If You Think You Can Start a 'Dialogue' with Trump's Supporters, Wake Up
One of my best friends teaches English at a community college located in one of the Rust Belt-like towns along the Connecticut River, where good-paying industrial jobs long ago vanished overseas. Her students are working class and poor strivers. Many are immigrants. These several dozen students are white, black and brown. Most of them are the first in their families to receive any amount of post-high school education.
She and I spoke on one of the days following Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton. What she told me was almost unbelievable — except in this moment when it is all too true.
My friend explained that most of her students were uninterested in politics until they realized what Donald Trump and his policies would do to people like them. Now they are terrified and scared. But there is one student in her class who was happy. He is white and working class. My friend told me how he sits in the corner of the room with apparent contempt on his face whenever the class discusses racism or sexism. During one of the days after Trump’s election he demanded to talk in class about the outcome. But the class was doing something else and my friend asked him to be quiet. This angered him.
He stood up, taking off his belt and then putting it on her desk. Smiling, with a mix of threat and joy, he announced that “We won!” His point was made: This is “his” country — and by extension (at least in his mind) his classroom — now and again. For this angry young white man, America’s natural order of things had been restored with the election of Donald Trump.
There have been many such instances in the days and weeks after Election Day. Unfortunately, a good number have escalated from mere words to serious threats and acts of physical violence. For example, an 8-year-old black child had his arm broken as he tried to defend his 4-year-old sister from white children who taunted and assaulted them.
Mosques have been sent letters saying, “There’s a new sheriff in town – President Donald Trump . . . He’s going to cleanse America and make it shine again. And, he’s going to start with you Muslims.”
Three white men are also now being investigated by police for the killing of a black man — an apparent post-Trump election hate crime in America’s most liberal city.
In total, in the days since Trump’s victory, the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented at least 900 hate crimes against people of color, Muslims, gays, lesbians and others who are marked as the Other in America. Trump’s election is not coincidental to this foul behavior. It is causal.
This post-Trump election outbreak of hate is yet another reminder that the United States is a violent society. Political violence is neither foreign nor strange here; it is part of the nation’s cultural DNA. But even by those standards, this political moment somehow feels different and out of step with the America that elected Barack Obama twice as president and the decades of social and political progress that made his victories possible. Something is very much amiss.
For many white Americans, socialization through the schools and news media aided by the historical myth of American exceptionalism has consigned that history to the memory hole. First Nations people know that America is a country built on violence. African-Americans know that, too. The twin crimes against humanity — genocide and slavery — which lie at the heart of the nation’s founding belie any innocent notions about the country’s essentially benign character.
One would think that the descendants of the poor, white and working-class folks who were slaughtered in mining towns by Pinkerton goons and other agents of the robber barons in the 19th and 20th century America would remember that history, too. Alas, it seems that many of them have either forgotten this pain or had it washed away by the promise of whiteness and the American Dream. Or perhaps those white voters turned that pain in the wrong direction and in an act of political masochism backed Donald Trump.
* * *
Politics is often discussed using abstract and seemingly neutral language. Politics is about who gets what, how and why. In a democracy, “politics” and “public opinion” are often explained as being fundamentally about “matters of public concern” to which elites feel obligated to respond.
In all, politics in America is often made to feel and sound like something distant and sterile — matters for bureaucrats and political candidates to fight about. This is a veneer and a mask. The political is very much the personal, and the decisions of politicians impact our day-to-day lives and futures in a myriad of ways. But Trump did something relatively novel in recent American politics: He was able to take the naked anger and rage of members of his public and successfully direct it at their fellow Americans.
During his presidential campaign, Trump often spoke about enemies abroad and “fat cats” on Wall Street or in Washington who hustle the system. But the real enemies were actually elsewhere — groups like Latinos, Arabs and Muslims and black folks, who are not at the top of America’s social pyramid but much closer to the bottom. Driven by authoritarian leanings and what social psychologists call “social dominance behavior,” Trump’s voters could not resist the chance to put their boots on the backs of other people in order to lift themselves up, psychologically and perhaps materially as well. Ultimately, Trumpism is an opportunity for angry white conservatives and their allies to do violence and harm to other Americans.
By repealing the Affordable Care Act, Donald Trump will quite likely shorten millions of people’s lives. It is estimated that lack of health insurance kills at least 45,000 Americans a year.
Trump has promised to forcibly remove millions of “illegal aliens” from the United States. Beyond the actual physical violence involved in this grand plan, this would also inflict emotional, economic and psychological harm on countless people.
