Trump’s America Was Never a Democracy

Harper’s Weekly Political Cartoon, October 21, 1876. Source: The Newberry Library.

History is rarely written in advance. Yet on January 20, 2017 we will likely witness the largest general strike and mass mobilization in the history of American presidential politics. But unless the thousands of protesters somehow manage to charge the barricades and disrupt the inauguration, Donald J. Trump will become the forty-fifth President of the United States of America. He may be its last. At the very least, he will be the most unpopular, unqualified, untrustworthy human being to ever hold that office. And it may not matter.

During the heart of the 2016 primary season I was doing research in the Philippines. After hearing that I was from the U.S. nearly everyone I met, hoping to gain some insight into the rise of Donald Trump, asked me some variation of the same question: “What’s wrong with America?” My response was well-rehearsed: “The same thing that has always been wrong with America.”

Explaining away this wrongness has now become something of a national pastime—a cathartic performance for the newly traumatized. It currently appears on the menu at Sunday dinners, Thanksgiving tables, and business luncheons all across America, served fresh by pop political scientists. White progressives, liberals, and centrists are all absolutely befuddled. They simply can’t believe that the America of their dreams is being exposed for the centuries-long nightmare that it is.

Flyer calling for a general strike on January 20, 2017. Source: Twitter, Women Against Trump Party.

Even celebratory Trump supporters are asking what’s wrong with the protesters in the streets. Why can’t everyone just get in line behind their neo-fascist candidate and why does the “lamestream media” keep demanding actual answers to actual policy questions? Indeed, in a pleasant reversal of stereotypes, the only people who appear calm, prepared, and measured in their response to this election are the anarchists and the far-left black nationalists. Everyone else seems to have lost their minds.

Still, countless narratives are being floated to explain exactly what went wrong. Technocratic failures seem particular popular. Institutional weaknesses in the Democratic Party, anemic voter turnout, an alienated white working class, and the cultural hollowness of neoliberalism itself have all surfaced as the brainy responses from intellectuals. Everyday people, more content to individualize and moralize the problem, cry out predictably against the racism/sexism/homophobia/xenophobia/Islamophobia of Trump supporters, the spoiling effect of the Bernie or Bust crowd, the foolishness of Jill Stein voters, and the personal failings of basically anyone who stayed home and didn’t do enough to get Hillary Clinton elected. Both camps assume, rather uncritically, a set of legitimate state institutions that function justly and democratically. This election appears wrong only because those largely imagined institutions, ideals, and structures are deemed right.

National Anti-Suffrage Association Headquarters. Source: Library of Congress.
National Anti-Suffrage Association Headquarters. Source: Library of Congress.

But these stories about the election cannot be detached from the stories that proponents tell themselves about America at large and its apparent rightness. Indeed, the problem of explaining how wrong these election results are is fundamentally a question of when one chooses to begin their story of wrongness.

We might start with the candidates themselves. Behind Donald Trump’s “Make America Great” slogan is, unfortunately, an accurate narrative that begins in the 1960s with the ravages of deindustrialization, globalization, and neoliberalism. This loss, pain, and decline was certainly inflected with a long whitelash to the Civil Rights movement. However, this story also represents a very real material shift that white workers, so often looking for a scapegoat, were acutely aware of. While Trump made passing references to the glory of the Founding Fathers and heroic white males in days gone by, the bulk of his historical narrative maps a trajectory of decline that starts in the 1960s—a fall from grace that he promises to “deliver” us from.

Hillary Clinton’s feigned patriotic response took a much longer historical view. She dismissively insisted that despite a few incidental flaws here and there, “America is already great.” Clinton promised to make it even greater by pushing forward this linear, ever-advancing greatness in a nation supposedly hell-bent on an ever-expansive inclusiveness. Things are going just fine according to Clinton’s neoliberal worldview. Gay marriage is the law of the land. Abortion rights are at least somewhat secured. Fewer black people are disenfranchised today than they were in the past. For believers in Clinton’s cultural history, America could only go wrong if it elected Donald Trump. He alone could disrupt this supposedly pre-ordained, whiggish march of endless progress that began with the American Founders. But Donald Trump was a far better economic historian than Hilary Clinton. He told a catastrophic truth mixed with an insane mountain of lies while she told a fundamental lie mixed with a sprinkling of truths.

But even Clinton’s cultural history of progress in a post-Civil Rights America is deeply flawed when it comes to race. It may work as a political narrative (with Barack Obama as its capstone) but it fails in the face of stubborn facts. The wealth gap between black and white families has been widening dramatically since at least the 1980s. Income inequality is worse today than it was in 1776 in a full-blown slave society. Mass incarceration and state violence more generally have devastated poor black communities with more black people experiencing incarceration than ever experienced slavery. American schools are more segregated today than when Dr. King marched. In short, Clinton’s historical narrative of liberal integrationism does not match the lived realities of black voters on the ground. No one wanted to vote for her lie—even those who voted for her.

