In the days following the 2016 election, reports of hate crimes and harassment have spiked, and experts have described it as being worse than in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks. Between Wednesday, November 9 (the day after the election) and the morning of November 14, the Southern Poverty Law Center had collected 437 of hateful intimidation and harassment – and noted that “many incidents involved direct references to the Trump campaign and its slogans.”
I spent part of the weekend reading news and opinion pieces about Donald Trump and US racism and xenophobia. The excerpts below left me with a grim but clear picture of where we are and what we need to do.
US voter attitudes on race
Several writers have argued convincingly that Donald Trump’s election demonstrates the continued potency of racism and bigotry in the US. Here’s Nikole Hannah-Jones in the New York Times:
There has never been a moment in America in which black people’s gains have not been perceived by some white Americans as their loss. And history is littered with examples of how economic and racial anxieties can create a wedge with which to destroy interracial political and economic alliances.
… What’s missing from the American conversation on race is the fact that people don’t have to hate black people or Muslims or Latinos to be uncomfortable with them, to be suspicious of them, to fear their ascension as an upheaval of the natural order of things. A smart demagogue plays to those fears under the guise of economic anxieties. Things not as good as you hoped? These folks are the reason.
The Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk II reminds us that racism has always shaped this country:
It was a repudiation by the American electorate of the grand experiment of diversity of the past few years, as symbolized by Barack Obama. It was the half of America, a half that if not bigoted itself seemed mighty fine with being bigotry-adjacent. … this election is a hard reminder that racism is a force that has always shaped this country. This is the same country that killed Emmett Till, and the same place that gave us Jim Crow.
Slate’s Jamelle Bouie contrasts Trump’s campaign with those of McCain and Romney, and diagnoses Trump’s victory as a sign that we had reached a détente, rather than consensus, on the idea of a pluralistic, multiracial society:
John McCain indulged racial fears, and Mitt Romney played on racial resentment, but they refused to go further. To borrow from George Wallace, they refused to cry “nigger.” This is important. By rejecting the politics of explicit racism and white backlash, they moved the political battleground to nominally colorblind concerns. Race was still a part of these clashes—it’s unavoidable—but neither liberals nor conservatives would litigate the idea of a pluralistic, multiracial democracy. Looking back, I thought this meant we had a consensus. It appears, instead, that we had a detente. And Trump shattered it. With his jeremiads against Hispanics and Muslims—with his visions of dystopian cities and radicalized refugees—Trump told white Americans that their fears and anger were justified. And that this fear and anger should drive their politics. Trump forged a politics of white tribalism, and white people embraced it.
In a piece published a few days before the election, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp writes, “It’s tempting to think of Trump as something uniquely American, but the truth is that his rise is being repeated throughout the Western world, where far-right populists are rising in the polls.” Several European countries have elected leaders who “despise immigrants, vowing to close the borders to refugees and economic migrants alike, and are open in their belief that Muslims are inherently dangerous.” Beauchamp cites several studies that probed US voters’ attitudes towards the country’s racial and ethnic composition, including one from Pew:
It found that 33 percent of Republicans thought this shift would be “bad for the country.” These people were also overwhelmingly likely to feel warmly rather than coolly about Trump, by a 63-to-26 margin.
By contrast, the majority of Republicans who had positive or neutral feelings about a “majority-minority” future were more split: 46 percent described themselves as having warm feelings about Trump, while 40 percent described themselves as feeling coolly.
In other words, Trump did overwhelmingly well with Republicans who were scared of a multi-ethnic future, while performing at a pretty low level with other Republicans even as he secured the party’s presidential nomination. His primary campaign disproportionately drew people who fear the demographic trends that would further erode the foundations of white privilege.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, the most optimistic spin I could think to put on the results was that many people voted for Trump for a similar reason many voted for George W. Bush – a focus on personality rather than policies. Voters told Zogby pollsters they’d rather have a beer with George W. Bush, and that they like Trump because he “tells it like it is.” Neither of these things should be a primary qualification for winning the presidency – in fact, diplomacy often requires not saying everything that comes into one’s head – but it would be consistent with past voter behavior. A closer look at the polling results, however, suggests fear of a “majority-minority” future is a significant factor.
Quashing the last flickers of optimism
President-elect Trump had an opportunity to demonstrate that, even if racism and xenophobia helped him win the election, his administration would work toward the vision he expressed in his victory speech: “Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division … to come together as one united people.”
