Race and sex stoke deep responses in the American psyche
Published in The Guardian, November 9, 2016
Patricia J. Williams
Many years ago the great oral historian Studs Terkel recounted a story told to him by a woman who’d been molested by a relative as a child. She’d tried to tell her mother but no one would believe her. Yet one day when she was shopping with her mother and aunt, they spotted a black man far away on the other side of the department store. The women gathered the girl close to them, worrying aloud about the unbridled lust that that man might harbour toward little white girls. The now-grown woman told Terkel that, even as a young child, she could see the craziness in that moment: they could not see or hear that she was being assaulted by a member of the family, but instead marshalled their sexualised anxiety against the distant figure of a black man obliviously going about his business.
I have been thinking about that story quite a bit in recent weeks, as I’ve pondered the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s peculiar appeal to … well, any demographic, but especially a particular stratum of conservative women. I’m particularly intrigued by women who worry aloud about his extreme nativism or misogyny or careless grasp of foreign affairs – yet who then say that what really drives their allegiance is “hatred” of the supposedly murderous and licentious Hillary Clinton. This is often expressed as a repulsion so strong that, like the little girl’s mother and aunt, they are willing to give Uncle Donald a pass in the face of multiple allegations of sexual assault, breathtaking racism, unprecedented crudity, cruelty, verbal incoherence and globalised, soul-searing mendacity.
While the intensity of vitriol directed at Clinton still mystifies me to a great extent, Terkel’s story reminds me that there is an affective dynamic to all politics, an emotional narrative that may make sense in an alternate universe from which I may be functionally excluded. Race and sex stoke deep autonomic responses in the American psyche. Trump began his political career more than 20 years ago by taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times, calling for the execution of five teenagers wrongly accused of raping and beating a young white stockbroker who became known as the Central Park Jogger. Although DNA evidence pinned the crime to another man, Trump has never backed down from his assertion that he was right.
Similarly, throughout the campaign, Trump has evoked old tropes of a ravaged America, endlessly at risk from Mexican rapists, African American thugs and Muslim terrorists. Indeed, with endorsements from the likes of the Ku Klux Klan and George Zimmerman, Trump has revitalised a narrative of warrior masculinity that dates back to DW Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation – the trope of strong, pugilistic white vigilantes fighting against corrupt, lying and libertine black invaders (literally black voters in that movie) – in order to protect the honour of frightened white women. It seems not insignificant that Trump has consistently appeared with a backdrop of attentive women, blonde women, beautiful women who smile and wave and whom he symbolically shelters from rapists and terrorists and the “very bad people” from “certain neighbourhoods”.
Like many of us Nasty Women of a certain age and weight, Clinton is not sheltered by such cowboy chivalry. In addition, her achievements as secretary of state were slandered or obliterated in ways underwritten by suggestions of race-mixing, combined with horrendous and ubiquitous caricatures of Barack Obama: the dangerously “alien” black man who stole the reins of power and, in a lustily miscegenous union with Clinton, supposedly “invented Islamic State”.
In this alternative universe, Trump holds great appeal to those who were only recently forced to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings, and, in a profoundly felt sense, have never conceded that the American civil war is over.