Guest post by Phillip Cryan
Let's assume for the moment that Hillary Clinton will win Tuesday’s election and become our next president. More than that, let's assume she wins by a large margin. Both Donald Trump the candidate and the ugly views he has championed throughout this campaign are dealt a humiliating electoral defeat. Not just Democrats and independents but also a significant percentage of Republicans join together in rejecting Trump and all he has come to stand for.
If all that happens, can the tens of millions of us who have been appalled from the beginning by Trump’s open bigotry and misogyny now look forward to breathing a sigh of relief – an “our long national nightmare is over” moment, at last – on November 9th? Would a landslide defeat for Trump put this hateful chapter of our history behind us?
Hateful social and political forces, once given a degree of official permission and room to move in a society – and more so, once mass-mobilized around a genuine hope in their own near-term ascendance to power – do not recede because they lose one battle or one election. History just doesn’t work that way.
“I don’t think this movement is going away,” one fervent Trump supporter in Ohio, Judy Wright, recently told a Boston Globe reporter. Don Black, one of the founders of the white-nationalist website Stormfront, put it similarly: Trump “has sparked an insurgency, and I don’t think it’s going to go away.” On Saturday the New York Times reported on the growth of well-armed, far-right militia groups across the country. Many in these groups fear a Clinton initiative to forcibly take away their guns. Armed white men have already rallied, with their weapons on prominent display, at demonstrations in support of the Confederate flag and at public meetings on whether to allow the building of new mosques.
So let’s not kid ourselves. The ugly, unapologetically white-supremacist, anti-Muslim, and sexist forces now running loose in our body politic – they’ve always been there, of course, but they’re now out in the open again, and proud to be out in the open again – are going to be with us for a long time, no matter what happens on November 8th. In fact, their public and political expressions are likely to get uglier, their words and actions scarier, after the election – perhaps especially if it’s a landslide win for Hillary.
For Judy Wright (the Trump volunteer interviewed by the Globe), if her candidate loses, “all I know is our country is not going to be a country anymore. I’ve heard people talk about a revolution.” There has been a lot of discussion and coverage over the last couple weeks of the increasingly fevered warnings from Trump and his supporters that the election will be stolen from them, including Trump’s own already-infamous refusal at the final debate to commit to accepting the results of the election. His supporter Judy Wright captures the logic of the Trumpist view concisely: “If Hillary wins, it’s rigged.”
Making hate normal
But even these before-the-fact declarations of a conspiracy pale – in terms of scariness and cause for concern – in comparison to the violence-infused vision of another Trump supporter interviewed in the same Boston Globe piece: Dan Bowman, a contractor, told the Globe, “If [Hillary’s] in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot. That’s how I feel about it. We’re going to have a revolution and take them out of office if that’s what it takes. There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed.”
Closer to home, when I posted a picture on social media a few days ago of my father – who served in the 101st Airborne in Vietnam and is the sort of political independent who’s still proud to have voted, twice, for Perot – standing with a lawn-sign that reads “Another veteran who could never vote for Donald,” one of my father’s cousins immediately replied with this: “I don’t believe [your dad] is foolish enough to vote Killary. Put the bitch in JAIL.”
What is truly distressing about this sort of reaction is not just the vile sentiments and words themselves but the way many of us are beginning to receive them: as a known, expected part of our political discourse. I find myself noticeably less shocked and angered by such comments, today, than I would have been if I’d seen them just a few weeks ago. I honestly can’t imagine that anyone I know would have posted such a statement two years ago……it just didn’t happen.
Even at the worst, scariest moments of anti-Muslim sentiment and jingoism under George W. Bush, I don’t remember there being widespread, self-assured use of language like this. I don’t think anywhere near as many people with hateful thoughts felt comfortable or licensed to broadcast those thoughts publicly. But now this kind of hateful, often violent, often sexist, racist, anti-Muslim or xenophobic speech is becoming normal.
Many educators, journalists, and academics have expressed concerns recently about the effect Trump’s words (and the words of his supporters) are having on children. You’ve already read, I’m sure, about the “Build the wall!” chants at high school sports events with Latino athletes. But did you know that two-thirds of teachers surveyed in a recent Southern Poverty Law Center study reported that their minority students have expressed fear about what might happen to them or their families after this election? Teachers reported kids struggling to make sense of their new belief, based on the invective of the presidential campaign, that “everyone hates them.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Trump’s focus from the first day of his campaign on maligning Mexican-Americans, many teachers reported Latino students expressing fears of deportation. (Teachers also reported white kids using “You’ll be deported!” as a new playground taunt against Latinos, and white kids using “Dirty Mexican” as a new insult against other white kids in schools with no Latino students.) But Latino kids were not alone in expressing this fear: several teachers reported that Black students expressed the belief that they could “be deported to Africa” or enslaved.
