From the Classroom

Are we any better than the Founding Fathers?

What did we expect would happen to the nation?

I woke up on Nov. 9, 2016, in a dream — or so it felt. I rubbed my eyes as my iPhone stared back at me with the headline: Donald J. Trump is the 45th president of the United States.

I reread it again and again. Was I still asleep? I felt like I was reading a foreign language; my brain was struggling to piece together what it all meant.

There was no way the nation, that claims to be founded on a belief in equality, elected Trump to be president!

Trump is an outspoken racist, who has encouraged white supremacy. This was the president of the United States?

Our nation was better than this.

Or so I thought.

The fissure the nation woke up with when Trump won the presidential election had always been there — it was just hidden.

The nation that claimed to have been created on all men being equal was really created on hegemony and discrimination. The nation founded for “We, the people,” never truly intended to be for all people. This “we” our founding documents referred to was an illusion of what the nation could be, not what it was.

Maybe all of us were created equal but we were not treated nor seen equally. That remains true today.

Donald Trump winning the election only uncovered this belief, which encompasses the ailment the nation was created on: racism.

The fissure that greeted the nation — outward racism — only worsened with time.

The politics of resentment

After Trump won the election, one of my professors handed me the book “The Politics of Resentment” by Katherine Cramer. The book seeks to understand how rural citizens, who would benefit from Democratic ideals, voted Republican.

I went into it with strongly held beliefs — how could someone vote for Trump?

I learned rural citizens feel left behind. Decision-makers often leave rural populations out of political ideals and focus on urbanites. To them, rural citizens are fundamentally different from urbanites and political candidates lack rural understanding while consistently ignoring their issues and lack of resources.

Cramer said that for rural voters, political issues can be secondary when choosing a candidate. It isn’t always the candidate’s viewpoints that mattered as much, but whether the candidate understood, and “looked” like them. It turns out, what we think are debates about politics are actually about identity.

Trump was able to capitalize on these beliefs in identity, creating an even greater political divide.

Trump promised to improve working-class lives, despite his policies undermining them. More importantly, he was able to speak their “language.” That language included the outwardly racist Southern strategy — which is a political campaign Republicans use to capture their votes.

The Southern strategy is, historically, a GOP movement that draws white, rural voters into the Republican Party by sowing racism and white fears during presidential campaigns.

Trump is not the only president to use this strategy — though he escalated it by encouraging the racist undertones that were deeply entrenched and hidden.

It goes back to the founding years: Thomas Jefferson won the presidency due, in part, to the Three-fifths Compromise. Andrew Jackson won, in part, by promising to remove Native Americans from their homeland so white men could take it for themselves. Though both former presidents’ parties were “Democratic” both would fit the GOP by today’s political party standards.

The political scene is no different today. Presidents still win because of racism.

Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968 by capitalizing on the Southern strategy, where he put an emphasis on states’ rights, and law and order. He attracted white voters who were concerned about racial integration to his campaign through this language.

Ronald Reagan repeated the racist strategy, as did George H.W. Bush and so did Trump in 2016 — more openly and blatantly than his predecessors.

The future

As Trump rioters scaled the Capitol walls on Jan. 6, it showed the dark dichotomy present in the nation: racism, deeply entrenched and brought to the surface by Trump, is the biggest issue facing the country.

How will the nation improve? History shows a sad blueprint for the future — the political parties have not changed. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson won their presidencies due in part to racism and so did Trump.

Is it possible to get rid of the racism that inspired the nation? Was George Washington correct? Would having no political parties save our systemically inequitable nation? How did the Republican Party become dependent on racism in their campaigns? How have 244 years passed and yet our nation still upholds racism?

I don’t know the answers. What I do know is the nation was founded on an idealistic perception. We glaze over history without acknowledging that not much has changed.

When I woke up on Nov. 9, 2016, I realized I didn’t wake up to a dream. I woke up to reality.

Our nation that was founded on the belief all men — and now women — were created equal may, sadly, never reflect that.

This story was reported and written through a journalism course on opinion writing and edited by USC Annenberg Associate Professor Alan Mittelstaedt. Annenberg Media student editors reviewed the story and published it per newsroom guidelines.

Click here to read more essays from the series “America’s ailments: We’ve got issues.”

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