Dear White Liberals, Trump is On Us

We can talk at length, and I’m sure we will, about Donald Trump and the legacy of his victory.  But this isn’t really about Trump or how we should or shouldn’t react to his presidency. This is about the role white Americans who voted against Trump played in the election last Tuesday. More specifically, it’s about the role that one white American played in the election last Tuesday. Me. I know that there will be people who look at this and wonder why I’ve made it about race.  But the thing is that I think my whiteness is extraordinarily relevant to recent events and I think that other people’s whiteness is important as well.

White people played a unique role in the election of Donald Trump, and that role is important to acknowledge. In virtually every demographic, more white people supported Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton.  In no demographic did people of color do the same.  I know that I, as a white person, repeatedly failed throughout this campaign to reach out to people I knew or thought would vote for Donald Trump, despite personally believing that a President Trump was potentially dangerous.  I know that every one of those potential Trump supporters, without exception, was white.  I also know that the most self righteous responses to election results I have seen have come from white people who did not vote for Trump, yet often seem to perceive responsibility for the election as laying with other Americans who have now “ruined” our country. This is a narrative I would find very comforting, and in many ways is honestly my first response to our election. But it is not one I can adopt, because the closer I look at this past election the clearer it is to me that I am responsible for its results.

What happened was this.

When my family attacked Hillary Clinton at the dinner table, I became too enraged to be coherent or useful. I believed strongly in Secretary Clinton and I found their arguments poorly made and ill founded. They were so clearly wrong I could not refute them. I experienced similar levels of rage and incoherence when they mentioned Donald Trump.

What happened was this.

When I finally wrote my Republican grandmother a letter explaining why I felt that she should not vote for Trump, I put it in the recycling instead of the mail.  I felt guilty I didn’t call her more often.  I didn’t want her to feel attacked or like I wasn’t invested in her as a person. Besides, my grandmother lived in Texas. I told myself that a blue Texas was inspiring, but both unlikely and unnecessary.

What happened was this.

When I was hanging up the phone with him, a family member reminded me to vote. I told him I already had. I did not ask who he was voting for. I do not think it was Clinton.

What happened was this.

I texted my brother asking if he could be the one to try and convince my uncle to vote for Hillary Clinton, he never responded. I never followed up.

What happened was this.

I knew that one of my friend’s parents were conservative and would likely vote for Trump. I imagined asking her about it several times. I never did.

What happened was this.

In the week before the election, I called my mother and asked if she had talked to one of her conservative friends about voting.  She said that she would talk to them if she thought it would make a difference, but saw little point in jeopardizing the friendship needlessly. I agreed with her. At some point we had both reached a place where we didn’t believe we could change hearts and minds and that honest political conversation could destroy a friendship.

What happened was this.

As the votes came in on election night, I heard a white guy I know and like say that the only thing he agreed with Donald Trump on was his immigration policy. I thought of the students I work with over the summer, mostly immigrants or the children of immigrants, and said nothing. I was too outraged to speak, but also too uncertain. I felt that anything I said as a white person would likely be racist, or mistaken, or exploitative.  And I was right that my response would likely have been problematic. But then what exactly was my silence?

What happened was this.

After the election, I spent hours trying to get myself to go to dinner with one of my Trump supporting friends.  I know if Hillary had won, I would have had no problem sitting down with her.  I had never spoken to her about her choice in presidential candidate. I had sometimes made jokes about Trump that she generally chose to ignore.

What happened was this.

After the election, thousands of white people around the country sent out mean and nasty texts and facebook posts to people they knew had voted for Trump. It seems likely they had never tried to have a real conversation with them before the election. I wonder what they would have done if Hillary had won.

What happened was this.

After the election, thousands of anti-Trump white people took to social media and sometimes to the streets to talk about how “they” had ruined are country.  About how “they” were racist and insensitive, about how “they” did not care about the suffering of others.  Never mind that in many cases these were people we lived and worked with. Never mind that we had turned down literally thousands of opportunities to begin a conversation.

What happened was this.

White Clinton supporters and white anti-Trump people allowed ourselves to become both angry and complacent.  Outraged and self righteous.  I know because I was one of them. For over a year, I either ignored my conservative friends and family’s political beliefs, or entered into conversations only interested in doing battle. I didn’t want to build a consensus, I wanted to score points. I wanted to prove to myself and to everyone else how wrong they were. I don’t think that necessarily came from a bad place. I do still genuinely believe that many of the beliefs held by my conservative friends and family are not only wrong but genuinely damaging and have a real and lasting impact on people within this country. But I still passed up opportunities. And if I’m being honest with myself I didn’t have one real conversation about Trump with someone who disagreed with me, not in a campaign that lasted over a year.

Here’s the truth.

If I had spent the last four years respectfully and honestly talking to my Republican grandmother about politics, I could have convinced her not to vote for Trump. I’m not sure that she would have voted for Hillary, but if I had spent the last four years having real conversations I could have convinced her to see the value in abstaining, or voting for Gary Johnson, or maybe writing in Reagan. Something.  I’m not sure I could have convinced every conservative in my life not to vote for Trump, I’m fairly certain I couldn’t have. But I didn’t even try, and that’s on me.

Here’s the truth.

If every Trump opposed white American had convinced even one Trump supporting friend or family member not to vote for him, Trump would have lost in a landslide. And we all could have done it.  We couldn’t have all gotten a Hillary vote. But if we had honestly and intentionally had respectful and earnest conversations with the Trump voters in our lives, we could have convinced at least one to vote for Gary Johnson, or write in Jeb Bush, or abstain.  And that would have been more than enough.  White liberals had an enormous privilege and an enormous responsibility, and for the most part, we wasted it.

Here’s the truth.

Trump is on me. Trump is on those like me.  Regardless of how the next four years play out, whether it is everything some people hope or everything some people fear, there remains a sizeable amount of this country that had the opportunity to engage in genuine political work and genuine political discussion and chose not to.  And that is a problem for everyone.  One thing that has becoming abundantly clear over the course of the last several years is that Americans are working from vastly different bases of knowledge and information.  And that means that as long as we aren’t talking to each other, genuinely talking and listening, huge portions of our country are not getting all of the information. And that is not something that this country can afford.  It is not something we can afford in this moment, it is not something our children can afford as we create the country they will inherit, and it is not something the rest of the world can afford to deal with either. We all have to do better at talking to each other.  Too many of us are failing, and this past election cycle white liberals failed hard.

Citizenship is work. It is about voting, but it is also about more. Regardless of our political beliefs, we have a responsibility to work hard for the good of our nation and all of its citizens. A lot of us need to do better.  I know for sure that I do.

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