We will not know all the effects the normalization of Trump’s hate-speech has had on our society for many years, until we can look back on all this with some perspective and – let’s pray – a renewed sense of shock that such things were actually uttered, as late as 2016, by the nominee of one of the country’s two main political parties. Without knowing the specifics yet of all the effects they’ve had, we can be confident both that they are extensive and that they are felt especially deeply by young people who are still shaping their understanding of the society they’re part of and their own place (or not) within it.
What happens when hope is gone?
As difficult as it’s been to watch the newly-legitimized forces of hatefulness and division in action over the last few months – to hear the unvarnished bigotry and misogyny of what so many of our fellow citizens, even our friends and family members, have apparently been longing for many years to openly say to their Black, brown, female, Muslim, disabled, or in-any-other-way-different-from-themselves neighbors – we have to remember that what we’ve been watching and hearing so far is actually a version of these forces infused with hope.
They’ve rallied around Trump’s candidacy, seen a real prospect for dramatic and (in their view) positive national transformation in having him becoming president. If he loses – and even more so, if he loses big – the hope that has been attached to their efforts until now will be largely extinguished, leaving only the deep resentments, the reflexive blaming of varied “others,” the regular denial of simple and obvious facts. The rancor.
We’ve heard Trump celebrate vigilantism before. Most memorably, he offered to pay the legal bills for a white male supporter who sucker-punched a Black man protesting at one of his rallies. In making the offer, he explained that the assaulter “obviously loves his country.” Trump’s crowds have loved this rhetoric and his many threats and “jokes” about physical violence against dissenters, throughout his presidential campaign.
Even if the election proves a landslide, a complete repudiation of Trump’s candidacy, tens of millions of Americans will – despite all the horribly offensive things he has done and said – have enthusiastically voted for Trump on November 8th. We need to all try to grapple with that reality – not just with our bewilderment, anger or incredulity about it, but with a clear-eyed recognition of what it’s likely to mean for us as a polity in the months and years to come.
Where do you think those tens of millions of people will take their activism and energy, their sense of grievance and anger, after a loss – especially if they believe in a conspiracy theory pushed by Trump about the election being rigged?
I am genuinely frightened about the kinds of violence, vigilantism, and other forms of abuse against “others” (i.e., anyone who is not a white male straight non-disabled Christian) we may see in the weeks and months after the election.
Indeed, the chaos of individual vigilantism or mob violence could come as soon as Election Day, if some of his supporters heed his many calls for them to go looking for non-existent voter fraud in what he calls “other” polling places. (In case you can’t guess what he means by “other” polling places, here’s a line from a recent Trump rally speech: “Take a look at Philadelphia, what’s been going on, take a look at Chicago, take a look at St. Louis. Take a look at some of these cities, where you see things happening that are horrendous.”)
There’s a revealing, horrifying story Trump repeatedly told on the campaign trail earlier this year. His crowds thrilled to it every time. It’s apocryphal, has been proved pure fiction, but of course Trump didn’t let that stop him. It’s about General John Pershing, when he was serving the U.S. Army in the Philippines in the aftermath of the 1899-1902 war. I think it’s best to let Trump speak for himself here in telling it (from the transcript of a February 19, 2016 rally in North Charleston, South Carolina):
You know, I read a story. It’s a terrible story, but I’ll tell you…..should I tell you, or should I not? [Cheers] Early in the century, last century, General Pershing – did you ever hear? rough guy, rough guy – and they had a terrorism problem. And you know there’s the whole thing with swine and animals and pigs and you know the story, they don’t like that. And they were having a tremendous problem with terrorism. And by the way, this is something you can read about in the history books. Not a lot of history books, because they don’t like teaching this. And General Pershing was a rough guy. … They had terrorism problems, just like we do. And he caught fifty terrorists who did tremendous damage and killed many people. And he took the fifty terrorists, and he took fifty men and he dipped fifty bullets in pigs’ blood. You heard that, right? He took fifty bullets, and he dipped them in pigs’ blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the fifty people, and they shot forty-nine of those people. And the fiftieth person, he said: You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened. And for twenty-five years there wasn’t a problem. Okay? Twenty-five years, there wasn’t a problem.
