Today, as Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, widespread condemnation will proliferate throughout United States, Britain, and across the world – as it should.
Trump’s campaign was defined by xenophobia and misogyny. If his inauguration didn’t provoke a response, the silence would reveal something deeply wrong with the state of humanity.
However, the condemnation that we will see today, tomorrow at the Women’s March on Washington, and over the coming weeks and months, is not enough. Whether it’s wearing a “Not This White Woman” T-shirt, designating yourself an “ally” of people of colour by wearing a safety pin, or writing long social media posts about your experiences as a male feminist, these “virtue-signalling” actions mean very little if they aren’t followed up by consistent actions in your everyday life – especially if you’re a straight white man.
It is all too easy to criticise Trump. In many circles, particularly among liberals, to do so is not deemed problematic or controversial. Rather, it is a display of one’s liberal and progressive credentials. And that’s where the problems start.
For so many white liberals, whether conscious or not, criticising Trump serves an important purpose: it helps to maintain a façade of progressive liberalism that provides reassurance and comfort. It can make one appear to be, and perhaps even feel as though they are, doing the right thing.
However, to engage meaningfully in the kind of feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist work needed to bring about change is a task infinitely more difficult. This kind of engagement would reveal Trump to be more symptom than cause. It would encourage us to look at the wider factors that would give rise to such a demagogic figure. To abhor one man may be comforting, but, unless it is supplemented by a critique of structural white supremacy, it will always miss the mark.
In Britain, where liberals (and pseudo-liberals) are able to criticise in abstraction from context and lived reality, their words start to ring hollow. Many British liberal criticisms mark Britain as different from, perhaps even morally superior to, the United States. In Britain, the rush to deplore Trump may be taken as a sign that we live in the kind of tolerant society that would never elect such a hateful figure.
This is certainly a misnomer. Through the Brexit vote in the summer, the British electorate demonstrated that concerns over perpetuating racism matter very little when faced with a populist call to “take back control”. As much as we may be in denial about it, if a Trump-like figure were to run in the next UK election, they would gain far more support than we would care to admit. We need only look at the recent successes of Nigel Farage, or the latest in Boris Johnson’s long history of Trump-like comments, for proof of that.
The recent political upheavals have seen us enter into a new era, a time in which the post-racial myth has been shattered. Through Trump and Brexit, the white supremacist power structure has lifted its disguise and revealed itself to us: it is now time for real and meaningful resistance.
Today, anti-Trump rhetoric will certainly be widespread among white liberals, in the UK and the US. But how many of those same white liberals will show up to the next Black Lives Matter protest or any of the marches being held tomorrow in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington? How many will condemn the police next time they callously murder a Black man or woman? How many will reflect on their own complicity in the systems and structures that maintain and reproduce white supremacy? These are the questions we should be asking – and the answers many white people should be hoping to provide.
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