It's taken some time since election night to get my thoughts in order.
Watching the returns made me panicky. The next morning I felt ill. For the most part over the past several weeks I've gone back and forth between trying to stay informed (which alarms me with each new headline) and avoiding the news (which preserves my sanity and any good faith I have left toward my fellow citizens).
Donald Trump is the new president of the United States. This says some unflattering things about ourselves as a nation, and reveals some important truths we must come to grips with.
Before I reflect on what I think this says about us and what we should do, let me state clearly what concerns me most about Trump himself as president. His actions before even being sworn in, and in his business dealings in the past, suggest someone who acts by the philosophy of "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission"--but without actually caring about the forgiveness part. He simply does what he wants, and sees the law as something to work with or around to further his own ends, not as a force for basic order or justice.
Looking ahead to how he may lead, I'm reminded most of when President Jackson decided to march the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears after the Supreme Court ruled he could not, and he essentially said that they may have made their decision, but they had no power to enforce it. Rule of law and the Constitution only mean something when we decide they mean something. Those things don't interest Trump. I am genuinely frightened of the things he will simply choose to do, legal or not, that we will have no power to prevent.
That is terrifying. I may not have wanted McCain or Romney to win in past elections I got to vote in, but if they had I would not have feared for everything to potentially go out of bounds. They would have worked toward policies I didn't like, but I would have at least trusted them to work within the rules, and to do what they believed was best for all Americans. I don't see that Trump cares about anyone but Trump, so I'm afraid of where that will take us.
I distrust and dislike Trump as a person. I don't have to like someone to think they will make a good president, but in this case I dislike him for racism, misogyny, and general bullying behavior. I don't care what he looks like (although his habit of judging the outward appearance of others--particularly women--when he himself is no prize is noteworthy), I don't care about his divorces or that his current wife has posed nude (but the fact that his own party, which claims to condemn such things, blithely overlooks this is bizarre), and I don't even care that much that he doesn't have experience in public office (however, his complete lack of any public service or sacrifice for others is disturbing).
I do care that he is disrespectful to women, that he has no problem making sweeping generalizations based on race or religion, and that he is thoughtless about the lives of other people. He strikes me as petty, thin-skinned, and insecure. This is worrying.
Because here is another thing I fear about this man as our president: For the first time in my memory I worry that a president could specifically hurt me or someone I love. When he targets individual citizens on his Twitter account he unleashes a mob in their direction. This is new, and it is incredibly scary. In fewer than 140 characters the new president can call someone out by name and put them in danger. Danger from fellow citizens. I never imagined that in my own country.
I am at risk writing this post in a way I would not have believed I could be in the past. I do not generally choose to write about politics, but that has always been out of concern for being at odds with people I actually know. I don't mind a healthy debate on issues (in fact, I enjoy that very much) but people are very quick to take sides anymore, and I don't want to alienate people I like just because they don't vote the way I do.
Now it's not unthinkable that Trump (or someone tweeting for him) could decide to single me out, post my name or my place of business on his account, and put me and my family in danger. Do I think it's likely? No. I doubt I'm interesting enough to end up on the president's radar, but in this day and age of unpredictable viral trends, it's not unthinkable. Not long ago I would have found it unthinkable. But I am sticking my neck out anyway because there are things we need to discuss.
There is one fact I think about a great deal since the day after the election that simultaneously upsets and comforts me: The people here are the same ones who were here the day before.
This is upsetting because now I feel surrounded by people with far different priorities and sensibilities than I realized. But also comforting in that the generally decent people I trust have not gone anywhere. In some cases they are one and the same.
I have been trying to puzzle out how so many people could vote the way they did, but some of the reasons don't actually surprise me.
For instance, the "anti-elitist" idea has been brewing for a while. I don't think this has as much to do with being against education as it does with not wanting to feel condescended to. People don't want to be made to feel stupid for things they find superficial. I like good grammar, but grammar alone is not a sign of someone's intelligence. Making fun of people's poor grammar as a means of making yourself feel superior is obnoxious. People don't object to the college-educated, they object to out of touch snobs. That's a difference too many of the college-educated ignore.
I remember watching this with the rise of support for Sarah Palin. She would say stupid things in a stupid way, and people on the left just kept holding up her gaffs as evidence of her unworthiness. The problem was it just made her more popular with those who liked her, because they simply saw someone who talked like them being made fun of for how they talked. Her ideas were terrible, and she needed to be taken down for her ideas. When we are disrespectful to less educated people about superficial things we are jerks. I understand people wanting to vote against jerks.
Trump is an easy target for this with his spelling errors and his made up words and his incoherent syntax. Let it go. Those of us who care will spot it on our own and judge it as we will. But to pile on criticism about it endears him to others who are insecure about the same things. We need to make education something people want to experience, not something to feel alienated by.