The president-elect has threatened to create a de facto enemies list for Muslims. His advisers have even suggested using the World War II-era internment of Japanese-Americans as a model for how best to deal with Muslims living in the U.S. who are perceived as threats to “national security.” This is dangerous. Beyond the indignity and violation of civil rights, such an action would result in psychological and physical harm to those Muslims and Arabs targeted by Trump’s security forces.
Trump has plans to expand unconstitutional police tactics such as “stop and frisk” policies in black and Latino communities. America’s police are already running amok, killing African-Americans at a rate three times higher more than whites. Researchers have also demonstrated that police are significantly more likely to use lethal force and far more quickly against unarmed African-Americans than against whites.
America’s police have also been shown to use more force at every level of engagement against African-Americans than they do with white people. In all, Trump wants to expand the Terrordome that already kills thousands of black and brown Americans every year. He is selling “safety” and “security” to his white voters through increased police thuggery against people of color: More black and brown bodies will be made to suffer and die as a result of Trump’s so-called law and order initiatives.
These examples do not include the likely physical and emotional harm to be done to many tens of millions of Americans — the poor, older folks, children, people with disabilities and people without jobs — by Trump’s apparent plans to destroy the social safety net and eviscerate the commons through acts of gangster capitalism and political cronyism. That is, assuming he does what he has pledged to do, namely take the public’s tax money and transfer it wholesale to the plutocrats and kleptocrats among the 1 percent.
Are all of Trump’s voters and supporters sitting around sharpening their knives and salivating at the harm that their champion will do to their fellow Americans who are not white, Christian, straight and male? I imagine that many of them are just selfish, hoping that Trump cuts their taxes, creates new jobs out of nothing and brings back a vanished and largely imaginary era of social uniformity and widespread (white) prosperity.
Others are Christian theocrats who want to take away women’s reproductive rights. And of course, some of his public comprises outright bigots, racists and authoritarians; the basket of human deplorables is undeniably large. A good many are just ignorant nihilists who wanted to “shake things up” in Washington by electing a political incompetent and con artist as the leader of the free world. What was in their hearts as they elected a proto-fascist and an apparent racist to be president of the United States of America is irrelevant. Human history is replete with examples of “good people” doing horrible things to others.
But as we live through this transition from the age of Obama to the age of Trump, the first being a high point in the long black freedom struggle and the latter a nadir in American politics and Whiteopian dreaming, it must also be understood as a moment of white political backlash, not unlike the period that followed the Civil War and Reconstruction.
We should also not overlook the relationship between cathartic violence and white racism as hate crimes are being tallied in the wake of Trump’s election. Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison addressed this recently in The New Yorker:
So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.
While the news media has been consumed with a flat and mostly incorrect narrative about how “economic insecurity” powered Trump’s Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton, the real story is more about whiteness and white privilege as a type of “possessive investment,” one that much of white America yearns to protect. John Thomason explained this dynamic in The New Inquiry:
For the Trump coalition, the dynamic is different: instead of the innocence of its privilege, it’s the innocence of its dispossession that supporters rally behind. The danger lies not only in their denial of the continued, empirically demonstrable benefits incurred by whiteness, but also in the implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim that their whiteness is being leveraged against them. This is how the racial innocence that has long characterized conservative thinking in the post-Civil Rights era evolves into a more dangerous phenomenon: racial vengeance.
For all of Trump’s bluster and the howls of his voters, we also cannot forget that they and he are a loud and vocal — and yes, quite dangerous — minority. But in their fear and desperation to find “consensus” and “common ground,” the Democratic Party and too many other Americans may wish to negotiate with that minority, in search of “national healing” after a painful and tumultuous presidential election. This is exactly the wrong approach. One does not cede territory to bullies. We should not negotiate with those who wish to do us civic and personal harm.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a large margin. Donald Trump will enter the White House as one of the least popular presidents in modern American history. The Democrats, liberals, progressives and others who opposed Donald Trump and the Republican Party occupy the moral and ethical high ground — even if, in politics it is often scoundrels and not saints who win.
Those who opposed Trump and the Republican Party were trying to protect America’s democratic traditions and institutions. Trump and his supporters are on a highway to hell, as shown by his and their behavior during the presidential campaign and in victory. People of conscience should construct barricades around it. And under no circumstances should they surrender to Trump’s movement.
In Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he famously promised to work toward a new American future “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” I publicly promise the opposite. I have nothing but malice toward Donald Trump and his voters, and I offer them no charity of any kind. In this moment true patriotism demands nothing less.