I wanted to write to you after the election because, like me, you might be processing thoughts and emotions that you can’t quite put your finger on and that are weighing heavy. It was a huge surprise—to say the very least—and a reminder of how divided our country is. Now we have to have a national conversation, try to gain some clarity about who we are and what’s next, and most importantly, try to understand one another. I expect it will be a hard conversation, but one we can no longer afford not to have. So I wanted to share a few of my own thoughts in the hope that they encourage you not to accept the results quietly, regardless of who you voted for. If there’s one thing that everyone can agree on, it’s that now is a time for change, come what may.
Now that Trump has won, you’ll hear it said that we should work together, that we owe Trump an open mind, that we can’t change the results, that we should give Trump a chance, or that Trump’s success is our success. I do not agree. And I am bothered by such conciliatory and resigned language, which asks us just to move on. If the worry is that by challenging Trump’s presidency with more provocative language, we risk deepening the divide in our country, let’s remember that what the election revealed is that we are already as divided as we can be (short of civil war). So it’s okay—maybe our responsibility—to raise your voice and awareness about the issues that divide us, and do so before we’re completely and irreversibly broken.
Part of the reason I believed that Trump could never be president is that I wanted to believe that our country could not support someone with so little class, experience, and human decency. I wanted to believe that our country would see right through him and realize how unfit and unqualified for office he is. And I wanted to believe that our country wouldn’t condone his bigotry, misogyny, and racism. I was wrong. Most of us were.
In a strange way, though, I wasn’t completely wrong. The majority of the voting public didn’t vote for Trump, in two ways. First, Clinton won the popular vote and roughly 100 million people didn’t vote at all. In other words, of all the people who could vote, only about 25% voted for Trump. Second, and more importantly, my sense is that many people who voted “for” Trump really voted against Clinton, big government, and the political establishment. In other words, I still want to believe that before the election, almost everyone knew (deep down) that Trump should not be president. But people around the country are hurting; they need jobs; they feel like their values and way of life are in decline and disregarded by politicians; and so they were willing to express their discontent by trying anything else.
Of course there are also a scary number of people who not only condone Trump’s bigotry, misogyny, and racism, but who voted for him because of it.
So I can’t stand behind our president-elect because, on the one hand, we need to reject the prejudice and small-mindedness that he represents, and because, on the other hand, we have to deal with the fact that we elected a president that the vast majority of the country did not want to be president. I do not believe that we should quietly accept Trump’s presidency, hope for the best, forget what Trump said or accept an apology, and move on. What’s painfully clear now is just how broken our system is and that a willingness to forget for four more years is not a solution.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that we are now forced to look at the differences that continue to divide our country. We are forced to question who the slogan “Let’s make America great again” is for, since, as our reading has hopefully made clear by now, America was never all that great for people of color, immigrants, and women—all the people who are the target of Trump’s divisive rhetoric. Trump will no doubt try to excuse his rhetoric (“well within what’s normal in a campaign,” he’ll say) and he’ll ask us to forget it or hope that we do. Let’s neither excuse nor forget. And let’s continue to point out that his language has inspired and validated the many acts of racism and hatred we are now seeing spread across the country.
What I’d like to say to you is this. I want to encourage you not to despair or to accept the current situation, regardless of your political leaning. This has been a difficult week, but maybe a necessary one. It has revealed to us the darker side of American history and democracy, but it is an opportunity to face it head on. Those who did vote against Clinton did so because they see Trump as an “agent of change.” For me, however, Trump represents a dark but long-standing dimension of the American political status quo: a privileged white man playing on the fears, prejudice, and plight of the voting public for political and personal gain.
Again, we can all agree that we need change as much as ever. The vast majority of us can also agree that it shouldn’t be fueled by racist and sexist language or any form of hatred and bigotry. What we can’t agree on (yet) is what real, positive, equitable, and inclusive change looks like exactly. That’s why Trump was elected (for lack of a clear, positive alternative), and that’s why I want to encourage all of you, all of us, not to accept the status quo and to start defining and demanding our political future in clear and positive terms.