By Hannah Brandt
“We are not fundamentally a different country today than we were a month ago. . . The same country that elected Donald Trump, elected Barack Obama. . . This election is just another extension of the argument we’ve had since our founding, which is “What are we?” . . . I feel badly for the people for whom this election will mean more uncertainty and insecurity. But I also feel like this fight has never been easy. . . Look, the people on our money had slaves. The people who we honor had slaves. The people who wrote all men are created equal had slaves. . . Susan B. Anthony who was a heroic suffragette was also a racist because in trying to achieve voting rights for (white) women she advocated against voting rights for African American men.” Jon Stewart, Nov 22, 2016 interview with Charlie Rose.
So true. Stewart went on to say that it is inaccurate to believe that Donald Trump is uniquely racist or bigoted because the president liberals most often celebrate, FDR, interned Japanese people because of their nationality. And the president who pushed through the most comprehensive civil rights legislation, LBJ, was an anti-Semite. These are blatant examples of the paradoxes of our history and specifically our presidents. The issue for those of us 40 and younger is we never lived through these presidencies. We didn’t live through Nixon and Barry Goldwater either. That is all textbook history for us, not lived experience. It is not in our bones. If we were alive during the Reagan administration, we were little kids.
That is why this election was so shocking. The closest experience we had as adults was the W. Bush years. As bad as those were, Trump’s rhetoric has been viscerally worse and his policies only look to be an extension of his rhetoric. Which is not to say that remembering the years of Jim Crow and pre-rights for women and LGBTQ America is not even more disturbing. Of course, it is.
It is frightening for anyone who thought that this level of bigotry and misogyny could not return to the highest office in the land. However, given Bill Clinton’s decisions as president and even those of President Obama (to say nothing of Republicans in Congress) it is clear how blind white liberals have been to think “never again” would hold up without fighting every day. We have been slowly sliding into this moment for years.
Stewart also said “having control of the culture is not the same thing as political power.” He was speaking about the limitations of satire and political comedy, even at the scale of popularity he earned. Again though, our generation, especially white liberals, grew up with the Daily Show. I was in high school when it began. And by the time I finished college it had become more common for people my age and younger to get their news from this news parody show than from straight journalism. Incidentally, that includes a lot of young journalists today.
Conflating cultural power with political power, asserted Stewart, extends to the media and even policymakers. Many on the Left got swept up in this thinking. Liberals began to believe in it when things like shifting cultural views regarding marriage equality changed policy. The truth is cultural power can affect policy and until there is a change in the culture political power never shifts in a progressive direction. One problem with the way the media covered this election, however, was in dismissing the voices for Trump as marginal. That was in part due to this delusion that the culture has changed more than it really has.
The problem is believing that progress is A) inevitable B) cannot be reversed and C) moves in a linear fashion. This assuredness that the work was done before we were born and all we had to do was recognize and appreciate it is the heart of the problem of my generation. I eventually had teachers who challenged that notion and became one who did so myself. But it’s still there in my bones.
Primarily, this all gets back to an issue of privilege. In discussing criticism about the lack of diversity in writers and correspondents on the Daily Show, Stewart pointed out that inertia is the fuel that powers the system. He said “I was wrong in thinking that as long as I did “blind” hiring I wasn’t perpetuating racism and sexism. But the system is set up to funnel you white men. Change is effort.” Maintaining change once it is achieved is effort, too.
Liberals under 40 are especially dismayed that as Stewart pointed out “with Hillary garnering close to three million more total votes than Trump, we have never had more of a disconnect between the popular majority and the political reality than we do right now.” Bush v Gore was just trial run for Trump. The stakes are higher now.
There are some who think that things wouldn’t have been that different under Clinton nor that they will change much from the Obama years. I respect that on some issues that is true. Unfortunately, I have lived long enough and studied history enough to know things can always get worse. Given that Trump has bragged about sexual assault, continues to say he will force Muslims to register (a tactic of fascism), and that we need to increase our nuclear arsenal to “let it be an arms race,” we have a lot of new fears as we head into the new administration. Hope for the best, yes, but definitely prepare for the worst.