Beyond Anger: Immigrants and Trump's Presidency

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To understand Trump's ascendance to presidency, instead of looking into the structure of the society, we need to look into the software of the society; the way people operate culturally.

It has been three months since the inauguration of President Trump and the nation still is engaged in agonized self-scrutiny to fathom the ascendance of Trump to the highest office in the country. Some explanations blamed it on the establishment’s inability to read and respond to electors’ interests. Other arguments deplored the Democratic Party for clearing the way for Hillary Clinton despite her trust problem. Other opinions maintained that Hillary Clinton did not speak to young voters, African Americans and working class. She was also censured for not addressing the real grievances; that is the economic concerns of the public. Clinton criticized the FBI for releasing the letter eleven days before the Election Day. Some explorations highlight the large number of people who sat at home and did not vote.

However, the analyses expanded on the event revolve around the election process itself. They explored the tactics and strategies employed by the campaigners to secure the largest number of voters. But the significance of Trump’s victory and its startling consequences should urge a deeper understanding that goes beyond ephemeral tactics and winning-oriented strategies. Why a parliamentary democracy brings to office an undemocratic president who vowed during his campaign to breach constitutional rights? Why a nation with one of the oldest democracies in the world elects a president who disdains democratic values? The analyses must dig deeper into the cultural and social elements underlying the public’s decision to elect Trump.

Some attempts made on that direction looked into structural dynamics of the society such as working class’ longing to challenge the establishment. But Trump could hardly be considered a champion for the dispossessed. And even when he pledges to repeal trade agreements he does not criticize neo-liberalism itself but some of its results. Additionally, given the fact that the median of the annual income of Trump’s voters is 72,000 an argument based on economic grievances is untenable. Another exploration points to the division between the conservative heartland and the liberal coasts or urban versus rural. However, the compelling fact is that economically and socially diverse groups of people voted for Trump and some even against their interest like women who voted for a misogynist. Thus, a different factor made Trump's rhetoric appealing to diverse groups must explain the result.

Cultural and Racial Resentment Key

The overwhelming evidence points to the cultural and racial resentment shared by Trump’s voters. But stating that cultural and racial resentment is responsible for elections’ result does not tell much. It does not explain the contradiction between the nation as a long-lasting democracy and its choice of an undemocratic president. It does not explicate the country’s self-proclaimed role as the leader of the free world and its support for anti-freedom leader. It also does not justify the discrepancy between the cherished values of the nation that is decency, compassion, and reason and its decision to carry and support hatred, misogyny, and racism to the White House.

Trump’s victory is a fear-provoking result and monumental event with startling consequences, but it is not a bizarre phenomenon beyond understanding. It is a logical culmination for long-standing beliefs held in this nation otherwise it wouldn’t have materialized.  Employing different campaign strategies or devising other tactics for winning would have not alter the results.

To discern Trump's ascendance to presidency, instead of looking into the structure of the society, we need to look into the software of the society; the way people operate culturally, and here I am concerned mainly with how people in the U.S think about other nations. There is vast literature in that regard but I want to discuss this issue in a narrow sense regarding two realms of cultural production; academia and the media. The media and academia are the major producers and distributors of knowledge. They are the overarching channels that engender and circulate notions about the national and the foreign.  Although they share that trait with other social institutions, their significance stems from their formal character, which makes them more authoritative.

Why is that relevant? The relevance lies in the fact that when people voted for Trump, they responded to his message of hatred towards immigrants and Muslims. They were acting out of conviction that foreigners represent a wide host of problems, that foreigners and Muslims are responsible for the maladies of this country. Such false convictions are produced and recycled through authoritative sources of knowledge: media and academia. These two sources of knowledge are the major threads shared by the diverse groups of people who voted for Trump.  

My Own Experience

When I came to the United States, I was exhilarated to escape a brutal tyranny. I was eager to study and learn in a country that held reason and respect in the highest regard only to observe and experience a worse form of oppression and dehumanization. I was astounded by the demeaning views about other nations conveyed in social science classes by a great number of the teachers and students. More appalling than those views was the level of comfort and convenience by which they were expressed. For example, one of the first classes I took was a foreign policy class. The teacher squarely focused on the U.S and some Western countries with a tenor of devoted veneration for how they dominated the world and dictated their agenda by force and military might. But that was not the worst. The teacher spent extended time of the course extolling the Western world leaving the “rest” to the last couple of the lectures. When it was finally the time for “the rest,” the teacher numerated the “prominent characteristics” of the Middle East written on a projector screen: poverty, illiteracy, lack of sense of purpose, aggressive attitude and lack of basic concepts of freedom. I raised my hand to inquire about what he meant by “lack of sense of purpose.” He responded despicably: “no goals…. lack of organization!” The teacher then stated that “even the rich countries in the part of the world ..it was us who helped them to produce the oil.” He asked the students “why is it such a struggle for those country to establish democracies?” and one of the students answered conveniently and assertively “because they don’t have bases for democracy in their culture… it (their culture) is incompatible with democratic values.” The teacher nodded in affirming agreement.

