This is for those of you who see the words “President-elect Trump” and want to simultaneously cry, throw up, hide under a bed, and punch something as hard as you possibly can.
If you fall into this category, you may feel that the scariest part of this whole nightmare is the 60 million people who voted for Donald Trump, and the fact that you are living among them. It feels like half the people in your country just declared that they hate women, immigrants, Mexicans, people with disabilities, people of color, LBGTQIA+, Muslims, Jews… the list goes on. If you are as privileged as I am, this could have come as a shock. Now, even if you don’t feel like you are physically in danger (as many do), you may be struggling to go about your daily lives imaging that the person behind you in line at the grocery store, the person who lives across the street from you, or even members of your own family are full of such fear and hatred. It makes you angry and scared and really sad.
You should be feeling all those things. Tens of millions of people voted for a man who talked about sexually assaulting women, threatened journalists, suggested war crimes, and invited violence. There is nothing ok about this. But somehow we have to find a way to live and work with (and hopefully change the minds of) the people who elected him, if only for the sake of our own sanity.
Here’s my suggestion.
I want you to imagine you woke up on Wednesday morning in an entirely different country than the United States. (If may already feel like you did.) The Trump supporters in your community are foreigners, and you are trying to understand them as a visitor from another culture.
Cultural integration is a major part of Peace Corps training. Successfully integrating in a new culture doesn’t just mean learning to live with people who eat differently, speak a different language, or celebrate different holidays; sometimes, it means learning to live with people who have opinions or even core values that seem fundamentally opposed to your own.
For instance, I value gender equality and believe women and men can make their own choices about the types of jobs and relationships they want, but here in Paraguay I will probably live and work with people who value traditional gender roles and start rumors if a man and woman are alone together. This makes me uncomfortable, but I do not automatically assume that a Paraguayan who acts or thinks this way is a bad person. After all, I don’t yet fully understand the culture they come from. I look for explanations for behaviors or mind sets that are different from my own. I study Paraguayan history, I observe schools, I talk to people about their life experiences, and I take into account economic and environmental factors they might face. I will still try to change minds with my words and actions, but I am going to first approach everyone in my new community with good will and profound curiosity.
In the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I don’t take the same approach when it comes to people in the U.S. who express bigotry (or who vote for candidates who do).
It’s not just that this particular election goes beyond personal bigotry into the realm of electing a man who sounds awfully like an unhinged facist dictator at times. This kind of situation is not all that unusual worldwide. On Monday, we learned a bit about the history of Paraguay. During the Stroessner dictatorship, people were arrested, tortured, and/or killed for expressing opposition. Yet, if you ask Paraguayans today, a good portion of them will say they preferred the dictatorship to the current democratic system. Stroessner’s Colorado party has won all but one presidential election since the end of the dictatorship in 1989.
On the surface, this seems absurd to someone from the U.S. How could people support an oppressive dictator who murdered their fellow citizens? But even in this case, I do not assume the worst of the people who hold this view. First of all, schools here don’t teach about that period of history. Also, if you talk to someone who expresses nostalgia for the dictatorship, they will talk about safer streets; there may have been curfews and extreme punishments in that time, but now family members are killed by motochorros (armed thieves on motorcycles) if they refuse to part with their belongings. Knowing this doesn’t stop me from wanting to express my own beliefs about the importance of political freedom, but it does allow me to respect and love my Paraguayan neighbors and colleagues despite profound and often confusing differences in opinion.
I think it is easy to forgive (for lack of a better word) others for having seemingly absurd ideas when they come from a different country and culture. I can blame conflicting values on external factors while choosing to assume that at our cores we are all humans motivated by the same needs and emotions. I think in some cases I even excuse too much or don’t hold people to high enough standards because I am afraid to offend or to make judgments as an outsider.
It is much harder to forgive people for absurd beliefs when they seem the same as me on the outside. I see Trump supporters who seemingly share my culture. They live near me, they might come from families in the same socioeconomic class, they went through the same education system I did, they watch the same TV and listen to the same music. It seems they must have had the same basic information I did when making my decision for this election. So how could we have come to such different conclusions? It seems the only factor left that could have lead them to choose Trump is a difference in morality. The difference has to be internal if everything on the surface is the same. Long story short: we seem the same, but I am good and they are bad.
But what if really I am living in the United States of Anna and they are living in the U.S. of Anonymous-Trump-Voter? There are geographic, economic, racial, educational, gender, religion, ability, and sexuality divides in the U.S., and these often coincide with electoral divides. Even when someone fits into all the same demographic boxes as I do, their personal reality may not be mine. Maybe my choice was more “right” than theirs, but that doesn’t mean my reality is more real.
So I am going to try really, really hard (and probably still fail sometimes) to approach each interaction with – or even thought about – a Trumpkin with the understanding that I do not yet understand them. I am going to enter their reality as a curious traveler who has to assume the best of the people I encounter. That’s my job in Paraguay right now, and it’s my job as a human for the rest of my life.
None of this means I have to be ok with the fact that people voted for a president-elect who embodies hate and prejudice and ignorance. Millions made the wrong choice, and I think many of them made that choice for some scary reasons. I believe I am completely justified in wanting to change their minds, to educate and persuade, and to fight as f***ing hard as I possibly can to prevent Trump’s horrific election rhetoric from becoming legal reality. If I were in the U.S. right now, I’d be at those protests. I don’t have to be quiet or polite or respectful in the face of hatred.
But when it comes to the other people involved in this mess, I am going to try to figure out where they are coming from, after I’ve had a few days to mourn and to brainstorm ways to channel anger into productive action. Even when I cannot understand, I still have to live and work with them. At minimum, sharing a space with others just means tolerating them, but as often as possible it should mean loving them or at the very least acknowledging their common humanity.