Monday, November 14, 2016

An Open Letter to Trump Supporters

I am writing this as an open letter to supporters of our President-elect, Donald Trump.

I did not vote for Mr. Trump in this election. But many people did, and by the rules of our electoral system he won fair and square. Come January he will be the President of the United States, an awesome and solemn responsibility. 

I am not writing to mock, or criticize, or to call anyone names. I write because, although we voted for different candidates, we are Americans together. We are neighbors, co-workers, even friends. Some of you I know, and I respect you for the people that you are, made in the image and likeness of God. Despite our rhetoric and sometimes despite ourselves, we are not members of different tribes or different nations. We are all part of one tribe, one nation, one humanity.

This is why I write. Because your success and my success, your future and my future, are bound together - and are also bound up in the success and the future of millions of other fellow Americans on all sides of our political divides. 

In writing, I am taking our President-elect at his word when on election night he said that he wants to be President for all Americans. That "every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential." That we all "want and expect our government to serve the people".

There's been a lot of talk about what drove Tuesday's election result, which I think surprised a lot of people on both sides. Much of that talk boils down to one of two narratives. Each side has its own favorite, but I think there is truth in both. In broad brushstrokes, they look something like this:

One story is about a loss of economic opportunity, about millions of Americans in cities and rural areas across the country (but especially in the Midwest and the "rust belt") who have been left behind. Factories have closed, jobs have left for foreign shores, and the widening gap of economic inequality means that, while the US economy has generated a great deal of wealth since the Great Recession, almost none of it has come to these communities. These are the forgotten, the dispossessed, who feel that "the establishment" (politicians of both parties, the media, Washington DC in general) has abandoned them. Yes, many of these people are white, but not all. In this narrative, it's not about race - it's about elites vs. the common people, about economic opportunity denied. It's about taking control back from "the establishment" so that their communities can be great places to live again.

There is a lot of truth to this story. Sometimes the analyses attached are a little fuzzy - trade isn't as universally bad as it's made out to be, and some of the forces that have driven economic dispossession go back much farther than NAFTA. But it's a compelling explanation, particularly for people who feel abandoned by "experts" and suspicious of professionals. Chronic joblessness and underemployment is real in many communities. The heroin epidemic, grown in the soil of despair, is a disaster. For one variant of this explanation from another "regular guy" who's gotten a lot of attention, see this story on Mike Rowe's reaction to the election.

Folks who see the election through this lens likely don't understand the protests going on across the country. They see opposition to Donald Trump's presidency as "sour grapes", or as the liberal elite whining because they lost. Maybe you feel the same way; maybe you don't.

But this is where I hope you'll keep reading. Because there is another narrative, one that is felt in the hearts of millions of Americans just as strongly as the story above is felt in the hearts of folks who voted for Donald Trump.

If the first story is about economics and class, the second story is about race and gender. It's a story in which Trump's rise has been driven by xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, and misogyny, where social forces previously driven out to the margins - the KKK, white nationalists, and various groups within the "alt right" umbrella - have been given voice and approval for their agenda. In this story, Trump's popularity is not because of who he has included, but because of who he has excluded - blacks, Hispanics and Latinos, women, immigrants, Muslims, gays, and others. Those people, and others why sympathize with them, are now terrified of what a Trump Presidency will do to their future.

You may want to dismiss this story out of hand. Don't. Millions of Americans are now living in fear. They have very good reason to. Incidents of abuse and assault against minorities have spiked since the election last week

I'm not interested in arguing about which story is "really" true. The reality is that there is plenty of evidence for both. Don't cherry-pick the evidence you like and turn away from the rest. We should face reality - all of reality - together.

Which brings me to the photo at the top of this post. A friend of mind took this photo election night. Sometime that evening, well before the results were known, someone came by his house, stole his Clinton sign, and spray painted his garage door. His nine year old son now goes to bed frightened every night because he's scared bad people are going to come back to his house and hurt them.

My friend lives in a nice suburban neighborhood. He supported Clinton, some of his neighbors supported Trump. And some of those neighbors apparently felt empowered to attack his home. He and his family aren't black, they're not Latino, they're perfectly typical white Americans. People just like you.

Or, if you are a member of a church, there's this:

Now go and look at the graffiti in the story linked a few paragraphs above. Or check out this one. Read some of the descriptions of those incidents. Ask yourself - if I were black, or Arab, or Muslim, or Mexican-American, living in my neighborhood today, how would I feel? Which of these two stories would feel real to me?

This is where you and I can discover whether we really have common ground or not. If your response at this point is to turn away and dismiss the fears of your fellow Americans out of hand, then we have nothing further to talk about. You can stop reading now.

But I don't think that's true of most of you. I think you understand fear, and that you wouldn't want your son going to bed afraid any more than you would want someone else's son or daughter to suffer that fate. I think that you, as President-elect Trump said, want an America that works for everybody.

If that's true, then we need your help. And by "we" I mean "all Americans". Because there are people in our society who agree with the second story, the one about race - and who think they're on the winning side. Who think that blacks, Latinos, Muslims, gays, and many other "outsiders" are inferior. That they're not entitled to the same rights you and I enjoy - the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These people exist across our country. They exist in varying degrees. Not everyone carries a spray can or a knife. Many carry words of scorn, distain, and disgust for their fellow Americans. They carry words of hate.

I need you to help with these people. They don't listen to me and my fellow-travelers. I'm too easily dismissed as a liberal intellectual, part of the oppressive elite in the first story. I didn't support Trump, so why should pay attention to what I have to say?

But you have that in common with them. You and they voted for the same candidate - for different reasons, perhaps, but you both supported him nevertheless. They are far more likely to listen to you when you speak up in support of your fellow Americans - men and women and children who, like you, want nothing more than to live freely in our great country and to better their lives.

Some of these people are your neighbors, even your friends. You don't have to turn on them, hate them, cast them out. Love them like the neighbors and friends they are. And in that love, help to correct them. Help them to see that their words, their ideas, their attitudes are hurting millions of our fellow citizens. That by lashing out at people different from themselves, they are betraying the American dream.

If you find yourself wanting the first story to be true and the second one to be false, I have good news: you can help make that a reality. You, far better than me, can work to turn your neighbors, your friends, your fellow-travelers away from hate and towards respect and hope. Towards a future we can all share. Towards making American great again for all of her people.

I ask that you keep your eyes and ears open for words that carry hate. That you extend a friendly hand to people different from you. That you help your friends and neighbors, when they slip into hatred and venom, to turn away. That you help the people you come into contact with every day, in your life and online, to rediscover the better angels of their nature.

In the end, there are only two futures for our country. We either all succeed together in building a society free of fear, a society that can prosper and grow and realize its fullest potential. Or we turn on each other in fear and hatred and loathing and tear each other apart. I know which future I want to build. I hope you will join me.

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