So here we are, yet again, in 2016, tasked with the responsibility of responding to the unthinkable. A business tycoon turned reality TV star, a notorious womanizer, xenophobe and demagogue, has been elected president of the United States – the first time in the country’s history that someone with no prior experience in government or the military has become commander-in-chief. Pain, confusion, disbelief, panic and fear abound.
We learned this week just how deeply divided the country is – something we should have known, should have realized, a long time ago. The media, the polls, the president could not have been more wrong about the outcome of the election, and more out of touch with a large swathe of the American populace, in particular middle America.
I remember reading the reactions of friends in the UK following Brexit – the shock, the incredulity and disbelief, the “how could this happen?” The stories that ensued about racist and xenophobic attacks on immigrants by those proclaiming that they were “taking their country back;” the lamentations of deep hatred and intolerance that had swept the nation. I remember the explanations – it happened because educated, urban liberals and the ruling elite that had been so certain of victory, so dismissive of the possibility of a Brexit, were out of touch with much of the rest of the country. And I remember, in that moment, the sinking feeling this was foreshadowing what was to come in the United States.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote about this failure to take seriously the example of Brexit, and the grievances of those who felt ignored, mocked, and belittled by the system, in The Intercept this week. He wrote:
The institutions and elite factions that have spent years mocking, maligning, and pillaging large portions of the population — all while compiling their own long record of failure and corruption and destruction — are now shocked that their dictates and decrees go unheeded. But human beings are not going to follow and obey the exact people they most blame for their suffering. They’re going to do exactly the opposite: purposely defy them and try to impose punishment in retaliation. Their instruments for retaliation are Brexit and Trump. Those are their agents, dispatched on a mission of destruction: aimed at a system and culture they regard — not without reason — as rife with corruption and, above all else, contempt for them and their welfare.
After the Brexit vote, I wrote an article comprehensively detailing these dynamics, which I won’t repeat here but hope those interested will read. The title conveys the crux: “Brexit Is Only the Latest Proof of the Insularity and Failure of Western Establishment Institutions.” That analysis was inspired by a short, incredibly insightful, and now more relevant than ever post-Brexit Facebook note by the Los Angeles Times’s Vincent Bevins, who wrote that “both Brexit and Trumpism are the very, very wrong answers to legitimate questions that urban elites have refused to ask for 30 years.” Bevins went on: “Since the 1980s the elites in rich countries have overplayed their hand, taking all the gains for themselves and just covering their ears when anyone else talks, and now they are watching in horror as voters revolt.”
The bubble that so many of us have created around ourselves this election cycle, only seeking out information and people that affirm and share our beliefs, has proven to be quite dangerous, blinding us to the realities of the country we live in – a country that is founded upon violence, exploitation, racism and white supremacy, many of the qualities we now see embodied in the persona of Donald Trump.
As the Native American protesters interviewed in the AJ+ video below indicate, this election has proven that Trump is not an outlier or an anomaly, but a product of the country’s values and history and a reflection of its deepest desires.
And that, even for those who already knew it, is a terrifying realization. I felt numb when the final election results came in. I didn’t cry, I didn’t panic. I felt nothing. Denial, I suppose. Until I started to read the social media statuses of Arab, Muslim, Black and Brown friends, the mothers having to console confused and frightened children, the women questioning if their public safety and security would be further eroded in a country that already celebrates and rewards rape culture. Then the tears came. The fear and sadness and confusion and panic and uncertainty are real and overwhelming, and the burden of these emotions weighs heavily on the shoulders of people of color.
As journalist Shaun King compiles on his Twitter feed accounts of hate crimes, muggings, and vandalism targeting people of color in the days after the election, many in America once again feel alienated and unsafe – like the black community has after every police shooting of an unarmed black person, like the Muslim community has after attacks like Orlando and San Bernardino, like undocumented people have in the face of increased deportation efforts, and as Native American tribes have for the last several hundred years, as they fight for their very survival.
The United States has never been safe for black and brown people, but it will be more honest, more blatant, perhaps less accountable to us now. It has also never been safe for citizens of other countries who are on the receiving end of deadly foreign policies. As my cousin Sara Abdel Ghany, an Egyptian political and human rights activist, wrote on Facebook:
To all my friends, I understand your feelings of heartbreak, sadness, as well as the panic and fear of the future. My timeline has been filled with statuses of friends describing in a variety of ways the apocalyptic moment. You have to forgive me however for not sharing your feelings, my world did not collapse today. It has collapsed many times before, still does, everyday. I have seen my dreams for my country and the region crushed before my eyes. With the support of the Obama administration (with Hillary as Secretary of State), my region has been destroyed with the effective weapons of terrorism and dictatorships, while ironically blaming terrorism and dictatorships on my people. I wonder why a drone system of attacks, used 10 times more by the Obama administration than his predecessor, terrorizing and killing brown people has not terrified people of the world we live in. No, the feeling of helplessness, fear and heartbreak is not new for us.
Maybe this is wakeup call for those who have never had their world collapse before, or have denied its collapse, maybe its a wakeup for all of us, to see things as rotten as they are and fight for what we believe in. Maybe this is not an apocalyptic moment but a revolutionary one.
This week has seen a remarkable display of hatred and racism, but it has also seen a remarkable display of solidarity. In major cities across the country, thousands of people have turned out to protest the policies and ideas that Trump has espoused. Amid the accounts of hate crimes and intimidation, there are still those standing by one another, organizing, planning, and resisting. There are those coming into their political awakening, snapped out of a complacent stupor, feeling a sense of urgency like never before.
So maybe, possibly, this is not the apocalyptic moment we think it is. Maybe, in forcing the United States to confront its darkest truths and rallying people against a clear and common enemy, this country will finally be spurred to drive the change it actually needs.