She and I spoke on one of the days following Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton. What she told me was almost unbelievable — except in this moment when it is all too true.
My friend explained that most of her students were uninterested in politics until they realized what Donald Trump and his policies would do to people like them. Now they are terrified and scared. But there is one student in her class who was happy. He is white and working class. My friend told me how he sits in the corner of the room with apparent contempt on his face whenever the class discusses racism or sexism. During one of the days after Trump’s election he demanded to talk in class about the outcome. But the class was doing something else and my friend asked him to be quiet. This angered him.
He stood up, taking off his belt and then putting it on her desk. Smiling, with a mix of threat and joy, he announced that “We won!” His point was made: This is “his” country — and by extension (at least in his mind) his classroom — now and again. For this angry young white man, America’s natural order of things had been restored with the election of Donald Trump.
There have been many such instances in the days and weeks after Election Day. Unfortunately, a good number have escalated from mere words to serious threats and acts of physical violence. For example, an 8-year-old black child had his arm broken as he tried to defend his 4-year-old sister from white children who taunted and assaulted them.
Mosques have been sent letters saying, “There’s a new sheriff in town – President Donald Trump . . . He’s going to cleanse America and make it shine again. And, he’s going to start with you Muslims.”
Three white men are also now being investigated by police for the killing of a black man — an apparent post-Trump election hate crime in America’s most liberal city.
In total, in the days since Trump’s victory, the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented at least 900 hate crimes against people of color, Muslims, gays, lesbians and others who are marked as the Other in America. Trump’s election is not coincidental to this foul behavior. It is causal.
This post-Trump election outbreak of hate is yet another reminder that the United States is a violent society. Political violence is neither foreign nor strange here; it is part of the nation’s cultural DNA. But even by those standards, this political moment somehow feels different and out of step with the America that elected Barack Obama twice as president and the decades of social and political progress that made his victories possible. Something is very much amiss.
For many white Americans, socialization through the schools and news media aided by the historical myth of American exceptionalism has consigned that history to the memory hole. First Nations people know that America is a country built on violence. African-Americans know that, too. The twin crimes against humanity — genocide and slavery — which lie at the heart of the nation’s founding belie any innocent notions about the country’s essentially benign character.
One would think that the descendants of the poor, white and working-class folks who were slaughtered in mining towns by Pinkerton goons and other agents of the robber barons in the 19th and 20th century America would remember that history, too. Alas, it seems that many of them have either forgotten this pain or had it washed away by the promise of whiteness and the American Dream. Or perhaps those white voters turned that pain in the wrong direction and in an act of political masochism backed Donald Trump.
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In all, politics in America is often made to feel and sound like something distant and sterile — matters for bureaucrats and political candidates to fight about. This is a veneer and a mask. The political is very much the personal, and the decisions of politicians impact our day-to-day lives and futures in a myriad of ways. But Trump did something relatively novel in recent American politics: He was able to take the naked anger and rage of members of his public and successfully direct it at their fellow Americans.