17 Mar 2016

Race is the Trump card

12:21 pm on 17 March 2016

The rise of Donald Trump might surprise some Kiwis, but Lamia Imam says she isn't shocked.



Donald Trump on the campaign trail.

Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Photo: AFP/Rhona Wise

In my lifetime, overt bigotry has become less and less acceptable in society. I remember when I was at University of Canterbury, walking home with friends from Christmas in the Park, a couple of guys yelled out “Butter chicken!” At the time I laughed it off. I didn’t know exactly what to call it, but it was obviously aimed at me because of my South Asian appearance. Back then, no one would’ve thought it was a slur, let alone overt racism.

Lamia Imam

Lamia Imam Photo: Unknown

Nowadays political correctness is expected. So in politics dog whistling tactics are employed. As an ex-politico, having recently finished my master’s in public policy in Texas, I’ve been studying and following US politics and elections for over a decade. The current election campaign is shocking, unnerving, and at times scary. Forget about teenagers calling me names, there might be people with guns at the Mosque I attend, waiting to confront me.

The rise of Donald Trump might surprise some Kiwis but I can’t say I’m shocked. I grew up in Midwest America. I’ve always known that there was a section of white America that was socially conservative and anti-immigration. These are generous terms that actually describe people who are essentially bigoted. 

For decades, Fox News, the #1 cable news channel in America, full of  guest commentators, who were not experts in policy making, enabled the public vilification of anyone who isn’t white, straight, cisgender, or male. President Barack Obama was subject to constant vilification for his foreign and domestic policies. Under the guise of the Tea Party “movement” and its campaign against Obamacare, Fox News served as a proxy of the Republican Party, prioritising a white identity politics by people who saw themselves as the victims of multiculturalism, feminism, and secularism. We are now seeing the fruits of this in real politics.

This bigotry always had an element of plausible deniability: "I'm only talking about illegal immigrants"—but we knew they meant all Hispanics. "I'm only talking about radical Islamists"—but we knew they mean all Muslims. "I'm only talking about protection of the unborn"—but they meant sexually active women. "I'm only talking about marriage according to the Bible"—but they meant being gay is sexually deviant. It seems it is worse to be accused of bigotry than to actually be a bigot.

The decision by many Americans to support a candidate who is racist, xenophobic, sexist, anti-free press, pro-war crimes, and generally unfit to hold public office is unsettling. While Donald Trump happens to be uniquely vulgar and impolite, but he is a product of the last eight years of divisive and racially charged politics from the Republican Party and its preferred channel of media communication. Consequently, a large group of people are energised by people like Donald Trump for disrupting the status quo of how politics was previously done.

In contrast to Trump, Bernie Sanders has become the disrupter of traditional political narratives on the Democratic side. Of course, there’s a lot of obvious differences between Trump and Sanders, not least their attitudes toward sexism and racism. But one more subtle difference is that the Republican Party pretends they don’t agree with Trump when seemingly they do, and the Democratic Party pretends to agree with Sanders when they probably don’t feel they have the political capital to execute those policies at a national level.

So Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio pretend that they are above Trump, yet they also vilify minorities, women, and LGBTQIA people in slightly more polite language to garner support. Trump’s former opponents like Chris Christie and Ben Carson have declared him unfit to be President, then promptly endorse him once they drop out of the race. The deportation of 12 million undocumented migrants is not a new idea that Trump came up with, but something that Republicans already talked about. Meanwhile, on the other side of Congress, Hillary Clinton has responded to the popular support for Bernie Sanders by changing her position on the TPP and adopting progressive language.

So why do Trump supporters say they are concerned about the economy, illegal immigration, and ISIS, yet support a candidate whose success in business comes from exploiting illegal immigration, whose success is predicated on the existence of his supporters’ economic hardship? Why do they support a candidate whose foreign policy involves bullying other nations and subjecting people to unspeakable violence, the same kind of bullying and violence that created ISIS? Why do they equate him to President Reagan while ignoring that Reagan’s promise of “trickle-down economics” has failed to deliver? I believe that Trump supporters see themselves as victims. But rather than taking on the system, they have chosen to take on their neighbours.

The combination of the Global Financial Crisis and the elimination of the manufacturing middle class without a backup plan has made the current political climate inevitable. Pragmatism cannot solve the grave economic and social problems that America faces because pragmatism is essentially mediocrity. Public anger and defiance of the current system is positive and healthy in a democracy. However, it is unfortunate that time and time again we need to tap into racism, sexism, xenophobia, and abuse of power in order to fire up the public. The rise of authoritarian right-wing movements around the world suggests this isn’t a uniquely American problem.

In New Zealand, we take universal healthcare, limited gun ownership, welfare, interest-free student loans, and a minimum wage for granted. But these are extremely divisive policies in America. Even Obama’s approach to diplomacy is seen as a symbol of weakness. But I have experienced multi-faceted bigotry in New Zealand, so I know there is also a segment in our own country that is resistant to political correctness. We are lucky that the perfect storm of resentment of minorities, polarising policy ideas, and a personality like Trump is not around right now to create an actual movement.

Lamia Imam was born in New Zealand. She grew up in Bangladesh and the United States. She attended the University of Canterbury in Christchurch majoring in Political Science and Law. She worked for the Labour Party and the Ministry of Justice in Wellington after graduation. She received her Masters from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and currently works as a Communications Consultant in Austin, Texas.

Lamia recently contributed to The Interregnum, a book of essays by young writers commenting on the current state of political uncertainty.