It remains difficult for me to believe – even with all the subsequent revelations of offensive, despicable things this man has said – that these are actually the words of the endorsed candidate for president of one of our two main political parties.
More important, it’s difficult to believe how much his audiences loved this story.
This is not a case of a story being used to illustrate some interesting aspect of the past, or to raise questions about the present, or to give depth or color to things we already know. Instead, this is a story with an unequivocal, bang-you-over-the-head moral. Trump expected the lesson to be clear to his rally crowds, and I’m confident it was. I hope it’s equally clear to you. The prescription here is for unapologetically brutal violence against “others” – in this case, specifically Muslims. The prescription is not just for violence but for relishing cruelty.
There have been many far bigger moments – the bragging-about-sexual-assault tape with Billy Bush; the refusal in advance to accept the results of the election; the attacks on Alicia Machado, the Khans, and so many others – that have defined Trump for voters in recent weeks. But I think this story about Gen. Pershing – a complete fabrication, like so much of what Trump says – captures better than any other moment in the campaign the frighteningly ignorant worldview this candidate espouses and the danger our country faces now that tens of millions of his supporters have come to believe that it’s acceptable to utter such racist, ignorant, bloodlust-infused nonsense in public.
Because here’s the most important thing: what’s scary about Trump isn’t Trump.
There have always been cranks, avowed white nationalists, and assorted conspiracy-theorists saying the same sorts of things Trump is now saying. What’s different and very scary right now is that tens of millions of Americans are rallying openly to their cause.
We’ve all become so focused – transfixed even – on the daily videos of this awful man and the shocking, horrible things he says that we are missing the larger story. To understand what’s really significant about this moment in our history, we need to turn our attention away from Donald Trump. We need to turn it toward the people in his rally crowds.
When Trump told the bullets-in-pigs’-blood story at rallies earlier this year, his crowds would become delirious with glee. Loud as hell, with roaring cheers, applause, laughter. They were exultant. Ecstatic.
More recently, we’ve all seen the footage of his supporters chanting things like “Lock her up!” and “Trump that bitch!”
These are the forces we are going to be dealing with in the weeks and months to come, after Election Day is behind us. There are tens of millions of people looking forward with great hope, today, to voting for Donald Trump on Tuesday, with an active embrace of his unapologetic racism, sexism and hate. Pandora’s box is open.
Regardless of whether Trump decides to parlay his fame into a new television station or retreats into real estate, whether he retires from the political scene (incredibly unlikely, but we can dream, right?) or continues as the standard-bearer and mouthpiece for a mass movement opposing the Hillary Clinton administration, all those people shouting “Trump that bitch!” at his rallies – and all the family members or friends I’m sure I’m not alone in having, suddenly saying things like “Put the bitch in JAIL” on our Facebook pages – are not going anywhere. They are emboldened and angry and ready to take action.
Those of us who are appalled by their open bigotry and misogyny must be prepared, starting the very day after this election – or maybe even the day of, if his army of “poll watchers” emerges as an actual force – to fight back vigorously against jingoism, ignorance, racism, misogyny, hate.
Taking matters into their own hands
Many observers today are far too quick to dismiss the possibility of mob violence and vigilantism emerging out of Trump’s base of supporters. Large-scale, systematic white mob violence against people of color, as a regular occurrence, is only two generations back in our history. (And systematic violence by whites against people of color continues today with considerable ferocity – it just tends to manifest now through official channels like the police, not vigilantism.)
As Isabel Wilkerson observes in The Warmth of Other Suns, her Pulitzer-winning history of the Great Migration: “Contrary to modern-day assumptions, for much of the history of the United States – from the Draft Riots of the 1860s to the violence over desegregation a century later – riots were often carried out by disaffected whites against groups perceived as threats to their survival.” Her account of white riots against Black migrants who were seeking housing in white neighborhoods of northern cities in the 1960s – including destruction of apartments and houses, firebombing, stoning, overturned police cars, and rampaging mobs as large as 4,000, in riots that sometimes lasted for several days – is truly chilling to read.
I fear that aggrieved, angry Trump supporters will seek to take our country back to such times – will be inciting violence, not just in words but in deeds, against Muslims, Latinos, Blacks, women, or anyone that’s not part of their vision of the America that used to be “great.” Whether Trump concedes or not will of course play a huge role in shaping whether his supporters accept the legitimacy of the election. But even if Trump immediately concedes – perhaps because it’s an historic rout – I don’t think we should expect the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and hate given new permission and room to move in our society by his campaign to go quietly into the night. Instead, I think we should expect them to flare up in dramatic and violent new forms.
