In the weeks following the election of Donald Trump, a question echoed throughout the land: How could this have happened?
To understand the answer, we have to go back about a year to a campaign speech Trump gave in Iowa. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,” he said, “and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
At the time, the statement seemed like a typical example of hyperbole from a man who had built his reputation by making outrageous remarks. But as the campaign wore on it became clear that his claim had been prophetic.
By any reasonable standards, Trump should have lost in a landslide. Here, after all, is a man who bragged and laughed that he could sexually assault women without consequences; made fun of a reporter who suffers from a disability; belittled the parents of a slain soldier; dismissed John McCain’s military career by saying he prefers “people who don’t get captured”; insulted every member of the armed forces by calling the U.S. military a “disaster”; tried to portray himself as a tough guy while whining about how unfairly he was being treated by the news media—and finally, refused to release his tax returns, then essentially admitted that he doesn’t pay income taxes.
But it became clear even before Clinton lost the electoral vote (remember that she won the popular vote by a large margin) that many Trump supporters care nothing about reasonable standards. Perhaps worse, those who do were willing to toss them aside in order to defeat Clinton at any cost.
Reasonable standards, for one thing, would have put the onus on Trump to explain the blatant contradictions in his words and deeds: his insistence that the national debt is a travesty alongside his bragging that he is “the king of debt” and loves debt; his ridicule of companies that move jobs overseas alongside his practice of having clothing in the Trump Collection made in China; calling Clinton “crooked Hillary” while facing a federal fraud case relating to his Trump University scam; pledging to unite the country while refusing to vigorously reject support from the KKK and white supremacists; and insisting that “no one respects women more” than he does while tolerating campaign paraphernalia emblazoned with the words “Trump That Bitch” and other misogynist insults.
The virulent bigotry, sexism, xenophobia and thuggery that infused the campaign suggest that many Trump supporters care nothing about common decency, either.
A New York Times video released several months before the election was glaring evidence of this. It showed, among other things, Trump supporters calling President Obama the N-word. In the days after the election, moreover, social media was littered with celebratory posts that included swastikas with the words “Make America White Again” and photos of smiling white people in blackface in front of the Confederate flag.
General expressions of hatred are, of course, protected by the First Amendment. But threats to individuals are not. On November 13, The Washington Post reported that someone the night before had approached a University of Michigan student wearing a hijab and had threatened to set her on fire if she didn’t remove it. That same day on Facebook, a Muslim high school teacher in Georgia posted a note she’d received from a student: “Your headscarf isn’t allowed anymore. Why don’t you tie it around your neck and hang yourself with it …” It was signed “America!”
To his credit, House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke out against these and other attacks across the country, saying the perpetrators are “not Republicans” and “we don’t want them in our party.” He added that he was “confident Donald Trump feels the same way.”
As of this writing, however, Trump had yet to speak out forcefully against the bigotry that characterized so much of his campaign. On the contrary, he added insult to injury by selecting a blatant racist, misogynist and anti-Semite—Stephen Bannon—as his chief strategist. The pick elicited immediate praise and celebration from KKK and white supremacist groups. Indeed, at a rally in late November, “alt-right” founder Richard Spencer said, “Hail, Trump!” and was greeted with Nazi salutes. He went on to say that “America was until this past generation a white country … It belongs to us.”
Don’t get me wrong: I do not believe that all Trump supporters share Bannon’s or Spencer’s intensely bigoted views. I do not even believe that “half” of them are “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton carelessly asserted. But in communicating with dozens of Trump supporters on social media and in person in recent weeks, I haven’t heard a single one speak out against the bigotry that the Trump campaign attracted. Instead, they dismiss such things as made up, or—at best—irrelevant. “You can’t hold Trump responsible for the behavior of all of his supporters,” was a common response.
Of course Trump is responsible. The number one role of the president is to express a vision for America and to set the tone for our national discourse.
Perhaps in time he will strike a more positive tone. But it’s doubtful. He knows he doesn’t have to. He knows that his divide-and-conquer strategy worked because his most ardent supporters will believe anything he says, from the ridiculous claim that Clinton wanted to “abolish the Second Amendment” to the absurd assertion that he—a man who used his family influence to avoid the draft—knows more about war and terrorism than “the generals.”
So, what now?
Two things come to mind.
First, it is essential that progressives immediately begin to organize a resistance to Trump’s pledged assault on our liberties, from threatening to deprive women of their right to privacy to suggesting the establishment of a religious and patriotic litmus test for people who want to enter the country. Thankfully, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have already made it clear that they will do everything in their power to support such resistance.
The other thing we need to do is adhere to Michelle Obama’s mantra: When they go low, we go high. There have been instances of violence against Trump supporters, and I do not condone them any more than I condone the violence and bullying committed by racists and misogynists.
It is incumbent upon progressives to try to continue to engage in dialogue with fair-minded conservatives, of which there are many. As we do, we should bear in mind the words with which Abraham Lincoln closed his first inaugural address:
“We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”