The element that upset me most about this election was that blatant racism should be a deal breaker and it turned out not to be. It was for many of the people I know who voted for Hillary Clinton. Why wasn't it for those who voted for Trump? Well, in obvious cases it's because they approved. White supremacists are not the completely discredited minority many of us believed them to be.
But what about the majority of whites in this country, some of whom even voted for Obama, who did not take Trump's racist statements seriously enough to dissuade them from voting that way? I believe it comes down to a layer of white supremacy and privilege so thick that most are unaware of it. They don't think they are racist, even as they support policies and people who are.
How? Easy. Because there is no real equivalency that whites experience, so anything short of reacting to an outright lynching which is obviously racist and terrible, feels like oversensitivity. Most examples of daily racist behavior are hard for whites to process as a problem. (I'm sure I fail at it often, try as I might to remain aware.) I can't think of a single term you can call a white person that undermines them and reduces their humanity the way something like the n-word does for African-Americans. Because the power imbalance renders any attempted slanderous term moot for whites. Ironically the only word I can think of with any impact is the word "racist," and people bristle at it believing the term applies only to extremes which they don't actually approve of.
I think the vulnerability and fear many of us white liberal people felt in the days after the election was our first real appreciation of what members of minorities in this country that we claim to sympathize with experience every day. We need to remember that, and we need to learn from it.
From what I can see, we as a nation have a lot of trouble grappling with what racism even is. History is not taught well on this score, and white people get defensive. People living in a racist system who benefit from it can't see it well, if at all, and nobody wants to feel they are being told their own struggles don't count. If a white man who can't find a good job or a date gets told he has everything because he is a white man, he's going to get angry. He doesn't want to hear about how it would be even harder if his skin color were different when he may not see any proof of that around him. It doesn't help him to listen to people say women deserve more power when on a personal level it may look like they already have it. People don't want to be blamed for history. So I think there are many people who don't take Trump's racism seriously, because it doesn't rise to a level that matters to them, or even registers as "real" racism. This is a problem, and not one we solve by shouting at people or putting them on the defensive further.
Which is frustrating to me, because I don't like the idea of continuing to coddle to this specific group of privileged citizens, but since their votes are what put Trump into power, strategically we must.
The day after the election I listened for a few minutes to a national call-in program on NPR. There were a couple of people who sounded as in shock as I was, and then there was a woman calling from Brookfield. Brookfield is a white, rich suburb of Milwaukee in the next county. She claimed to be a democrat who voted for Obama, but she cast her vote for Trump because she "felt neglected." I was disgusted. For the life of me I can't imagine how the residents of Brookfield have been neglected at a national level. I think democrats made a mistake in believing we could safely concentrate on people with more dire issues and leave rich white suburban women unattended for a little while. Apparently not. I don't have a problem with thinking it's time to listen to Black Lives Matter and working to bring minority communities up to a level playing field where we should all be as Americans, but too many other white women did. It makes me ashamed of us as a group.
But here's the upside to this self-centered world view: It's easily appeased. While whites are still in the majority they still need to be catered to, but thankfully we are in the last gasps of that. I expect in my lifetime for the demographics to shift enough for us to start seeing real change for minorities in this country and we will be the better for it as people and a nation. It will not be a pretty transition, though. Too many don't seem to understand that extending privilege to all does not diminish it for others. But as a political strategy we have to keep women like the caller from Brookfield in mind. As far as she's concerned she's not racist, so attacking her for being so won't sway her. She just wants to see her own life improve, even as it is currently at an unattainable level for other people just as deserving and hard-working. She may annoy me, but she can't be "neglected" anymore if we want to make progress.
Here's the other upside to keep in mind: That superficial understanding of politics and racism that made it possible for some of the same people who voted for Obama to vote for Trump, means they are likely to switch again. Obama I think deserves a lot of credit for shepherding us through a terrible economic time to bring us to where we are now. That wasn't enough for some. How quickly will Trump disappoint people do you suppose? I don't think he can deliver on his promises, and that will switch many the other way. He does have some rabid supporters, but I have talked to people who voted for Trump, and that support from many is tenuous. They had to overlook reprehensible things in order to hold onto other things they care about. Trump does not have a firm hold on those people.
I've thought a lot about how quick people are to demonize Trump supporters. I completely get the concept that you can't overlook Trump's misogyny and racism and bullying behavior without also condoning it. I feel that way myself.
But imagine something for a moment: If Trump were exactly the man he is, and said and did all the detestable things he does, and on paper during the election he ticked every box you cared about politically, would you have voted for him? For me, if he were strongly for LGBTQ rights, pro-choice, was fine with putting Garland on the court, supported Black Lives Matter, spoke up for real gun control, wanted a single payer system for health care, believed urgent action on climate change was necessary, and planned to double the NEA? Could I overlook the "pussy grabbing" tape? Would I be willing to dismiss things that were "just words" if his actions furthered the agenda I want for my country?
