Listening and Resisting: Life in Trump's America
I tried to fall asleep early on the night of November 8th. I figured, as did many Americans, that the election would go in Hillary’s favor, but that it might be a rough ride to the finish line, so I tried to skip the drama and wake up in the morning with a new president-elect. Needless to say, sleep proved elusive, as I checked election results on my phone every five minutes or so for hours. Around midnight, when the unthinkable suddenly became the inevitable, I sat up in my bed and started sobbing.
Few of my friends spent much time before the election worrying about the results. Hillary would take it for sure, they figured. Nobody seemed to seriously consider the possibility that we might elect an unstable reality tv star (with a racist and sexist streak) to the highest office in the land. But it was all I could think about. I carried a sense of dread with me every day for about six months, as friends, coworkers and family assured me it would turn out alright. But on that night, as all my worst fears became reality, all I could do was weep. At one point my roommate came into my room to check on me because he’d heard my wailing and hyperventilating from the room over. All the anxiety I’d been carrying for months poured out of me.
And then a strange thing happened: I got calm. Sure, I spent the next few days mourning and commiserating with friends who felt as uncentered as I did. But all the anxiety I’d carried for months turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it had prepared me for the election’s traumatic results better than those who had never truly entertained the notion of a Trump presidency.
I was over being terrorized by fear and uncertainty. We had the results; the only variable was how we would respond to them. And I have spent the bulk of the last two months interrogating that very question: what will my life look like in Trump’s America? What do I do?
My first impulse was to come out swinging. I wanted my friends, particularly those who have been specifically targeted by the rhetoric, behavior and policy proposals of the president-elect (my female friends, my black and latino friends, my LGBTQ friends, my sexual assault-surviving friends) to know that I will stand with them, that they are loved and valued in spite of America’s election of a bigot and bully. So I shared messages of solidarity on social media, texted grieving friends words of encouragement. The only hope and meaning I could find was in presenting a singular message to the world, that I am with those who are afraid, who have legitimate reason to be if the president-elect is to be taken at his word.
I also took solace in my faith, in my commitment to a God who expressed solidarity with the poor, disenfranchised and hurting in the person of Jesus Christ. My religious experience came to life in a new way as I saw within the Christian Gospel a genuine hope for justice and reconciliation unlike anything else the world can offer. I wanted my LGBTQ friends, my friends of color, and the women in my life to know that God stands with them, just as God stands with all those who suffer unjustly. In continuity with the prophets of old (Isaiah, Amos, Jesus Christ) and the prophets of modern history (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Cone, John M. Perkins, Dietrich Bonhoeffer), I wanted to scream from the mountaintops:
“Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” - Amos 5:24
Even as I felt emboldened in my faith, however, I was haunted by my faith tradition. Indeed, I am one of those Evangelical Christians, 81% of whom voted for Donald Trump. In the months surrounding the election, major Evangelical faith leaders came out in support of this man, and closer to home, I had more than a few confrontations over facebook and in person with folks from my church who believed with every bone in their bodies that Hillary was literally in league with the devil, and that Trump would deliver them from hard times. They considered any vote for Hillary Clinton (or any Democrat, but especially Clinton) to be an outright endorsement of child murder. In fact, this election revealed to me how abortion has become the singular issue Evangelicals use to justify support of their candidates, no matter how blatantly the candidates themselves embody un-Christian values (Trump, for example, is a serial philanderer who regularly objectifies women with his language and boasts that he does not need God’s forgiveness).
I believe, unequivocally, that the church is God’s vessel in the world, charged to communicate the good news of salvation and reconciliation in Jesus Christ, but I am increasingly frustrated with the nationalism, xenophobia, and fear-mongering rampant in American Christian churches, which have rendered us unable to see the genuine threat in a person like Donald Trump. And this has caused me to look to my future with increasing uncertainty, as I have invested years of education and vocational experience into church ministry. This is my livelihood, but more importantly, it’s my calling, my raison d'être, but how do I enter into a field which is becoming increasingly hostile toward anyone who won’t line up behind a narrow political agenda? My friends assure me there are others within the church who feel like me, who are similarly disillusioned by politically homogeneous churches and are hungry for genuine spiritual experience apart from them, but it’s easy to get discouraged right now. Here’s hoping, I guess.
After some time of wrestling over what the appropriate response to Trump’s election might be, I’m less certain than ever. I feel so torn in two opposing directions that I’m afraid I might split in half. On the one hand, I must and will stand with those legitimately endangered by Trump’s nationalistic, bigoted agenda. On the other hand, however, I share space most every day with those who saw fit to vote for this man, and these folks aren’t going anywhere, nor would I want them to. These are friends, neighbors, family members, fellow church-goers, and while I disagree with them, I still deeply value their humanity and their perspectives. As certain other friends have reminded me, we must retain the ability to come to the middle and have productive, persuasive conversations with those of differing opinions. We cannot just write them off as irredeemable, no matter how beyond the pale their perspectives seem.
