Alan, I feel compelled to ask you to absolutely not go out after you vote on Election Day. I feel the potential for real violence will be high throughout the country and from all sides. I would rather not worry about you. If you do go out, make sure someone knows where you are and [you] keep yourself available.
I read that back to myself several times before dialing the number of the friend who sent it, a black woman who had recently expressed fears about going to the polls amid reports of voter intimidation from the Trump camp. I assure her of my plan to vote, go to work, then possibly go back home. The likelihood of hanging out with a friend to watch the election results roll in still hangs in the balance. Should I cancel? It seems prudent to do so.
HATED IN THE NATION
It started with my mother.
A thin line separates populism and nationalism. One is a belief in the power of regular people and in their right to have control over the government. The other demands an extreme form of patriotism; xenophobia then becomes impossible to contain.
In this respect, my mother was a perfect victim. She immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic more than thirty years ago. She worked hard; she learned to speak English; she became a citizen, she had me––in that order. She never shied away from sharing the painful details of those early years, the anxiety, the fear that nipped at her heels after leaving behind everything she had ever known.
But there was never any question about her plans. By the time she was thirty, having already made a down payment on the house we would live in for the first eleven years of my life, she had already scrubbed herself clean of anything that associated her with anyone “fresh off the boat.”
My mother tried to distance herself from tales of border jumpers and anchor babies. It worked for a time. As the internet became more pervasive and essential, she found it much harder to extricate herself from conversations about societal leeches, welfare benefits, the DREAM Act. That the number of illegal aliens deported has increased exponentially under Obama’s administration did not support the narrative that existed in her head. Surely there was someone out there with anti-establishment credentials and the courage to take the country back from the people overtaking it, the people with whom, she felt, she’d been lumped in due to their callous disregard for our nation’s laws.
I had no idea my mother thought so little of herself until Donald Trump’s campaign played to the heart of her fears and ignorance, granting her concerns a degree of legitimacy. But did she really? Her praise for Trump was not absolute (she despised the way he talked about women, for example), but she failed to see how his controversial immigration proposals and often violent rhetoric toward Mexicans and other Latinos would erode the civil liberties of U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens alike. She only knew she felt hated in the nation.
She has since changed her mind, and her voter affiliation. But when she endorsed him that first night over the dining room table, she wasn’t my mother. She was a stranger.
HOW TO BE
I loved history growing up. But if you had sat in the majority of my high school classes, you would have thought there wasn’t much to history besides Mesopotamia or the Mayflower. We had one semester my senior year of high school devoted to a shallow exercise in civics, the other to economics. No one who passed either class would have graduated with the ability to critically assess the initiatives on a ballot, let alone understand the implications (or even ramifications) of a vote.
History does not remember the legitimate grievances of anyone who voted Hitler into power. What history does remember is that these people made a revolting choice. History remembers what many of these people decided to do––and were privileged enough to do––despite all the damning evidence to the contrary. Nor will history look kindly upon Donald Trump or his supporters regardless of the election’s outcome.
Nevertheless, the absence of remembrance––not necessarily the lack of knowledge––influences what we teach our students about capitalism and the struggle between social classes, the paranoid fear of “the other.” There is comparatively little awareness of the inequality that persists and what our role is when discussing race, financial status, gender, religion, sexuality or any of their multiple intersections. We can all name the black man who invented peanut butter, but we don’t often have conversations about the consequences that result from a refusal to engage with the matrix of categories and contexts which impact the outcome of any situation in physical reality. How we benefit. What to do. How to be.
In July, the friend who messaged me a note of caution before Election Day issued a frantic call for help on Facebook. Her boyfriend had brutalized her in her apartment. He’d shattered a pair of her glasses and spat on her. He’d destroyed several of her belongings and caused several hundred dollars worth of property damage.
“He tried to keep me from calling the police but when he realized I had already called he took off,” she wrote at the time. “I am letting my community know this happened because he currently has the keys to my apartment and building. Until the locks have been changed I will be updating on Facebook first thing in the morning, noon, and late evening.”
That same week, the shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota by members of law enforcement inflamed racial hostilities and made national headlines. By the weekend, five officers would be shot dead in Dallas by a sniper during a protest against police brutality.
“No, I didn’t call the police right away,” my friend said the following week after fielding dozens of questions about the incident from concerned friends. The possibility that the police might escalate the situation was a real one, she said. She feared for her safety as a woman and as a person of color. She reminded me of the stories of men and women shot in their own homes after calling the police. There was no manual available, no explicit instructions to follow, no way how to be without the situation potentially imploding.
Most of all, she assured me, these incidents would only become more frequent under a Trump presidency. As the election cycle wore on, her anger over “protest votes” increased. The notion that others could not possibly vote for Clinton or Trump because both are flawed in their own ways seems more and more ridiculous to her when the difference between autocracy and democracy––the thin line between life and death––stands before her.
To date, there have been at least nine attacks on women by Trump supporters. At a super Tuesday rally in Louisville, Kentucky, back in March, a young black woman was verbally assaulted by a man wearing a Make America Great hat and ejected from the venue. More than ever before, Trump’s incendiary campaign serves as a reminder to my friend that her blackness is non-negotiable.
