Major media outlets reported on the “stunning victory” of an “outsider” over his opponent many argued was the most qualified candidate in a decade on Nov. 8 and again when the Electoral College confirmed his victory. President Donald Trump’s supporters see him as a way out of their plight inflicted upon them by the status quo. They see him as an outsider to a system that’s hurting them.
On a basic level, it’s true. Trump is a man with no political experience who has attained the highest political position in the United States. His experience is mostly in conning workers, dodging taxes and keeping as much attention on himself as possible. Calling him an outsider deceived millions of people into thinking they were voting for someone far less dangerous than Trump. People voted for Trump because business as usual was crushing them; they understandably wanted a way out of the status quo and saw their chance in ‘outsider’ Trump.
He’s an outsider on another level: Despite his multiple business failures and need for the government to bail him out, he’s a member of the 1 percent. Much as he’s disavowed allifiation with extraordinarily wealthy people such as Charles and David Koch, Trump is a billionaire himself (or at least a millionaire, we can’t be sure). Millions of working-class, blue-collar people came to believe that Trump cares about them, in large part through imprecise, sensationalized media coverage: “Outsider” is not a neutral word. It’s got a positive tone to it, like “underdog,” the guy you want to root for simply because the odds are stacked against him. Calling Trump an outsider fails to accurately convey what electing him has done to us, but particularly to those already vulnerable (low-income people, women, people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants and non-Christians).
A word like “outsider” equates Trump with politicians such as Bernie Sanders, who qualifies as an outsider in some ways. But it’s nonsensical to put these two men in the same category. Sanders did not have balm for every wound ailing America, and he certainly had some major flaws. But his vision for healing what hurts did not explicitly promise to harm millions of people living in this country. Sanders is an outsider because his ideas run counter to the political and social culture he’s in (which does not necessarily make them wrong): The Democratic Party did not believe he would have enough support to get elected president because the people, the vast majority of whom desperately want and need systemic change, have become outsiders to their own government. Trump is an outsider because he is the first bona fide schoolyard bully to be elected president on the platform of being a bully. A word other than “outsider” is clearly needed.
Ultimately, the problem is that electing someone outside the system leads us to believe we’ve solved the system’s chronic and systemic issues. Trump may be an outsider in that he’s assembling the wealthiest Cabinet in history, but his initial appointments reveal he is no outsider when it comes to corruption. He’s appointing an EPA chair who is against environmental protection, an education secretary who is anti-public education, a labor secretary who’s against workers’ rights, and a secretary of state who has spent his career deceiving and destroying our world.
We have real work to do, which would have been true regardless of the results on Nov. 8. Trump’s election has underscored this need (at least now it’s harder to deny that racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia and general bigotry exist).
Trump is an outsider in a literal sense. But words matter. Continuing to tout him as one makes his rise to power seem like a victorious overcoming by a weak but deserving perseverer. In reality, what happened was not a stunning upset, nor even an infiltration, but an ominous coup by a man already on top. This so-called outsider plans to use his newfound insider status to make more and more people outsiders — to health care, to the job market, to social services. Trump’s story is not about the underdog who has overcome the powerful; it is about the powerful man who has overcome the underdogs ... if we let him. n
Megan Wildhood is a contributing writer for Real Change, advocate in the mental health community, published poet and essayist living in Seattle.