“Donald Trump does not represent the America I know.”
It’s a quote I’ve been hearing (and seeing) a lot. In conversations, on social media; people are stunned that someone who ran a campaign based on racism could capture the presidency. It makes me wonder what America they’re speaking of.
Last year while traveling for work, I visited Kent State University.
I had passed it repeatedly on previous trips and finally decided that, considering the significance it played in American history during the Vietnam War, I should pay my respects.
After locating the memorial I did the walking tour, pausing at every plaque to read the name of each fallen student.
It was sobering.
It was to my surprise, then, when I watched a documentary on the massacre and discovered that at the time: popular support was behind the National Guard. Students and protesters were looked upon as dirty hippies, and “good” Americans believed in President Nixon and his war. In fact, immediately following the shooting a Gallup Poll revealed that 58% of respondents blamed the students for what happened. Only 11% said responsibility lay with the National Guard. The rest were undecided.
Reflecting on that, I began examining current events—specifically the election of Donald Trump—through a new lens. If you frame the election within the context of American history, it makes more sense.
America was founded by a society that believed slaughtering indigenous people was acceptable. Native Americans were offered treaties that had all the value of toilet paper, and were treated thusly. Following conquest of the land, slave labor was used to build the country’s economy. Ownership of another person was the societal norm, and so beloved by so many that to do away with it we fought our Civil War.
Once slavery ended, segregation was hunky dory; the lynching of African-Americans was treated as a community gathering, like a picnic. God-fearing white Americans felt neither shame nor guilt over the outright murder of their fellow countrymen, simply because their skin color was different.
In between slavery and desegregation, child labor, worker exploitation, profound sexism and female belittlement were all widespread and popular. In fact, outliers who challenged slavery, segregation, child labor, or sexism, those people were attacked for defying the system.
In the 1980s AIDS was ignored for being a “gay disease, ” and as recently as the 1990s, active governmental legislation made marriage equality illegal.
In the 2000s, starting a war with Iraq because residents of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates attacked the United States, was widely-accepted.
In 2014 the residents of Kansas were such ideologues they re-elected the incumbent Governor that tanked their economy and exploded their deficit rather than reach beyond their comfort zones and vote for the opposition party.
In 2016 a white male could openly advocate for the banning of an entire religion, reducing women to sex objects, and make openly racists comments … and be elected president.
There are many, many more examples of ways America has normalized horrific actions, but the point is: to anyone saying that the election of Donald Trump doesn’t represent the America they know, the question becomes, “Really?”
America is a perpetual work in progress. It is education trying to appeal to salt-of-the-earth. It is optimism vs. apathy, reason vs. ideologue, and hope vs. fear. Sometimes, the worst of us wins out.
I know people who voted for Donald Trump. I have friends who voted for him. Are they bad people because they voted for someone who mocked a disabled person, was endorsed by the KKK, boasted about sexual assault, and numerous other reprehensible things?
What should be an easy “Yes” is actually difficult to answer.
While a chunk of Trump supporters did so because of deep-rooted racist beliefs, others voted out of fear and frustration. They believe the Government is feckless and without merit. Their way of life is disappearing—the blue collar middle class—and the future seems bleak. Those are the people I know.
They love their families and are both friendly and unassuming, but are—and this is the kindest way to say this—the most intellectually uncurious people you’ll ever meet. Instead of researching a topic, they only accept confirmation bias input from sources that report opinions, not facts.
To be fair, I’m not sure where they fall on the chicken/egg scale. Were they angry first, and right-wing media fanned those flames, or were they confused and right-wing media gave them something to latch on to? Maybe it doesn’t matter, but the point is: they are misinformed, and incensed.
(As President Obama himself said during an interview with Bill Maher: “If I watched Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me either.”)
Can you blame someone for being intellectually lacking? In part, yes. There is such a thing as willful ignorance. But how do you reach out to them? How do you change them?
I have tried in earnest to have conversations with Trump supporters to see exactly what they had against President Obama and/or what they saw in Trump that they liked. In every instance, the response was a barrage of sound bites without substance. Unfortunately, this means no amount of dialogue will bring about change. Sometimes the only way people evolve is through personal experience. There is a selfishness inherent to human beings, one that is only pierced when personally affected.
Anti-gay senator Rob Portman changed his stance on marriage equality after his son came out of the closet. Nancy Reagan broke from the religious right on stem cell research, because she was witness first-hand to the devastation of Alzheimer’s Disease. Until you “walk a mile,” so to speak, it is easier to dismiss criticism. If anti-Muslim, anti-Hispanic, anti-LGBTQ (as it pertains to the Republican party as a whole, not precisely Donald Trump), and anti-woman rhetoric doesn’t apply to you, you have the luxury of ignoring it. Just like Americans in our past ignored (or justified) the practices of slavery, slaughter, or the shooting of college students in 1970.
Which isn’t to say all is lost, or that there is no hope for our future. America may have just elected a cartoon villain to the presidency, but he also lost the popular vote. There is more good out there than bad; the Trump inauguration drew hundreds of thousands fewer people than were witness to Barack Obama, and the #WomensMarch protest the next day far outdrew those supporting Trump.
On November 9th President Obama said: “Sometimes you lose an election. The path that this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag, and sometimes we move in ways that some people is think is forward and others think is moving back.” As said earlier, no matter what awful there is in the world, there will always be those who stand up for what’s right. Even when it wasn’t popular, there were those who fought slavery, demanded women’s suffrage, created worker’s unions, and created the society we enjoy today.
It’s time to stop being surprised Donald Trump is the president, accept the fact America is filled with flaws that need fixing, and get to work. Come 2018, “Make America great again” won’t be a slogan, but a necessity. Trump might not represent the America you know, but he does embody the worst we have to offer.
(For thoughts on how to retake seats in upcoming elections, read An Open Letter to the DNC.)
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