The thought of her, another trending hashtag, haunts me.
THE MISEDUCATION OF CAPITOL HILL
If the ongoing schism within the GOP seems entertaining––however deserved––reconsider.
In August, Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, a top Republican donor, accused Donald Trump of undermining “the character of the nation,” adding that the “dishonest demagogue” would lead the United States “on a very dangerous journey.” Whitman indicated she would throw her support behind Hillary Clinton; she acknowledged she and Clinton have different views on policy but called for her fellow Republicans “to put country first before party.”
Around the time of Whitman’s Clinton endorsement, Representative Richard Hanna (R-NY) also defected from the party and became the first Republican member of Congress to announce his unequivocal support for Clinton. Hanna admonished the GOP for “becoming increasingly less capable of nominating a person who is electable as president,” in an op-ed for Syracuse.com. “The primary process is so geared toward the party’s political base, which ignores the fact that we have largely alienated women, Hispanics, the LGBT community, young voters and many others in general,” he continued. He called Trump “self-involved,” “narcissistic,” “profoundly offensive,” and “unrepentant in all things.”
Not a single living president––Democrat or Republican––endorses Trump. And although New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sold his soul to the man long ago (and has since become the leader of Trump’s transition team) his former adviser decided to jump ship. A former adviser to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush also crossed party lines and switched her registration to unaffiliated. “This election cycle is a test,” said Sally Bradshaw, who referred to Trump as “a total narcissist––a misogynist––a bigot.” Bradshaw reiterated that she is not a fan of President Barack Obama “or his policies” but was insistent: “I can’t look my children in the eye and tell them I voted for Donald Trump. I can’t tell them to love their neighbor and treat others the way they wanted to be treated, and then vote for Donald Trump. I won’t do it.”
Most telling is the reaction within the GOP to the sexual assault allegations against Trump. The most recent (but no less egregious) example came when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich sparred with Megyn Kelly on Fox News after she questioned whether Trump is a “sexual predator.” Gingrich accused Kelly of bias and suggested that the relative controversy of the scandal pales in comparison to Clinton’s alleged misdeeds. He criticized Fox News for spending too much time reporting on Trump’s scandals and no time on a “secret speech” Clinton gave in Brazil. Kelly immediately struck him down.
“That is worth covering, and we did,” she said.
“I mean, you want to go back through the tapes of your show recently,” Gingrich retorted, “you are fascinated with sex, and you don’t care about public policy.”
In a further indication that sexism is so pervasive within the Trump campaign (and so frequently violent in and outside of it) Trump supporter Jane Biddick told us how she really feels about the sexual assault allegations in an interview with New York:
“I haven’t even gotten on to see exactly what Trump said, because I think that’s stupid. Unless you want to write Jesus Christ in as your vote, you might as well forget it. There isn’t any perfect person on the planet. I heard that he said something about groping women, and I’m thinking, Okay, No. 1, I think that’d be great. I like getting groped! I’m heterosexual. I’m a woman, and when a guy gropes me, I get groping on them! I grope them back. Groping is a healthy thing to do. When you’re heterosexual, you grope, okay? It’s a good thing. Try it. I wonder if Nixon groped Pat. Since December, I’ve done very little reading. I’ve heard little snippets here and there on the radio, and I don’t watch TV. I’m just going on what I have at the gut. If Trump really did something that made me feel like he was compromising what I thought was good for the country, I’d get right on and I’d start reading. But all I hear is people are saying he likes to grope women. I’m sorry, that just hasn’t given me any doubt about my vote.”
I had made up my mind about Trump long before any of this, of course. I received my biggest wake-up call after the response to the massacre of 49 patrons in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June. The attack, which also left 53 others injured, is the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in American history as well as the bloodiest incidence of violence against the LGBT community since the UpStairs Lounge arson attack of 1973. I felt as if I’d cried out my body weight that first night; I could see myself in each and every single one of those people, their faces, their smiles. It very easily could have been me, I felt, dancing and tossing back cocktails at Hell’s Kitchen’s Ritz Bar and Lounge.
In the wake of the shooting, Congress debated gun reform. Senate Democrats, led by Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, led a filibuster and forced a Senate vote on four pending bills. All four bills were defeated along party lines. A compromise bill is now under consideration. Later that week, Democrats seized the House floor in a sit-in, vowing to block any legislative action until Speaker Paul Ryan promised to allow votes on several proposals, including blocking suspected terrorists on the no-fly list from purchasing guns. Ryan adjourned Congress over their voices.
As for Trump? He used the attacks as a prop to congratulate himself for being “right” about radical Islamic terrorism, and rode the wave of controversy with all the haughty affectedness of a garage band rock star, continued to paint a picture of a world so bleak it would be easy to forget that love exists in even the most oppressive regimes.
I watched what very well could have been the aftermath of my own death play out on television screens.
It was that indecision in Congress that week, that shuffling of the feet, that I, sitting with friends over dinner one night, came to describe as the miseducation of Capitol Hill. We laughed, poured ourselves drinks. It was all we could do.
A Donald Trump presidency.
All of it a cap on a most violent year.