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By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
Like most people in my circle of friends, four years ago I watched in disbelief as a certain candidate who had called Mexicans “rapists,” mocked a disabled reporter and boasted of grabbing women by their private parts went on to win the presidency of the United States. How can anybody in his or her right mind be voting for this crass individual? Don’t they realize the example he’s setting for our children? Of course, the list of transgressions perpetrated not just by him, but his administration, grew exponentially — allegations of rape, not paying taxes, violating the Hatch Act, banning Muslims from entering the United States, caging children at the border and separating them from their families, sterilizing immigrant women, ending DACA, soliciting help from a foreign power to win an election, etc.
How can anybody with any set of principles support such a scoundrel? Do people not see the attacks he’s perpetrating against minorities, how he’s denying the humanity of the LGBTQ community, what he’s doing to our country? Or do people not care? Honestly, I wanted to understand.
Every so often I would come across stories that would hint at the answer, but nothing really illuminating — until recently. A lengthy article by Lydia DePillis of ProPublica details how Robert Lighthizer, President Trump’s trade representative, set out to bring factory jobs from overseas by tearing up dozens of trade agreements painstakingly built over decades. As the article concludes, the results so far are endless trade wars, alienated allies, and a manufacturing recession.
But it wasn’t the result of the trade deals I was concentrating on, as much as the detailed portrait of Lighthizer the story was painting. Finally, a piece of writing that treated a Trump Administration official not like a “deplorable” or an opportunistic thief, but as a person with a set of ideals driving his work ethic. A person who set out to change a department based on deeply-held beliefs. I may not agree with his views, the changes he made or their outcome, but at least I was able to understand what he was attempting to do.
Lighthizer, for better or worse, is trying to do what he believes is right for the Rust Belt, the place where he grew up, a place that’s been suffering from the exporting of jobs overseas for decades, the place he still calls home. He’s not a devil with horns, a shameless carnival barker devoid of ethics. Lighthizer is a person who grew up in a world different from mine and is trying to bring about change based on the beliefs he acquired in that world. He was humanized for me and, for the first time, I felt I could understand what the Trump administration is about, at least to some people.
This story and others that talk about Trump supporters and their motivations have been in my mind a lot these days, particularly when I see friends on social media expressing anger, disbelief or utter terror at the fact that millions of people voted for Trump. How can they possibly support this shameless opportunist? This perv? This degenerate? This grifter? This scoundrel? This hypocrite? What’s wrong with them?
Obviously, I can’t speak for Trump supporters and won’t even pretend to know what’s in their minds and in their hearts. But I can tell you this: after listening to these interviews, these stories, and trying to come to terms with what’s happening in this country, I know for sure demonizing or demeaning Trump supporters is counterproductive. Nobody likes to be thought of as a racist, incompetent, bigoted bully. How did you like it when the “deplorables” called you a “snowflake?” When they believe you’re a lazy, entitled brat who wants to have everything handed to you by the government? (A deliciously fitting description of the man they love so much, but I won’t go into that.)
I also know this: believing Trump supporters are behind him even though he’s a scoundrel is believing they have been eating a steady diet of New York Times, Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Rachel Maddow and all those stories that focus on the president’s transgressions. They are not that well informed. They’re obviously reading his tweets, watching Fox News, and most likely, not paying breathless attention to the crazy news cycle. We are all in a bubble, and in our bubble, Trump is evil incarnate. In their bubble, he’s a dogged fighter championing their cause, a much-maligned president who means well. How is it that they see this? I don’t know, but I do know that in order to understand it, we probably need to live in their world, in rural areas where income is lower, access to services difficult, where God reigns supreme and urbanism is a disease.
Twelve years ago, the United States elected its first Black president, and at least half of the country was elated. I remember the spontaneous demonstrations in the streets, the jubilation many of us felt at the thought of being able to leave behind the country’s racist history. Given the country’s past, nobody could believe a Black person could ever occupy the White House, and yet, there we were. It was a dream come true.
And what happened next? The past raised its ugly head and was used to demonize President Obama. His middle name was used to foster a “them vs. us” mentality and to obstruct him every step of the way. The racism some proclaimed was behind us intensified. Trump used it to stoke fears among rural populations, to get elected and push an agenda that’s harmful to the environment and working class people, and to attempt to remain in office. It almost worked, and we have to thank our better angels — and Black voters in Philadelphia and Georgia; and Latino housekeepers in Nevada — for foiling the plan.
We can’t rebuild a nation when we think half the country is morally or intellectually inferior, when we think their ideas are stupid, when we think they hate us or despise us.
This piece was born a day after the election, when the outcome was far from certain, even though it was already clear Biden was headed for a win. As I type this morning, major news organizations have declared we’ll have a new president — and vice president! — come January. The thought of having a Black woman as second in command makes me swoon.
In reality, we should not boast or celebrate, or pretend we’ve left our troubles behind. We had four years of hurting, of calling each other names and pretending the other side is “lesser than.” We can’t rebuild a nation when we think one half of the country is morally or intellectually inferior, when we think their ideas are stupid, when we think they hate us or despise us. Nor can we move forward when we think Trump voters personally believe all minorities, all women, all BIPOC, are undeserving. We don’t know what’s in their hearts, and at 71 million strong, that’s a lot of hearts.
Now, more than ever, we need to recognize we really don’t know each other. For us to get to know one another, to really get to know what’s in each other’s hearts, we need to talk to each other, understand each other. For better or worse, the United States sets an example to other diverse nations, to a world full of dire, complex problems and in desperate need for creative, bold solutions. We won’t get there unless we have a deeper understanding of who we are.
The conversations we need to have are deep and painful. Many of us in so-called minority communities have long felt that the U.S. economic system exploits us and treats us like second-class citizens, that white “majorities” (minorities in counties like Monterey) don’t really “see us.” Black people continue to bear the brunt of militarized police departments. The current occupant of the White House demonized immigrants to no end. Given how adept political elites are at placing blame, it should not be difficult to see why rural residents fear diverse populations living in cities. Reaching across boundaries, getting out of our collective bubbles, telling each other our stories of struggle and triumph will be the only way to prevent another incompetent celebrity from taking over this beloved country of ours.
Let’s get to work.
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