He immediately squandered that opportunity with three of his appointment announcements: Steve Bannon as chief strategist and senior counselor; Michael Flynn as national security advisor; and Jeff Sessions as attorney general.
The elevation of Bannon to a powerful position in the White House is an epochal event in American politics, one that has been condemned by the N.A.A.C.P., the A.D.L., and many Democratic leaders, including Harry Reid, whose spokesman said in a statement, “President-elect Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon as his top aide signals that White Supremacists will be represented at the highest levels in Trump’s White House.” The Republican consultant John Weaver, who advises Ohio Governor John Kasich, tweeted, “Just to be clear news media, the next president named a racist, anti-semite as the co-equal of the chief of staff.” Weaver also wrote, “The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant America.” William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, asked on Twitter, “Is there precedent for such a disreputable & unstable extremist in [White House] senior ranks before Bannon?”
The Daily Intelligencer’s Jonathan Chait writes of Flynn:
Michael Flynn, Trump’s new national security adviser, would be disqualified from a normal administration on multiple grounds. He is paid by authoritarian regimes in Turkey and Russia, as well as Russia’s propaganda apparatus. Multiple figures who worked with him in the military describe him as “unhinged,” a highly negative quality for a primary foreign-policy adviser.
The singular belief that lies at the core of Flynn’s worldview is indiscriminate hatred of Islam. George W. Bush’s administration took pains to distinguish terrorists who use Islam to justify murder from the peaceful majority. Since then, most Republicans have adopted the irresponsible talking point that it is essential to use the words “radical Islam” rather than phrasing calculated to win over Muslim moderates. Flynn takes this reasoning several steps further. He openly endorses indiscriminate fear of the entire religion.
The New York Times editorial board slams the Sessions announcement:
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan nominated Jeff Sessions, then a United States attorney from Alabama, to be a federal judge. The Republican-controlled Senate rejected Mr. Sessions out of concern, based on devastating testimony by former colleagues, that he was a racist.
… It would be nice to report that Mr. Sessions, who is now 69, has conscientiously worked to dispel the shadows that cost him the judgeship. Instead, the years since his last confirmation hearing reveal a pattern of dogged animus to civil rights and the progress of black Americans and immigrants.
… Donald Trump ran a presidential campaign that stoked white racial resentment. His choice for attorney general — which, like his other early choices, has been praised by white supremacists — embodies that worldview. We expect today’s senators, like their predecessors in 1986, to examine Mr. Sessions’s views and record with bipartisan rigor. If they do, it is hard to imagine that they will endorse a man once rejected for a low-level judgeship to safeguard justice for all Americans as attorney general.
These divisive actions speak far louder than Donald Trump’s inclusive words.
Refusing to accept brutality
Sarah Kendzior, a journalist who lives in Missouri and earned her PhD studying post-Soviet dictatorships, writes for The Correspondent. She makes what I find to be an alarmingly convincing case that Donald Trump is laying the groundwork for an authoritarian state. She begins her piece by asking readers to write an essay about themselves, what they value, and “a list of things you would never do.” Then she concludes:
You still have your freedom, so use it. There are many groups organizing for both resistance and subsistence, but we are heading into dark times, and you need to be your own light. Do not accept brutality and cruelty as normal even if it is sanctioned. Protect the vulnerable and encourage the afraid. If you are brave, stand up for others. If you cannot be brave – and it is often hard to be brave – be kind.
But most of all, never lose sight of who you are and what you value. If you find yourself doing something that feels questionable or wrong a few months or years from now, find that essay you wrote on who you are and read it. Ask if that version of yourself would have done the same thing.
And if the answer is no? Don’t do it.
Protecting the vulnerable and refusing to accept brutality and cruelty are things we should be doing no matter what the political situation – but when racism and xenophobia are on the rise, they become more crucial than ever. Earlier this year, the American Public Health Association launched a National Campaign Against Racism, and the organization has adopted policy statements calling for interventions on racism’s role in health disparities and avoiding the public health consequences of anti-immigrant racism.
Donald Trump’s campaign (and now his transition) seemed at times to be an experiment in how far someone could push the lines that delineate normal and acceptable behavior. Now it’s time to re-draw those lines and make clear that all our country’s people – of all races, ethnicities, religions, genders, sexual identities, immigration statuses, and locations – deserve fair and equitable treatment and respect.