If you’ve been following the Peculiar People column over the past few months, you’ve probably noticed two things: the posts have been sparse, and nearly all of them have been anti-Trump. The emphasis on Trump wasn’t a coordinated effort on anyone’s part – personally, I’ve held back from writing more about him so that it wouldn’t seem like we’d plunged into political propaganda. But I’m acknowledging that trend because it probably won’t surprise you that I’m among the many Americans still reeling from Tuesday’s election results.
And like many, my initial reaction was to lash out at those who voted for him. I lashed out from a place of pain and also a place of shock and publicly told Trump supporters that they had broken my trust. A week ago, I honestly had no idea how many of the people close to me were voting for him. Oh, I saw early on that the acquaintance I mostly remembered for bullying me in the 6th grade was a Trump fan. Not to mention the alt right acquaintance I stay friends with mostly to hear multiple perspectives and get out of my liberal bubble. But people I was close to? It was only in the last few days before the election that I saw it – friends and family were suddenly sharing his ads on facebook or clicking “like” when someone else did.
For anyone who felt targeted by Trump’s campaign rhetoric, Tuesday’s results were painful. And I mean that in a physical way – as I watched the election results roll in, my body reacted. There was an ache in the pit of my stomach, and my throat tightened – the horrible tightness you feel in your throat before vomiting. Part of me is still surprised that I didn’t throw up. And it simply felt unreal. The kind of unreal that overwhelms you when a tragedy strikes – the house has burned down, your spouse has left you, your best friend has died, and you never saw it coming. And the worst part was that I knew it would seem like a nightmare, that I’d wake up the next morning and truly believe, for just a moment, that I had dreamt the whole thing. That there was no way the polls and Nate Silver and common sense had all been wrong. No way Trump had truly been elected – not a man who was on camera and audio bragging about using his power to get away with sexual assault and sexual harassment.
But it was real, and it remains real, and 4 days later those who opposed his candidacy are searching for a way to process not just his win but the knowledge that the people who voted for him surround us. They’re our next door neighbors. Our grandparents and aunts and uncles. Our brothers and sisters. They’re the strangers who smile and wave when we drive down a quiet road in a rural town.
To be honest, I still don’t know what to do with that knowledge. I know that my decision to initially lash out wasn’t received well. And I also don’t know how I feel about that fact. Is it wrong that I said something one Trump voter told me was “hurtful” and “unfair”? Did I throw away the opportunity for meaningful dialogue in the future? Or was it hurtful because it was fair – something they had to hear from another white person, since so few Trump supporters even live in racially diverse areas? Whatever the answer, we have both broken each other’s trust. My Trump-voting friends and family trusted that I would never let politics interfere with our relationships. They trusted I would keep an open mind, no matter how vehemently I disagreed with their voting choices. And I trusted they would never vote for a man who built his campaign by fanning the flames of racism or who treated women like objects and then publicly bragged about it. I didn’t just trust that they wouldn’t find those traits attractive (and I still can’t imagine that anyone close to me liked those traits in Trump). I also trusted that they wouldn’t vote for him despite those traits.
In a couple weeks, it will be Thanksgiving. The holiday may prove tense, especially for white opponents of Trump. For me, that reality hits close to home. My husband and I both grew up in rural towns, and we both have relatives who fit the demographics most likely to have voted for Trump: white rural voters without a college degree. We haven’t finalized our plans, but if we do wind up traveling for the holidays, I’m sure there will be talk of the election, in between complimenting a cousin or an uncle on how delicious the mashed potatoes are. I don’t know who exactly voted for Trump, but I’m no longer so naive as to assume that they’ll be the exception at the table.
So, what do the anti-Trump Americans do? Our conservative friends and relatives are already calling for us to unite with them and support the president elect. To our conservative friends and family, the call to unite is likely a plea for us to embrace them, to accept and respect the decision they made. Supporting a peaceful transition of power is paramount, but uniting under Trump’s banner is still out of the question for anyone who sees him as a genuine threat to the republic. What Trump voters see as a liberal “temper tantrum” is a rallying cry for Trump’s critics, who are already planning ways to peacefully fight his platform.
And our Trump-supporting friends and family aren’t the only people whose feelings matter, so I worry that embracing that call for unity would send a horrifying message to the vulnerable groups who now live in terror of what Trump’s candidacy has unleashed. Young American citizens whose parents are undocumented are afraid he’ll make good on his promise to put together a deportation task force. Many pro-choice women fear he will make good on his campaign comment that women who get abortions should be punished. Muslim citizens are afraid he’ll truly try to ban all Muslims from entering the country, or that his campaign-trail consideration of requiring Muslims to register will return.
And here’s the thing: we toss around words like “unity” and “trust” as if they’re inherently good things. After this week, I finally understand how mistaken that assumption is. Several decades ago, if a president who supported Jim Crow laws had won a controversial election, I have a feeling plenty friends and family would have called for unity and for the other party to support and trust the new president. Frankly, I’m starting to wonder if Donald Trump could have normalized something even that outrageous, given how much he has already normalized. After all, he initially refused to denounce the KKK on the claim that he wasn’t familiar enough with them, and throughout his campaign he called to ban an entire world religion.
Unity is important, but unity that comes at the cost of the most vulnerable is toxic.
Now that the election is over, what banner do we unite under?