To College Students, Post-Election

So here we are. President-elect Donald Trump. The days since the election have been very revealing. In my sphere people are reeling, they are hurting, they are afraid. The day after the election I witnessed people in tears in the halls of NYU. The entire school had a morose air about it the likes of which I’ve never seen. Notices, reassurances and resources were offered by the administration to support a student body in a state of abject suffering. I felt like I was observing this unfold from behind a glass window. Admittedly, I had a very limited emotional investment in this election. The results did not dispose me to tears, anger, or even any great deal of fear. Perhaps that speaks to the fact that my life has been relatively devoid of politically incurred struggles. I recognize this as a privilege that was acquired through a great deal of suffering and maintained through a great deal of effort. Many of my peers perceived there to be far more at stake and there very well might be. In this way their fear and anger are more than justified. However, fear and anger are what got us to this point.

Many of the initial reactions to the results were angry outbursts and predictions of apocalypse. In the outpouring of emotion, however, many demonstrated the same behaviors that they vilified in Trump and his supporters, resorting to essentialism and reductive reasoning. Some even acknowledged that they were being un-democratic in this behavior. People feel that their rights and even their safety have been put in jeopardy. It is understandable, then, that they would ignore the ideals of democratic discourse. Going forward though, it is crucial that we return to reason and apply liberal principles universally, not only in support of our own politics. One of the main criticisms of Trump is that he is a racist. Among other things, this refers to his tendency to reduce people to what he considers (falsely) their essences. Muslims are in essence terrorists. Mexicans are in essence criminals and rapists. These statements are definitively false. But so is this one: Trump voters are in essence racist.

One of the prevailing feelings I observed was one of shock that there were enough Americans willing to vote Trump into office. This demonstrates how thoroughly estranged the different communities within the United States have become. From the moment I came to school I heard the standard lines of open discourse, embracing difference and challenging our assumptions. I imagine similar values are espoused at universities the nation over. These notions are so often repeated that I fear they have come to hold no weight. What was particularly telling in the aftermath of this election was that students admitted they did not know how to productively converse with those whose political opinions differ from their own. For all the talk of embracing difference it seems that universities are not teaching their students how to disagree. The result is the formation of ideological echo chambers within our universities. The illusory environments of accordance provided by our universities allow or perhaps even encourage students to castigate of those not line with institutional dogma. As such, to many students a Trump presidency simply did not exist as a possibility. They did not consider reasons why one might vote for Trump beyond support of white supremacy. So when Trump won and the illusion was shattered the easiest explanation was that there are far more bigots in this country than we ever expected. But we as college students, more so than anyone, should know better than to accept the easiest possible explanation.

Surely Trump’s message resonated with bigoted people but clearly there was much more at play in his victory over Hillary Clinton, the objectively more qualified candidate. By reducing the election results to the victory of bigotry over progressivism we risk losing sight of many important factors in Trump’s win. Perhaps it can be contextualized as part of a larger populist resurgence as seen through Brexit and the growing prominence of right-wing parties in Europe. I personally believe it is better explained through an examination of domestic economic concerns. The fact of the matter is that income inequality is growing, the middle-class is shrinking, and America is rapidly moving towards a strictly stratified class system antithetical to the American Dream. In my own schooling experience though, class issues have been considered far, far less important than social identity theory when analyzing the socio-economic conditions of the United States, which is curious considering this. My point is that social issues, though important, are only one aspect of one’s political views. It is easy to reduce all Trump voters to bigots. It is difficult to try to assume their vantage point especially when you perceive their politics as inimical to your rights. It is our responsibility, however, to accept challenge and embrace difficulty. I am not asking you to abandon your convictions. I am not asking you to ignore injustice. However, I am asking you, as college students, to resist the inclination to seek easy answers. I am asking you to consider the concerns of others even when they seem at odds with your own. I am holding you to a higher standard because I know you’ve been trained to recognize complexity in what might appear simple. The moment we allow ourselves to believe our differences are greater than our similarities is the moment the American project falls apart. It has happened before, it cannot happen again. So lament, organize, speak out but do not dismiss 60,000,000 plus voters as unworthy or incapable of participation in the discourse. Empathize with their concerns even as you protest their biases. If we don’t assume the challenge, who will?

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