It’s been seven days since Donald Trump won the electoral college vote and became President-Elect of the United States, and I’m sure that much like me, that fact hasn’t escaped you. But I don’t want to focus on how this happened-– that will be the subject of books and documentaries for years to come. Rather, I’d like to try to examine the ripples that are coming out of this splash. Following the results last Tuesday night, the divisions we’ve been cultivating for the past few years came to fruition. Many have tried to hide from the conflict, and many others simply can’t. Social media has become a battleground for ideology and there is an aire of personal attack and hindsight blame in the air that frankly, stresses a lot of people the fuck out. But is what we’re seeing simply the normal backlash that accompanies any major partisan election? Absolutely not.
Trump is an Easy Target
There’s an old anecdote about a frog in boiling water. The story goes that if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water (please don’t do this), he will quickly jump out, slightly burned but savvy enough to save himself from death. However, place that same frog in a pot of room temp water and slowly heat it to boiling (don’t do this either), and the frog will gradually adjust to each rising degree, not noticing the change until it’s cooked dead. Old hat, I know, but the idea there has lasted for a reason.
We as human beings have certain psychological safeguards built in that more or less protect us from emotional overload. Our brains can bury childhood trauma in deeply repressed memories, throw our bodies into shock if we’re injured beyond comprehension, and rationalize bad decisions as okay in the moment (alcohol can help a lot with this one). Hell, there’s even research showing that as we age, our memories of our past become improved, happier, dare I say “greater” versions of our lived reality. It all comes down to self-preservation reflexes built into the way our brains see our lives, which from an evolutionary standpoint makes sense-– the less existential dread you have, the more likely you are to keep moving, eating, and making more humans.
So given the political existential crisis America has been thrown into since the primaries began two years ago, some degree of rationalization makes sense. Political media coverage and discourse has long been distinguished in America as a battle between our two major parties. The assumption is that even those we disagree with hold themselves to some fundamental level of bipartisan conduct. They’ve in some degree “earned” their clout and position via governmental or public experience, and they choose their words carefully to keep the conversations on an even keel.
Granted, we’ve seen a splintering of this democratic ideal since it began, and politicians on both sides of the aisle have stepped over the line, used inflammatory language, and abused their power. Corruption is not partisan in nature. That being said, these politicians usually face some sort of consequences for violating the unwritten social contract of group governance, and are often rebuked from inside their own party. Nature abhors a vacuum, party leaders abhor a rebel.
Enter Donald Trump. Here is a man immediately proud to broadcast he is beholden to absolutely no political social contract, who has never worked in politics before and has never had to face backlash from like-minded individuals who dislike how he’s representing them to their constituency. Trump took the Republican primaries by force, cowing his establishment rivals and mainly appealing to his one niche demographic (the alt-right). And before the GOP knew what had happened, he had won their nomination.
It’s important to note the hundreds of Republican officials who spoke out against Trump, some in extremely vocal and damning ways-– just as it is important to note how many of them turned back towards him after his general candidacy was secured. The ideas and words Trump had used to get ahead had disgusted them at first, but those instincts of self-preservation and rationalization kicked in after the phenomenon had been made official by the party.
Now that Trump has been elected President, that rationalization has fiercely spread to the public. It’s the same phenomenon that makes expensive food “taste better”-– our brains have to believe that if this person is President, he must in some way deserve it, just as they have to believe that if we dropped $150 on a steak, it must be one of the best meals we’ve ever had. This impulse is the genesis of the rallying cry to “give him a chance.”
Now of course, many of us have spent the past few years actively following Trump’s gaffes and statements, crying foul on Facebook or Twitter whenever he blurts out another racist or sexist thought. And while that effort was vastly preferable to just ignoring him, I think we all kinda missed the point. Trump is an easy target. It’s easy to listen to the outlandish things he says and scoff, just like it’s easy to make fun of his strangely-applied tanning makeup, hair, and hands (I’m guilty of all three). Making fun of Trump’s appearance will be probably the first joke some American children learn, and that’s because it’s such an easy joke a child can understand it. But Trump himself is simply a vessel for these terrible ideas, and his win last week reveals that the water in American is a lot hotter than we thought it was two years ago. We didn’t notice it boiling until Clinton called to concede.
The truly insidious evil at play here isn’t just one old rich white man’s absurdly offensive remarks about minorities (though he is responsible for the actions those statements produce)-– there has been blatant racism in America forever (more on this later). The evil is the change in climate that his remarks have been released into. Step by step, Trump gained political ground from primary to debate to November 8th, slowly legitimizing his presence (not just to his supporters, but to all of us) until it was too late.
