Americans' Attraction to Donald Trump and How to Respond

Submitted by Rick Feinberg, a professor of anthropology at Kent State University.

Politicians, pundits, and prognosticators have been struggling to make sense of Donald Trump's electoral success. Let me offer a somewhat unconventional perspective from the political left. Unlike many of Trump's critics, I suggest that he wasn't wrong about everything; and, while I didn't vote for him, I think I understand his appeal to many Americans.

As a 1960s student activist and veteran of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, Trump's denunciation of "the establishment" strikes a responsive chord. His opposition to foreign entanglements that harm American workers, send jobs overseas, and draw us into untoward military adventures is refreshing. And the possibility of better relations with Russia is a welcome change of pace. Ukraine, Iran, and Syria, of course, are sticking points in our relationship with Russia. But these are complex problems, and the simplistic rhetoric of multiple US administrations may be as misleading as Russian governmental propaganda. (See my take on Russia's annexation of Crimea).

A closer look at all these issues, however, raises troubling questions. How can a billionaire who built his fortune on inherited wealth not be, himself, part of "the establishment"? Trump's appointment of RNC chair Reince Priebus and Senator Jeff Sessions to his inner circle is unlikely to "drain the Washington swamp." And it's distressing to see scores of millions of my fellow citizens backing someone who demeans Muslims, women, African Americans, Latinos, and the disabled. But I'm somewhat heartened by exit polls indicating that many Trump voters supported him despite rather than because of his xenophobia, misogyny, and racism. They may be receptive to a well-delivered progressive message.

Much of the electorate's distrust of Candidate Hillary Clinton was misplaced. Republicans have spent decades vilifying her for myriad sins, real and imagined, and her email scandal was utterly bogus. Not even her staunchest adversaries claimed that she intentionally passed classified information to our enemies. Free-market ideologues, who insist that government does nothing right, ought to appreciate her preference for a private server (were she running for webmaster-in-chief, her miscalculation would be serious concern. As US president, she'd have had a capable tech staff to prevent such errors in the future). Nonetheless, sound reasons abound for doubts about her leadership.

As first lady, New York senator, and secretary of state, Clinton's attempts to dissociate herself from "the establishment" ring hollow. Her ties to Wall Street banks were real, and she enthusiastically promoted free trade deals -- including NAFTA and the TPP -- until forced to back off under duress. With consistent pressure from the left, a President Clinton would probably have maintained the policies that got her elected, but it's hard to blame the skeptics.

The key question for progressives is what to do now. Trump, who "won" with over two million fewer votes than his opponent, says he wants to be president for all Americans, and both candidate Clinton and President Obama have called on us to give him a chance. I concur ... up to a point. He should have the opportunity to do the right thing, and some initial indications are positive. He has thanked Clinton for her service to the country, declared Obama to be "a good man," and expressed interest in learning from him over the coming weeks. But if he really wants to demonstrate his commitment to national unity, an excellent place to begin would be to condemn the virulent attacks on Muslims, gays, and African Americans that have spiked since his election. Appointing Stephen Bannon and Senator Sessions to positions of responsibility is a move in the wrong direction.

During the campaign, Trump made a lot of promises: to create millions of new, well-paying jobs; drastically improve the US economy; raise our standing in the international community; and decisively defeat ISIS while reducing our overseas military commitments. Should he fulfill those promises, he'll deserve well-earned credit. If he fails, millions of his supporters will be disappointed and ready to look in a new direction.

While we should give our president-elect a chance to demonstrate that he is not the ignorant bigot of the recent campaign, we must resist when his decisions are abhorrent. And let us not imagine that the answers reside only in the ballot box. We must be prepared to organize, strike, picket, and march for the kind of world in which we hope to live.

Civil rights activists struggled for a decade before our national leaders passed legal protections in 1964. Millions of anti-war activists held rallies and sit-ins; many were arrested; some were beaten; and some even killed (including four at my university) before we forced an end to one of history's most obscene conflicts. So let's applaud Trump for any constructive measures, but make it clear that attacks on people's health, well-being, civil liberties, and civil rights will be resisted to the end.