As a high school teacher, I stay in contact with a lot of former students on Facebook, and they have varying degrees of political knowledge and a wide variety of political opinions. I like a diversity of opinions and respect former students who can argue intelligently for different positions. Just like when they were my students, they teach me a lot. Yesterday, a former student hopped on my FB page to voice his hashtag-laden support for Donald Trump. This led to an argument with another former student, and that devolved from there. When I tried to put a stop to it, the Trump supporter said he felt like I was getting emotional, that he would be coming back into town for a visit, and that maybe we could get together to talk about it.
Here’s why that’s not going to happen.
Yes, I am more emotional about this election than any in my lifetime. That’s because this election is not about “politics,” or at least politics as we so frequently too narrowly define it. Broadly speaking, politics is the distribution of power amongst people. I get mildly annoyed when people say they don’t care about politics, not just because things like presidential elections should matter to them, but because they are misunderstanding what “politics” means. They care about family politics. They care about office politics. They mean electoral politics, and they fail to see the connection between electoral politics and the politics that hit closer to home. Of course, they would see the connection if they were, say, a lesbian who cared about being able to marry her girlfriend, or a Latino immigrant concerned that his cousin might get deported, or a woman concerned about equal pay at work, or a Muslim woman who is worried her daughter will be harassed on the street for wearing her hijab, or a Black man concerned that he might get pulled over and harassed by decent police officers five or six more times than a white woman until one day, when he’s really tired of it, he expresses his irritation and is insufficiently deferential to a cop who turns out to be one of the racist ones, and then he doesn’t make it home to his family that night. Those people will care about electoral politics. But the straight, white guy with the middle management job can say he doesn’t care about politics. Not too much. Not enough to get emotional about it.
I’m already more inclined to get emotional about it than some folks because I was raised to care about other people more than myself. But in a normal election, part of that empathy extends to people on the other side of the aisle; I assume that, though we may have different ideas about how to make a better society for everyone, we share that value, and I respect their different perspective which informs their position. In a normal election, we would have a choice between two reasonable candidates who can both do the job, and we would concern ourselves with what the candidates plan to do in office and how it will affect the country. A more hawkish candidate might lead me to believe our soldiers will be unnecessarily put in harm’s way, and a more dovish candidate might lead my neighbor to believe our country will be less safe. Concerns for the safety and well-being of our citizens and our soldiers are both legitimate. I may be concerned that social services will be cut and people will suffer if taxes are lowered, and my neighbor might be worried that tax money will be wasted without actually helping anyone if taxes are raised. Wasteful government spending and the suffering of our fellow countrymen are both legitimate concerns. And my tendency to be passionate about my own concerns is not always helpful. I’m sometimes wrong, both in things I advocate for and in the way that I advocate for them. I acknowledge that.
But this election is not about legitimate concerns. Donald Trump, who has been both pro-choice and pro-life, both pro-military intervention and against military intervention, in favor of both increasing and abolishing the minimum wage, cannot claim to be the champion of any legitimate cause. The only things Trump has been consistent about, going back long before he decided to run for political office, are his racism against Black people (both his employees and Black people he’d never met), his racism against Latinos (and not because of illegal immigration concerns, since that didn’t bother him a bit when they were his employees or brides), his bigotry towards people of other religions (first Jewish people, but more recently Muslims), his lack of respect for women, and his hyper-focus on his own self promotion at the expense of everyone around him. Hillary Clinton gets a lot of flack for her ambition (because women aren’t supposed to believe that if they work really hard, someday they could be President. That’s crazy-talk), but at every step of the way, she added lines to her resume not by puffing herself up, but by helping others. Trump has made a brand out of his juvenile definition of strength which depends on stepping on others to get ahead, and this manifests in the people he says he admires, dictators like Mussolini and Putin and Kim Jong Un. He is as interested in helping others as his heroes are.
The mixture of his narcissism and his racial, religious, and sex-based animus has created a movement organized by Trump saying hateful things at rallies and encouraging the most hateful supporters to froth at the mouth. It’s not fair to hold a politician accountable for everything her/his supporters do, but we get a special insight into their beliefs when they decide to make statements about which of those supporters they agree with and which they repudiate. John McCain is a certified war hero who suffered torture for the sake of this country, but one of the brightest and most honorable moments of his public life was the moment a woman at a rally tried to disparage Barack Obama for being an Arab. McCain went beyond simply pointing out that this was inaccurate and talked about Barack Obama’s fundamental decency. That moment doesn’t tell us about Barack Obama. It tells us about the honor and dignity of John McCain. Similarly, when Barack Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, made comments that criticized this country, Obama forcefully disavowed them him in a way that didn’t just disagree with the comments, but probably ended a 20 year friendship, when he said, “I believe that [Wright’s comments] end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate. I believe they don't portray accurately the perspective of the black church. They certainly don't portray accurately my values and beliefs. And if Reverend Wright thinks that is political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn't know me very well. And based on his remarks yesterday, I may not know him as well as I thought, either.” Obama and McCain were both able to draw lines and disavow supporters who did not reflect their values. Trump, on the other hand, owns a lot of the worst rhetoric and behavior of his supporters because he actively endorses it and enables it. His campaign not only doesn’t reject Nazis, it employs people who proudly self-identify as Nazis. Not only do Trump’s supporters beat up protesters at his rallies, but Trump encourages it from the stump. When supporters share anti-semitic or Islamophobic images and messages on Twitter, Trump re-tweets them. And when Trump’s supporters revel in their misogyny, he doesn’t condemn them. He encourages it by continuing to make sexist comments, even as a candidate, calling reporters “bimbo” and dismissing the accounts of the women who have reported that he sexually assaulted them by criticizing their physical appearance.
