In 1984, the Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale was approached by five Arab-American donors who wanted to support his campaign. Mondale, the former Vice President under Jimmy Carter, met with them and accepted their contribution of $1,000 each. A few days later, their donation was returned “with a statement it was policy to refuse contributions from Arab-Americans for the Mondale campaign.”
That’s according to an op-ed in The New York Times published shortly after by James Abourezk, a former Democratic Senator from South Dakota who is himself an Arab-American. Abourezk argued that incidents like this were routine because few talked about them. “This kind of racism is not restricted to Mr. Mondale. Politicians routinely treat Arab-Americans this way and without fear of press criticism. The inexplicable silence of the press merely encourages more of the same,” he wrote.
US Elections have often been sights of bigotry, sexism, and homophobia, although you wouldn’t quite know that from Jared Yates Sexton’s eloquent but ahistorical account of last year’s presidential campaign, The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore (Counter Point, 320 pages).
Case in point, four years after Mondale’s refusal to accept money from Arab-Americans, the former Governor of Massachusetts and my former graduate school professor at UCLA, Michael Dukakis, did something similar. He turned down an endorsement from the Arab American Institute.
I was 12-years-old at the time. My parents are Gujarati Indians from Tanzania who moved to California in the 1970s. Dukakis is the son of immigrants, just as I am, and Dukakis’ campaign led my father to believe that I too could run for president one day. But I deduced something different from that election: that every four years, America loses its mind a bit and finds a way to blame its problems on its most vulnerable residents. That year, 1988, was also the year in which George H. Bush scolded Dukakis for releasing Willie Horton from prison, implying that black criminals throughout the US will roam the streets if Dukakis wins.
I suspect Sexton knows these stories. He is far too gifted a writer, far too erudite a scholar to deny US electoral history. And yet often throughout his meticulously reported book, he presents incidents of racial animus during last year’s election as if they represented something new. In speaking about the aftermath of Trump’s victory, for example, he writes that, “Bigotry and ugliness had been granted a foothold in the culture at large.”
I am not so sure. For many of us, white supremacy and misogyny have always played a part in US politics. When I worked in the US Congress as a foreign policy aide to Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), a few Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill actually accused Muslim interns in the House and Senate of being spies for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t know what was more horrific—watching young American Muslims tarnished or seeing how Congressional leadership, both Democratic and Republic, turned their heads away.
For me—and I suspect for other people of color who worked in the US government—bigotry had taken hold long before Trump’s rise. The trouble with Sexton’s book is that at times he presents the 2016 election as if “we as a country” had just discovered these racial fault lines.
Yes, the election of 2016 was outrageous in its own way, such as the fact that Jewish reporters received an uptick in anti-Semitic hate mail. His book gives us great anecdotes that speak to last year’s insanity and he illustrates the way people in an election tend to speak past each other, something common on the right and the left. And to be fair, the book does not bill itself as a sweeping study of US presidential electoral history. It is book of reportage and it excels in this area. But when he veers towards analysis, it falters, especially in his failure to examine the role misogyny played in last year’s election.
It is a shame, really, because I am a fan of Sexton’s. He is a professor of creative writing at Georgia Southern University with a remarkable talent for narrative journalism. During the campaign last year, he wrote some of the best articles—and authored many of the best Tweets—from the front lines of the Trump campaign.
His Twitter feed went viral, and deservedly so, because perhaps more than any other reporter, Sexton unpacked the rage, the white supremacy, and the anti-intellectualism that animated much of Trump’s base. And he deserves praise for being unafraid to tell his readers that what he was witnessing was, well, crazy.
How else can we describe last year’s election? To see a group of Trump supporters chanting “lock her up” was frightening. Sexton’s book is strongest when he gives us insights into voters. The trouble is when he zooms out and tries to contextualize the behavior of Trump supporters.
Sexton goes to great lengths, for example, to explain that Trump supporters are misunderstood. He does this by reminding us—too often, I would argue—of his own working-class roots, of how he grew up similar to the Trump supporters he is writing about. Elsewhere, he chides liberals for ostracizing Trump supporters.