The so-called “Trump Effect” is a much more dangerous force than the man himself. Trump’s statements first arrived to near-unilateral condemnation from both major parties and the majority of Americans. Then they became entertaining. Then they became expected. Then they became normal. Our political climate has shifted from one that actively policed and rejected Trump’s rhetoric to one that is willing to “hear it out.” And since Trump’s rise was fueled primarily by fear and xenophobia that alt-right “niche demographic” he catered to suddenly became emboldened and organized, no longer at odds with the social contract of U.S. politicians generally, but with all those who didn’t share their viewpoint. But that viewpoint, like the Trump statements that legitimized it, is not normal.
White People Would Really Prefer We Not Talk About Race, OK?
So what happens when we allow outright racism to have a seat at the table? Well, again, we must justify our new guest’s presence (whereas before it would’ve been “that asshole outside nobody wants in here”), because he’s President now you guys, deal with it, etc. I’ve seen a bevvy of arguments from the right these past few days, jumping rabidly at the chance to insist that “Trump is not a racist,” “I am not a racist,” etc. The former tends to be a straw man logic (Bill Clinton is every tea partier’s go-to punching bag right now), but the latter, again, is much more insidious. For how do we learn and grow as people if not by admitting when we’re wrong? And how do we admit we’re wrong when the system itself has made “wrong” a viable option?
Make no mistake about it— a vote for Donald Trump is and was an implicit endorsement of racism. Trump has insulted nearly every minority group in America, and a few majority groups in the world at large (looking at you, China). It would take up too much room to reprint here, but the NY Times has a pretty comprehensive list if you’ve got the time. Now I understand that for many Trump voters, the issue was not with loving or even liking him, but rather with their extreme distaste of his rival in Hillary Clinton. But even this is a straw man argument wrought large-scale, because it only forces the normalized dichotomy between parties, and not the abnormal dichotomy between supremacy and equality. It is a comparison of relative political corruption, not of human decency, and thus, to many of those who simply hated Clinton, human decency was relegated to the “non-issue” pile to better focus on the more popular debate tack of “outsider versus establishment.” This reprioritization of values, whether conscious (as I assume it is for many extreme Trump supporters such as the KKK and Breitbart) or simply an unconscious rationalization bred from anti-Clinton sentiment, produces the exact same results. And those results are categorically racist in effect.
If there’s one thing white people are terrified of, it’s being called “racist.” There are young liberal whites who assume they can’t be racist because of their liberal values, and there are baby boomer whites who assume they can’t be racist because they remember the Civil Rights Movement and MLK and figured this was all pretty well wrapped up. Both groups live in a bubble. It’s the same bubble that tells you to log off Facebook after police shootings because you “can’t handle seeing this violence.” As a white person, you have the privilege to turn away because it is not your life.
White people are simply not used to having these conversations, and to be told that their action (or lack thereof) had an outcome that will systematically damage the actual lives of non-white people, again brings about that moral anxiety and existential crisis I brought up earlier. If you don’t consider yourself racist and are confronted with racist consequences to your actions, your natural reaction will be once again to normalize it. “Racists have always existed in America” is a favorite here. It’s not an untrue statement, but it also ignores how those racists see themselves given the signals they receive from the rest of the country. If you do consider yourself a racist and a presidential candidate is saying on national television what you’ve been afraid to say in public for years, then you have encountered the exact opposite of an existential crisis-– you’ve been validated.
When bigoted words are normalized, bigoted actions follow suit, and whether they consider themselves racists or not, Trump voters committed a racist act last Tuesday. It’s no surprise that just like post-Brexit, the U.S. has seen a marked uptick in hate crimes since the results came in. Swastikas painted on Black churches and mosques, deportation-themed bullying of Latino children in public schools, and reenergized KKK movements are just the stories we’re seeing covered by the news media. Even Trump himself, in an apparent bid to be more “presidential,” told his supporters to “Stop It” when questioned about hate crimes tagged with pro-Trump wordage after the election. Two words versus countless dog-whistled and often blatant speeches is undoubtedly a case of “too little too late”, but in our ongoing quest to normalize our world and not go into identity crisis mode, they’ve been held up as evidence that Trump is trying to be normal, or at least to market that perception. Except he can’t be. He has never been.
The “Corrupt” Media
On the subject of media, both sides have accused the other side of being biased and corrupt. Obviously that’s been going on forever, though I suspect it’s been recently reinvigorated by social media that increasingly teaches all of us that our news sources should reflect our feelings. However, again, traditionally these accusations of bias have flown over party lines. Everyone knows Fox News backs the GOP, everyone knows that MSNBC likes the Democrats. Trump however, trusted no one, and his keenest supporters followed suit. Mix that paranoia in with meme virality, and you have another problem.
