First, let me thank Adam for allowing me back after a multi-year absence. I felt compelled to write this piece because I believe this election and the incoming administration is not normal. Now, I’m struggling to connect the different worlds I inhabit(ed) and move forward.
At heart, I’m an optimist — a believer in the project of America. I am not ignorant of the crimes and inhumanities that have accompanied our founding and history. But, I do believe that we are forming a more perfect union. I understand that it happens in fits and starts. That there is progress and regression. That we have a constant tension of momentum to be more egalitarian, just, and inclusive at odds with inertia to maintain a status quo of inequality, oppression, and closely held power. Overall, I agree with President Obama’s sentiment that America today is truer to its ideals than ever before. We should take pride in that while questioning our history and the pace of our progress.
Yet, the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent events of the transition period have left me with a pause in my optimism like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my adult life. The causes are multi-faceted. I am concerned about how celebrity plays into national politics, overwhelming policy and substance. I have concerns about electing someone who has lived out his life as an egomaniac and con artist. But, even these are small concerns compared to what I fear most.
My greatest fear is for America itself. I promise this is not hyperbole. My fear is based in the fact that Donald Trump was willing to leverage the worst instincts of humanity to get elected. Trump stoked the flames of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism to gain votes for the presidency. He also threw in ridicule of persons with disabilities for good measure. And, he succeeded.
Because of his lifelong amorality and rudderlessness, no one felt comfortable saying for certain if this message was heartfelt or cynical. In fact, the campaign manipulated the media through that uncertainty. While the message of bigotry was undeniable, surrogates portrayed it as cynical and therefore not as bad as if it were genuine. Meanwhile, the candidate himself would wink and nod to the white supremacists and other hatemongers he mobilized into political action. It was rare to hear objections that the message was antithetical to American values regardless. Even in cynicism, this hateful strategy is destructive to our nation. The incredulity allowed Trump to play against pure evil and instead seem to be merely playing with the devil.
Never mind the ambiguity though. The transition period has clarified for us the true nature of the message. It was heartfelt. Trump is a hateful bigot and he intends to govern as a hateful bigot. There were clues we should not have avoided or rationalized. His choice of Mike Pence as vice president. His refusal to distance himself from white nationalists. His refusal to back down on a Muslim registry. His advertising that relied on sexist and anti-Semitic imagery. That imagery of the campaign and the “calculated” choices he made are the framework for the ideology of the transition. There is no reason to suspect they won’t be the foundation of his administration.
Trump has proposed a white supremacist for Attorney General. He named a white supremacist/anti-Semite/misogynist as his chief strategist. He has made an Islamophobe/xenophobe his national security adviser. A segregationist (of both the race and class varieties) is on his short list of possible HUD secretaries. Given the available information, the logical conclusion is that Trump intends to serve as a white supremacist in the Presidency.
We should recognize immediately that, even as a majority of the electorate, we have little hope of reaching Trump and his administration. We are not going to change their strategy or course through a resistance from the left, or even from the middle. He is too self-absorbed and too well insulated to be swayed. Congress is unlikely to be forthright when dealing with him.
Our immediate concern is to inform and interact with the Americans who voted for him so that they will not vote for him again. Our primary effort must be to expose him for the fraud he presents and the threat he poses. Because he is a threat to every American and to America itself.
The question remains, How do we engage with those who voted for Trump? I believe that many of them voted in the hopes that he would save their jobs and their towns. That he would save their way of life. That allowed them to accept a message that scapegoated, demonized, and targeted people of color, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, and women. Many of us are so disgusted by their ability to ignore his hatred that it makes it difficult to forgive them for their vote. But, our nation’s future depends on our ability to confront Trump and his bigotry through dialogue with our fellow citizens. We must swallow our pride and begin conversation with them.
That doesn’t mean we should allow people a pass on hatred. We must challenge bigotry when we confront it. We must condemn those who are truly hateful. But, we must also begin by reaching out to those nearest to us and learning about their concerns and fears. It will be through these intimate moments that we can begin to find bonds of common concern as well as common aspirations.
