We all remember what we were doing on Tuesday, November 8, 2016 when the heavens opened, allowing wrath and fire to pour down on the earth. Beholding the fury, we were stunned, searching for words.
Those of us who work in the realm of culture are especially lost. What can we do? We who sing, teach, dance, write, act, paint, or take pictures feel that our professions are by definition useless. Our skills cannot change the risk faced now by immigrants, racial minorities, international students, women, and the environment.
But we can have an impact. The current crisis facing the United States has a cultural dimension. Thus people in the arts and humanities can explain this cultural aspect and articulate alternate ways of being American.
(By culture I mean both the arts, as in music, dance, or literature, and identity, as in American, black, or Latino identity).
In recent days, however, writers have underplayed the role played by culture in the election of Trump, highlighting instead the importance of economics only. Commentators point out that the disaffected of society, those pushed to the edge by the economic crisis and forgotten by the elites, came out in support of Trump.
In one respect, to those of us in the Left who have been speaking about inequality, the rise of this group of people is no surprise. Their grievances are completely justified. But are they the sole factors accounting for Trumpism? What of wealthy suburbanites, say, those in Delaware County, north of where I live in Columbus Ohio? Judging by their mansions, they are not part of the economically marginalized. And those in Trump’s rallies who shouted the notorious harangue “build that wall,” or the others who, since Obama’s election, have wanted to take their country back?
I am not saying anything profound by claiming that, in addition to the economy, the issues of racial, ethnic, and sexual identity have figured prominently in the election. Trump ruthlessly exploited a xenophobic, racist, and sexist discourse to terrify white people. He used one group against another, throwing immigrants and racial minorities against poor and rich whites.
This is not the first time in history that this has happened. But this is the first time that Americans have elected a demagogue.
I am not suggesting that all Trump supporters are racists and xenophobes. Neither am I claiming that they are naïve, having been duped by Trump to go against their economic interests and thus in need of our enlightenment.
I am arguing, however, that money is not the sole motivator in people’s decisions. People have in the past fought in pursuit of dignity and recognition, have struggled for liberation from oppression, and have acted out of fear, hatred, or compassion. Our motivations can't always be reduced to class interests.
In this election, we have to see anxiety about the Other as another factor in addition to the economy: the fear of the first black president, the possibility that he would be followed by the first woman president, the dread of African Americans gaining power, and the panic over immigrants, especially Latinos and Muslims.
These specters visibly floated in Trump’s campaign. Therefore, to see his election as a function of a bad economy exclusively simplifies the situation as it also spares white America from having to look into the dark shadows of its own soul.
It is not the case that economic anxieties automatically lead to authoritarianism or fascism. Greece has had to endure eight years of depression-like austerity with 25 % unemployment and 50% youth unemployment. The country has been devastated, with large swaths of society reduced to poverty. I know people who have to choose between food and heat. The suicide rate is high; fear and hopelessness abound.
And yet. Greeks have not succumbed to fascism. Although a minority has voted for Golden Dawn a neo-Nazi party, there is no mainstream Greek political figure resembling Trump. And the current party in power, Syriza, for all its faults and incompetence, has valiantly tried to deal with a refugee crisis far worse than Americans can imagine. Syriza came into power by promising to relieve the economic pressures of Greeks rather than by promising to throw refugees into the Aegean Sea. Its slogans were based on hope instead of fear.
Americans, by contrast, have elected a demagogue, potentially the most divisive president in history. So we have to examine how this darkness has descended upon the American heart.
And so I come again to my question: What can we in the arts and humanities do? First of all, we can link with like-minded people everywhere who are protesting Trumpism: neighborhood activists, environmentalists, labor groups, religious organizations. Let us take to the streets and drown out the voices of fear and hate, especially on the day of the inauguration.
At the same time, we should recognize and harness our own considerable powers. Let me explain how powerful intellectuals and artists can be.
Intellectuals of 18th century Germany, for instance, locked out of the aristocratic courts, took over schools, universities, reading groups, coffee houses and collectively created something new and radical—German national identity. When politicians established Germany as a state in 1871 they adopted the idea of a nation created by intellectuals 100 years earlier.
During a military dictatorship of the 1980’s in Turkey, to turn to another example, intellectuals and artists, officially ostracized from the spaces of the state, appropriated advertising firms, publishing houses, galleries, and television and from these social sites actively resisted authoritarianism.
It is happening there again. In a recent visit to Çanakkale, an art organizer and social activist inspired me with her fearless commitment to freedom, truth, and artistic expression, a commitment that for her carries personal risks.
Let us be like her. The university, as the Right has always known, is one of the more progressive parts of society. Let us use this space to create new discussions and discourses about self and other, about the relationship between the foreign and the native, our duties to those who suffer, and the tensions between globalization and nationalism. Don’t forget: We will write the history of the era.
Artists can use the arts to show alternative ways of being American, in defiance to Trumpism.
Trumpism exploits the fears of white people while unleashing the destructive powers of coal, pulling us backwards. But it has also awakened a sleeping giant. Since the election, the most apolitical people have told me they want to protect our freedoms and the rights of the most vulnerable around us.
Let us use our talents for words and pictures to fight this new darkness. Let us forge a movement of heroic hearts.