Sunday, November 20, 2016

Living in a Foreign Country: America in the Age of Trump

On Tuesday night, November 8th, I went to sleep on an overnight flight to Europe for a conference taking place later in the week. While I was on my way to Helsinki, I assumed that America was on its way to electing Hillary Clinton as president. When the plane touched down Wednesday morning and people began to turn on their smart phones to check messages and get the latest news, a murmuring spread through the passengers. I began to hear "Trump... Trump..." and soon learned the truth: The impossible had happened. The catastrophe had arrived. The arrogant, loudmouthed, ridiculously boastful celebrity businessman with hateful views toward migrants and minorities, who had been caught on tape talking about how he used his celebrity status to take sexual advantage of women, who had zero experience in government and offered little more than vague promises to "make America great again," had narrowly edged Mrs. Clinton to become the new president-in-waiting.

I had had an awful dream on the flight. I saw angry mobs, fires, violence. I woke thinking the dream probably represented my anxieties about the election, but when I found that Trump had been not vanquished but elevated by the election, I now feared the dream was if anything prophetic, a grim premonition of what may lay ahead for country run by an ignorant, erratic, thin-skinned and hot-tempered, right-wing billionaire bully fueled by resentment and egotism.

She had won the popular vote, by a margin that has now proven substantial, but since America awards the presidency through its complicated system of the "electoral college," Trump had prevailed by winning almost all of the rural and less populated states, white majority areas where Hillary Clinton's greater appeal to more diverse populations was not only not an advantage, but actually a disadvantage. Donald Trump had signaled in many ways that he was sympathetic to the far-right, racist, white supremacist wing of American politics, not least by appointing Stephen Bannon, a leading light in the dark universe of the so-called "Alt Right" movement through the "Breitbart" news web site, to a top position in his campaign. Trump's triumph may, I fear, represent a chilling turning away from the social progress that American had painfully achieved through the civil rights, anti-war, feminist and gay rights movements from the 1960s through 2016, and particularly the advances, limited though they were, of the Obama years.

Going, going, gone: an educated, thoughtful President who cares about minorities, women's rights, the environment.... Gone, a Justice Department that looks into the killing by police of unarmed black people.... Gone, any consideration for the rights of Muslim-Americans.... Gone, the protection from deportation that President Obama had extended to the children of undocumented migrants.... Gone, compassion.... Gone, intelligence.... Gone respect for diversity.... Hello, belligerence, intolerance, crassness and braggadocio, implicit support for racism and xenophobia....Hello government by kleptocracy, Donald and his friends and family grabbing up goodies and making deals to enrich themselves....Hello to America as not the leader of the world but a diminished, puzzling "rogue nation," an erratic kleptocracy....

As a Pagan who sees respect for nature as a core, perhaps THE core spiritual value, I am most pained by the potential damage that will be done to the earth by a new government that scorns the threat of global warming and may withdraw from international agreements like the Paris Climate Treaty.... I will be looking for opportunities to join arms with other like-minded Pagans who support policies of protection for the environment rather than opening the door to all-out exploitation of nature and unrestricted extraction of carbon fuels as seem to be favored by our new president. I wonder how many Pagans will stand up for nature, and how many will instead support Trump because they like his nationalistic, tribalistic tendencies?

I do believe that in a democracy, it is important to allow a newly elected leader and government some time to establish their policies and programs before passing judgment. I just do not have much hope for the next four, or eight, years, based on who Donald Trump has been in the past, his inflammatory and ignorant statements during the campaign, and the kind of extreme right-wing people he is surrounding himself with, from appointing the right-wing, "white nationalist" (translation: racist and white supremacist) Stephen Bannon for the nebulous, and thus potentially extremely powerful because invisible and undefined role of untitled presidential "adviser" to selecting the anti-Muslim, Iran-hating, Michael T. Flynn as National Security Adviser to offering the top job in the Justice Department, that of Attorney General, Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions, a throwback to racist politics of the Old South who has in past expressed more sympathy for the KKK than the American Civil Liberties Union or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the venerable civil rights group. I see growing evidence that Trump was not joking about wanting to undo many actions and policies of the Obama years.

Worse still, as I discuss election results with students and others, I am meeting more and more people who are belligerently pro-Trump and quickly turn to anger when this new American Fuhrer is subjected to any criticism or challenge. I have studied the rise of Fascism and Nazism, and I have to say Trump's supporters scare me, as they remind me of nothing so much as the kind of thugs and bullies that Mussolini and Hitler relied on to cement their grip in power. I fear that Trump is laying the groundwork for a new Fascism of the 21st century.

A train conductor on a route that I often use told me that he feels more hope for America now than he has in 16 years. When I told him that I pretty much felt the opposite, he told me that he knew Trump would win because "he harnessed the most powerful force in America...the pissed-off white guy vote!" When I complained that Trump had no government experience, which to me made it rather unlikely that he could work the miracles that his followers expected, he countered, "Well, what experience did Obama have...beside being black?" Though I would concede that Obama was not the most qualified candidate to ever run for President, he did have some important experience. Barack Obama had worked as a community organizer in poor sections of Chicago, had served as an Illinois State Senator and then a U.S. Senator, and had also taught constitutional law at the college level at one point. My trainman then said, "Maybe Obama did some good things for people on his side....I won't dispute that. But he did nothing for people like me." This despite the fact that Obama had rescued the country from the worst economic crisis in 70 years.

The reaction of this trainman and others that I have spoken to in my largely white, conservative area of New York State, including in my classes, suggest to me that there is a substantial white population in this country who are simmering with rage and varying degrees of animosity toward Muslims, immigrants, blacks, and anyone they see as different from themselves, and who are bursting with energy that Trump will give them a government that will celebrate their identity and uphold their priorities and proclivities, and also their prejudices, racial, religious or of other sorts. My made-in-the 1960s heart that beat proudly for the election of Obama as the necessary and positive breaking of a barrier that I thought would open the way for a country more able to handle racial, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity is now pounding with fear and anxiety about what America is going to be like in the 2010s and 2020s if Trump's backward-looking rhetoric about "making America great again," emphasis on AGAIN, means a rebirth of flagrant racism and white supremacy, as if George Wallace had risen from the grave and won the election. I am truly afraid that he has....

I feel myself a foreigner in this version of America. I actually take some small measure of cold comfort in that, remembering that when I came back to America after living abroad in the past, I always felt some strangeness in returning to "my" country, as being away had broadened me and changed me, and coming "home" did not always feel like "home." I saw myself then and see myself now as somewhat of a foreigner in America, among so many countrymen with such a radically different view of what a healthy and sane society is or should be. With my growing international connections to the Baltic States and elsewhere, I will now keep one eye on the possibility of relocating abroad if the situation here goes from bad to worse, from simmering to burning, from quasi-Fascist rhetoric to brutality in practice, presided over by an erratic, intellectually incoherent, ethically questionable, orange-headed celebrity-buffoon who has indeed accomplished an amazing thing, to convert a country that eight years ago seemed to be heading for a new more inclusive future into a country where a considerable number of people are calling for the building of walls to keep out foreigners, the use of prisons to torture suspected terrorists, and the rounding up of Muslims into 21st century concentration camps. I hope that each of these awful items that I just mentioned never comes to pass....but all of those ideas have been voiced by members or supporters of the Trump team.

I am afraid for my country....and do not think I will live along enough to see the damage likely to be done by this new president undone. I hope I am wrong.

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