Some news organizations have accepted a margin of responsibility for giving Trump endless free press based on his ability to get high ratings off of his particularly toxic brand of gonzo populism, and while I wish they hadn’t given him so much airtime, again, I think that’s too easy of a problem to point a finger at. The real problem to me is the way many media outlets discussed Trump’s statements after the fact. Was his airtime instrumental in earning him the presidency? Absolutely. But what I believe is the again more insidious and longterm effect is the normalization of what he said. When Trump infamously said American-born Latino Judge Gonzalo Curiel was a “conflict of interest” for his Trump University case, many Republicans leapt at the chance to denounce him as “racist.” Paul Ryan even called it “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” However, if you look at this Washington Post article from June 7th of this year, you’ll find the word “racist” is only applied to Trump’s words via quotes. Not even the unabashedly Trump-hating WaPo was willing to directly use the word racist when the story broke.
Obviously, I understand that the press has a journalistic responsibility to not editorialize the news. Which brings me to the deeper question-– if racism is something we subjectively define, how can our institutions ever properly identify it, much less speak against it? If the Republican Speaker of the House can use the word “racist” but the newspaper cannot, doesn’t that speak to a pretty giant disconnect? Part of this is the previously discussed problem of white fragility-– white readers don’t want to identify as racist. But this balancing act between journalistic objectivity and definitions causes yet another existential crisis. If the newspaper can’t say it, it must just be someone’s opinion, right?
Now that Trump has won the election and again, America seeks to find some rationality in that, the pressure on news and media outlets to remain irresponsibility impartial is greater than ever. Take for example this story that broke Monday about Pamela Ramsey Taylor, ex-employee of the Clay County Development Corp in West Virginia, who posted on Facebook that Michelle Obama looked like “an ape in heels.” While the majority of media outlets had no problem calling her particular brand of hatespeech “racist” (as it so clearly is), the local ABC affiliate who broke the story would only go so far as to say that “many people believe [this] to be racist.” I never thought I’d say this, but where’s Paul Ryan when you need him? (I immediately redact that question.)
In a seeming counterbalance to this hyper-normalization of literally and obviously racist speech now empowered by a Trump win, Google and Facebook have just declared an intention to begin screening news articles and not allowing users to post from hyper-partisan sites with misleading or false information. Faced with a growing level of validated bigotry on their site, Twitter has unveiled new user options to block and report abusive users. These are steps in the right direction, though even they should be tempered, as the ideological echo chambers we experience on social media still keep our point of view normal to us. And the bigoted point of view Trump has given legitimacy to is, I repeat, not normal.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Speaking of banned Twitter users, remember Milo Yiannopoulos? If you don’t, lucky you. Milo is the sociopathic Neo-Nazi who helped fan flames of racist anger towards comedian Leslie Jones, and was permabanned from the social media website for violating their abuse guidelines. Milo also happens to be a longtime contributor to the alt-right and white supremacist blog Breitbart.com. Here’s a link to some of his pieces , including “Trannies Are Gay” and “How Feminism Hurts Men and Women.” His boss at Breitbart, Steve Bannon, is likely to be brought into Trump’s administration as his Chief White House Strategist and Senior Counselor. There is no reason to link to any more evidence on Bannon’s long history of misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia here-– inquiring minds need only visit his website to find an anti-treasure trove of hatred.
This is a big fucking deal, and already the debate between the Right and the Left has become the same sort of furious equivocation that the GOP and conservative commentators slowly fell into during Trump’s campaign. Trump supporters must argue that this man is not what he is in order to maintain the appearance of normalcy. Again, if the president brought him in, he can’t be that polarizing, right? Again, not normal.
So where do we go from here? The massive pushback over Bannon’s appointment is heartening, but I fear it will take the same path that the pushback against Trump did over the last year-– slowly become an accepted fact and something that “we have to deal with now,” rather than something that should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.
We’ve entered into an arena where justified concerns about the well-being of LGBT people, POC and women are “doom and gloom,” where the “President should be respected,” where the media shouldn’t take sides even against ideas antithetical to their existence, where a white supremacist blogger can end up being cast as a real-life Jafar to the Sultan. White people en masse spoke that their ideological identities took precedent over the lives of people they don’t know (and yes, that includes Bernie or bust’ers). But the more we all allow this to be “just how things are,” the more we try to “deal with it as it comes,” the more we all implicitly accept the unacceptable.
Ideas? Remain vigilant over White House appointments (live list update here ). Protest (and don’t post online about how protests blocked your way to work-– that’s how protests work). Be kind to strangers. Vote in the goddamn midterms. Donate to charities that help fund legal work for immigrants and women. Donate to the ACLU. But please, above all else, succumb to the existential crisis. Don’t rationalize this. Don’t allow hate to be legitimized. To those who take the argument that at least the racists are visible now, use that visibility. Call them out. Fact-check yourself. Kill your ego. And when you’re wrong, admit it and change your moves up.
From day one, this has never been normal. Two years ago everyone knew that. But two years ago the water was still room temperature. It’s boiling now, so jump. This is not normal. This is not normal. This is not normal.
This is not normal.
Adam Protextor is a musician and Austin-based hip hop promoter, and holds a political science BA from the University of Iowa that he never brings up because people get upset. Follow him on Twitter @ptekmusic.