Now, this isn’t one of those pieces where I tell Trump supporters why I think they are supporting Trump. I don’t know. Maybe someone thinks Trump will lower his taxes. (You a billionaire? No? Then he won’t.) Maybe someone thinks Trump will keep her safer. (All his energy is focused on the people who commit the least crime. He won’t keep you safer.) Maybe someone believes the most outlandish conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton. (Take it from an old teacher: Do your own homework.) Here’s what I do know: Every single person who sides with Donald Trump is supporting Donald Trump. Here’s what that means: Trump supporters may not hate Black people or Latinos or Jews or Muslims or women or LGBTQ people, but they are lining up with those who do in support of a candidate who embraces and elevates those who do. At the end of the day, every single Trump supporter owns a piece of that. Hillary Clinton is not a perfect person, and her supporters own her faults, too. At the end of the day, I own a share worth a millionth of an email that Huma Abedin should have kept on her computer at work instead of on her laptop at home. That’s on me now. I’ll think I’ll be able to sleep at night. But a Trump supporter owns shares of racism, of sexism, of religious intolerance. And maybe that Trump supporter is okay with that. But that’s where we part ways.
Someone can say they support Trump for a different reason. Say it’s the Supreme Court picks or the Paul Ryan agenda. Try and convince himself that’s enough. But remember, Adolf Hitler liked dogs and the opera. If someone told me they supported the rise of Hitler because they were an opera fan or a dog lover, and that was why he was able to kill a quarter of my family, you can bet I would get emotional.
You see, I do get emotional about this. The people I love are women, are Latino, are Black, are Muslim, are Jewish, are gay, are trans. If a Trump supporter tolerates hatred towards the people I love, that’s not a slight difference of opinion about what public policy will make for a better nation for us all to live in. That, coupled with the degree of violence in Trump’s rallies and his rhetoric, is an existential threat to the people I care about most. A note to all the politicians who have failed to disavow him: We will not forget. You sided against the people I love. I’ll remember that. And to my FB friends who thought they were just siding with their team against my team in something as inconsequential as a Monday night football game, this is not the kind of situation where we will look back in twenty years and say, “Who won that one, anyway?” I will not forget.
Now, before you put your fingers on that keyboard, take a deep breath. Were you about to write about Hillary’s emails? About one of the 23 American consulates attacked in the last 15 years (lemme’ guess, the only one investigated ad nauseum by the Republicans in Congress without finding any wrongdoing, right)? About her voice or her pantsuits, or about how you just don’t trust her? Stop yourself. Because by writing anything about Hillary Clinton to justify your support of Donald Trump, you are saying that those things are equivalent. Think about that. You are saying that your gripe with Clinton is just as important as hatred directed at the people I love, that misplaced emails balance out aiding and abetting white supremacy and sexual assault. Is that really what you want to say? Then proceed.
And don’t give me any of that “Liberals are condescending” crap. Not now. Not ever again. You know when liberals acted like they were better? When they took a stand for women’s rights, for civil rights, for LGBTQ rights. And those liberals did that because they were better than the people who wanted women to be second class citizens, who supported segregation, who wanted homophobia codified into the law. That condescension doesn’t come from being more educated (we’re not), or richer (we’re not), or living in the cool big cities where you get your music and movies and news (lots of us don’t). Liberals think we’re better because we value love over hate. In this election, the people on the left side of the aisle (with the exception of some Bernie bros who tossed around some racist, anti-semitic, and sexist responses when their guy didn’t win) showed themselves to be on the side of love, and the folks on the right side of the aisle (with the noteable exceptions of some principled #NeverTrumpers) have shows that they will abide this degree of racial, religious, and sexist hatred. In the past, we liberals been too timid to point out this divide boldly. I know I’m guilty of that. Some conservative who loves his family and the members of his church would cry condescension, and I would back down and fall all over myself to make sure the person felt respected as a loving person who just had different views. Well, if you side with Donald Trump, you can take your Don’t-Condescend-To-Me card into the ballot box with you, rip it up, and burn it, because it has been revoked forever. Your love for your family or your church or your god was not enough to keep you from siding with hate when it came right down to it. Quick, while it’s burning, flip it over. Notice the phrases “Family Values” and “Personal Responsibility”? There those go, too. Up in smoke. You sided with hatred over family values and personal responsibility.
And please don’t tell me that my speaking out against Trump and his supporters is just “feeding the trolls.” The millions and millions of people who will cast ballots for Trump are not all sleazeballs who enjoy tormenting others online. Some of them are good people who have been deceived and are still persuadable. Meanwhile, the rest of us need to take a stand loudly so that everyone knows exactly what is at stake and how their votes will be viewed going forward. This is a case where quiet politeness creates the false impression that hatred is tolerable. Some people will still choose to side with hatred, for whatever individual reason, but they deserve to know that the rest of us see that choice for what it is.
After this election, I will still be civil to Trump supporters. I won’t rub their nose in the loss (until one of them tries to run for public office and pretends this never happened). In my classroom, I will continue to be professional and not allow my political beliefs to make any child feel unsafe or unwelcome. I’ll go to Thanksgiving dinner and pass the mashed potatoes to people who voted for Donald Trump. But Trump supporters should not be surprised when I treat them exactly the same way I would treat someone with a Swastika or Confederate flag for a profile picture. I won’t be going out of my way to hang out with a Trump supporter any more than I would meet for a beer with somebody after a Klan rally.
This isn’t just "politics."
This is a moment when we get to choose who we are.