Though it was his suggestion that Muslims be barred from entering the U.S. that stole the headlines and the outrage, it was the second part of Donald Trump’s demand of a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on” that has stuck in my head long after the initial, typically incendiary remarks receded into the noise that is the Republican Presidential nomination. It is also the part of the statement that Americans again and again told me despondently resonated with peers or parents who – it was assumed and hoped – should have known better.
At the time of his comments, immediately after the San Bernardino shootings in December, I was in the remote, contradictory and solidly Republican upstate of the solidly Democrat New York State. As someone part-Turkish, identifying as part culturally Muslim, much of the conversation that seemed to pass for acceptable in the Adirondack Mountains and Hudson Valley was altogether too depressing to give the remarks any serious thought. Aptly but unintentionally, I sort of followed Trump’s advice in pausing a while, and wound up writing on the subject only two months after his remarks had travelled all around the Internet.
“Figure out what’s going on”, since then, seems to have established itself all the more as the key to understanding Trump’s clearly still-growing appeal to Americans. “Stop Muslims entering” is, by most measures, a racist and discriminatory invocation. There are arguably few people who are overtly racist in such a way, and certainly even fewer who would overtly identify as being so. As such, the all-important clause, “figure out what’s going on” adds a crucial veneer of reasonability to the otherwise unreasonable. This is the caveat by which the outrageous is made credible and colloquial, and so too the basic strategy for all things Trump.
Until we “figure out what’s going on” is – in half a sentence – the Trump campaign encapsulated. It is understandable, it is mundane, it is even somehow humble (though everything else about him his not), it is his ‘truthiness’ and perceived willingness to be honest in a world of droid politicians. Some Americans are doubtless planning to vote Trump based on beliefs that he will deliver his many vague but lofty promises; others will perhaps vote for him because they share his identity of angry protest and that representation is all they seek; others – less remarked on – are perhaps happy to vote for him simply to stick it to the man and give the finger to a political class of career sophists they abhor.
“Figure out what’s going on” is Trump’s policy, even his philosophy, not only on Muslim immigration, but on everything. It is politics made relatable: think Tim Allen abandoning plumbing a shower in Home Improvement until he figures out what’s gone wrong, think Dan in Roseanne taking a break from putting up plasterboard because his measurements are out. Until we “figure out what’s going on” is Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, fixing himself a white Russian while he considers the Chinaman who just pissed on his rug.
The line speaks loud to the white, blue-collar American wish, if not need, that for a while the world needs simply to stop. Taken from its inverse perspective, the less-composed side of what Trump said, it is also, logically: “I don’t understand”, “I can’t keep up” and “This doesn’t make sense”. The line, most of all, is why – with the Presidency secured for the good of his ego – Trump would doubtless have insufficient passion or acumen to do anything but the bidding of a Republican Congress.
At this point, I can’t help but consider the increasingly talked-about data on white, working-class, middle-aged America’s skyrocketing rates of mortality and morbidity. While it is disarming to see many educated (though that seems too generous a use of the word) and well-to-do Americans also falling-in behind Trump’s message, it is the nation’s blue collar that make up the property tycoon’s land army. The issue of rising mortality in this demographic of the US is now such an enormous and commonplace set of trends that it cannot make the news in its own right, but is gradually – via academia and the 2015 Princeton University paper of Anne Case & Angus Deaton – creeping into the popular lens by which the US media is beginning to talk about a great swathe of U.S. population.
From alcoholism, suicide, opioid overdoses, a shift from no-longer sufficiently mind-numbing painkillers to illegal drugs; even without the massive deaths and disability that arise from diabetes and heart disease, American mortality has flipped upwards. Where it once mirrored the rest of the developed world in declining at about 2 percent annually between 1978 and 1998, white American mortality has since then began instead to increase steadily. Crucially, mortality rates for other Hispanic and African Americans continue to fall in-step with other developed nations, meaning white America is now experiencing a trend of death and dying not seen in the U.S. since the AIDS/HIV epidemic of the 1980s. Trump, naturally, is a symptom masquerading as a cure, but in order to understand the identity politics of Trump, it seems necessary to understand the identity – or the loss of it – that has infused his popularity.
Having lost the second half of his first term to essentially racist challenges that he prove his place of birth, it seems hard to deny that Barack Obama is a large component of the malaise. In some ways the relationship is paradoxical, because the more loved he is; the more intelligent, articulate, compassionate and in all ways legitimate a presidential figure, the more he is rejected as a black man living the American exception with far more panache than many of this white demographic could ever hope muster. The antipathy will perhaps only grow as the 2008 adoration of Obama returns to mark his imminent departure.
It is, however, not only a question of race and racism that makes the situation hard to bear, and – while economic poverty and under-education is of course huge in what Case & Deaton describe – as pressing, but harder to pin down, is the associated question of work identity. In his 2007 book, Deer hunting with Jesus, author Joe Bageant describes how the Americas were settled by work-motivated Protestants and Calvinists: a type of Christian fanatic who perceived freedom and virtue on earth with the notion of there on earth performing God’s work.
This age-old notion of the archetypal good worker, without recognition that in today’s U.S. ever-fewer good jobs remain, is one of the sticking points in what has become of the American Dream, premised as it is around the humble but dignified toil enshrined from Springsteen to Steinbeck. This dream, which actually withstands economic poverty very well, is uniquely maladapted to the existential challenges of automation and meaningless work. And so again we see the rising morbidity of Case & Deaton, and so too the classic anomie – the disjoint between individual experience and any societal norms and values – that Émile Durkheim premised in 1897 as one of the four main drivers of suicide.
In a brushstroke, the modern history of the U.S. has been a white willingness to either accept – or at least tolerate – massive inequality and economic unfairness, receiving in compensation the identity superiority that came with a preferential, segregated, differentiation between themselves and – in particular – America’s African American and then also Latino populations. The perceived injustice of political correctness (and this is a global issue no less true of white Europe or Australia) is, essentially, a duel whereby increasingly potent White movements shrug off their political apathy and assert their rights to apparently innocuous levels of sexism, racism and religious bigotry in compensation for the token identity superiority that has been taken away from them. It is, of course, possible to resist these movements, but political correctness must be claimed (and used) more as an emotional, just triumph than the technicality even its proponents tend to see it as.
The question this then begs of our established political parties is: to what extent will (or can) political rights to equality be withdrawn without upsetting the rightholders? Trump and – to their total discredit – the entire Republican Party, appear ready to withdraw these rights in order to appease an angry base; one that traces back to the Tea Party as a fringe movement that complacent commentators prophesised would never be more than fringe. If we assume, however, that a half century of reforms in the maligned name of political correctness are in fact now successfully consolidated, then the alternative mode of redress is to end the economic inequality and under-education that – one suspects – is really at the heart of what is killing white America and turning them on to Trump. This will require making common cause across racial divides that are currently being built taller, but is the only lasting solution if the U.S., really and truly, is to figure out what is going on.
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