I am aware that this is a lot easier for me to say as a person who can check every box of privilege. I don’t often need to swallow my pride. I am not faced with regular indignities. I haven’t been forced to comply with systems and norms that are different from my own norms. Trump voters aren’t likely to blame me for their problems or greet me with hatred.
Perhaps the burden I am referring to here falls primarily on people like me. People who can hopefully relate in some way to the Trump voter and begin a dialogue. I think as long as those like me check our privilege to be sure we are acting in service to social justice this could be a positive step.
I am willing to believe that some Trump voters did vote in hopes of economic change. That they felt it necessary to choose someone outside of the Washington political class.
I can imagine a perspective that sees the world moving too quickly and a feeling of being left behind. I grew up with people who I know are in situations where they don’t know how they will take part in the America of the future. Who believe that the jobs they are qualified for are disappearing and that their future looks bleak. Yes, these people are almost exclusively white, almost exclusively middle class. These old friends have parents who worked for auto companies and other heavy manufacturers where they made good wages. Their parents were the last people to have jobs in a lot of those factories. My friends and I went to college or worked an apprenticeship. For some of us, it worked out. And, as it worked out most of us, especially the college educated, left for America’s metropolises where opportunity is now concentrated. But, the jobs many of us prepared for aren’t as plentiful anymore. Especially for those who stayed in place. The unions are diminished. Our degrees are less valuable as elite jobs require post-graduate work. People accept less for the same work. They don’t seem to be able to save enough to get ahead. They wonder how they’ll ever achieve their parents’ standard of living. In the end, they find the phrase “Make America Great Again” to be a signal of hope.
Ironically, these people have a lot in common with the people I’ve gotten to know in the past 20 years. They feel targeted by “Make America Great Again.” Yes, they are largely people of color and from other marginalized groups who have the exact same fears and concerns as my childhood friends. My friends from today see different causes and blame different forces. They see a continuous blockade to most of the opportunity in America that is getting worse. Few of them had parents making incomes as large as the elders of my childhood friends. But, they recall a time when their communities were more vibrant. They can remember local stores and safer streets. They miss the togetherness of their old blocks and neighborhoods. They wonder if that will ever be their reality again. Or, if they’ll be kicked out as soon as their neighborhood becomes even modestly more livable.
It’s nothing new that these two groups are being played against each other. This is a classic American tactic most notable in the antebellum and Jim Crow South. But, it is also a common tactic of the segregated cities in the Midwest and Northeast of the 20th century. An important part of our work is to inspire solidarity between these groups. It’s something that should occur naturally. Yet, it continues to remain unfulfilled because of our social divisions, especially our racial division.
But now, we have crossed beyond a normal threshold. The election of Trump is not normal. This is not an ordinary time. At this moment in American history, we must find a way to succeed where generations before us failed.
Our task before us is critical. We cannot be passive in this crisis. We have to be willing to work hard and be uncomfortable. It’s going to be hard to challenge our white friends and explain to them the threat Trump poses, first to our friends of color and eventually to all of us. It will be hard to explain to our friends of color that we aren’t minimizing hatred when we try to understand the motivations of our white friends and connect them to the concerns we all share. We, who can navigate multiple settings, must move between and among them to find the connecting points that will bring us together.
Let’s begin by asking one another about our hopes and fears. At first, let’s listen more than we talk. Let’s find ways to challenge others while allowing them to challenge us. Let’s confront unfairness while allowing people to save face. Then, let’s start to connect people. Let’s demonstrate our commonalities. Let’s explain our different realities. Let’s build empathy and understanding. Let’s breakdown stereotypes and uplift truth.
We will each have to find methods to accomplish this work for our constellation of circles. But, we can learn from one another along the way. In other words, let’s talk to each other as well. We can gain insight and strength from our unity. Most importantly, I hope it will allow us to hasten the change we want to create.
Where do we go from here? We go outside our comfort zone. We go to new places. We go to our best nature. We go high. We go deep. We go to our core values. And, from there we can stand united to continue to form a more perfect union.