. I lived here during Sept. 11, and in the wake of that day, I was curiously aware that I had never really thought about New York City as being “America” — it was always “New York City” to me. There were pickup trucks on the street brandishing American flags. There were taxi drivers and bodega store clerks in the Bronx and Manhattan and Queens asserting their Americanness, sometimes out of self-protection. And there was a real sense in the rest of the country that New York was now America, too — not a glitzy, skyscraping zoo but a land of patriotic grit, a zone suffering on behalf of the rest of the nation. The disaster catapulted Rudolph Giuliani to the role of “America’s mayor.” And it all seemed weirdly right. The country mourned, and mourned as a momentary “we.”
But my awareness of New York had been separate from my awareness of the rest of the country, and a version of that separate recognition remains. Some of us have a delusion of “we” that the rest of us know to be a fiction. We don’t talk to one another. We don’t live among one another. Our voting districts have been carved up to both reflect that segregation and capitalize on it. It’s confusing. Are we divided because it’s what we want or because it’s how our politics thrives?
President-elect Trump was explicit — about women, about certain races and religions, about the dubiousness of some Americans’ patriotism. He won, in part, by turning from “we” to “other,” which is what you become when you’ve been deemed ineligible for “we.” Nobody would describe himself or herself this way. It’s a designation for how some people organize their world. I’m a black man, not “nonwhite,” “minority” or “other.” But after a while, you get tired of pushing for optimism and trying to persuade the gatekeepers otherwise. You wonder, if only for a minute, whether you should defy every spiritual, gospel hymn and protest song you’ve ever held some white person’s hand to sing and just lie down and weep. We shall overcome? But which we will that be?