When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I joined many in feelings of disbelief, anger, and fear. Three weeks on, I have seen countless articles, reactions, jokes, arguments, and protests. Many are proclaiming “Not my President” and “We are not this,” a response to the many hateful, racist, misogynistic, and angry statements made by Mr. Trump during his campaign. I understand the denial, the anger, and all of the other feelings expressed by the memes and blogs and social media posts. I also took a long look at who and what we are.
From the very beginning, the United States has been a country deeply divided over some very big issues. Our country’s founders had fundamental disagreements on the division of power—what should be decided by the Federal government, and what should be in the hands of the individual states. We became so divided over slavery that we killed many of our own in a civil war. Even after abolishing slavery, we continued to fight over the rights and fair treatment of African Americans, a fight that continues to this day. We argued over the rights of women, from voting to working to equal pay to the choice to have an abortion; this fight also continues today. We fought over prohibition/the legality of alcohol, and continue to disagree about the legality of marijuana and other drugs and what should be done with/to offenders and addicts.
We have always been a nation that oppressed those who differed from “the norm,” whether by skin color, country of origin, language and culture, or gender and sexuality, or other identity. We have always demonized the most recent immigrants, blaming them for taking jobs from us, hurting the economy, and damaging the social fabric, all while taking advantage of the products they made, the services they provided, and the infrastructure they built.
Every older generation has criticized every younger generation for a moral depravity, a poor work ethic, disregard for authority, and moving society in the wrong direction. Every younger generation has rebelled against every older generation for being too rigid, too closed-minded, too institutionalized, too resistant to change, too blind to the problems that the older generation created.
We have always denied scientific truths, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, when it tells us things that we don’t want to hear. We knew for decades that smoking causes cancer before we finally passed laws limiting tobacco advertising and outlawing smoking in public places. We had solid evidence for the toxicity of lead in the 19th century, yet it took us until the 1980’s to finally begin removing it from paint and gasoline, and even longer to eliminate it from electronics; it is still used extensively in vehicle batteries. For many years, we have had clear and irrefutable evidence that our burning of fossil fuels is causing global warming, leading to more extreme weather patterns and mass extinctions, yet we have taken only small steps to reduce our carbon use, and fights over environmental regulations are as vigorous as ever. From vaccines to evolution to the age of the universe, we often turn away from scientific evidence and argue over opinions as though they were facts.
When we look at our history, definite patterns emerge, and they lead me to an clear conclusion: America, we are this. No, I don’t mean that every one of us is a racist or an oppressor or a generational stereotype or an anti-scientist. What I mean is that we have always been a people who are quick to anger and prepared to lash out against others with hostility and malicious intent. We look expectantly for a fight, and often find one. We tend strongly towards knee-jerk reactions rather than considered responses. We jump to conclusions and spring into often destructive, counterproductive action whenever we feel threatened, worried, or afraid. Our actions demonstrate that, no matter what we may claim, our highest value is self-preservation—often the preservation of nothing more than an idea of what we were or what we should be.
Yes, America, the way we are elected Donald Trump as our next president. I won’t say that he is the President that we “deserve.” But he is a reflection of who we are. And that points to our way forward, our way towards becoming something better. President Elect Trump serves as a mirror for our own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. When he denies a truth that is obvious to you, take a look and see where you are in denial of reality. When he lies or makes up some utter nonsense, take a look and see where and how you deceive others, or deceive yourself. When he strikes out with a hateful comment against someone who has criticized him, take a look and see how you attack others with anger and hatred, in both blatant and subtle ways.
It has never been more clear to me that if we want to change the course of the country, we need to change the conditions that led us to where we are. Those conditions are deeply ingrained in every one of us. To change the conditions that led to a Trump presidency, we need to take a hard look at ourselves, and we need to change ourselves. Stop seeing everything as a disagreement and a reason to fight. Stop demonizing “them” or “others”—those with different political affiliations, those with different lifestyles or perspectives or worldviews. Even those who promote hatred and dangerous ideas. Even Donald Trump. Stop lashing out with vitriol and name-calling. Even more importantly, look at the motivations behind your actions. Get to know your fears. Sit with them and allow yourself to feel them. Do the same with your desires, your hatred, your sadness, your deepest longing. Find what it is that you care about most. Learn to respond from caring rather than reacting out of anger and fear.
We need to be able to act in ways that are constructive and unifying rather than obstructive and divisive. In order to do this, we need to recognize and accept who we are now, and welcome the challenge of changing ourselves into the individuals and society we want to be. We have given ourselves—consciously or otherwise—the awesome opportunity to look at and understand who we are by observing those whom we have put into power, and recognizing that their attitudes and actions are a reflection of our own. You may not like what you see. Watch anyway, sit with who you are, and discover who you can become.