Voting as an act of violence

How do you expect me to explain that this was a vote for ‘those left behind’ to all the LGBT youth, minority youth and young people from marginalized communities that I help counsel and mentor in New York?

Mohammed Fairouz
26 November 2016
Anti-Trump protest, Baltimore. Flickr/Elvert Barnes. Some rights reserved.

Anti-Trump protest, Baltimore. Flickr/Elvert Barnes. Some rights reserved.New York City is a diverse community in which one of my weekly highlights is volunteering to counsel and mentor LGBT and minority youth, with a view to helping them overcome past bullying and redevelop self-esteem. For every one of us who has helped a young person overcome the effects of bullying and denigration, we suffered a setback with Donald Trump’s electoral win.

Over the course of her campaign, Hillary Clinton referred to my generation as “the most tolerant and generous young people we’ve ever had.” The urban generation that I see around me is defined by some key traits. Our values are transnational and intercontinental. Our identity is fluid. We are witnessing a new form of global integration actively take shape. The occasional shocks caused by nativist-driven victories actually seem to lead to a quickening of the process of urban integration. Cities from London to Dubai and New York to Shanghai are becoming increasingly interlinked in trade, transportation, and infrastructure. Above all, as interactions between global centres increase, we are interlinked in values.

These values define us as cosmopolitan children. Many of us are multi-lingual, we believe in science, and we advocate art. Our credo is curiosity. For many of us, the first Obama campaign was the first election we became involved with. We saw in him a mirror of the post-racial America that we experienced on a day-to-day basis, from our global cities to our college towns.

We discuss sexuality and creativity as liberated and flexible. We’ve replaced the politics of shame with a dialogue of pride. We prefer the temperance of diplomacy and statecraft to the march of war. Many of us do business globally on a daily basis and understand implicitly that trade is international. From musical commissions in Amsterdam to shooting a film in Tunisia, we need each other. And we need our planet too: we see the United States’ ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement as existentially important to our future. Many of us see the vision of a zero carbon future and follow experiments like Masdar City with optimism. We look up at the International Space Station and look forward to the new frontier with hope. 

But I’ve come to realize that, despite the fact that this vision is bright to me, it frightens many people in this country. As a composer, my performances take me on travels to new places several times a month, and every month of the year. Traveling within the US meant realizing, at a young age, that whether in a big city or a small town, my artistic enterprise meant that I would likely land in a bubble. Even in the reddest states I could safely bet that I’d end up on a blue dot, without having to consult a county by county map.

Wherever I would go, though, I’d always venture out into a less urbanized (usually red) zone. These territories are also bubbles, but they feel different. There’s often a sense of isolation in uneasy small towns, and a sense that their bubble is on the brink of rupture. This was true in a diverse array of relatively affluent places from suburbs in Wisconsin to towns in Indiana and villages in Alabama.

And yes, it was also the case in some towns that once provided steel to build so much of the nation’s infrastructure and coal to keep the country moving. Some of these places had lost their manufacturing jobs (to automation, not trade deals) while in other places, coal workers who had lost their jobs to cheap natural gas believed that a man who promoted more fracking of gas would send them back to the coal mines. But affluent or not, there was more going on in these myriad places and among these many (overwhelmingly white) demographics than a concern with jobs, the economy or (even less) trade deals. Their feelings that their industries collapsed were wrapped up in a wreath of nostalgia. This was about race and class. The concerns of economically marginalized communities of colour didn't factor. The “collapse of industries” could be read as the racist sentiment that it is: the loss of ‘our way of life to the coloured other who are stealing our country from us.’ This was naturally followed by the desire to ‘take our country back.’

But the myth of economically desperate Trump supporters goes back to the primaries, and even while it was being propagated, Nate Silver calculated their median household income at $72,000, decisively higher than the national median household income. Dylan Matthews also details more recently how Trump’s tax cuts would harm white working-class families in addition to harming the middle class and pushing the poor into a probable future of extreme poverty, while here he lists policies advanced by Hillary Clinton that would offer plans to help struggling Americans of all races.

There was something else going on in those towns. People made less eye contact with me than I was used to; they were uncomfortable and awkward in their body language with me in a way that they just weren’t when I saw them speak with ‘their own’ in the general vicinity. It wasn't until I got into serious, long conversations with them that they realized I wasn't really a threat to their life and that millions of people who looked and acted like me were not going to overrun Wyoming or Oklahoma. Misperceptions that were rampant at the start of conversations dissipated slightly by the end.