In the final lecture, the teacher wrapped up, and like someone who forgot to turn off the light before leaving the room he stopped to talk about Africa. He stated, with an expression of pity and despise on his face, that “Africa…. It is nothing …it does not have weight on international level.” During the course of the class, when the floor was open to discussion, if I mention an example or a question about my home country, the teacher would have the look of pity and despise and some level of surprise that I would even mention the example or ask the question; I was supposed to only sit there listen and learn. At times he numerates cultural traits of some nations to explain their economic and political rise such as hard work, discipline, and thriftiness of the Chinese, he would stand right in front of my desk looking into my eyes stressing those traits to make sure that I, as an African, understood the message. In many occasions the professor would use the name of my country to give an example of wide range of negative phenomena, whether his example was substantiated or not did not matter; as long as it was an African, Latin American, or Middle Eastern country it must exemplify that negativity.

Given the look of indifference on students’ faces, it was not tenable to categorize the attitude of the professor as pure impropriety. Apparently, he was not acting out of the norm.

Such demeaning views and attitudes toward foreign communities are so pervasive in social science classes ranging from subtle grimaces and sneers to offensive statements. For instance, another professor in a different school I attended stated that colonialism “solidified” the system of chiefdom in Africa because otherwise “how would you control those people running around in the jungle? How would you teach them concepts of order and political organization.. how would you deal with these people?” In a different context, a student asked “why African people do not resort to popular uprising and revolution instead of armed conflicts to address their grievances?” The professor responded because “those people… those communities are not fully developed… revolutions need a level a maturity of the society!”

In a different context, a professor stated that “they (African societies) do not have a sense of the concept of the state.” I asked was there a particular “concept of the state” she was referring to because, I stated referring to my own country, “I know that many of those societies  had had established states with complex political apparatus and when colonialists invaded them they fought with highly-organized armies?” The teacher sneered at my question, dodged it and moved to a different topic.

In a different class, another professor asserted that Muslim societies “tend to be” undemocratic. I suggested to that professor that if we looked at the history of each one of those societies and to facts such as the compliance of the West in supporting those tyrannies and in many cases bringing them to power through coups, and if we also looked to Muslim societies that have successful democracies, we would have a more profound perspective than associating tyranny with Islam alone.  He responded with an assertive short answer: “that is not social science!” I argued back that religion is culture and culture was not and should not be given that decisive deterministic weight in social science according to previous discussions in our class isn’t it? (I always argued that culture mattered and the professor would try to convince me otherwise.) He responded, “in those societies it does!” 

Besides the concrete views and formal thoughts in these classes, it is common that students or professors tell anecdotes or personal experiences, or even jokes about the behavior of people in foreign communities. It is not uncommon for these commentaries to convey astonishingly offensive and false notions about these communities and their individuals. The convenience by which such jokes and commentaries are made is usually stupefying. For instance, in one class a professor noticed and commented on the absence of a student  from Colombia in the class. One student responded that, “he must have an urgent drug deal he can't miss.” As I was trying to deal with my astonishment and my twirled stomach because of the sickening joke, the entire class along with the professor burst into thundering laughter.

This  “exceptionalism” regarding African, Latin Americans, or Middle Eastern societies, their exclusion from scientific prudence and processes of reason and vigorous investigation applicable to Western societies mark discussions in academia. Students and professors can state opinions nonchalantly and make insouciant points without bothering to investigate and substantiate … you don't need that in those casual parts of the world! You don't need to be prudent and decent when making remarks about “villages” and “huts” and “jungles” and people living with lions and giraffes, acting like monkeys, people who lack common sense of purpose, who are “inclined to” drugs, rape and crime. People whose cultures are “incompatible with” sophisticated concepts such as the state, freedom and democracy. They “tend to be” undemocratic. These peoples survive under piles of diseases and illiteracy and a wide range of “lack ofs.”