That's hard. I think that was the dilemma for a lot of decent people who are understandably troubled by abortion rights and who bought into the idea that Obama made things worse for race relations and who feel their religious values aren't given the respect they once were and who knows what else.
If Trump were the right candidate for me on issues and wrong as a man, I may have been one of those people driven to a third party. So I'm not going to lump all Trump and third party voters into one reviled category. If we can't try to sympathize with one another, we can't talk to one another, and we will never learn on either side.
So now what? We have some serious problems ahead. How do we deal with this?
First of all, as painful as it is, we can't just completely tune out the news. I will periodically take breaks to calm myself, but ignorance is not an option.
However, we have to stop treating provocative tweets as news. Trump tweets are like toddler tantrums which are not solved by getting upset, too. He simply wants a reaction, and our outrage gives him what he wants. You know what he doesn't want? To be ignored. Ignore the tweets. They are simply a way to deflect the news cycle away from whatever is actually happening in the government at that moment. When a tweet comes up that makes you upset, look to the actual news and see what we should save our true outrage for. If we can't help ourselves and we must respond to the tweets, I vote we respond every time with "Didn't you promise to release your tax returns?"
The biggest problem with the news is agreeing on a reliable source anymore. Or even what is the truth. With the president and the current press secretary willing to state "alternative facts" that are so easily proven false that it's laughable I'm not sure what we do with that either. Personally I think all the press should boycott the press conferences. They can't get answers to their questions anyway, so why dignify the show with their attention? The press should call out lies when they see them, aggressively fact check everything, and not be distracted or cowed by the resulting bluster.
Second, put your money where your mouth is when you can. Donate to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Trevor Project, Lambda Legal, the National Resources Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy, the NAACP, or other organizations that stand up for the rights of people and ideas threatened under this administration. Everyone has different personal beliefs, but something on that list should make you comfortable enough to lend your support. Please do. (This is what we did for Christmas gifts this year.)
The flip side to this is not to put your money where it contributes to problems. I was pleasantly surprised by how many corporations (starting with Kellogg's) stopped advertising on Breitbart after the mainstream took notice of it. We have to speak to people in their own language, and the dominant one here is money. Trump measures everything by money. Denying him and those connected with him of money will have an impact the way marches and other symbols of protest will not.
Speaking of marches.... I was moved by the outpouring of support for the Women's Marches from around the world the day after the inauguration. It was inspiring to see people gathering peacefully to make themselves heard. I was proud of people I knew who participated.
But now we need to use that momentum toward something more specifically productive. Marches have a role to play but they cannot be where we put all of our resources and energy. They are fine to get people fired up and feel connected, but they don't accomplish anything on their own. They mean zero to Trump. He sees what he wants to see, he will continue to dismiss anyone being vocal against him as a "loser," and it will not lead to anything constructive. Don't let going to the trouble of marching leave you feeling like you did your part and it's enough. It isn't by a long shot.
Which brings me to my third point: You know what will work? Reminding everyone else who is not Trump that we will vote in the mid-term election. If you hope gathering in great numbers will get Trump's attention, it won't. Every single politician under him, though? They still care about their jobs and understand they only have them by our say so. We have considerable power, but not if we squander it. If we organize enough to cycle through the offices of our representatives in person, THAT will have an impact. If every woman in the march made an appointment to talk to her congressperson or senator individually, and ask them how they plan to vote on certain issues, expressed clearly and calmly what they will or will not accept, that will be heard. Especially if each person stated they are trying to determine where to place a campaign donation, and if they don't like what they hear or see, it is going toward an opponent.
I know it feels counter-intuitive, but crowds are easier to ignore than individuals in this case. The day after a march you can forget about it, especially since the odds are the marchers themselves will become complacent that they did something and not really be a threat to your position. But you can't ignore day after day, hour after hour, one constituent after another standing in your office stating rationally what they expect, and promising to back up their beliefs with votes and money. That's where I wish the resources and organizational powers of the marchers would go.
Fourth, looking at where the power of groups can make a difference, it's time to take a page out of the other playbook and make capitalism work the way they say it should but to our own end.
I'm specifically thinking of the environment. This is probably the area where I fear this administration will do the most irreversibly catastrophic harm. We can hope to restore certain policies in the future, but we can't undo extinctions and permanent damage. Climate change doesn't disappear just because they don't think it's real. If the rest of us believe it is, we have to act regardless of whatever deregulation happens.