He writes, “By isolating them, users only exacerbate the problem of polarization. The moment they hit that unfriend button, the personal face of the opposition is eliminated and suddenly, once the other’s life has been cleansed of dissenting views, they see a community populated with only people who agree with them. Suddenly, anybody who doesn’t operate within that sphere, anybody who doesn’t traffic in the same political persuasion, is seen as being an outlier—unhinged, unrealistic, or even, worse, a person with consciously evil motives.”
I am one of those people who unfriend people on Facebook, especially if they express support for Trump. How can I be friends with someone who is in favor of a president who wants to deport people who share my faith?
When the Muslim ban was announced a few months ago, I received a deluge from messages, mostly from white Americans, who wanted me to have coffee with them to explain what it was “like to be a Muslim American.” Some admitted that they had reservations about Muslims and wanted me, a Muslim American, to help them work through their anxieties.
Why is that my burden? And why, I wonder, is not Sexton calling out Trump supporters for isolating themselves from a more inclusive America? Why is it my duty to dialogue with someone who denies my very humanity?
In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates eviscerates Sexton’s type of logic in his superb piece, “The First White President.” Speaking of columnists like Nicholas Kristof who chastise liberals for being too hard on Trump supporters, Coates writes, “In this analysis, Trump’s racism and the racism of his supporters are incidental to his rise. Indeed, the alleged glee with which liberals call out Trump’s bigotry is assigned even more power than the bigotry itself. Ostensibly assaulted by campus protests, battered by arguments about intersectionality, and oppressed by new bathroom rights, a blameless white working class did the only thing any reasonable polity might: elect an orcish reality-television star who insists on taking his intelligence briefings in picture-book form.”
Part of the problem, I suspect, is in Sexton’s reporting methods which can be sort of summarized by two words: beer consumption. He drinks a lot of beer, or at least he likes to tell us how much beer he drinks with Trump supporters. As a man, and in particular as a white man, he is able to readily do this and blend in with ease. “I am a Hoosier,” he tells a Trump supporter in one chapter.
I covered the election last year too, as did many of my friends. I couldn’t just sit down for a beer with Trump supporters, in part because they often couldn’t get past my skin complexion or my name. Female reporters I met on the campaign trail had it even worse: they spoke of harassment, both verbal and physical, from Trump supporters. This does not really get examined in Sexton’s book, nor does he explore his own privilege. Granted this was not his experience but didn’t he talk to any of the other reporters at the Trump events? Why not capture some of their stories too, to enlarge our understand of what exactly happened at those rallies?
The resulting effect is a book that, while compelling, feels incomplete. Frequently during last year’s last year, I met male voters in Portland, Oregon—one of the most solidly Democratic cities—who told me they didn’t quite like Trump but that there was something about Clinton, something they couldn’t quite articulate, that they did not like about her. I don’t know. Could it be sexism?
I worked in the US Congress when the Tiger Woods extra-marital affairs scandal broke. I actually saw male staffers on Capitol Hill use US government funded phones to rate which of the women Woods had slept with was the “hottest.” That was in 2009. Long before Trump.
Sexton seems oblivious at times to the role misogyny plays in how we view candidates. In one chapter, he refers to Clinton’s campaign as an “utter clusterfuck…that presented one of the most unflattering portraits of a candidate in the history of American politics.” I am no Clinton lackey but that strikes me as unfair and reductive.
Was part of the reason that Clinton came across as “unflattering”—both in 2008 and 2016—because of the widespread, unchecked misogyny in America?
Sexton does not explore this. Indeed he does not explore a lot in this book. Which brings me to the title of his book, The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore. Who exactly are the people he refers to in this title? Who is the “your”?
His book offers little insight into what the Trump campaign looked or felt like for women or for people of color. This is a terrific book in documenting the white, male Trump voter. But haven’t we already heard enough of their lament?
Zahir Janmohamed is a free-lance journalist. He is the co-host of the Racist Sandwich, a podcast about food, race, gender, and class. He is also a fellow in fiction writing at Kundiman and a New Voices Scholar.