What is Said, and What is Not Said

However, The problem is not only with what is said in these social science classes. It is equally a problem of what is not said. It is the absence of histories. Other communities' achievements, revolutions, struggles, success, attempts and trials are totally omitted from the memory of academia. Their literature, poetry, arts, and innovations are invisible. As someone coming from these communities, when you enter these classes, you are not supposed to mention such positive aspects of these parts of the world. These positive facts are confusing; they  upset the equilibrium of thoughts. You represent failure and disease, ignorance and chaos. With that representation, your role in the class is determined: listen and learn to go back and “teach your people.”You do not have something to contribute here. 

This is especially true when it comes to “high-caliber” topics such as the NATO's role in Europe or the obstacles to integration in the European Union nations or the processes of checks and balance in American government. For a student coming from certain parts of the world, these topics are out of reach; you just listen to the discussions about them from students of the “first world” and the professor. If you state an opinion you receive same surprised pitiful look. You must stick to disease and hunger, illiteracy and gender. As it is in the reality of world politics, in these classes, the issues and the cultures of these communities are subject to discussions and misrepresentation, scrutiny and ridicule, evaluation and invasion…with impunity. But the power of students from these parts is lacking to do the same with “high-caliber” communities.

What is expected from of students coming from these regions in these classes is reminiscent of what is expected by the public from foreigners and immigrants in the society: a host of troubles. These specious expectations have already been legitimated and sanctioned through long process of discussions and assignments in schools. They are given an authoritative unquestionable character. Students graduate from schools operate in the society according to their “knowledge” about these communities.

This is manifested in various forms. It is manifested in denying foreign nations their own history like the officer who went to Sudan in a diplomatic mission and told me, in disbelieve and sarcasm, that someone she met in Sudan “was making stuff up” and told her that the pyramid in the U.S dollar bill was actually a Sudanese pyramid. It is also apparent in the attitudes towards local communities   for those who choose the “humanitarian” route. For instance, when the conflict exacerbated in Darfur 2005, a “humanitarian” organization prepared for the evacuation of its international staff only. The same organization would allow only its international staff driving its cars, while local staff was prohibited from driving the organization's vehicles. It is also manifested towards immigrants here in the U.S in different ways. For instance, I was presenting a proposal of a project for immigrant students from Sudan in the United States, which connects them with their counterparts in Sudan to implement community programs in Sudan. When the floor was open for discussion, most comments revolved around how would I prevent students located in Sudan from using the network as a means to get to the United States. Most important, this “knowledge” about these communities was, manifestly, one of the determining factor that brought Trump to the highest office in the country; it came back to haunt  the nation.

It is important to note that the professors and students I encountered seemed to espouse a wide range of political stances ranging from very conservative to liberal. Also, these instances I took long notes of took place in various reputable academic institutions I attended including Ivy Leage. The diversity of the professors and students and the schools is matched by the diversity of the social groups who voted for Trump. Hence, obviously, overarching factor(s) shared by these diverse groups supersede other social categorizations explain Trump's victory. It is the knowledge they consume through the shared channles, the social software, if I may call it that.

Not Only Academia, Films Too

However, academia is not alone in producing and legitimizing stereotypes about foreign nations and xenophobic attitudes. The media has a profound role in that regard. The media generally and cinema particularly represent the soft edge needed to make xenophobia sinks in the collective consciousness smoothly. Stereotypes wrapped in intriguing drama can be surreptitiously absorbed. Hollywood films have such enormous power that gives them the authoritative character in the realm of cultural production similar to that of academic institutions in the realm of knowledge production. Hollywood writers, directors, producers and actors play the same role of professors and students in academic institutions. They make culturally distorted scenes, statements, and, sometimes, entire movies about other communities. Like in academia, truth and accuracy are not held to the highest regard in cinema when it comes to films depicting the “rest of the world.”

For example, one of the first films I watched when I came to the U.S was “The Reaping”. The main character in the film (Hillary Swank) is a college professor who is trying to challenge myths and popular beliefs, especially theological beliefs, by finding scientific explanations to abnormal phenomena. Through the film, we construe that her commitment to scientific understanding of the world, is a result of a personal tragedy that cost her her family; her husband and daughter. She was once a deeply religious and devoted Christian but turned her back to religion after a mission with the church to Sudan with their “clean T-shirts and good intentions” as she puts it in the conversation. She narrates that the people in Sudan blamed them for the drought occurred that year which cost them their crops and animals and decided to slaughter her family as sacrifices for rain. The butcher who implemented the slaughtering of her family is a naked black man with a giant fatty figure whose face is covered with a white powder, which makes him look like a frightening beast.