Maybe I’m wrong, and this is all overblown and unnecessary. I pray that is so.
But if it turns out I’m not wrong – and after all the ugly, unpredicted twists and turns of this campaign since its “Mexicans are rapists” start, how could you possibly be sure? – we need to be ready to fight, and fight like hell, in defense of American decency and diversity, in defense of the dignity and safety of all people, the second Hillary wins.
Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best
Between now and Tuesday, we of course all need to just buckle down and work as hard as we possibly can to win this election – knocking doors, making calls, busting our asses to achieve a decisive, message-sending margin in the presidential race and to win all the other vitally-important state, local and federal races we’re engaged in. The world is anxiously waiting to see what message the majority of Americans send in this election. The larger the margin, the stronger the message. And frankly we need to send a message to ourselves as well – that there is still something kind and good and hopeful about our country, something worth standing up and fighting for. That hate is not one of our core values.
But at the same time we do all that work to win on Nov. 8th, we should be preparing ourselves for Nov. 9th. Progressives should be getting prepared to hold Hillary to the many strong policy positions she’s taken over the course of her campaign, to provide an active pull from the left in a way we failed utterly to provide in the first couple years after President Obama’s election in 2008. Just as important, we should be preparing for the possibility that some of Trump’s supporters respond after this election with not just vitriol but violence.
Getting ourselves ready to deal with a new wave of ugliness and vigilantism after the election, but then finding out things are unexpectedly calm, would be a glorious way for us all to experience the next few weeks. But facing a new wave of ugliness and vigilantism unprepared, shocked by it out of a complacent celebration of an electoral repudiation of Trump, would be the opposite: hellish. It could set us back in many different ways all at once. So the rational choice right now is to get prepared, while hoping the preparations prove to have been needless.
Those of us unlikely to ever find ourselves under direct attack by the forces of hate and division – straight white males like me, for example – have a particular responsibility to stand up and fight back. Why? There’s a certain justice – if most of the hatefulness and violence comes, as it almost certainly will, from white men – in having white men be the ones to go confront it. And on a practical level, we are the ones most likely to be able to do so without jeopardizing our safety.
A brief and personal illustration: the lunchroom supervisor at my kids’ elementary school – an unfailingly kind, generous, loving young man, beloved by all the kids whose lives he touched and known by them as “Mr. Phil,” Philando Castile – was murdered by the police while he strived to follow the very letter of the law. In contrast, if I choose to openly break the law in order to stand up for something I believe in politically (which I’ve done a few times, so I speak from direct experience), it is almost certain that I will be able to do so without ever fearing for my own physical well-being.
So here’s my suggestion about what we should do, after this election, if it turns out I’m right about the ugliness soon to come: we should take seriously the recent words of the clearest, strongest, most moral voice in our country right now, Michelle Obama. “An attack on any one of us is an attack on all of us,” she said in a speech last week. Let’s take that literally. When and if any aggrieved Trump supporter first commits an act of violence against any Latino, Black, Native, Asian-American, female, LGBTQ, disabled, Muslim, Jewish, or in any other way “othered” fellow American, we should show up by the thousands – white men especially – in that place as soon as we hear about it, to nonviolently condemn what they’ve done, to commit ourselves to peaceful resistance against all such attacks, and to dramatically, massively demonstrate to other people who might be thinking about engaging in such acts what sort of response they can expect if they follow through.
Again, I sincerely hope I’m wrong in having these fears of what’s to come after this election. I hope we can all just celebrate a decisive victory, put this ugly chapter behind us, restore a basic shared commitment to civility and truthfulness in our politics, and move on with the many debates and policy initiatives needed to make progress and win justice.
But if, sadly, I’m right about the violence and vigilantism to come, and if we do manage to rise to the occasion and do something dramatic to put a stop to it, when we get there let’s recite together a few lines from Langston Hughes – in the faith and hope that we can somehow still build a country, almost a half-century after he died, that is worthy of his faith in it:
O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine – the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME –
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!
Phillip Cryan holds a Masters in Public Policy from the Goldman School at the University of California, Berkeley. He is Executive Vice President of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, a union of more than 35,000 hospital, clinic, nursing home, and home care workers.
If you liked this post, Bluestem recommends Cryan's essay published last April in Salon, It’s so much worse than Trump: The history of the modern GOP is a history of racism, bigotry and dog-whistles.
Photo: Phillip Cryan, taking part in a 2011 protest over bank foreclosures on homes.
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