This was not about money. It was about who I was. So in the immediate aftermath of the election, I lay uneasily in my bed thinking about the young people I give counseling to, and especially whether the work I did for those who were horrifically bullied in their teens, and who are only now starting to rediscover their sense of self-worth, would be set back by an eruption of hate. At dawn I managed a short nap, only to see the sun rise on a country that was about to explode in a surge of hate crimes. A few days later, as I counseled visibly shaken young people as well as friends and colleagues alike, the ‘economic anxiety’ origin story for the Trump voter came back with a vengeance. I could not help but think of what Sarah Lerner articulated so clearly: “…stop telling underrepresented groups to be compassionate toward those who support a candidate that wants to strip our rights away.”

The fact is that every single one of the tens of millions of people who cast their vote for Donald Trump were either actively endorsing a repulsively bigoted and misogynistic candidate, or they were simply willing to overlook this. Perhaps they were irresponsibly ignorant of their candidate’s rhetoric, and did not bother to find out how incendiary and destructive it really was. But if there was one topic that was covered in the press, on TV, in social media and discussed every hour of every day ad nauseam for well over a year, it was Trump’s crudely tribalistic movement and the totems that defined it. The pictures of Barack Obama photo-shopped in blackface, the misogynistic and crude chants of “lock her up” and t-shirts that read “trump that bitch” were not only a signature of Trump rallies; they were a feature of the Republican National Convention itself. It did not take much to notice it.

All of the options above are morally reprehensible and inexcusable even if you are feeling financially vulnerable, and no matter how hard you're hurting. Everybody who made those decisions and insist that they were not driven by hate, would do well to explain why they used their vote in this way. They should compel themselves to look at all the countless reports of violent hate crimes that have exploded across the country in the wake of their candidate’s election and read them. They should be ready to explain their decision to the children who are affected by the sorts of incidents outlined in the countless letters obtained by the media from school principals and teachers detailing instances of post-election abuse and bullying.

And as the language of hate naturally translates into crimes of hate, those who have a conscience will have to atone for every precious ounce of human blood spilled as the result of faction and every human life claimed in the name of division. This is voting as an act of violence. If they can still look, see and examine the effects of their candidates rhetoric and condone the terror that it has wrought in communities across America, they must live with themselves for the rest of their lives.

Donald Trump has distinguished himself with language that has been simultaneously destructive but also vague enough to be open to endless interpretation. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius even argued that Clinton’s attacks on Trump may have made his supporters defensive. But rather than submit to psychological analyses of why people with racist or misogynistic attitudes feel defensive of strains in their own latent feelings of victimhood, when a bankrupt presidential candidate is being attacked, why not consider how we can correct these behaviours?  

One thing I'm certain of is this: psychoanalyzing childish defense mechanisms means less than nothing to the many millions of patriotic Americans who are now living in abject terror at the violent forces that have been unleashed so vividly in our own home. 

In the days to come, the language will likely continue to be as combustible. Many of the statements and actions (such as the simultaneous appointment of Preibus and Bannon) will send mixed messages. This is likely purposeful as engendering endless ‘what could he mean’ debates about language and appointments gives the authoritarian leader more power, since it draws our focus towards the messages that he is sending us rather than what he is actually doing. This is all the more reason to be observant.

To the young men and women whom I mentor, and to all those in our communities who are afraid and uncertain: we will stand together. Never forget that there are tens of millions of people who are with you every step of the way and, if the popular vote is an indication, we are the majority. We will never be a silenced majority. We will speak up wherever we find injustice. Reach out to one another and be strong for one another. We will get through this by being closer to each other than before.

And for those who seek to normalize extremist thought or intimidate our communities: I will not salute the president-elect nor will I ‘do the right thing’ by wishing him success. If you stand for or condone through inactivity (that second category will apply to many more than the first) acts of bigotry, I will fight you. If you stand for or condone acts of violence against our environment, I will fight you. Until the president-elect takes serious action to build a reality where wishing him success and wishing the United States of America success are not two mutually exclusive things, I will not wish him success, and I will fight all those who do. 

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