Such depiction of a society like the Sudanese speaks volumes to the shear ignorance and misunderstanding about a community that holds generosity and respect of strangers to the highest regard. In realty, honoring guests and strangers is a matter of personal honor and dignity to the Sudanese individual. The Sufist nature of Islam in Sudan is the foundation for the enormous love and magnanimity by which they treat others. In that society, and with that nature of religion, hurting a plant or an animal is sin requires prayers for forgiveness. So, slaughtering human beings as sacrifices for rain cannot even be a stretch of the imagination for the evilest of the devils.

Although the film narrates that a group of Americans, White American, believe in human sacrifice, that group is portrayed as an excluded small pariah. They are depicted as a secluded group of pathetic villagers who believe in a pathetic cult. They do not represent an entire country like their Sudanese counterpart in the film represents “the Sudan”–as they put it in the conversation. It is made clear in the film that the American villagers' practice is not a mainstream practice. Rather, the American mainstream culture is represented by the main character; the college professor who is trying to uncover and cure the villagers’ miserable belief through science. This battle between good and evil given to the part depicting American society in the film is denied for the  Sudanese part. The Sudanese society is not given an alternative narrative; an alternative force battling the evil practice. “The Sudan”; the entire country is represented by a single narrative; no science no fighting for truth; just abstract one-sided shots in miserable settings where a White American family who came  as saviors “with their clean T-shirts and good intentions” is butchered by the “locals”  the blacks, the Africans; the Sudanese.

The film also shows a similar miserable scenario in Chile where tens of ill Chileans with strange symptoms line up to receive a mystical voodoo-like treatment. And the professor courageously makes her way up through sick people to reveal the scientific explanation of that misery. Again, there is no alternative narrative for the Latin American country, just a wretched Chilean community with rampant illness and a pathetic practice to cure it.

By such depictions of others in films and drama, the media complements and reinforces what academic institutions teach about foreign nations. The media supplies the “soft”  aspect  for the “hard” “knowledge” engendered in academia. This way, both the “scientific” and the “cultural” sides of messages of hate and despise towards foreigners are fulfilled.

Thus, the elite's harangues and criticism of Trump's presidency need to be profoundly reviewed. The elites engender and reinforce xenophobic notions through their positions in academia , media, cinema, etc. The difference between them and Trump is that Trump is more explicit and practical about his views. If President Trump is foreign to the elitist world of politics, his thoughts about foreigners are not. Therefore, contrary to what has been conveyed by the elites, whether in the media or in the academia, President Trump is not a bizarre or an alien  phenomenon. He is a homegrown product of convictions held in this country about other communities rooted in authoritative knowledge. He represents what is produced and recycled by the elites and the public through a social software, and that what made him appealing to his voters.

The rants and anger directed at Trump's presidency is a way of the elites to distance themselves from a legitimate result of long-standing  notions about  other nations in this country. It is the way of the elites to exonerate themselves from a natural product of  views held about other cultures in this country.  Distancing the self from such result is not only dishonest; it is also harmful to the future of this nation and the world it influences. The stunned criticism of the ascendance of Trump to presidency in such superficial and elusive manner is self-deceiving and self-defeating. It blurs the ground that carried him to the highest office in the country. Embracing this myopia undermines attempts at a better future of the country and the world impacted by its politics.

Hence, when actors and actresses were criticizing or mocking the President during the last awards' season, I thought it would be more productive, and honest, if they look at their roles in films from culturally sensitive lenses. Lenses that take into account the discussion above about accuracy and truth, prudence and respect of other communities. If celebrities are aware of the influence they make in representation and shaping notions and attitudes about other nations, they will be more committed to cultural dignity for others in their roles in films than mocking the presidency and making eloquent, shiny statements during the awards' season.

By the same token, when academics, writers and analysts militate to attack Trump's presidency, they must first consider their positions and attitudes about other nations: how they participate in producing and reproducing the social software that strips other nations from their accomplishments, dehumanizes them and reduces them to long lists of “lack ofs” and ailments. Because this what mattered in making the decision in voting, and this is what matters to create a more sensible world through an education that respects minds and media, and that values accuracy and truth the same way they cherishes stunts.

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