And honestly, supporting Donald Trump after the campaign he led does seem pretty beyond the pale to me. For a year and a half, I watched this man traffic in xenophobia, bullying and outright deception. Every other statement he made was either a gross exaggeration or an outright fabrication, according to every reputable fact-checking resource. He caricatured, maligned and scapegoated whole races and religious groups in an attempt to make us fear them. He demeaned women, objectified their looks, and dismissed their professional qualifications. And, perhaps most disturbingly (though it’s all disturbing), he bragged about his ability to kiss women and grab them by their genitals without their consent, which is sexual assault. He bragged about sexually assaulting women. Then, when nearly a dozen women came forward to validate his claims, he shrugged off their allegations, saying they were not sexually attractive enough to assault. This man disqualified himself from any authentic claim to leadership a hundred times over. And yet he won the presidency. Not the popular vote, but still, he won the race that counts.
So I get to figure out how to live alongside those who supported this man, because cutting them out of my life isn’t only politically disadvantageous or counterproductive to progress, it’s un-Christian. I can’t write people off; I don’t have the luxury. Following the election I saw more than a few Facebook friends post that, while voting for Trump didn’t automatically make someone a bigot, those qualities in Trump himself should have been deal breakers. And I agree. But these posts usually conclude with something like, “therefore, if you voted for Trump, you voted against my best interests and the interests of those I care about, so I’m done with you.” And I so resonate with the emotions behind that stance, but I simply cannot go there. I have to believe there is hope that folks may still change their minds. After all, I was about as uncritically patriotic and conservative as they come throughout high school. I needed a few folks to share their stories with me, and for God to shake my foundations and lead me somewhere new.
I also must have humility enough to realize that I don’t have access to the experiences of others, particularly those who disagree with me. Even while I may never agree with the rationale behind their voting, I ought to listen to it. I should seek to understand, to see and know, to love more deeply. Because when folks feel unheard, they follow after someone who listens, even if that someone is a charlatan. A major reason Trump achieved the numbers he did is that there is a significant contingent of folks in this country who feel underrepresented and unheard, and he at least spoke to them, directly. Some of their grievances are legitimate, too. What could it hurt to listen?
But on the other hand, again, I will not compromise my advocacy for those who are most immediately threatened under the new presidential regime. Donald Trump promised horrific, unconstitutional things during his campaign. Banning immigration of Muslims. Deporting whole immigrant families (peaceful or otherwise), including revoking birthright citizenship for youths born in our country. Repealing the Affordable Care Act so millions of families lose health insurance. Instituting “law and order” policies as a response to civil unrest around police brutality. And if his vice president has much sway over Trump’s policies, we can expect greater support for “religious freedom” laws which legalize discrimination against LGBTQ citizens. The same groups who are already disenfranchised (the poor, people of color, LGBTQ Americans, immigrants, religious minorities, and those at the intersections) may face real danger over the next four years.
In addition to Trump’s own actions, words and policies, we must also recognize the subsection of Americans who have become emboldened by Trump’s hateful rhetoric, who parrot his bigoted words and go even further. This election has made clear to me that there are more than a few overt racists and white supremacists in our country, who now believe they will have an ally in the White House. They call themselves the “alt-right”, or boast similar beliefs and attitudes, and have developed a significant presence in our social media communities. I’ve witnessed favorite writers, actors and preachers of mine become inundated by hundreds of hate messages from actual white supremacists, all with “Make America Great Again” in their twitter bios. In addition to the subtle, systemic strains of racism we were wrestling with before, we must now add actual white nationalism to our list of concerns.
What little clarity I have at the moment, is that I ought to seek out productive conversations with those who disagree with me, but not at the cost of using my voice to amplify the concerns of those most directly affected by Trump’s dangerous lunacy. I can come to the middle to talk policy, to talk experience, to talk spirituality and faith, but I will not go as far as to pretend that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency is in any way acceptable. I’m not saying Trump is “not my president”, but I will commit to actively challenging whatever actions he takes against my LGBTQ family members, my friends of color, my immigrant neighbors, my Muslims brothers and sisters, and anyone else he sees fit to target. It’s going to be an interesting four years, no doubt, but I am in the game. And I invite you to join me. Or if you think I’m delusional or brainwashed, I’d love to sit down and have a chat with you about that, too.
I’ll offer one final encouragement before I finish here: if you know someone who feels genuinely afraid for his/her/their welfare under Trump’s rule, who exists in a traditionally disenfranchised group, don’t demand this person come to the table and hash out your feelings with you. There is still some very raw hurt and trauma being processed over this election. If you see hurt, the compassionate thing to do may be to ask why, but it also might be to do some research on your own, or to talk to folks who are offering to talk with you. And here I am, offering to talk with you. If you don’t understand all the angst and grief over Trump’s election, I would love to work through some of that with you. And I would love to listen to your perspectives. Just don’t demand those experiencing real and urgent trauma to make an account for you; it’s unkind.
As I said right after the election: we’re all just gonna have to get a lot better at loving each other.Grace and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.