January 23, 2017

Missed connections: What wasn’t said in Washington this weekend

Ali Michael

Our train pulled into Union Station on the day before the Women’s March and I emerged onto the platform with hundreds of women who were united with a common purpose.  The female conductor bid us farewell us saying, “Good luck, ladies!  Be careful out there.” Women—mostly White women, but not entirely—packed the platform with their signs and suitcases and pink knitted pussy hats.  We walked the 200 feet into Union Station, where our giddy chatter stopped.  The station was full of Trump supporters in blue Trump inauguration hats, red “Make America Great” hats, and inaugural scarves (all of which were made in China).

While we were 90% women, they were probably 90% men, but not entirely; there were families too, with a man, a woman, a son.  But not many.  I didn’t see any large groups of women there to support Trump, which is interesting given that 54% of White women voted for him.  It was so surprising to find them there, even though of course we should have expected it.  Somehow I had imagined that in taking Washington by storm, we’d have it all to ourselves.  But the instant I saw them it occurred to me that this moment had been pre-ordained.  We were bound to meet. We actually live among one another.  We share one country.  But that day, 5:30pm on Inauguration Day, our paths were bound to cross in explicit ways.  They were headed home and we were here to protest.  They seemed just as surprised to see us as we were to see them.

I walked past them, not angrily, but with curiosity.  I longed to stop and talk.  I wanted to know why they were here, what they were about, what they thought of all of us.  I wanted to connect.  It seemed like a massive missed opportunity for all of us to be in one place, so literally wearing our political orientations, if not exactly our affiliations, on our sleeves.  I wanted a StoryCorps booth that I could duck into with one outgoing stranger who I could share my story with, and who could share their story with me.

I mentioned this desire later, to some of the White women in line for metro cards with me, to friends I met along the way at the march, to everyone I saw while in Washington, really.  And more than half the time, my suggestion was met with general outrage at the mere proposition.  The women I spoke with were so angry with Trump supporters, have felt so violated by his election, that they could not imagine talking to someone who supported him—and still supports him.  One woman, who identifies as White, bisexual, Jewish, feminist, progressive, said to me, “The only thing I would be able to think to say is, “Why do you hate me so much?””

The rage—which is really hurt—is so real.  I can remember on the day of the election, women were coming out of the woodwork to post on Facebook stories of their sexual assaults that they had never shared publicly.  And they were doing so because they felt their vote for Hillary Clinton—and Hillary’s expected victory—was a direct counterattack to Donald Trump and all men everywhere who felt they could touch a woman without her consent.  And the announcement of his bizarre alignment of electoral votes that added up to just enough for a victory, felt like a victory for all those men whose vile actions were being exposed via Facebook on that day.  And these White women in Washington weren’t just angry about the sexism.  They were angry about the Islamaphobia, the transphobia, the homophobia, the racism, the xenophobia.  They were angry at all the hate that seemed to win that day, that seemed to be laughing at us while we lay on the floor, vulnerable and hurt.

I don’t feel this rage at Trump supporters.  I don’t know why.  You feel what you feel, and my rage does not come out with people on the street.  Almost all of my rage is directed at Trump and the people around him who could be calling his bluff, and who aren’t. My rage is with politicians who are siding with him, or who aren’t standing up to him.  The way I see it, his supporters have been conned by the greatest conman alive.  I feel sorry for them.  I feel affinity with them—as one of the American people who has been manipulated and conned and lied to. I feel sorry for them because they are barely surviving on a subsistence diet of “alternative facts,” one that makes it so much harder to see the world clearly.  And were it not for the education my race and class privilege afforded me in high school and beyond, I’d be in the same place.  And it’s a lonely place they occupy—one of fear, defensiveness, and hate.

But my desire to connect with them doesn’t come from pity or empathy.  It is almost entirely a by-product of paranoid self-interest.  To be perfectly honest, I’m afraid of civil war.  I’m aware that we live with an extremely well-armed radical right that believes so fervently in its rightness (you would too if you had access to the same “alternative facts” they consume) they would be willing to use violence to defend their cause.  This is what civil war looked like in the former Yugoslavia.  There are accounts of neighbors who had lived side by side peacefully for more than 20 years, who were raped and executed by their neighbors.  That is the kind of thing that happens during civil war.

Let’s say we experience a major trauma event as a nation. Perhaps something akin to 9/11 or a major weather disaster.  If you look at the numbers of protestors we had on Saturday, it’s clear there will not be popular support for whatever Trump does in response to anything, basically—not just because we don’t like him, but because his go-to response is one that is usually guided by transparent self-interest, and those of us who are disinclined to believe him will not go along with it. Those who are already on his side will go along with it.  And they will feel righteous indignation that we do not.  And in the meantime, they are well-armed (generally).  We have pussy hats.

I’m not saying that I want to be well-armed.  I’m saying I want to be better understood when the time comes.  I do not feel safe.  It does not make me feel safe to march in the streets with like-minded people.  It makes me feel powerful. It makes me feel less alone. It makes me feel momentarily happy and hopeful.  But I will not feel safe until I feel like there is a common basis for understanding between “us” and “them.”  I will not feel safe until we begin to bridge this divide.

