On the Saturday Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were declared winners of the Presidential election, I was relieved to call friends and loved ones to exclaim: “Donald Trump, you’re fired!” It was a great feeling, which led to introspection on my own feelings of derision, polarization, and my ongoing challenges with compassion and empathy.
During our month on Storytelling and Social Justice my friends Sol Neely and Jamil Al Wekhian described experiences that have shaken me to the core. By helping me to connect the dots between both the MAGA hat wearing and State sponsored terrorism, I was reminded of the cruelty I’ve felt and observed during this administration; and also of my own guilt and shame. In a clinical sense I want to guard against destructive anger while making the most of the insights gained from instructive anger. I have been reminded that we struggle in our efforts for outer peace when we do not have inner peace.
In its most mundane version I experienced disconnection and severed relationships when I visited social media. I cannot count the number of people who have blocked or unfriended me on Facebook. Generally it’s not something I pay much attention to, but when I wanted to reach out to someone but the link was gone it was hard to miss. The friend who, at age 10, first showed me around campus when my family moved to Bakersfield California, just disappeared; I hope it is nothing personal… Another friend I rode bikes with in Jr. High, when I reached out to reconnect his wife assured me, “I am not trying to be rude, I just don’t think you would like the adult [friend]…He is very conservative and likes his guns and his freedom. Although he is well liked by most everyone.” She deletes the information I share on her wall and cautions, “We have 6 kids and I don’t take the possibility of Socialism lightly. My kids’ futures are at stake. We don’t agree on anything.”
I have watched in horror for 4 years. Less than a week into the Trump presidency I found myself at Hartfield Jackson International Airport to protest Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban. Days later a student shared in class, “I have family stranded right now…,” just to be interrupted from the back of the room, “you’re in Trump’s world now baby!” Month after month, he attacked human rights and basic dignity. By Jan. 20th 2021, I’ll have written nearly a hundred op-eds to challenge Trump’s affronts to decency.
When I expressed opinions on beating the drums of war with Iran or torturing children at the border with Mexico I paid a price. I received derogatory fan mail, phone calls to the department where I taught, and evaluations on websites like Rate My Professor from people who never actually took my classes. Someone reported me to the FBI as an ISIS sympathizer in the early weeks of Trump’s presidency, I never did find out what earned me the honor of the investigation. I suspect it was my claims regarding threats from armed white extremists; the Bundy’s had just initiated an occupation in Oregon, I observed this being measurably and demonstrably worse than any risk of Sharia law or an ISIS attack on US soil. The truth is that under Trump’s leadership, hate crimes in the US are at the highest levels that have been measured in my lifetime.
Police departments have been weaponized against persons of color for grave offenses like BBQing at the park or swimming in the community pool. When I had a guest speaker who told the story of his offense, “babysitting while Black,” he took a group picture afterward; sadly, the speaker reported one of the students made a hand symbol for white supremacy when posing in the picture. Trump did not invent racism, but he called white nationalists “very fine people,” and emboldened violence with statements like “please don’t be too nice.”
As a community we have lost count of how many lies we’ve been told. As a teacher I watched conspiracy theories continue to devolve. An old friend told me that I was not joining QAnon because I was too biased to see the truth. After two people I knew were shot while attending a country music event in Las Vegas another friend called to beg me to carry a concealed firearm (made legal in Georgia) while teaching—as a responsibility—to keep my students safe. Meanwhile The Onion—a satire site—runs the headline “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” year after year and shooting after shooting. Trump’s cue card for meeting with shooting survivors: “5. I hear you.”
The point I’m trying to make here is that reality has been very painful—overwhelmingly tragic—and while some of it is the responsibility of the Trump administration much of it preceded his term and will also persist into future administrations. I do not know how we heal or how we forgive the derision, not even my own.
For me, being committed to peace holds a requirement in acknowledging the dignity and worth of everyone. I think this is a precondition to human rights and equality. I confess, however, that when it comes to Trump’s apologists I come up short. I see the name-calling, on occasion I have joined in. This pejorative animus is not an accurate reflection of my values but instead of my anger and outrage.
I have acted like all Trump supporters were bumbling rednecks, but the truth is white men and women of all economic classes and education levels have supported him and his policies in large numbers. I have wished they could be shamed into changing their minds, and I have frequently gone about it in the wrong way: by calling names. I do believe some, perhaps many, of the supporters have been conned into buying into promises that have again come up short, but there is also clarity in the profound abundance of hate, there is considerable work that needs to be done.
