Beginning around 8 p.m. the evening of election night, President-Elect Donald Trump captured the lead in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida. Some of these states were considered contentious battleground states. Others were states that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had long been projected to win, and by a considerable margin. Spectators looked on as statistician Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight projection for a Trump victory surpassed 50 percent, and as a New York Times projection poll flipped on a dime to project Trump over Clinton. Unassuming onlookers could certainly frame the unanticipated events of election night as an underdog success story: at no point in the lead-up to the election did Trump appear to hold the winning hand. At the same time, Trump’s success could be attributed to a perceived underdog status with which his supporters—particularly his white working class base—identified.
Yet depicting Trump as an underdog holds dangerous implications for his presidency and de-emphasizes the hateful and divisive rhetoric that propelled him to the Oval Office. Trump’s campaign was anti-establishment and perhaps even apolitical, a status that innately benefitted him and negatively affected Clinton, the epitome of the Democratic political establishment. But by the very nature of his background, the president-elect cannot be seen as an underdog. The gold-plated “Trump” logo attached to every business event and at every campaign stop is reflective of the enormous privilege and “success” that facilitated his ascendance to Republican nominee for President.
Clinton structured her campaign around a set of actionable policy proposals and told a narrative of success built over a lifetime of work in the public and private spheres. Candidate Trump, in contrast, was the first to flout the financial “success” of his business and real-estate ventures, underlining them, and his multi-billion-dollar organization, as his principal qualifications for the Oval Office. The Trump Organization, based out of Trump Tower in New York, is responsible for overseeing all of Donald Trump’s global business ventures and investments. It specifically focuses on real estate development, investment, sales and marketing, and property management. Over the course of the campaign, his leaked tax returns and the failure of a number of real estate projects put into question the extent of his wealth. There is little doubt, however, that Trump is at the absolute least a billionaire.
This personal wealth enabled Trump to finance his own campaign for a prolonged period of time. Decades of assiduously pursuing celebrity also inevitably granted him name recognition to people otherwise disengaged from the political arena. Many of Trump’s supporters imagined themselves in his image, although Trump was born into a wealthy family and built his real estate empire on the foundation of his father. Trump’s position at the onset of his campaign thus inevitably advantaged him. Although he sparked enthusiasm within a white, lower-middle class population across the country, it largely stemmed from his own position as a successful businessman.
Yet another narrative paints Trump as an underdog hero willing to defend the common American against the forces of globalization and multiculturalism. The rhetoric driving Trump’s campaign centered on a hostile anti-immigrant, nativist platform that reflected a disregard for the United States’ espoused values and its increasingly internationalist approach to political affairs. Moreover, Trump’s campaign was overtly racist, and has led to a resurgence and mainstreaming of the Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups who actively endorsed Trump in the lead-up to election day. His opening comments on illegal immigration were false and explicitly offensive to millions of Hispanic Americans and recent immigrants. Trump also attacked Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s credibility in overseeing a lawsuit against Trump University on the basis of his Hispanic heritage. In the wake of November 2015 terror attacks in Paris, he equated the actions of a handful of violent extremists with those of the 1.6 billion peaceful followers of Islam around the world, in calling for a “temporary ban” on Muslims entering the United States. And on August 16, Steven Bannon, executive chairman of controversial alternative right-wing outlet Breitbart News became the chief executive officer of the Trump Campaign. Bannon and Breitbart received widespread criticism for publicizing statements and opinions that were racist or anti-Semitic. No other mainstream candidate in recent memory has so actively and vocally fanned the flames of racism in the country.
The president-elect’s inflammatory, vulgar, and ultimately offensive vocabulary solidifies a racially and religiously defined sense of status in the United States. Striking fear into the hearts of ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, insulting women, and fanning the flames of popular prejudices certainly breaks the mold of the past several decades of presidential campaigns. It harkens back to the overtly pro-segregation, populist message that drove Southern Democrat George Wallace’s primary bid in 1964. Segregationists were not perceived as “underdogs” throughout the 1960s in the same way Trump is not and must not be perceived as the 2016 underdog.
The racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic drivers of Trump’s campaign play into a far larger narrative of otherization and construction of “difference” along racial or gender lines. Beginning with an influx of immigrants, particularly from Ireland and China, in the mid-19th century, white working-class individuals in the United States attempted to secure a higher status than their immigrant counterparts by means of race and external difference. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment and its equal protection clause threatened the higher standing of poor white laborers in the South, which led many to join the Klan throughout the subsequent period of Reconstruction. These individuals attempted to better themselves by constructing “inferiority,” orchestrating violent hate crimes, and propagating racist sentiments.
In 2016, Trump’s campaign has uncovered the extent to which the same prejudices and artificial differences continue to govern our contemporary livelihoods. The white, lower and middle-class workers who voted en masse for Donald Trump have been hit hard by globalization and multiculturalism, as manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas. Factories throughout the Midwest, in the Rust Belt cities that secured the presidency for Trump, have declined in favor of coastal startup and technology companies that hire the college-educated. Working-class white America felt as though it had fallen by the wayside, abandoned in the face of trade deals, loose immigration laws, and urbanization. “Make America Great Again” provided to these voters a return to a status quo in which they held some degree of upper hand. A vote for Trump indicated a passive tolerance for xenophobia, racism, and sexism. Although many willingly overlooked Trump’s offensive comments and policies in favor of his perceived ability to provide job security and shake up Washington, others wanted to hear their own xenophobic and isolationist tendencies articulated to a national audience. Certainly, a candidate who spoke for these values was an underdog candidate just as they, his supporters, saw themselves to be abandoned, underdog citizens.
This argument fails to consider how attempted “otherization” for one’s own personal gain is not a worthy, respectable, or effective “rags-to-riches” story. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, his rallying cries, and his reactionary vocabulary directly exploited a vulnerable white working and middle class that felt it needed a champion. The inaugural year of Trump’s presidency is likely to dismantle the falsely perceived anti-establishment, “underdog” status that may nonetheless have propelled his electoral victory.
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