This is my reminder to myself, that before the election I was concerned that Trump was ill-prepared to be president, and that his words and actions were consistent with attitudes that I find abhorrent. Because I am an academic, I think of these attitudes with formal terms: as misogyny, which is contempt for women; as racism, the most pertinent of which in his case is that the white race is superior; as chauvinism, an uncritical love of country; as xenophobia, an irrational fear of people from other countries. I know further than these are not just personal characteristics and private matters (separate from public policy) because such attitudes inform government and social policies when they are written into law and enforced. In the case of Trump, those attitudes were combined with other worrying qualities, that lack of humility that people who are interested in service usually profess, such as his convention claim that he alone could save the country, a lack of interest in or knowledge about political and constitutional norms (his threats to the press), and little or no knowledge or respect for values that are associated with religious belief, including, for example, the humility mentioned earlier. Is Trump capable of ennobling ideas, like sacrificing his own good (financial, political) for the good of the people of the country–and would he include all his country’s people if he were to invoke the idea? Ideas like sacrifice and service and humility are not ones he seems ready to invoke.
Then he won the election, which was dismaying to me. Academics who study repressive regimes see many worrying signs, and I see them also because I follow such academics on social media. I think it’s foolish to disregard those signs, some of which I mention below, and I assume the academics on social media have seen these widely shared posts. I have also spoken with a few people around me, local community people who are not academics, Trump supporters and one who supported an independent candidate and others who supported Clinton, and they seem in general to doubt that Trump will be highly effective. By contrast, the academics and activists around me are fearful that many horrible things will come to pass and possibly quite soon, although others suspect a process of normalization will take weeks or months.
So in trying to understand why he was elected–and I do not dismiss those earlier concerns, biases associated with misogyny, racism, chauvinism, xenophobia–I remind myself of reading some weeks before the election a few of the stories that sought to make Trump supporters sympathetic. I almost never watch TV as I don’t have cable or satellite (only HD antenna), so I should say right here that I often read mainstream publications like the Atlantic, the New York Times and Washington Post, and they tried hard to make Trump supporters understandable, in their “you should have sympathy for these people” way. Also, these same publications believe it is fairly easy to teach you sympathize with lives of young urban men or women, whether of Asian or Middle Eastern descent, African American, or Hispanic. That is, they are elite East coast publications with employees embedded in highly cosmopolitan cities, in which a wide range of languages, ethnicities, and cultural ways are within easy reach. I think the matter of with whom you are able to sympathize matters, and I think there is a subtle difference from Clinton’s term “deplorable” (which once refracted through media served to highlighted her lack of sympathy to anyone who considered being a Trump supporter) and what mainstream publications try to do.
In elite news and opinion media, sympathy for the first group (Trump supporters) was something that should be hard for you, the highly educated and cosmopolitan reader, because those Red State people are conservative, which you are not. I was myself born in the rural South, but not all such people are conservative, though some who I talked to are. Nevertheless, sympathy with cosmopolitan variety is assumed to be somewhat easier for the reader of an elite publication, because well you’re a good person and relish the opportunity. In sum, those publications try harder to achieve reader sympathy when it’s Trump supporters, because they treat them as more fundamentally alien, a version of maybe “us” but one which we don’t recognize. The underlying message is that sympathy for Trump-supporting people is difficult. When such publications wear their disdain on their sleeve, the vanity of these publications is that such people will not be able to detect it (or are not their readers).
But they are real journalists, who reported what Trump supporters said, and some details about Trump supporters were odd to me, as they conflicted with the attitude toward supporters that was implicit. One was that several of his supporters were attending multiple Trump events and spending thousands of dollars to do it. That is consistent with an oft-shared graphic on Trump’s supporters, that he ran stronger among higher income groups. In sum, several people who attended Trump rallies had money and time, far more of both than I, an associate professor at a university, do. Second was the difference between his words and how his audience understood them. There were two basic tendencies. First was that his words expressed things that his audience did not feel permitted to say (a version of being hemmed in in public by political correctness). And the second was that the audience believed that they knew what he meant, even when his words lacked clarity.
