Trump and Liberal Democracy’s Crisis of Knowledge

By Akwugo Emejulu

Trump’s presidential campaign and election have confounded those who are supposed to know things. When Trump announced his candidacy, various media pundits dismissed him. When he called Mexican migrants rapists, when he insulted the family of a dead soldier, when it emerged his wife plagiarised a speech by Michelle Obama and when it was discovered that he was advocating sexual assault: all of these issues, on their own but also cumulatively, voters were assured, were fatal to his campaign. In addition, most of the polling was wrong—although now pollsters, seeking to salvage their damaged reputations, are arguing that Trump’s election was in their polls’ margins of error.

Having now been shown that their ‘common sense knowledge’ about how general elections are lost and won has been rendered obsolete, some academics, media organisations and pollsters are scrambling to re-evaluate what knowledge means in this vastly changed American political landscape. Chastened, some mainstream analysts have decided that Trump and his supporters are creating ‘new knowledge’, or perhaps, illuminating ‘subjugated knowledges’, previously ignored and dismissed knowledge about white working class grievance, globalisation, immigration and the lure of the far right. Indeed, now that Trump has won, his victory further validates another kind of knowledge—white supremacist, nativist, Manichean—which give meaning to the current revanchist politics.

The knowledge of experts who govern liberal democracy is in crisis. Much-vaunted ideals of logic, rationality, pluralism and tolerance have apparently been upended by reactionary post-fact anti-elitist anger. But why are we mourning the loss of liberal democratic expert knowledge and why do we assume that this knowledge has served all Americans equally well? Liberal democracy cannot be separated from its racist, sexist and capitalist logics. Liberal democracy in both America and Europe was the flipside of imperialism and colonialism. American liberal democracy was quite literally created as a system of government by and for slave owning white men.

Of course liberal democracy has been reformed over the centuries to include colonial subjects but its institutions—from the justice system to schools to housing—embody and reproduce its white supremacist rationality of reproducing a racialised social order. Thus it is important to see that Trump’s election is not necessarily a break from liberal democracy—but a reconfiguration of its basic tenets of governing through white supremacist patriarchy. Facing the facts of liberal democracy can help us think differently about whose knowledge is in crisis, whose knowledge counts and why thinking differently about expertise matters. Because, to be sure, not all knowledge produced under the hegemony of liberal democracy has been delegitimized.

People of colour, and Black women in particular, have been warning for years about the dangers of Trump, the resurgent Neo-Nazi/fascist/far right and populist politics and have been undertaking innovative organising and mobilising for racial and gender justice and LGBT rights. Women of colour also voted overwhelmingly against Trump. It seems that women of colour are experts on how to understand and confront authoritarianism—but this group is not widely regarded as producing legitimate knowledge to help us make sense of the social world. If we took seriously women of colour as knowing agents and producers of counter-hegemonic knowledge, then perhaps we would not be witnessing public grieving for the death of ‘critical thinking’ or the accommodation of white populist politics into mainline political parties—particularly socialist and social democratic parties.

Alternative knowledge frameworks exist to understand this political moment and to help us imagine possible futures. However, this knowledge will remain ‘hidden’ until there is a coming to terms with the racism, sexism and imperialism that constitute liberal democracy. Given the Trump victory, the goal should not be to return to a system of government and a governing logic of exclusion where women of colour’s and other marginalised groups’ analyses and perspectives are routinely dismissed as irrelevant, but rather for women of colour and other marginalised groups to collectively deliberate in creating new knowledge about the past, present and future of America. In so doing opens up opportunities for meaningful collective action to seize power and transform America.

I remain pessimistic about the ability of Americans to think differently about knowledge and experts. As the exit polls have demonstrated, a majority of the white electorate is deeply invested in upholding white supremacy and will not tolerate other kinds of knowledges that challenge their domination. Women of colour will carry on doing the work of surviving and defending civic and social rights—it remains to be seen whether they will be joined in their on-going emancipatory struggles for justice and equality.

Akwugo Emejulu is Senior Lecturer and Co-Director of the Gender Justice Lab at the University of Edinburgh. Her co-authored book, The Politics of Survival: Minority Women, Activism and Austerity in France and Britain is forthcoming with Policy Press. She tweets at @AkwugoEmejulu.

Originally posted 17th November 2016

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