Supposedly founded, in 1776, on the proposition that all men are created equal, it took the United States nearly a hundred years to formally abolish slavery in 1863, and another century to integrate the races. That only in 2016 did a major political party nominate a woman for US president seems somehow apt: the right of American women to vote was recognized only in 1920 through the 19th amendment to the US Constitution, nearly a century and a half after 1776. (Filipino women won the vote in 1937 before the US recognized Philippine independence.)
The myth is that the United States is a beacon for the world and the benchmark against which the health of democracy, liberty, equal opportunity and social, political and economic equality should be measured. But these ideals have proven to be difficult to fully realize in the US despite legal guarantees. African Americans and other people of color still complain of racism in the work place and even in their neighborhoods, where being shot to death or surviving a confrontation with militarized, heavily armed police forces can depend on the color of one’s skin. The glass ceiling still limits the number of women in decision-making positions in government including Congress and the corporations, with the US, this late in the day, still to elect its first woman President.
Gay men and lesbians, transgenders and bisexuals remain at risk not only of job discrimination but also of assault and even murder. Non-European immigrants have similarly been the victims of threats, harassment, insults and other hate crimes. Jewish temples have also been desecrated, and Muslims stereotyped as terrorists.
Like the Philippine Revolution, the American Revolution, with its promise of equality, liberty and justice for all, is yet to be completed — not because of external intervention but because if its internal contradictions — despite such initiatives as the Emancipation Proclamation, the 19th Amendment, and the Civil Rights Act. But as incomplete as the US Revolution has been, even the partial realization of its promises has provoked attempts to turn back the clock to that time when women and people of color “knew their place,” when the US opened its doors mostly to white, Christian immigrants, and the vote was limited to white males.
This yearning for the past was a sub-theme of the campaign that propelled Ronald Reagan to power in 1980. Cloaked in the language of neoliberal economics, muscle diplomacy and the need to confront the “evil empire” (the then USSR), the Reagan presidency decimated the programs of the Democratic Party’s “great society” that among others enabled the poorer sectors of the population including single mothers and people of color and the unemployed to survive economic difficulties in a non-egalitarian society.
Apparently it hasn’t been enough for the white male workers who constitute the majority of US voters, who, it now turns out, have been waiting for the opportunity to halt even cosmetic changes that to them are nevertheless indicative of their political marginalization and of how much they have been compelled by political correctness to pay lip service to respecting women’s, gay and transgender rights as well the election of the first African American to the Presidency eight years ago.
Enter billionaire celebrity Donald Trump. The 2016 presidential elections provided this majority sector a candidate who was willing to give expression to the racist, misogynist, anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments that political correctness had to some extent kept in check (although racism is still evident in the racial profiling and killing of unarmed African Americans and such claims as that outgoing US President Barack Obama is not a natural-born American).
Donald Trump gave voice to majority anti-immigrant sentiments by declaring that he would build a two thousand mile-long, 35-foot high wall to protect the US border with Mexico and would deport as many as 11 million illegal immigrants. Both the cost as well as manpower requirements are formidable: estimates of how much the wall would cost have ranged from $12 to $25 billion; arresting undocumented aliens prior to deportation will require nearly 100,000 additional personnel, as well as building and upgrading currently inadequate pre-deportation detention facilities. But Trump and his spokespersons have declared that both are still in the incoming administration’s agenda.
His rants against Muslims and people of color, although condemned by even some Republican Party leaders, similarly resonated among his white male constituency. Indicative of how accurately Trump has gauged majority sentiments, despite Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton’s hopes that his outrageous statements would arouse women’s, immigrants’ and African Americans’ anger enough for Trump to lose the elections, his alleged misogyny was brushed off by this same majority constituency, as were his racist and anti-Muslim remarks, which were even openly hailed by such ultra-right wing groups as the Ku Klux Klan.
Trump’s election to the US presidency is a public relations triumph: whatever PR group managed his campaign understood only too well that the support of the Obama coalition Hillary Clinton was depending on to propel her to the US presidency was non-transferable and could even prove to be a liability rather than an asset. But that same victory is also indicative of the kind of society the myth of US tolerance, openness and respect for minority rights and interests has long hidden from the world and even from many Americans themselves.
The panic behind the protests that erupted in a number of US cities once it became clear that Trump would be the 45th US president was in fact driven by the realization that with Trump’s election, US society is on the verge, not of the change Trump promised, but of a return to a past of racial and ethnic conflict that many had thought could never return.
Trump’s triumph has at the same time focused attention on the fundamentally undemocratic electoral college system in which whoever wins the majority vote in each state wins the votes of electors earlier elected during the major parties’ primaries. Trump after all won the US presidency courtesy of the electoral college despite Hillary Clinton’s razor-thin popular vote win.
Given what has been described as a “whitelash” — i.e., a white majority backlash against progressive programs and initiatives — reforming the system by either abolishing the electoral college or restructuring it to reflect the popular vote seems unlikely. What’s clear is that with Trump’s election, the US counterrevolution has gone one more critical step back to the past.