Waking up in Trump's America
A short reflection piece I wrote on November 9, 2016. Unfortunately, it has only become more relevant with the passage of time.
I spent election night 2008 alone in a hotel room in Palatka, Florida. Palatka is a tired old railroad town tucked alongside the St. Johns River in the north central part of the state, just an hour’s drive or so from Jacksonville. Like a lot of small inland towns in Florida that tourists would never have cause to drive through let alone visit, Palatka looks and feels more like the old south than other parts of the sunshine state. Ancient oak trees draped in Spanish moss outnumber the palm trees and, as you walk along the aging brick streets of its fading downtown, you’re more apt to greet a passerby in a camo patterned snapback than a Hawaiian shirt.
Palatka’s history complements its aesthetic. In the mid-20th century, Palatka’s representative in the Florida State Senate, Basil Charles “Bill” Pearce, was a member of the “Pork chop gang,” a faction of 20 conservative legislators from rural north Florida who worked together to maintain racial segregation in the state well into the 1960s. When you think Palatka, think Dixie, not Disney.
I was in Palatka on election night 2008 because I had been hired by the Putnam County Arts Council to perform a series of educational concerts about the history of folk music in a handful of local schools. I was employed, if one takes the term in the loosest sense imaginable, as a singer/songwriter at the time and these state-sponsored school gigs were my bread and butter. A day or two in the Florida bush playing “Blowin’ in the Wind” for 12-year-olds could pay as much as two weeks of crappy bar gigs, and I didn’t have to deal with crooked club owners, crummy house PAs, or nervous walks through poorly lit parking lots after the show. I was stoked to have this job, even if it meant I might end up bearing witness to one of the most significant moments in American history – the election of the first black man to the office of the presidency – all alone in an unfamiliar place.
And that’s just what happened. As Obama surged past the 270 electoral votes he needed to beat John McCain, I sat alone in my hotel room sipping a celebratory shot of bourbon from a plastic cup. I don’t remember falling asleep that night, but I’m sure I must have comforted by the certainty that Martin Luther King was right: the arc of the moral universe did, in fact, bend toward justice.
The next morning, I woke up early, showered, dressed, and grabbed my gear in what felt like a single motion. I pulled out of the hotel parking lot. The sun was just beginning its day’s work burning off the cold and the fog. As I struggled to get my bearings, I turned on the radio. The voice of president-elect Obama filled my car. “And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright: Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope. That's the true genius of America: that America can change. Our union can be perfected.” “Yes it can,” I said to no one in particular.
As I approached an intersection, I saw the fog surrounding what I assumed to be a traffic light change from green to yellow. I slowed down abruptly. Visibility was bad. I stopped and rolled down my car windows to get a clearer view. Apart from the traffic signal, all I could really make out was a beat up old sign for an equipment rental shop off to the passenger side of my car. Why could I see that sign and nothing else? It was not lit, but neither was it enveloped in fog. Why could I see it? It was moving. No, not it, but something attached to it.
The road was empty. I made a hard-right into the equipment rental shop’s parking lot to get a better look. I aimed my car at the sign and flicked on the high beams. There, swinging from side to side nonchalantly like it belonged there was a scare-crow like figure dressed in a white shirt, black suit, and red tie with a hemp noose wrapped around its neck.
I turned off the radio.
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On November 9, 2016, the morning after the 2016 presidential election, I woke up thinking about that morning eight years ago in Palatka and how aptly it portended what was to come. The renaissance of right-wing extremism in the United States. The birther movement. The explicit appeals to white nationalist constituencies that would propel Donald J. Trump into the White House in 2016. That morning was pregnant with all of this. Whoever hung that effigy was not only deplorable, they were prescient.
Whoever hung that effigy was also, I imagine, frightened. They must have feared President Obama and believed he posed a danger to something they loved deeply and wanted to protect. A way of life, perhaps? A fragile sense of identity? A set of values, beliefs, or moral commitments? The well-being of their children, families, and friends? In my experience, these are the motives that drive people to violence – symbolic or otherwise.
Of course, none of these fears or beliefs was rooted in anything that deserves the name of reality. During the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama promised to stint the flow of jobs overseas, lower taxes for small businesses and working families, invest in domestic coal and natural gas production and clean energy, and make college and health insurance more affordable. While reasonable people may dispute the wisdom of these goals or the specific policies Obama proposed for attaining them, construing Obama’s presidency as an existential threat that must be met with violent resistance is nothing other than racist delusion.
Today, with Donald Trump poised to ascend to the office of the presidency, thousands of protestors have taken to the streets in Washington DC, Baltimore, Dallas, New York, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Oakland, and Portland. They’ve marched on state capitols, blocked freeways, and smashed car and shop windows. They’ve surrounded the White House and Trump’s hotels chanting “No hate! No fear! Immigrants are welcome here!” and carrying signs that read “Impeach Trump” and “Not my president.”
Trump and his supporters have accused these protestors of not respecting the democratic process. “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protestors, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!,” Trump tweeted Thursday night as hundreds of protestors surrounded Trump Tower in downtown Manhattan. This inapt critique – vigorous public protest has always been a vital part of America’s democratic process – rings especially hollow in light of Trump’s repeated accusations during the campaign that the democratic process in the United States is “rigged,” his refusal to pledge to accept the outcome of the election unless he proved the victor, and his calls for protests in the streets after Mitt Romney lost the presidential election to Barack Obama in 2012.
Calls issued by President Obama and Trump’s defeated opponent, Secretary Hillary Clinton, to extend our nation’s new president-elect a presumption of good faith ring less hollow. But they fail to reckon with a crucial aspect of our current political reality. The fears and grievances impelling people to the streets in the thousands to protest Trump’s victory are not unfounded delusions. Trump launched his campaign by declaring that most Mexican immigrants are violent criminals and rapists. A few months later, he called for a blanket ban on Muslim immigration. A few months after that, he expressed support for a draconian curtailment of women’s constitutionally guaranteed reproductive freedom: the imposition of criminal penalties on women seeking abortions. (He later backed away from this position, arguing that a law criminalizing abortion should impose penalties only on the person who performs an abortion.) Throughout the campaign, Trump also openly incited his supporters to violence, encouraging them to “knock the crap out of” protestors in the audience at his rallies and offering to pay their legal fees if they were charged with assault. Most egregiously, Trump openly courted the support of white nationalists, circulating their propaganda online, refusing to repudiate the endorsement of David Duke, bringing alt-right leader Steve Bannon on board his campaign staff, and relentlessly championing a central plank of the white nationalist political platform: anti-immigration.
Unlike the deluded cowards who hung Obama in effigy in Palatka in 2008, the thousands of immigrants, Muslims, women, people of color, and their allies performing dissent in the streets of America’s cities right now have reason to view the election of Donald Trump as an existential threat. He campaigned on a platform that expressly called for their oppression, deportation, and criminalization.
Since that bleak and foggy morning in Palatka in 2008, I’ve known what those attracted by the barefaced racism and misogyny of Trump’s campaign do when they lose. My question today is what they’ll do now that they’ve won.