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The Election of Donald Trump: A Referendum on Liberalism? | Dr Sherman Jackson


By Dr. Sherman Jackson

I am not a political conservative, at least not in the American tradition of that brand.[1] First, conservatives tend to be “no-men” who merely act as brakes on liberal progress, with no life-enhancing vision of their own. Second, conservatives tend to recognize no distinction between moral and political judgments; to be morally or religiously opposed to drinking alcohol, e.g., means to have to ban it for everyone as a matter of law. Third, conservatives tend to reflect the same conceit they decry in liberals: the ability to speak for everyone through the false universalization of their own historically or culturally informed perspectives. Fourth, conservatives tend to sanctify personal wealth in the same way that liberals sanctify personal rights. Finally, there is something in the American past that conservatives seem to want to conserve that I find it difficult to disentangle from white supremacy.

My point in all of this is to avert the common tendency to interpret any critique of liberalism as an endorsement of conservatism. Where exactly that places me on the spectrum of American political orientations remains an open question. But the recent election of Donald Trump took America by surprise, almost like a thief in the night. And I suspect that the now thoroughly entrenched and largely unexamined liberal approach to negotiating socio-political difference had a lot to do with this.

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The problem begins with liberalism’s insistence that the lifestyle one wants to sustain in public can only be validated on the basis of “public reason,” i.e., reasons that are not specific to one’s culture, history or religion but are capable of appealing to anybody, regardless of ideological orientation. Of course, those who master the art of expressing their preferences in this way will be able to vindicate their lifestyles, while those who can not will not. This is still deemed fair, however, because, instead of coercing people into accepting one’s values or lifestyle, it forces one to convince them to accept it. But as 62% of Americans hold no college degree at all, what routinely happens is that those who have not mastered the art of public reasoning are reduced not to agreement but to acquiescence, as they simply cannot marshal sufficient counter-arguments to defend their position. This silence is then taken as agreement, leaving the false impression that the prevailing order is just, fair and agreed upon by everyone.

Jobs, the economy, white racism: all of these have been pointed to as explanations for white, working class support for Trump. While these were all likely contributors, I tend to agree with those who for decades have been telling us that identity — particularly collective identity — tends to trump (no pun intended) all of these factors. The simple reality is that people have identities that transcend them as individuals, aspects of themselves that they did not choose but that remain just as cherished a part of who they are as the way they dress or style their hair. Now, the more steeped in American history a collective identity is, the more difficult it may be to vindicate it through public reason. For this is precisely that aspect of who one is that is the result of history, normalized, internalized and then forgotten as history. By contrast, ‘newer’ collective identities, such as LGBTQ, feminist or progressive identities, may be easier to vindicate through public reason, precisely because they are freely and subjectively chosen as public identities, with reasoned justifications built into the act of choosing itself (and increasingly reinforced by our educational institutions).

All of this is another way of suggesting that, intentionally or not, liberalism’s public-reason criterion has effectively stacked the deck against ‘traditional’ Americans, reducing them to silence and sending them underground, where they seethe with anger and resentment and wait for the opportunity to strike back. In this election cycle, Donald Trump tapped into this alienation and emerged as savior. White, blue-collar, Joe-lunch-bucket, bubba could now see himself as no longer having to justify or apologize for his un-chosen, inherited identity, through the ‘sophisticated’, class-drenched language of his socio-economic betters. He could simply be. Donald Trump was literally his ticket back from exile. Meanwhile, the more educated among us were unable to see this, because our liberal education and socialization had rendered us too accustomed to taking acquiescence as agreement.

I should not be misunderstood here. Liberalism has contributed much to the American body politic. But we may now have reached the point where we can no longer ignore perhaps its most critical liability: the tendency to privilege chosen over inherited identity. (Modafinil) Too many Americans are simply reduced to crippling silence in the name of reason. In this light, our task today is to try to find a post- liberal means of negotiating socio-political conflict and managing the public space. As a Muslim, I might begin with the concept of “khilāf” or “mutually respectful disagreement.” Here, “public reason” is not the only justification for being who one is, and one need not be reduced to silence; everyone, meanwhile, within agreed upon limits, can maintain their belief in the superiority of their chosen or inherited way. Of course, there is much to be done in the way of translating this into the predominantly non-Muslim, pluralistic context of America. And the fact that Muslims themselves, here and abroad, are often lukewarm if not hypocritical in their recognition of khilāf does not help. Still, we must press forward. For, after all the fear, panic and posturing of the present moment dies down, in the absence of a post-liberal approach to socio-political difference, we may continue to send all too many Americans underground. And it may be only a matter of time before the devil himself emerges as their ‘savior’. And God knows best.

Crossposted from Alim Program website.

[1] On a more personal note, especially as I get older, there is much with which I identify in Michael Oakeshott’s description of conservatism as a personal orientation: “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, the present laughter to utopian bliss.”

Dr. Sherman Jackson is the King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture, and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California (USC). Dr. Jackson is a co-founder, Core Scholar, and member of the Board of Trustees of the American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM), an academic institution where scholars, professionals, activists, artists, writers, and community leaders come together to develop strategies for the future of Islam in the modern world.

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  1. DI

    November 14, 2016 at 10:49 AM

    Great piece. I wish we had this sort of guidance pre-election rather than post-election. We should analyze our opponents rather than merely sterotype them.


