Commentary: Continuity with a racist past is hardly change
I am struggling, really struggling. I am struggling to accept that Donald Trump is our president-elect. I am struggling to explain to my children why a man who spewed and inspired hateful rhetoric and action against women, immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, A
I am struggling, really struggling. I am struggling to accept that Donald Trump is our president-elect. I am struggling to explain to my children why a man who spewed and inspired hateful rhetoric and action against women, immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, the disabled, and other "others" won the votes of more than 60 million Americans. I am struggling with the 53 percent of white women voters who broke for an unabashed, unashamed misogynist and against a woman seeking our nation's highest political office for the first time.
I am struggling with the skin-crawling sense of estrangement and alienation that now envelopes daily life in Philadelphia, a predominantly blue city floating in a sea of red. I am struggling with the fact that the morning after Trump's election, anti-Semitic and racist graffiti were found spray-painted in plain view in our city for all the world to see.
I am struggling with the fact that two days later, white male students on the Main Line campus where I teach reportedly assaulted a black female student as they yelled, "Trump, Trump, Trump!"
Last but not least, I am struggling with the analysts who keep telling us that voters wanted "change." As a historian, this strikes me as far-fetched.
The study of history is fundamentally concerned with change over time. Of course, everything is always "changing" for, as the ancient philosopher Heraclitus once noted, change is the only constant in life. When historians talk about "change," we mean something markedly different from what occurred previously.
The opposite of historical "change" is "continuity," which refers to dynamics that remain relatively unchanged over time. When a majority of white voters elect a white male billionaire who promises to shore up white male authority in the face of the demographic shifts that threaten it, how are we to believe that this was a vote for "change"? This is not change - this is continuity.
Trump's "Make America Great Again" is a historical slogan. It tantalizes his supporters with a promise to return to a previous time "again." It calls upon them to reject change, where change is conceptualized as decline from an ideal that once was. The slogan is rhetorically charged by a thinly veiled ambition to go back to when white Americans were the undisputed masters of the nation. White nationalists understand the implicit racial language quite clearly - former KKK leader David Duke called election night, "one of the most exciting nights of my life." Nonwhite figures in this mythical narrative are interlopers who can be removed, excluded, or sent back.
At a University of North Florida library after the election, a whiteboard was found with "Make America White Again" scrawled in large red letters next to a drawing of a "Trump Wall" dividing "Mexico" from muscled, male figures who angrily spit thought-bubble comments such as "Back to Mexico alien" and "Back to Africa."
The idea of securing the land for whites is not something markedly different in our nation's history. In 17th-century Massachusetts, white settlers took possession of land by planting walls of hedges and erecting fences to visibly mark their private ownership of it. White settlers in the 18th and early 19th centuries pressured the federal government to remove the obstacles standing in the way of territorial expansion, culminating in the passage of the Indian Removal Act (1830), which authorized the president to "remove" by treaty Native Americans who resided east of the Mississippi River. This, in turn, cleared space for the expansion of chattel slavery in the cotton states. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anti-Asian immigration legislation legally defined who was not American at the very time when European immigration was surging the ranks of who was. Trump's slogan tapped into an enduring historical belief among many white Americans that this was (and should remain) white man's country.
Over breakfast on the morning after the election, I shared the news of Trump's victory with my eighth-grade son. We discussed the president-elect's wide range of hateful and bigoted remarks, including his recently revealed boasts about sexually assaulting women.
How could he say all these things about all these people and still win the election? I wondered out loud. My child responded with the most pithy and pointed postelection analysis I have heard to date: "But Mom, he never said he hated white people."
As it turns out, this is also the key to explaining why 53 percent of white women voted for Trump.
Political scientists who study gender tell us that party identification is the surest predictor of how someone will vote. However, history tells us that white women in white settler societies put racial solidarity above all else, believing that alliances with white male power will benefit them the most. That is why, in the United States, there was no sisterhood between white mistresses and their female slaves; why white female advocates of birth control in the 1920s aligned themselves with the eugenics movement; and why the majority of white women voters refused to join the 94 percent of black women who voted for Hillary Clinton.
In their embrace of Trump's bombastic assurances that he will "Make America Great Again," white voters decided that continuity with our racist, sexist, and xenophobic past is the way forward. Theirs was decidedly not a vote for "change."
Elizabeth Kolsky is an associate professor of history at Villanova University. email@example.com