This will be hard work, but we as a society have to start holding the individual corporations accountable for their actions, and not relying on the government to oversee what is right. If they roll back regulations on cars that make them less fuel efficient, we need to make demands to the car companies themselves so the repeals don't matter. Slacking off on environmentally friendly policies is only appealing to companies if they make money that way. If we make it clear they can't have our money unless they remain compliant with greener policies, they will listen. Figuring out specifically what we want and pressuring corporations into doing it could help stem the harmful tide.
Fifth, on a social level, we need to actively resist the normalization of extremes. The KKK and its ilk are still a minority. They were branded as unacceptable (and yes, deplorable) for a while, and they need to be driven back into hiding again. The more we give them a platform as if their misrepresentation of history and society are legitimate, the more we facilitate the spread of their truly hateful ideas.
I say we fight free speech with more speech. I don't see any reason in this age of social media that we can't overwhelm every march, every meeting, every public presentation of the KKK with a flash mob and make them know they are outnumbered. I think we vastly underestimated their presence in our society. We can't do that anymore, and we have to stand up to even casual racism when we encounter it. Our country has a long way to go to unseat white supremacy, but we have to try.
Sixth, we need to take sexism more seriously. Too often rape is disregarded almost as if it were "sex when someone's not in the mood" and not the torture it actually is. Torture is a life sentence, not a one time experience. Rape culture is a problem in our country, and another area where people not in a threatened population accuse others of being overly sensitive. Our president's remarks as a grown man about women are appalling, and contribute to disregarding them as people in our society. He bragged about walking in on beauty contestants in the dressing room, and women not being in a position to resist if he touched them without permission. I'm not a violent person, but it's hard to imagine if he did that to either of my daughters that I wouldn't try to deck him.
These attitudes are dangerous. We must teach our sons better and expect men to behave with respect. This is harder now with a man elected to represent us who does not respect women and doesn't care where the lines are. For reasons I don't understand people choose to give him a pass on this. No one gets such a pass. Speak up.
And finally, be the kind of person you wish we had in office. Be good and decent and thoughtful. Don't despair. Assuming we manage to avert the worst (I am genuinely concerned about nuclear holocaust, new wars my husband may be sent off to, etc. etc. etc.), I think on the whole we will be okay, but we must do our best to protect the more vulnerable among us. Those of us with privilege should extend it to others where we can. My hope is this is the dark before the dawn. I think about how disheartening it was when Prop 8 passed back in 2008, but how it galvanized people in a way that actually advanced gay rights much faster than I believe it would have if not for that setback.
This is a doozy of a setback. And a wake up call not to take our way of life for granted.
This country has always been ugly and wrong and hypocritical. To obsess that we have it bad now is to ignore Dred Scott or the Fugitive Slave Act or Wounded Knee or Japanese Internment Camps or Abu Ghraib or an endless list of ways we have disgraced ourselves as a country.
But I also believe the greatness of our nation is in our ability to change, and to do so with a positivity and speed unmatched by any other country in history. Our embrace of slavery was repulsive, but to go in a couple centuries from that history to a black family in the White House? That's amazing. Women couldn't vote the year my grandmother was born, but in 2016 one got more votes than any white man in our history. Gay rights coming as far as they have in my lifetime is unbelievable. Will we have some horrible setbacks for gay rights soon? Yes. But they won't stick because the younger generation won't stand for it, and Millennials are the largest new voting block in America ever.
The GOP has been resorting to gerrymandering and voter suppression laws because they can't win on a level playing field. I believe we are watching the last desperate flailings of an extinction burst before the old white supremacist system loses its grip. I may not be lucky enough to live to see its demise, but I do believe (again, assuming we're all still standing) I will see the beginning of something better begin to rise up.
But we have to work for it. We always have. In this country we generally do get the government that reflects us, and when it's not pretty we have to start by changing ourselves.
Ironically, I think the people who voted for Trump because they are tired of the system altogether and want to blow things up, also must unconsciously have the greatest faith in the institution as a whole not to fall apart. There are enough people who compose the cogs and gears of government to keep things running much as we've become accustomed to without it all going off the rails due to one administration. I hope that's the case.
I once heard a quote from a man saying the problem with Americans is they think of peace as the natural state of things, and war as a unexpected disruption, but that it's not true. We are predisposed for war, and peace is what takes effort. I don't know if I think that's true or not, but it's good to keep in mind. Because when we think of justice and decency and harmony as entitlements, we don't put in the effort to claim them.
Yes, this is a discouraging time. But truth and beauty and decency are still real. Hope is still real. You know what gives me hope? By the next presidential election my daughter gets to vote. And her friends. They are thoughtful and amazing people, and that is no small thing.
The country we want is not a default setting we can assume we deserve. It is an ideal to fight for. This is still my country. The fight is on.