Writing by Lucy Adkin. Illustration by Sara Dobbs.
Ever since the storming of the Capitol, the massive divide within the nation has become clear to even the most passive newsreader. Joe Biden’s inaugural message of unity is deeply complicated by the fact that the question is not ‘how Republicans and Democrats will disagree about how to manage a crisis’, the question is ‘will both sides even acknowledge there is one?’. Yet, strikingly, conservatives and progressives have more in common than they seem. Trump rose to power arguably because the norms of American democracy facilitate a cult of personality. Being called leader of the free world and keeping the title of President for life certainly isn’t good for the ego. Now four years on Trump has only reinforced this culture of headstrong narcissism. When one half of the two party state is so fantastically deranged it is natural to find solace in traditional politicians, but if we allow our relief to manifest as a lack of scrutiny, we are not doing anything to tackle the environment that allowed Trump to rise to power in the first place. However disparate these two visions of America are, they are able to coexist for a reason.
The once omnipresent Twitter account of the commander in chief, @realDonaldTrump, was instrumental in bringing about the current crisis of American democracy, and its legacy has not been thwarted by the controversial ban. Social media has proven instrumental to both the growth of far-right movements and organizations like Black Lives Matter, which has become one of the largest social movements in US history. So while there has never been a better time to spread the word and get people involved in changing the world for the better, it is likewise easier for misleading information to gain traction or for progressive buzzwords to be twisted by reactionaries. For example, ‘defund the police’, which in its powerful simplicity advocates reallocating funds to social services, was easily appropriated by the right to mean the left is against law and order. From there it's a downward spiral to Antifa conspiracy theories and before you know it, you’re posting about how Hillary Clinton is running a paedophile ring out of a pizzeria. The benefits we would hope to gain from putting complex issues into a more accessible medium are at times overshadowed by the ease with which you can create a meme-able image of your ideals without leaving room for scrutiny.
As we seek to challenge the establishment, it is this more subtle aspect of Trump’s legacy that can stop us from progressing beyond tokenism to substantive policies that directly benefit the ‘voiceless and vulnerable’ of society. For me, we see this legacy embodied in someone whose personal and political character is undoubtedly the inverse of Trump’s. For months, my social media has been saturated with the picture of Kamala Harris, the first African-American, South Asian, and female Vice President contrasted with her 48 white male predecessors. Anyone could share this image and while it was wonderful to see in the comments how many women and girls were inspired by her power, this form of skin deep activism has its limits.
Representation is an instrumental part of progress, but it only goes so far in the fight to end issues such as mass incarceration and economic inequality that disproportionately affect people of colour. Kamala Harris is the perfect microcosm of the issue of representation - she embodies a key cross section of American society that the Democratic Party has come to rely on, yet prior to being elected to the Senate in 2017 she couldn’t be depended on to serve the interests of the Black community. In her days as a prosecutor she sought to enforce a child’s right to education by threatening parents of truant children with incarceration. In a press conference detailing her plans she seems completely oblivious to the psychological strain such a threat would have on a parent.
It would be fair to say that conversations about Harris’ contributions to mass incarceration are unpopular. They are even considered counterproductive in uniting moderates and democratic socialists against the threat of far right extremism. In the way the far-right idolized Trump, it is natural to want someone to look up to who can move America out of the Trump era. Sadly, no single person exists. We can spend hours pointing out all the inconsistencies in the Trump mythology, but we are far too inclined to hold up one person as a representation of all our ideals. Where this fits in with cancel culture is tricky to figure out, because people are increasingly likely to idolize one person while dismissing claims that they have made dire mistakes. Perhaps the most we can hope for is the legacy of Trumpism to end up as an extreme reaction to the flaws of cancel culture that will level out over time.
If a politician makes a point of making bold promises, then doesn’t live up to them, it can be particularly dangerous for the cause. In 2016, the Republicans were able to exploit Obama’s failure to enact some of his campaign promises, even though it was the Republican Senate majority that stood in his way. This is arguably why, in spite of Joe Biden’s questionable past, he was preferable to leftist icon Bernie Sanders. Even if Bernie Sanders won, it is extremely unlikely he’d be able to pass legislation with a slim Democratic majority in the Senate, giving more ammunition to the growing far-right moment.
The burden is amplified much further when it comes to Kamala Harris’ ability to be a voice for those on the margins of society. Here we encounter a different kind of weight to the sexist commentaries that haunted Hillary Clinton in 2016 and likewise the ‘slept her way to the top’, ‘nasty’ commentaries that have followed the Vice President herself. The problem is that by holding any one person up as the voice of women and ethnic minorities everywhere, we not only encourage a lack of scrutiny towards politicians, but also dehumanize Harris. Deification is a form of dehumanization because it doesn’t allow individuals to make mistakes. When Shannon Faulkner dropped out of the Citadel after winning a Supreme Court case opening the school up to women, she was demonized by the left and ridiculed by the right, even though as a human it is up to her what she does with herself and her life. Similarly, it is easy for conservatives to declare that Margaret Thatcher marked the end of feminism, despite the lack of femininst policy in her time as Prime Minister. No individual woman can be expected to be the perfect feminist icon.
Today there is a brand new Democratic administration in the White House, with a President and Vice President who seem to have learnt from their past mistakes. While their characters may not be perfect, they are doing work to undo the hateful messages of Trumpism, spreading a message of tolerance and acceptance. Trans people are now allowed back in the military. There are more pronoun options on the White House website. The Mexico City Policy that cut funds to sexual health clinics in developing countries has been repealed. We must not get complacent at the first sign of progress, as there is still plenty to be done, even as the ACLU continues to push for trans friendly IDs in federal offices and towards repealing the Hyde Amendment that restricts abortion access for millions of American women. US politics may become less overtly dramatic over the next four years, but we should continue to scrutinize and look beyond meme-able ideologies if we are to recover from Trumpism.