Since Trump was elected in 2016, I’ve heard a lot of people describe his presidency as a necessary evil. Feigning optimism, they assert that maybe the United States needed to elect a demagogue to show us how broken the country still is—how America, and perhaps the world, isn’t as morally unified or post-racial as it may have seemed. This response makes sense; justifying pain in some ways makes it easier to bear.
“Maybe hundreds of thousands of folks had to die from COVID-19 to show the world what a truly awful leader he is.” “Maybe all those Black people needed to be murdered this summer to open people’s eyes to the racism in our country.” Comments like these are usually well-meaning, and perhaps in some cases, unfortunately true. But tragedy isn’t always a teacher. That’s the problem. Tragedy is usually a reminder of what is selectively forgotten and what will continue to be brushed aside. Even if human beings could be reduced to necessary collateral damage—which shouldn’t ever be the case—it hardly matters that people’s “eyes are open” if they always pretend they can’t see.
Over the span of his career and presidency, Donald Trump has been a formidable force in propagating hatred and suspicion amongst Americans. He has a lot of blood on his little hands. Yet as he prepares to leave the White House, soon to be succeeded by a new white man in his ‘70s, can we honestly say that his departure will spell a dramatically different future for the country? That we’ve learned anything from his four years of chaotic leadership when over 74 million people, having clearly seen what he stands for, just voted to re-elect him?
According to FBI statistics, between 2015 and 2017—spanning Trump’s campaign, election, and first year in office—reported incidents of hate crimes increased by more than 22%. By 2019, such reports were higher than they’d been in over a decade. This makes sense: positioning immigrants as scapegoats (but only the Black and brown ones, not the ones that look like his wife) was an integral part of his platform. He has publicly denounced Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and Syrian refugees as “Trojan horses.”
But I think Trump has served primarily as an incubator for ideology that’s always been at the core of our country. His base of supporters—people that applauded voraciously when he talked about a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”—didn’t emerge out of nowhere. The sentiment is nothing new. What’s different, I think, is that for a long time, no president had displayed antipathy so boldly and without remorse. One of the most striking byproducts of Trump’s ascension to power has been the newfound boldness of bigots. At a white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, David Duke, longtime Klan leader and Holocaust denier, endorsed Donald Trump and his promises to “to take our country back.”
At the same time, the label “Trump supporter” has taken on a strong meaning amongst liberal people. From my experience, it implies that someone is any combination of racist, xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, misogynistic, and interestingly, uneducated. Surely that’s the only way to explain how anyone could esteem a man who, on national television, refused to condemn white supremacists and suggested that people inject themselves with disinfectant to fight the coronavirus.
But in piling so many negative attributes on such a huge demographic, I think that Trump’s opponents inadvertently absolve both sides of full accountability. Voting blue doesn’t make you an activist. Condemning the president’s supporters doesn’t mean you’re unlike them, or that the need for introspection can be deflected elsewhere.
Furthermore, in characterizing all of the president’s supporters as inherently amoral, I think people remove nuance from the priorities of certain groups. In Florida, around 55% of the Cuban-American vote went to Trump in 2020, largely because he branded himself as the anti-communist candidate. Between 12 and 18% of Black male voters cast red ballots this election—a nominal figure compared to those of other racial groups, but one that’s risen since 2016. Members of this double minority often voice disillusion with Democrats’ empty promises to Black communities (Trump’s Platinum Plan for Black Americans also reads like an empty promise, but alas). While I believe that any vote for Trump is an affirmation of insolvency, and that even the marginalized can actively marginalize others, I think voices like these should be heeded before they’re labeled as bigoted.
I also have a problem with equating prejudice with ignorance or a lack of education. While Trump has amassed significant support from white voters without college degrees, it’s dangerous to simply dismiss far-right Americans as uninformed. Racism is a complex system that was carefully constructed. Xenophobia is strategic. Incendiaries don’t just wake up and decide to start rambling. They think out in comprehensive detail how to appeal to people’s anger and resentment. In 1989, Trump spent $85,000 on newspaper ads urging New York State to adopt the death penalty against five Black and Latino minors who were falsely accused of rape. For years, Trump worked relentlessly to stir the racist conspiracy theory that Obama wasn’t born in America and was thus ineligible for the presidency. It’s time to stop excusing the behavior of fully realized adults. They know exactly what they’re doing.
Presently, members of the far-right are markedly anti-democracy and anti-establishment, which is ironic because Trump in many ways represents the establishment (he’s a billionaire who inherited his wealth from his father) and was elected by democratic means. It seems the law only applies when it’s working in his favor. Republicans in the Pennsylvania Senate recently refused to swear in a Democrat who was rightfully elected. Numerous Congress members have contested the presidential election results on baseless claims. When Neo-Nazis stormed the capital, Trump called them “very special” and told them that he loves them. While American politics has become increasingly polarized over the past decade, this is something new.
I’m not going to lie to myself and say that an attempted coup was something the country needed, but I pray that Americans learn something from the lies Donald Trump has spent four years numbing us to. That the United States, a nation that exalts itself as a beacon of hope and democracy, heeds the warning signs. For now, bye bye Donald.
By Simi Fagbemi