That anyone would resort to this way of making sense of Trump I honestly found disturbing. In the times I listened to him speak, Trump often trails off, seems to lose track of what he’s saying, switches topics without connections, and contradicts or reverses himself, often because he seems to lack command of details, as if he did not study it. His go-to strategy is to return to some projection of strength and power, which he associates with the powers of personal charisma and policing and military strength, not the powers of political norms or democratic institutions. I suspect that many of his supporters are confident in American exceptionalism and doubt that such exceptionalism will lead to excesses in policing or detention. Because of the many worrying qualities that I associated with him, I had already started to worry precisely about that.
So after the election I stay concerned. I understand that because I’m an academic and an English professor watchers and followers of Fox News will recognize me as seeking political correctness. I hold by contrast that respect and decorum–agreeing that free speech does not extend to regular threats to jail your opponent–are a necessary accompaniment to civil society. The 18th century of the founders was an era with great faith in manners, though one’s sympathy was usually expected to extend only one’s social equals. Reformers from that era wanted to extend sympathy further, to those excluded from the immediately sympathetic group of white landholding males. In the early 19th century, voting for white men was gradually extended, state by state, to those who did not own property. But to return from this history lesson on who receives our sympathy, because of the influence of respect and decorum, we should not say we will jail our opponent for political speech because we won’t do that. We should not say “white power” because we believe in an inclusive society. We do not say “grab them by the pussy” in good fun because that phrase describes an assault.
I believe that the purpose of words is to tell the truth and to try to make the world a better place, and one should try to do good and achieve justice, social and economic, for the least advantaged among us, just as religious tradition calls us to, including the working class and the poor, as well as the elderly, children and injured or disabled who are unable to care fully for themselves. I think that doing a good job at anything takes hard work, and even then you may fail. I don’t see many hints that Trump relishes difficult and tedious work, things I enjoy as an academic, so I continue to be concerned that that he will resort to simplistic solutions such as identifying certain people as bad and policing and punishing them, through policies that are contrary to democratic and humane values. In reasonably normal times, such impulses are worrying. But what will he do after a major economic disaster or terrorist attack, when core beliefs are shaken and people look for quick answers?
Trump’s election has emboldened some. As days pass, the Southern Poverty Law Center has gathered reports of an alarming rise in hate crimes, Newt Gingrich, at time he was said to be on list for potential Secretary of State, has proposed a new House Unamerican Activities Committee to bring journalists and academics to heel, journalists who report on Trump face threats and continuous harassment, Trump has selected Stephen K. Bannon, whose Breitbart web site traffics in antisemitic, misogynist, and racist innuendo, as a planned counselor and senior strategist, and Ben Carson (for a time being bandied about as potential education secretary) has proposed tying university funding to speech codes for faculty. Maybe everyday people, who have jobs, cannot keep up with all this stuff. But dear everyday people: these are worrying hints about priorities for a Trump administration. As daily news traffics in tidbits of information, many of these may represent ill-thought comments that will not come to fruition. But they deserve active condemnation so that they do not. What concerns me now is the frequency with which attitudes that ought to be beyond the pale are discussed as one among many possibilities, because it means that some will get through into policy.
Therefore, I have a job to do. I resolve to serve those close to me (students and colleagues and community members) and bear public witness, to contact public officials, local and state and national who may have the influence to curb the president-elect’s worrying tendencies. And I resolve to know better, by attending more closely to scholars who study the history and legacies of white supremacy and who document both achievements and sufferings of America’s historically discriminated against peoples. Faced with a barrage of harassment up to and including threats to one’s person and family, journalists and academics, and loyal opposition politicians will have to pick their battles. But that also means that standards of decorum and access that ensure open and vigorous debate, bedrock standards like first-amendment protection for free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and due process, need to be advocated for and defended more vigorously than ever. My attitude has changed: I can no longer enjoy jokes that make light of this. And speaking of that necessary work, I need to return to my own work of research to write a book, grading papers, writing lesson plans, advocating for better quality employment at the university, devising new training for students in present-day skills, and serving on committees that do the everyday work of the institution. But I had to pause from my weekend on that work to say this in public, to remind myself to bear witness and resist threats to humane and democratic values, because bearing witness and resisting threats to those values are also parts of an academic’s job.