Was the El Paso Shooting Caused by ‘Economic Alienation’?

When Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, countless people worldwide went into shock. Right up to the last minute, they refused to believe it was happening. When it did, they tried to understand. On all the channels, TV personalities were denouncing the arrogance of American liberal elites and the sense of economic alienation among a middle class still feeling the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. There was talk of widespread frustration with globalization, and of the inability of the Democrats to meet the needs of blue collar voters in what the French call “deep” America.

Other voices immediately arose in response, mainly from blacks, Latinos, Muslims and Jews denouncing the role of racism and white supremacy among Trump supporters. Coming from people who are underrepresented in the mainstream media, these perspectives sought to throw doubt on the idea that economic alienation was the cause of Trump’s victory. With the unveiling of demographics on Trump’s voter base, it was plain that they were right. The richest Americans voted for Trump in greater numbers than the poorest; the majority of white men with college degrees voted for him; and despite the accusations of sexual misconduct that surfaced during Trump’s campaign, the majority of white American women voted for him, too. On the other hand, the majority of racial minorities voted Democrat, with over 94% of black women supporting Hillary Clinton.

Despite all that, the theory of working class alienation continued to take hold and find expression in an incalculable number of essays, open letters and columns in the press. One might ask why black women, who have been economically alienated since colonial times, were the least likely to vote for Trump. The reason is hardly a mystery. And why, when Trump spoke openly during his campaign about Mexicans as rapists, did the media seek to minimize the role of racism in his appeal? What caused the difficulty that white journalists, even progressive ones, had with raising racial questions? Did the minimal media space allowed to people who understand racist issues–usually those who suffer from it–contribute to low public awareness? To ask these questions is to answer them.

This problem is not exclusively American, by the way; public debate in Canada on our southern neighbor’s election echoed the discourse on white men’s economic frustrations and played down the racist elements in Trump’s statements, as though the nostalgia for the “good old days” implicit in the “Make America Great Again” slogan could be shared by anyone other than whites. Could other groups in America, or the West, associate the past with the good life? No evidence that they can is detectable; far from it.

Now, nearly three years on, we must try to make sense of the El Paso massacre, which followed attacks on the black church in Charleston, on Pittsburgh and California synagogues and on the Latino LGBTQ club in Orlando. Before El Paso, there was the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, the employment of the so called far-right guru Stephen Bannon as White House chief strategist, the Muslim ban, the longest ever government shutdown caused by Trump’s obstinance over building the border wall, mass deportations, Central American children detained in cages and innumerable racist utterances by the American president. Along with all this, there is little evidence of relief for the “economic anxiety” felt by ordinary Americans. Some things are becoming gradually clearer, but not all.

Here in Canada, a large part of the public that is able to acknowledge a problem to the south still minimizes its presence up north. To be sure, every country has its peculiarities. Yet the discourses that try to justify real and unjust inequalities among different groups are traceable everywhere in the West, in America and in Canada, too. In addition to climate change, this constitutes the major challenge of our time. I don’t know how to make people stop thinking of these issues as “niche” or extremist.

We are on the eve of a federal election involving a Conservative Party that for four years has campaigned against “barbaric cultural practices” under the leadership of Maxime Bernier, who thinks his political allies are not going far enough and seems to draw inspiration from Trump in his tweets. And then there’s Jagmeet Singh, who represents the first time in Canadian history when one of the main parties is led by someone who has suffered discrimination, and who wears a religious symbol to boot.

Do people out there recognize the risk of backsliding? What prominence will be accorded to which voices during the campaign? Are people really ready to understand and analyze what is going to happen? Or are we going to wake up, little by little, over the next few years with a huge headache in a country that is “great again”?

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