When I reflect on my own toxic socialization I admit to homophobia, racism, and sexism that I’m ashamed of. In my efforts to fit in—be cool—I embraced the qualities I attack Trump and condemn his supporters for. I was silent when people I knew committed hate crimes and a participant in stories of prejudice when it was “just joking.” I only changed through patient education and exposure to diversity, but I have not afforded such compassionate generosity when I lament that “build the wall” has functioned as bigoted xenophobia.
I understand that it is hard to trust the media and the government. There are many monumental deceptions. The lies told about weapons of mass destruction were used as a fraudulent excuse to justify aggressions and ultimately start a war that has been fought in the Middle East for most of my adult life. I know stories are sometimes spun and other times they are outright propaganda so I teach students to generally have a healthy skepticism; I want to be vigilant against fake news, and I worry that it’s getting tougher to tell the truth from lies.
It bothers me that the lies and hyperbole are causing so much death and destruction. The coronavirus is causing so much death and suffering, and I believe the conspiracy theories and claims of “hoax” made it all dramatically worse. Millions of Americans are food insecure, waiting in line for hours to feed their families through the generosity of food banks. Huge numbers of Americans are facing eviction, many who have become un- or under-employed because of the pandemic. Meanwhile the rich are getting richer and the stock market is doing fine; the Dow Jones Industrial average is setting records on days that are also record peaks in COVID-19 hospitalizations and fatalities.
I think, “is it that hard to wear a mask?” and it is clear that we are divided.
When Trump was impeached I bragged: “I am the person Republicans have been complaining about.” It was not about hatred, but about affirming my love for peace and justice. I have called out Trump’s lies and failures since the beginning, but I have never given him credit. Trump did more to oppose the dishonest campaign against Iraq, for example, than Hillary Clinton did. Trump’s targeted assassination of Soleimani is not so different from the countless extra-judicial executions ordered by Barrack Obama. Though it is worth pointing out that both the context and consequences were radically different, it has been hypocritical when two different standards have been applied.
I think we can all learn from stories of healing and forgiveness. If my friend Jamil could tell the court, “my family forgives, we hold no grudges,” after a violent act of terrorism, then I must certainly be able to relinquish my moral resentment for those who defended and supported Trump’s devastating policies. But, I fear this leaves the burden of healing on the victims. If my friend Sol can take his father and daughter onto the trail where his ancestors cried, and (re)awaken his connection to his identity and place in history, then I should also be able to make repairs for my connections to the genocidal policies and other atrocities. But, somehow it seems impossible to heal from the acts of terrorism that have been manufactured in our recent history.
When I was at a protest earlier this year I did not see any openings for conservative voices who also opposed escalations in threats of violence against Iran. There have always been differences of opinion, and I have tried to remind people that we have more in common than what divides us, but I could not see past the division. The Trump signs and MAGA hats told me “this person supports racial hatred,” but I still could not cancel them, they cancelled me. I lost friends because I refused to accept the lies about invasions of immigrants, the lunacy of building border walls, or the corruption laid out in the Mueller Report, but I know I’m responsible for finding forgiveness and facilitating the healing.
Trump’s corruption provided a lesson in quid pro quo, but in order to heal we cannot demand anything in return for our love. I think this is a good starting point. We need to use an open hand and replace the fist with questions. As a nation we have to find a way to love one another, and I think for many of us this starts with our own families. Find people you can reach and reconnect with, and share love while also confronting bigotries. Stop making rules like “no politics” for family meals. When people are prevented from asking, “how can you support a racist?” It suggests that hate is acceptable. Stop debating with people you cannot reach, and stay away from toxic challenges, but understand that when you listen you will find deeper understanding and connection.
Before my father passed away he gave a sermon describing different ways people may come to find their faith. I think he was right, we will have disagreement about how we see and experience the world—even differences in right and wrong. He went on to say that in being polite we tend to avoid the parts of our lives that are most important to us. This does not show much trust in others, and it keeps our relationships superficial. Real love is vulnerable, wishfully hoping for trust, but when we forgive others for their failings and return to love and connection we create transformative openings. Talking about what is most important to us, even when it is political, gives the possibility of establishing real connection, meaning, and understanding.
It is not fair, but it is necessary. There will be more elections, and if we do not heal it will only get worse. Remember, our democratic values have been under attack; that cousin, sibling, or parent will not confront bigotry in an echo chamber—it is up to you. Take time, breathe, heal, and then act to inspire the progress you want to see in the world. Plant seeds, water them, and hope they grow into something beautiful.