Percentage of the eligible voters currently disenfranchised by state. Source: The Sentencing Project via Mother Jones.
Percentage of the eligible voters currently disenfranchised by state. Source: The Sentencing Project via Mother Jones.

But her narrative has found a home among her followers. One common refrain we hear from them today is that America itself has somehow failed (not that it was fatally flawed from the beginning). But this requires a rather ahistorical and/or downright delusional picture of what America is and was. The American “democratic experiment” was never designed to include everyone. The history of black suffrage and women’s rights is but the tip of the iceberg. The fact is, we don’t live in a democracy today. We never have. As scholars have shown, we don’t even live in a representative republic but a corporate plutocracy. This is what is wrong with America. A gaping void where democracy never was. A failure hardwired from the start.

As evidence of this, and shifting from narratives to pragmatics, even the empty mechanics of voting continue to exclude countless groups of people today. Former felons, current felons, anyone under 18, permanent residents without citizenship, and the millions of people of color living in Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands have absolutely no say (beyond the primaries for some) in electing the president of the sovereign power dictating their lives. While the black residents of Washington, D.C. do have three Electoral College votes for president, they still have no real representation in the Senate or the House of Representatives. If the Electoral College was abolished, and all of the above disenfranchised peoples were granted the right to vote, they would likely do so in percentages similar to the Hawai’ian electorate. Combine these newly enfranchised voters with mandatory voting like they have in Australia (to catch the 50% of eligible voters who don’t even bother anymore) and even a horribly flawed Hilary Clinton (with her tall-tale of American exceptionalism) could have defeated Trump—and done so in a landslide. Anyone who insists on statist solutions should at least be honest enough to acknowledge the ongoing exclusions in their so-called democracy. I, for one, prefer a grassroots democratic mobilization rooted in voluntary hyperlocalism, as I detailed here.

Pro-Independence march in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Source: Caribbean Blog International.
Pro-Independence march in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Source: Caribbean Blog International.

But if American democracy failed, it failed primarily in this dogged refusal to include everyone to begin with. Democracy may fall further in an increasingly authoritarian, autocratic system of one-party Trump rule. This possible future could have been avoided by simply counting and valuing everyone who has a stake in the decision-making process to begin with.

A more cheeky approach would be to say that America’s capitalist, racist, sexist, heteronormative, antidemocratic aims are now succeeding quite marvelously under Trump. A nonexistent American democracy, with no pretenses to be anything else, is now simply actualizing the totalitarian and fascist tendencies that have always governed its corporate and state hierarchies. What’s wrong with America? Nothing. It’s working exactly as it was designed to work. Liberals who think otherwise would do well to follow the twitter accounts of Kwame Zulu ShabazzNyasha Grayman-Simpson, and Black Youth Project 100, who have been arguing this point all along. Fellow AAIHS Blogger Russell Rickford also gets it right in this magisterial piece. A radical leftist counter-revolution to a Trump presidency was the best-case scenario that I hoped for back in February, and it looks to be taking shape already.

Either way, we must face the facts. American democracy died a long time ago. Perhaps around 1492. Trump may also mean the end of the American Republic. To that, I say good riddance. Whatever we build together in its ashes can’t possibly be worse than what we had. Maybe this time we’ll decide on democracy.

Guy Emerson Mount is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Chicago and the Coordinator of the U.S. History Workshop. His dissertation, “The Last Reconstruction: Race, Nation, and Empire in the Black Pacific,” analyzes the legal end of American slavery alongside the birth of American overseas empire. Follow him on Twitter @GuyEmersonMount.

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Guy Emerson Mount

Guy Emerson Mount is an assistant professor of American History and African American Studies at Wake Forest University focusing on the intersection of Black transnationalism, Western modernity, and global empires. He earned his PhD from the University of Chicago in 2018 where he also served as a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Social Sciences. He joined the faculty at Wake Forest University after previously teaching at Auburn University. Follow him on Twitter @GuyEmersonMount.

Comments on “Trump’s America Was Never a Democracy

  • Avatar

    Great piece.
    “A nonexistent American democracy, with no pretenses to be anything else”… And yet we hear nothing from the right BUT the protection of rights and democracy, no? Isn’t all their crazy talk about presumed threats to THEIR constitution? I’m just suggesting that we not miss or under-estimate the power of the rhetoric: it excludes and kills not in the name of tyranny but Liberty. That, too, is the Amercian way, no?

    • Avatar

      Good point. It’s important to distinguish between rhetoric and reality. Rhetorically, America certainly has all kinds of pretenses to being a democracy. The underlying reality as expressed through systemic action, however, makes no such pretenses. Behind the veneer we tolerate a strikingly antidemocratic society. I think this gap (and this masking) is at the heart of the American project.

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