The Imaginary Center


By Alex Cachinero-Gorman

After the (in)famous Brexit result in June, I said it was a “strange time to be European“. Now, as we take in the news of a Donald Trump presidency, I find myself thinking (as someone with dual-citizenship): it is a strange time to be an American.

The parallels between the two moments—referendums on the direction of imperial collapse, you might say—could not be more apt: ugly campaigns, tight races, looming proto-fascism, and an almost Rosicrucian obsession with numbers that stubbornly refuse reality are shared features of both.

The last item is a particularly annoying feature of modern politics. Because the supposedly-hardened political logic of “conquering the center” is really a form of corporate maximisation: it frames people as clients and votes as profits, and projects that by sheer reach & exposure to meet projections.

But as I have said before, polling is alchemy, not science. As we have seen with Brexit, Colombia, and now America, interviewees under-report or lie, and on election day, many abstain. The herculean arrogance of the Clinton camp—persistently uninterested in answering for her legacy, or responding to Trump’s outrageously popular heel gambit with anything other than platitudes—plunged them into the windowless echo chamber where they’d been congratulating themselves prematurely for weeks.

As we watched the footage last night in a late-night pub, their expressions visibly turned from confident to moribund. One after another they were left speechless, flummoxed and stammering, unable to account for what they were seeing unfold before their eyes. “Nobody predicted this”, we heard over and over again, whispered like a rosary to the self in consolation of impending doom.

Except that they might have. What is missing in this equation is the art of politics—and by that  I do not mean to invoke some imperial nostalgia for a Churchillian charisma. I mean the creative struggle over terrain—cultural, economic, social, and so on—which Trump was able to wage unimpeded throughout the campaign season. A Marxist might call it a sort of inverted war of position—you can call it what you’d like. Either way, the DNC got the pied piper they wanted.

And where Sanders had been filling stadiums and undercutting the credentials of Trumps faux-populist message, Clinton struggled to capture anyone other than the “minorities”, corporate, and financial classes who already supported her. She then tried to covet the same demographic as her even more right-wing counterpart, and like Cameron, failed to even tread water, presenting as a milquetoast alternative to a virile strong-man. Arlie Russell Hochschild captures this sentiment in a recent feature for Mother Jones:

Thus, Trump offers the blue-collar white men relief from a taker’s shame: If you make America great again, how can you not be proud? Trump has put on his blue-collar cap, pumped his fist in the air, and left mainstream Republicans helpless. Not only does he speak to the white working class’ grievances; as they see it, he has finally stopped their story from being politically suppressed. We may never know if Trump has done this intentionally or instinctively, but in any case he’s created a movement much like the anti-immigrant but pro-welfare-state right-wing populism on the rise in Europe. For these are all based on variations of the same Deep Story of personal protectionism.

Of course, the nauseating déjà vu doesn’t end there. Here too we have a de-industrialised, broken working class buying into the promises of resurgent nationalism. And in a flashback to June, there are already those who would like to blame them, along with third-party & non-voters, for Trump’s ascendancy—you can tell because they are already out rampaging on social media, looking for easy answers (and targets).

Yet while everyday support for Trump is an important, and necessary piece of the picture, I believe this lands us in a familiar predicament—many of Hochschild’s own subjects had already secured what they considered the “American Dream” and would fit squarely in with mainstream definitions of being “middle class” (though they express fear over slipping backwards). Looking at CNN exit polls, we see an even bigger (and more sinister) picture. As usual, we should take these numbers with a grain of salt, though they do not suffer from nearly the same amount of skewing as their predictive counterparts [Update: for an interesting corrective, and further proof that the numbers only tell us so much, see here]:


Just as before, we run into a problem with the decidedly hazy definitions of “working” and “middle class” woven into our burning American tapestry. True, income alone is not the best indicator of economic status—but the higher income brackets do tell us something: a very significant portion of Upper/Middle America, and a sampling of elites, came out for Trump.

Looking at the educational breakdown, even where Clinton was more favored the numbers are uncomfortably close. We see a non-trivial amount of “educated” whites standing by their man:


And so, once again, we are forced to conclude that nativism is not some inscrutable mystery emerging from the primordial ooze of America’s so-called “backwaters”—this in itself is merely a lazy term that dismisses decades of dismantling of economic opportunity in rural United States. It relies on cross-class alliances built along racial lines, which is again borne out in the next table:

It was white people, as a bloc, not simply “working class people”, who made this happen.  And white women, rather than being natural allies with Clinton, seemed to play out their historical part in the racial order to the letter. We can hope against hope that this will lay the infantilising pseudo-feminist posturing of the Clintonian type to rest, though it will certainly not stop liberals from claiming that these women didn’t know what they were voting for.

