Reckoning with responsibility in Trump’s North America

I feel a bit strange writing this kind of an article. A quick glance through this website will tell you all you need to know about my main interests and areas of expertise. The typical Max Berger piece is sincere and (I’d like to think) insightful, sure; but my chosen subject matter derives almost exclusively from the realms of sports and entertainment culture—purposeful matters, no doubt, but hardly indicative of our society’s most vital concerns.

The only thing I’ve ever written about Donald Trump was a brief commentary on his influence in a South Park season that I reviewed last year. I haven’t even taken a stab at something with a predominantly political focus since my university days (I can’t bring myself to count my House of Cards Season 4 recap as political, though the show’s sensationalist portrayal of American government has become disturbingly akin to certain outlets’ coverage of this most recent election cycle).

It’s not as if politics and current affairs don’t interest me. I’ve always kept up broadly with the news; however when I do so, it’s usually only after I’ve already mined my familiar roster of Internet content hubs for the day’s latest—you guessed it—sports and entertainment thinkpieces. I like to know what’s going on in the political world (and appreciate that we have an obligation as democratic participants to stay informed)—just not quite as much as I like scarfing down nuanced takes on far-less-important affairs.

That tendency directly correlates with my disposition. I gravitate towards the lighter side of life, sometimes at the expense of giving darker realities the thought and consideration they deserve from someone in such a privileged position. To do so I need to be prompted; to feel threatened, or at least recognize that a threat is endangering others in my life.

And that is exactly what Donald Trump has made me do.

As a Canadian—particularly as a white, male one—I am not in the president elect’s direct line of fire. By any reasonable estimate, the executive power Trump now wields should not compromise my personal safety in any tangible way.

But when it comes to Trump, we must throw reasonable estimates out the window. That became overwhlemingly clear on Election Day, when he capped off the most inconceivable campaign in US history with a mind-boggling victory. Yes, he defied the polling ‘experts,’ but more than anything, he defied the collective belief that his opposition had been clinging to since the moment his candidacy became more than just an egotistical pig’s pipe dream: that he could actually pull this off.

To get to where he did, Trump played up his outsider status and rewrote the book of conventional political wisdom. He bullied his way past challengers as if they were Apprentice contestants; he used demagogic tactics to openly attack minorities and ramp up white nationalistic support; he was unabashedly sexist and misogynistic, proven to be irrefutably guilty of verbal sexual harassment (and very well may have previously committed numerous counts of sexual assault as well); he lied brazenly, poisoning the minds of voters who either ignored or disregarded the truths presented by diligent fact-checkers. And this was during his job interview, the time in which he was supposed to act like his most appealing and qualified self.

And in the end, none of it mattered. He was exposed as a repugnant scumbag in virtually every way, and yet, he still got the votes he needed to take office.

Trump is not the first presidential candidate to harbour dishonourable beliefs, nor is he the first to act on them; but he threatens to undo so much of the social progress that has been achieved in modern times. Even without a presidential victory, he would already have empowered millions of citizens to continue spewing his hateful rhetoric and praising his flawed vision. Having reached that crucial electoral checkpoint—the point of no return—he guides the American experiment into dangerously uncharted waters, poised to create massive tidal waves that could come crashing down on the rest of the world in myriad ways.

The most frightening thing about Donald Trump right now—and there are so many to choose from—is that we have no idea what he is capable of doing. For the past 17 months, he has been the antithesis of stability, a loose cannon resorting to pettiness at every turn and holding himself to an optional standard when it comes to rules and tastefulness. He has shown that he will go to disgusting lengths to protect his gargantuan but fragile ego, and there’s no reason to believe that he will put his country before himself when push comes to shove (this may come as a sobering shock to the hordes of voters who hinged their country’s economic prospects on an exorbitantly wealthy man who won’t release his taxes).

Not all of his supporters are necessarily bigoted individuals, but those who are have been undeniably emboldened by the regressiveness of his campaign. It’s no coincidence that he’s been endorsed by KKK leaders and celebrated by Neo-Nazis. Anyone who discriminates based on religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation stands to benefit from the types of policies that Trump and his monster of a right-hand man Mike Pence have indicated they will introduce.

Like so many people around the world, my blood has been boiling ever since Tuesday’s shocking results came in. Unlike many of them though, I had not truly prepared myself for what transpired. Did I acknowledge the sickening fact that Trump might win? In a basic sense, yes; but I was too blinded by pollster certainty and shaky assumptions to really take it seriously. For months I half-heartedly followed what I knew would be a momentous election, underestimating the implications of a Trump victory on the uncertain grounds that it just seemed too crazy to actually happen.