Part of what was so devastating about the election results, was that I was so sure Trump would be demolished.  I was sure that his followers were a tiny minority of the overall country (and in reality they were, but they were in just the right places at just the right time to just barely outnumber us).  It seemed SO OBVIOUS to me that he was a conman, a liar, narcissist, that he literally had no capacity for empathy or connection. I just assumed he was losing votes left and right, and that his defeat would be so humiliating he would be devastated.  On November 9th, I was faced with the question of, “What don’t I understand about my country that this could happen?”

I struggled internally with the realization of this gulf of understanding, and I took to heart the need to reach out to people who are different from me to try to understand them.  I even started a listening project with a Trump supporter who had written to me to appreciate my blog.  He would talk for 15 min, then I would talk for 15 min.  We didn’t try to convince one another; we just wanted to understand each other.  And it was cathartic, in the same bizarre way that sharing your feelings can feel cathartic, even though it doesn’t fix the problem.  Trump supporters suddenly had a name—Bill.  And they had a face, or at least a voice.  And it was a human voice.  Our conversations began to humanize the “them” I had been so afraid of.

In the weeks since that time, as we watch Trump roll back on his promises, admit that many aspects of his campaign agenda (“Lock her up”) were just for show, that most of the things he accused Hillary of are things that he has done too, to a much more severe degree, I have gone back to my pre-election stance of believing that it is SO OBVIOUS that he is not to be trusted, that public opinion will inevitably be stacked against him.  But I think this is a delusion, just as I was deluded about the circumstances that enabled him to get here in the first place.

He still has an approval rating of 35%.  And as low as that is, that is 35% of our country who does not think this is SO OBVIOUS.  And there are entire cultural norms coalescing around “pro-Trump” vs. “anti-Trump” stances.  It has reached the point where it doesn’t even matter what Trump does, if he’s your guy, you’re sticking with him through and through.  And seeing the other side rage against it likely only foments one’s commitment.  It’s like watching football.  Seeing the other guy’s team lose, rage against the ump, accuse the league of being rigged, etc., doesn’t make the winning team feel remorse.  It makes them gloat.  We are on opposite teams.

We cannot continue to be on opposite teams.  I think we need to listen to each other.  And to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what happens after that.  First, you listen.  Then, you share your own story and why you stand where you stand. I don’t think the goal is to change each other’s views.  No one will be open to being changed by someone with whom they have no connection.  The first step is to connect.  Let’s face it, Trump or not-Trump is not much of a vision. “Not Trump” is frankly, not the hill I want to die on.  We need to be able to think beyond these limited categories that dehumanize and minimize all of us, and to do so requires understanding each other better.

I’m not going to say that I think people of color should do this.  Or Muslims.  Or immigrants.  Or gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.  Or people living with a disability.  I don’t even think White women should have to do this with White men who supported Trump.  It’s a lot to ask people to confront—and understand—people who, by virtue of giving so much power to someone who represents their aggressor, start to become their aggressor.  But White straight men against Trump need to be bold enough to have conversations with White straight men for Trump.  And White women against Trump, we’ve got 54% of White women who supported Trump.  That’s a little more than a one to one ratio of against vs. for.  We all need to take one White woman Trump supporter and start to build a bridge.

That’s not to say that people from targeted groups can’t do this.  Most oppressed people already do this—they are forced to do this—because they don’t have to write their identity on a sign to make it clear who they are; they wear it on their bodies every day as they move about the world, in Union Station and elsewhere. But White straight women and White straight men who are “anti-Trump” blend into this giant mass of White people until we write our hearts on our signs and pull our pussy hats over our heads.  And for that reason it is not okay for us to allow this gap to widen.  It is an abuse of privilege–and the safety that comes with it–to allow our rage to keep us from building this bridge.

After the Women’s March, I walked back to Union Station with a like-minded compatriot—a 60 something Black woman from D.C. who I had just met.  We agreed on everything we talked about, and had a great conversation.  When I expressed my views to her, I felt so righteous, so supported, so clear.  Within minutes of saying good bye to her, I took my seat on the train in front of a White man and White woman who had clearly attended inaugural balls the night before.  I listened to them talk about the ball and the inauguration, and criticize the immaturity of the marchers.  I wanted to channel all of my righteousness that I had access to only moments before, and say something.  I wanted to turn around and tell them why I marched.  I wanted to throttle them.  I was sitting there in my Amtrak seat full of rage—at Trump supporters—or so I thought. But I said nothing.

As I look back on that moment, I can see that my rage wasn’t at them.  It was at me.  It was at my inability to do something that would start a conversation.  Rage against a stranger is not a place to start a conversation, which is why I stayed silent.  And because I could do nothing but rage, I did not connect.  If I had, perhaps, they might think differently  about the marchers going forward–and when they thought about all those people and groups who we were marching for–they would have a name—Ali.  And a face.  And a voice.

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