I’ve puked twice in college: once too drunk during my first tailgate freshman year and once too sober last Wednesday listening to Hillary Clinton’s concession speech. Listening to her swan song, I thought, this is how it all ends. No avenue to challenge the vote count like Gore did in 2000. Just a wonderful, eloquent, tear-jerking speech from the most qualified candidate to ever run for president. My stomach twisted in knots and I felt a deep sense of fear, sadness and guilt.
My feelings of guilt came from complacency. I can try to justify this to myself by citing polls that nearly unanimously showed Hillary winning with a comfortable margin. But, at the same time, I knew this election was too important to not do anything. I didn’t donate money, knock on doors or phone bank. Nothing.
The past couple days, I’ve been engaging in this self-flagellation to remind myself that when I criticize Trump supporters, I’m not coming from a moral high ground. This isn’t an equivalency but a recognition that I, too, am stained. More importantly, it’s a way of reminding myself that guilt can be absolved. I can’t take back my inaction, but in the coming four years, and for the rest of my life, I can actively protect marginalized people by volunteering, protesting and speaking up in moments of injustice.
Trump supporters are guilty by virtue of supporting someone who built his campaign on bigotry. This election was about a lot of things, like a deep distrust of our government and frustration at an unequal economic recovery. But perhaps most importantly it was about white identity politics and a lack of sympathy for people of color. Trump handily beat Clinton among both educated and non-educated whites. Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments that Trump’s victory was driven by these toxic identity politics is a recent study out from University of California Santa Barbara, which demonstrated that telling whites that by 2042 they will be outnumbered by non-whites strongly increased their support for Trump.
Is every Trump supporter a frothing, kard-karrying KKK member? No. But at best they voted to advance an agenda that rightfully scares people of color. Regardless of what policies Trump ends up instituting, having him as president has legitimized disgusting, deplorable beliefs that have hidden in the shadows for years. We don’t have to look beyond our campus to see our new national reality. Recently, a Muslim woman was told by a white man that she would be lit on fire unless she removed her hijab. Empowering a man who will take to Twitter to incorrectly condemn The New York Times’ coverage of him but not the hate crimes committed under his presidency is, to me, morally reprehensible.
Maybe some votes for Trump are justified. If you were living in a depressed manufacturing town and haven’t had a job in years while watching your world decay around you with no one protecting your economic interests, then maybe you, too, would vote for Trump. Maybe these people deserve our sympathy; maybe they don’t. The wounds of Election Day are too fresh and I don’t have real answers nor do I profess to.
But the people who I have no sympathy for are college-educated white people who voted for Trump, who voted to elect a man who will set back years of progress so they could be in a lower tax bracket. These people aren’t outliers; exit polls indicate that Trump did better across the board with people making over $50,000 a year.
I don’t think these people are categorically bad or irredeemable. We — and when I say “we” or “our” throughout this piece, I primarily mean other people like myself who will be largely unaffected by Trump’s presidency — must explain to Trump supporters why their vote is one against unity, against tolerance, against the personhood of oppressed people.
This isn’t an easy conversation to have and, frankly, calling someone racist for supporting systemic racism by voting for Trump isn’t going to engender an open conversation when that person’s platonic ideal of racism is a Klansman. It was only after two years of long, hard discussions at one of the United States’ most liberal universities that I truly began to understand racism as a systemic rather than purely interpersonal process. It’s going to take a lot of time to change people’s understanding of racism and, right now, I don’t know how to have those conversations effectively. I’m not sure anyone does. People interested in furthering racial justice need to reflect and heal ourselves. Only then can we begin to change the moral fabric of our country.
Education isn’t enough, though. People need to be held accountable for their support of Trump. Once again, there’s no easy answer. What I do know, though, is that different groups of his supporters need to be held accountable in different ways. Similarly, our capacity for forgiveness changes depending on how an individual supported Trump. What this looks like for a rank and file voter is different than, say, Ron Weiser, who was Trump’s most effective fundraiser in Michigan and has just been elected to our Board of Regents. Do we hold him accountable with constant protests? By inviting him to meetings to voice concerns about his complicity? Or are his sins unforgivable?
Bernie Sanders recently published a statement saying, “To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.” I recognize there is a need for governance, but how much do supporting those former policies legitimize the latter ones, despite the aforementioned vigorous opposition? I don’t know, but we need to seriously ponder these questions as we move forward in the coming months and years.
Right now, we hurt. I’m upset this is the direction our country has chosen to go in and can only imagine the pain of marginalized people who have been told in unequivocal terms that our nation has rejected them. Right now, our prerogatives are to protect them and love our friends and family. This is a defeat — a massive one. But the sun will rise and so shall we.
Author’s note: This election has revealed that people are living in increasingly politically homogenous communities, which makes those important conversations even more difficult to actually have. I’m not sure if a single Trump supporter will read this, but if you are one then I urge you to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I come to you not out of malice, but love for our common humanity. I would also like to extend a special thanks to Carson Smith, whom I have spoken to every day since the election and who has been a great friend of the heart, mind and soul.