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After the Moment: The Death of US Exceptionalism?

[US Electoral College Map as of 9am EST Wednesday 9 November 2016. Image via Politico.com] [US Electoral College Map as of 9am EST Wednesday 9 November 2016. Image via Politico.com]

The victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Rodham Clinton in the US presidential elections has sent a shock wave across the United States, the Americas, and indeed the world. However, the particular reverberations of this shock take on very different manifestations depending on geographic location, political affiliation, class background, and much more. In Beirut for example, some loyalists of recently elected Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement are brandishing Trump’s win as “another victory against the traditional political establishment,” while many of those that champion Russia’s Vladimir Putin as a check on US regional power are celebrating the defeat of “the Clinton War Dynasty.” Needless to say, the assumptions behind such views are problematic even if they do reflect certain realities.

Part of this shock among US segments of leftist and liberal circles is an inquiry into “what went wrong?” Analysts, pundits, and voters are already debating whether this was the Clinton campaign’s race to lose or whether the Democratic Party leadership confused Clinton’s power within the party for her capacity to win the presidency. Exit polls and voter statistics are being mobilized to find out exactly which segment of the population was responsible for the outcome, either by not showing up enough or showing up too much. The Trump phenomenon (irrespective of whether we call it white nationalism, neo-fascism, or right-wing populism—though labeling matters) has culminated with the seizure of the White House by an openly racist misogynist. His campaign brought to the forefront political sentiments, discursive practices, and practical developments that do not bode well for the wellbeing of many who live in the United States or abroad. To what degree the harmful effects of his presidency represent something qualitatively worse than a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency is no longer at issue, since a Trump administration is what all who claim to be progressive now have to contend with.

The mainstream media pounded viewers with the word “historic,” from the moment election day coverage began through declaring Trump the president-elect. It was historic, many said, because a victory by either candidate would represent a new threshold: Clinton would be the first woman US president; Trump would be the first US president without prior service in government or the military. Yet there is something else historic, it would appear, about this election: the complete and utter shock within US leftist and liberal circles that US voters would elect (by a “plurality” only, as some are careful to note) Donald Trump.

It is this shock that has struck me the most in the aftermath of the US elections. This is not because I predicted a Trump victory—I did not. Rather it is because this shock represents a continuity of many of the very same dynamics that helped produce Trump’s victory. His most vocal supporters were labeled as ignorant, racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, and much more. Those supporters, we were told, were a fringe reaction to the inevitable progress that Barak Obama’s presidency and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candidacy represented. It was this belief in a good “America” that led many to believe Clinton would win, even those that had reservations about her candidacy. The majority (sorry, I mean plurality) of US voters would surely reject the politics of Trump, independent of the politics of Clinton. Yet clearly, this logic did not pan out. The insistence of many on this logic revealed a deep investment in US exceptionalism: the liberal party in the United States had nothing to learn from Greece, Scotland, the United Kingdom, or other European countries; fundamental critiques and suspicion of establishment politics could be defeated or deferred by merely pointing out the rightwing elements among them; Trump was an exception to US politics, not its logical outcome. To this, more can be added: demagogy, ultra right-wing ascendancy to power, and shifting institutional divisions of power were the stuff of the Third World, and sometimes Europe. These and many other claims and statements, even if couched within justified critiques and condemnations of Trump, betrayed a sense of both exceptionalism and self-centeredness.

Those of us who teach the history and contemporary politics of the Middle East and North Africa in the United States often find ourselves struggling to explain to students why certain types of opposition movements emerge, why certain electoral victories transpire, and why things do not seem to get better—but rather worse—in the region. As students ask questions and classroom discussions deepen, it becomes clear they are banging their heads against the starting points and sociopolitical trajectories of a region where “progress” simply makes little sense as an analytic arc. But it is precisely their own problematic understanding of US history and contemporary politics that has privileged such a narrative of societies in general and their own in particular. It is for this reason that, no matter our understanding of the variables that led to Trump’s victory or our suggested strategies for defending against the onslaughts on various communities his presidency will inspire, we must not double down on the exceptionalism that blinded many to the possibility that he could win.

Donald Trump is the next US president because a plurality of those that voted in the recent elections preferred him over Hillary Rodham Clinton. His victory is not the result of some deviation from an American value or destiny. It is the product of both structural and contingent factors that those who are shocked were blind to, and most of us are complicit in. Eliminating the electoral college and centering the popular vote is an important institutional shift, but that does not address the core issue (to say nothing of that fact that we should dissuade ourselves of the "they could never win the popular vote" argument). Trump’s election represents a sad day for many, as it should. But it also reflects a sad reality that has been ignored too many times: a successful presidential candidate needs to earn the trust of the voters, incorporate their vision for the future, and build genuine coalitions in ways that go beyond “it’s me or worse.”

Much energy is currently manifesting as shock at the outcome and rage at the voters. Perhaps the shock is less about Clinton’s loss—or even Trump’s victory—but rather the death of US exceptionalism. If so, then such death represents a small glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark future. Perhaps now talk of “experience” and “leadership” as a basis of support can be replaced with actual positions the stakes of which are the fate of economic exploitation and other systems of hierarchy and violence. I am saddened and scared by Trump’s victory. Stripped of whatever comfort a Clinton victory—but really a Trump loss—would have given us about the state of things and the nature of US politics, perhaps now practicing democracy will extend beyond election cycles and identitarian milestones.

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