The Republican National Convention offered an apocalyptic vision of America’s present and future. Crime is rampant. Herds of illegal immigrants from Latin America wait in the shadows for the opportunity to rape and kill. Muslims are hiding under every bed, armed with suicide bombs that are ready to explode. America’s police are beleaguered. They shout “Blue Lives Matter!” as they are shot down in the street by gangs of thugs who march under a standard emblazoned with the words “Black Lives Matter.” The Red Chinese are crippling the country’s economy abroad while a black usurper named Barack Obama aids them from within. Hillary Clinton, his heir apparent, is in league with Lucifer. “America doesn’t win anymore.” Donald Trump is the only person who can save her. The world that the Republican Party has conjured into existence is a type of political pastiche that combines movies such as "Death Wish," "Threads," "Straw Dogs," "Mad Max" and the comic book series "Judge Dredd." This world does not exist. It is a fiction and type of shared mass psychotic episode for the Republican Party, movement conservatives and Donald Trump’s foot soldiers. This is an America that is bereft of hope and lost to despair.
By comparison, the Democratic National Convention beckoned forth with a message of optimism and a belief in the inherent goodness of the United States and her people. Its energy borrowed from the black church tradition. Obama remixed and channeled the idea of America as “a shining city on a hill” and a beacon of opportunity and freedom for the world. The Democrats communicated a dream and belief that Americans are a people of destiny and greatness.
And it is African-American, Latinos, Hispanics, Asians, First Nations and other people of color who are the main firewalls against the spirit of despair and dystopia that is being thrown at the body politic by the Republican Party in the moment of Donald Trump.
This is true at the ballot box as people of color (and young people and women) are an indispensible part of the Democratic coalition— without which Hillary Clinton cannot defeat Donald Trump.
This is also especially true of black Americans, a people who have been guardians of American democracy and hope from slavery to freedom as they forced a second revolution and Founding in the Civil War, and expanded democracy for all citizens through the victories won by the Civil Rights Movement.
At the Democratic National convention in Philadelphia, speakers shared stories about being the child of “illegal immigrants” and how the American Dream should embrace them as well; talked of the disorienting power of progress and what it is like to be the First Lady of the United States and wake up every day in a building that was built by black slaves while you are wife to the country’s first black president; barriers were shattered as Hillary Clinton became the first woman to be nominated for the office of the president by a major political party in the United States; an American who happened to be physically disabled shared her story of triumph over challenges.
Personal narratives and storytelling reveal a great deal about broader society. They are an important part of what C. Wright Mills described as the “sociological imagination.”
The hope and optimism on display at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia reflected the public mood shared by many people of color as well as immigrants in America. Polling data has consistently shown that immigrants tend to be more positive and hopeful about the future than native-born Americans. Blacks and Latinos — despite having to negotiate life in a racist society -- are also remarkably positive about their futures.
Personal storytelling and the sociological imagination do the same work in helping to decipher the worldview that was machinated by the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
There, the featured guest speakers shared ghoulish personal stories that reflect larger, macro-level dynamics.
Conservative-authoritarians possess very strong death anxieties. “Terror management theory” explains how they manifest these existential fears through militant nationalism and an obsession with “guns, god, and the flag.” The Republican Party has relied on ginning up white racial resentment and overt racism as its primary way of winning elections. White “Christian” America feels besieged by demographic change. Social scientists have documented an increase in death rates among poor and working-class lower-educated white Americans from drug and alcohol abuse as well as chronic illnesses. “The silent majority” who live in rust-belt America and dying red-state suburbia feel increasingly obsolete because of globalization and cosmopolitanism. Both the right-wing media and the Republican Party profit (economically and politically) from stoking the fears and worries of White America.
The divergent perceptions of the world as understood by Democrats and Republicans signal to a recurring misunderstanding about the true nature of the 2016 presidential race. If — as some in the pundit and chattering classes have repeatedly insisted -- “economic insecurity” is actually driving Donald Trump’s rise to power, why are blacks, Latinos, and First Nations people not among his most stalwart supporters, given their much lower wealth and income as compared to whites?
There are two primary reasons.
One, Donald Trump’s ascendance is part of a national white privilege temper tantrum.
White Americans — men in particular — have historically been the largest beneficiaries of support and subsidies from the state. Access to federal loans, free land, education, and housing programs were the near-exclusive domain of white men. The labor market discriminated against the hiring and promotion of women and people of color — and continues to do so. This provided job opportunities and incomes for undeserving white men who were simultaneously convinced that they were the “most qualified” and “best for the job.” These are but a few examples of how (white) America was built upon and subsidized by the systematic transfer of wealth, income and other resources and opportunities from people of color to non-whites. Globalization and the cruel hand of neoliberalism have imperiled the status quo of unearned advantages and privileges that many white Americans took for granted. The symbolic power of the United States electing a black man as president (twice) was another step too far for those individuals who are deeply (either consciously or subconsciously) invested in the psychological wages of whiteness. “For the privileged, equality feels like oppression.” Donald Trump mined that sentiment to win over the Republican Party and its voters.
Two, the rise of Trump is but one more fitful incident of what historian Carol Anderson describes as America’s long habit of “white rage.” The racism, bigotry and nativism of his campaign is the culmination of at least five decades of Republican Party politics, which itself is part of a continuity of white rage against people of color that existed before the founding of the United States.
Ultimately, it is primarily populism and not economic insecurity that is the overall narrative which best describes the 2016 American presidential race.
The Bernie Sanders movement exemplifies a type of left-wing populism that rallies people of diverse backgrounds around a struggle of common concern. The Donald Trump movement is proto-fascist and authoritarian. It finds power through white racial tribalism and excluding people who are the Other.
In November, independent and undecided voters will choose between the racist tribalism and fear-mongering of the Republican Party and Donald Trump and the more inclusive and hopeful vision of America’s present and future offered by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.
Political decision making is driven more by emotion than it is by rationality… and fear is one of the most powerful of all emotions. In several months, the American people will know if Trump’s doctrine of fear and terror is enough to subdue the country’s better angels and if the United States in 2016 actually is a “shining city on the hill.”