It is also likely that, as with Brexit, a good deal of people bought Trump’s apparent anti-corruption stance and overtures towards improving the economy and swallowed their pride to vote for what they saw as a lesser evil (overlooking and tacitly condoning all the rest of it). This would explain the chunks of Black, Latino, and other voters of color who went Trump, and even some white voters themselves. Of course, it is equally possible that Trump will disappoint them all as an actual politician, as they almost always do—but only time will tell.

All of this isn’t necessarily new for Republicans, who rely on mobilising whiteness to their advantage. Neither is the age-old calumny that the responsibility for social regression lies squarely on the shoulders of ignorant proles. But the conservative strategy does rearticulate itself ever so slightly with each election cycle, and here that investment in whiteness has taken on new significance.

For at the end of the day, regardless of the intentions of Trump’s supporters, good or ill, his is not simply a populist “revolution”. We are undergoing a paradigm shift that is happening all across the Western world. And as with all authoritarian movements, their fons et origo is the state & the ruling classes.

Trumpism is elitism because it is a strategy made by and for wealthy careerists to slingshot themselves to a new echelon of power: and while they have quite openly allowed anyone into their midst to do it, that is a far remove from an organic, popular front. Rather, it is a marriage of convenience from different ends of the very same elite looking to cloak itself in an apparently grassroots base. Though it gives the appearance of a sudden, populist deluge, his victory, in many ways, had as much to do with the over 9 million votes the Democratic Party lost since 2008, as any political shrewdness on his campaign’s part (notice that Republican turnout tends to gravitate around the same number).

Ultimately, that lack of enthusiasm is unsurprising, as politicians from both sides of the “aisle”—that weak euphemism that (appropriately) makes American politics seem like a supermarket sweepstakes competition—systematically cultivated the kind of White House Donald Trump is set to inherit. Every concession to militarised border security, every increase in mass surveillance, every preposterous extension of empire & extrajudicial assassination programs, every neoliberal austerity agenda, and every bit of blatant disregard for unrestricted police violence, is a brick set in the foundations of that abattoir on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Whatever Donald Trump does, then, he will have been led there by our duly-elected leaders. The difference now is that a sort of cultural benchmark has been reached, and that will indeed change everything else to come. Less so than the particulars, it is these grander, subtler implications of a Trump presidency that should be the most immediately worrisome.

I am reminded of the recent murder of Joshua Beal by an off-duty cop in a Southside Chicago neighborhood, which gave way to white residents baying for blood and cheering on the police. I am reminded of the Trump-themed church burnings, and the chanting incidents. There is something unmistakable in the air, and I think many of the unpolled, silent or unasked Trump supporters who came out in droves know what it is.

We have seen this behavior before, in South Africa, in Algeria, still today in Palestine. This kind of open disdain for the Other, this macabre rejoicing in their suffering and bloodletting, this unreserved glee at anything which signals their humiliated subordination, reeks of a certain kind of entitled relationship to the environment, and to the land. It is that of a settler in relationship to territory that they know, deep down, is not their own.

Yes: this, what we are facing right now, is the long-term consequence of the longue durée of settler-colonialism in the Americas—an armed, socially entrenched, and self-righteous populace ready to take back what is “theirs”. The Bundy experiment was their first foray, but rest assured many others were watching. And as the Black Snake continues to push into unceded Sioux territory, the naked reality of the colonial tragedy is beginning to split open for all to see—or perhaps, for those who could not, or did not want to see it before.

One day we will surely speak of the “second civil rights movement”, the “renewed struggle for black liberation”, the “new wars of indigenous sovereignty”, and so on. But this, right now—this is what it feels like to be on the cusp. And we once again risk chasing our own tail right off the waterfall, oblivious of the dead-drop before us, if we cannot call a spade a spade.

So let us admit: “centrism” has never really existed; it has only ever been a by-word for riding the rightward tide. The Democratic Party made a grave error in trying to navigate these waters, and now we are stuck to foot the bill. The settler-colonial state is in crisis, and as many have already been saying, it is time to double down, love, and support each other. We have no choice but to resist, survive, and triumph.

Various corrections have been made to this article as it has been updated along with the pace of events. Additionally, more data has been posted since this was published. Go ahead and take a look.