Perhaps this is because I’m lucky enough to have never come close to experiencing the effects of real oppression. Accounts of hate crimes, discriminatory laws, and genocides have always been on my radar, but never have they come close enough to penetrating my bubble of privilege for me to truly take meaningful action against them. But on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, I watched America elect a demagogue whose rise to power is fraught with elements that defined the stories of fascist dictators. I am in no way implying that Trump will bear the kind of legacy that men like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini carved out for themselves, but the fact that we can even make these parallels is devastating enough.

Within 48 hours of Trump being declared president-elect, instances of minority harassment and hate crimes exploded all around the US. During his campaign Trump started capitalizing on the hateful rhetoric that his most shameful supporters had been spreading all along. His victory has emboldened them in ways that no modern American president ever has. Unless Trump comes out soon and denounces their crimes, he will be condoning the type of behaviour that anyone with a shred of moral dignity would condemn.

I want to believe that this non-coincidental spike in atrocities will fizzle out, that the cat will go back into the bag, I really do. But as this entire process has taught us, the Trump effect is too dangerous to be underestimated. His movement now has irrevocable legitimacy. The question is no longer ‘How soon until this fiend goes away?’ but rather, ‘How much can we mitigate the social and political damage he will inevitably do from the White House?’ Because even if he accomplishes a fraction of the positive economic results he has promised, the quality of life for millions of immigrants and minorities has already been decimated as a result of his taking office, and it will only continue to do so once he actually receives the keys to the kingdom and gets his hands on real policies.

There is so much at stake right now. There has been for months. I wish that I was less apathetic about these types of issues and had fully invested myself sooner, but there’s no going back. There is only a gaping hole to escape from. To do nothing at this point is to be complicit in any escalation of injustices that Trump directly or indirectly incites.

I write that as a Canadian living outside the federal boundaries of Trump’s freshly-won nation. There’s no point in pretending that this border demarcation resolves us of the responsibility to respond to what’s going on south of it. Maybe in theory but certainly not in practice. When America has problems like this, they are our problems and the rest of the world’s problems as well.

So that raises the all-important question: what must be done? As the straight, white, male, Canadian, sports/entertainment junkie that I am, I’m hardly an authority on that front. But just from reading and listening to what smarter, better informed individuals have put out there, I’m forming a starting point.

The first step is to do exactly what I’ve already chided myself repeatedly for not doing a better job of so far: being proactively engaged in political affairs. I’ve been profoundly lucky enough to be in a society and situation where I can afford to prioritize reading about fun topics and procrastinate on keeping up with the political landscape. Liberal democracy has served me well. However, having dessert before dinner is simply no longer an option. And it goes beyond just following the news. Now more than ever is a time to look for ways to actively participate in the system. To help influence policy, yes; but above all, to put pressure on either those in power or those seeking it to, at the very least, promote basic human rights and decency. Otherwise I have no place criticizing that system when I become dissatisfied (or disgusted, as so many Americans—on both sides of the great divide—are right now).

As for the news though, supporting high-quality journalism is imperative. For years the Internet has been eroding away at the already-shaky feasibility of great publications to exist and thrive (I don’t pay for content, I’m very much a part of the problem). But journalism is too vital to be limping around at this juncture in history. Already Trump has started shutting the media—which he vilified throughout his campaign—out of his presidency. Decrying unfavourable media is one of his most dangerous authoritarian tendencies and it must be curbed. I recognize that media bias and oversight were legitimate issues during this election, but lessons have been learned, and there are still great publications out there with integrity and a genuine commitment to providing real journalism—not clickbait fodder or propaganda. I will begin subscribing to the outlets that produce the well-reported and uncorrupted writing I need to read, because it is time to stop devaluing the critical work they do.

Speaking of financial support, I will give what I can to good organizations that are suddenly in dire need of monetary resources if they are to continue providing quality services to marginalized and underprivileged groups; organizations that support people of colour, women facing difficult challenges, LGBTQ individuals, etc. These types of organizations have and will be under attack from Trump. White people voted for him because they feared for their economic prospects; everyone else voted against him because they feared for their lives and well-being. The fact that this was a potential consequence of any candidate coming into power in America was despicable. These vulnerable populations need to be strengthened and their voices need to be heard. Donating is one form of action, but I will also put in the effort required to truly listen to their messages. I’ll go out of my way to be a part of their dialogue and look for ways to lend my support.

Donald Trump wasn’t the cause of widespread intolerance in the United States, but he’s one hell of an enabler of it. The world has seen this kind of story play out far too many times. If we’ve learned anything from it, then we have a responsibility to help change the narrative.

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