  2. Respect

    November 14, 2016 at 7:44 PM

    Interesting – ‘negotiating socio-political conflict and managing the public space’. Respect our differences by leaving the stereotype language out of print and thought would be a nice beginning. (Joe lunch bucket bubba) the first reply divided by calling human beings ‘opponents’. Does not every citizen want to have freedom to finincially support their lifestyle without criticisms and infringements from socio-political entities. My little ole opinion is: when fear is taken out of the motivator on ALL sides, no one will have to have ALL support or belong to their party or lifestyle to feel accomplished or free. A ‘respect of difference’ mindset. Get to know bubba and one may find the heart feels the same though one speaks with less education. Racism is not =white blue collar. Open your eyes. It’s in many forms. I see racism against the white blue collar and it’s not silent. It’s radical, mean and full of hatred. Look at the uncivilized protesting – Not my president. If white racism is as prevalent as liberals assume – This is the scene that would have taken place when Mr. Obama was elected. Further more, he would not have even been elected without the white vote. Let’s start with honesty in public forums. Words hurt people. So blue collars choose a simple lifestyle with little change. A liberal preaches tolerance and yet IS highly intolerant to those who are not progressive. Its fast and uncertain lifestyle is enjoyed by them. That’s okay but not all agree. Some personalities cannot function on that level. And who is to say, one style is better over the other. As a whole, the groups can compliment each other. Hmm, what a novel ideal! Anthropology taught me a lot. Who is more barbaric, the pygmies or the ‘so-called civilized’ world.

    • GregAbdul

      November 15, 2016 at 2:46 AM

      fear is a part of the human condition. we can depress it, but it will always be with us.

  3. GregAbdul

    November 15, 2016 at 2:44 AM

    May Allah bless the Professor for his words here. I fear however, that he is simply too complex for many. In the end, he asks for a world where we respect the identities passed down to us as American through American History. I am a Muslim, born smack in the middle of Thanksgiving and Christmas. I am not the one who rejects the holiday season.
    Everyone is dancing around what is really happening here. The richest people in the world run international corporations. Do you think they are going to let Trump crimp their businesses with his nonsense talk of walls? Trump talked absolute racist nonsense and duped the rubes. The rubes think, they have a right to deny our identities. As black people, as black American Muslims, we take names that are not historically American and I know first hand, just as Kareem knows and Muhammad Ali knew, there are people who go years and die, refusing to accept the laws that allow us to change our names to whatever we wish. Movie stars change identities, women get married and change their names and it causes absolutely not one bit of controversy, but when a Muslim does it, it is an act that does not align with American history and it is not me or any Muslim forcing a name on others, but the act of declaring my own space that causes offense.
    Our challenge is old and said over and over. We have to find a way to talk race to working class whites, to get them to see, they are being played and that they have been played since Martin Luther King. The GOP has a long-standing policy of fighting to enrich the rich. The Democrats are the ones with actual polices that work for working people, regardless of race. Sadly, most white working people simply do not pay attention to the details when a President Reagan talks about welfare queens or Trump talks about Mexican rapists. No one is threatening their identity, but in our declaring our freedom to choose our non-traditional identities, we offend them deeply and this time around, their revenge is Donald Trump.

  4. Respect

    November 15, 2016 at 9:06 PM

    Sadly, what one is asking, he is not reciprocating. The working class, irregardless of race and gender are paying attention and are demanding economic change. They cannot meet one more government demand out of their paycheck. And they are too proud to slide below the poverty line to get the assistance from the government. They understand it is their money collectively that supplies these programs, (along with higher paid college educated) yet they need more of their paycheck to meet the basics much less the recreation. The system has been careless. That is the drive behind the vote, but many are being duped by the intolerance card. The working class have high interracial marriages, dating, children. Open your eyes! White blue collars have Asian, Middle Eastern, Black grandparents and are grandparents of interracial children. The racism that still exists in the white race has become the minority over the last generation. I live in the deep rural south where it’s told racism is highest. We enjoy ethnic, cultural differences. It’s beautiful and our area is not alone. Maybe we should all take a mission trip into each other’s life for a week and be silent and observe. Let’s open our hearts and listen with them. Labels are impersonal and divide. I know the professor has made many good points and in his educated language he’s basically asking for a new view. Understanding the root in identity. I get it but it’s not the full story. Nor do I have it. We are parts of a whole!

    • GregAbdul

      November 16, 2016 at 2:20 AM

      Trump is an open racist. The big debate we are having as a nation today is, whites really think they can look blacks and minorities in the eye and lie and say their votes for him were about the economy. Tell me Trump’s economic plan. He had none. He had assurances that he would deport rapist Mexicans, ban terrorist Muslims and stand for law and order, which is really white code meaning he will mass incarcerate black people. Most of us as black people, I am pretty sure will not be silent. We won’t wait for white approval to speak the truth. A baker bakes. A banker banks. If you don’t like blacks saying you are racist, then don’t engage in racist actions. Voting Trump was a racist action and my people, for all our faults, won’t sit quietly while you show all that love for that KKK man in the white house.

  5. Respect

    November 30, 2016 at 10:10 PM

    Thanks for proving my point! Duped and blinded by hatred. This ends an educated open discussion. May liberty and justice for ALL win!

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