One of the defining moments, to me, of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign is captured in this video. In it, Trump encourages people at his rallies to engage in violence against protestors, even promising to pay legal fees his supporters might incur in the process.
A specific moment comes at the 01'09" mark. Trump is standing at a podium and says:
"We're not allowed to punch [protestors] back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do guys like that when they were in a place like this? They'd be carried out in a stretcher folks. I'd like to punch him in the face, I tell ya."In response, the crowd cheers and applauds. Behind him, three men can be seen in the background laughing, while others smirk.
I haven't been able to forget this moment. It's one of a handful of snapshots that communicated to me what was headed our way, should Trump win: cruelty. And, not just cruelty, but the celebration, threat, and promise that he would carry out cruelty in the names of his supporters, during the course of implementing his platform. His was an explicit rejection of "political correctness," that dog whistle for understanding marginalized people's lives, and a chief appeal that drew many to his side.
Concern for the plight of the purported platonic ideal of the ordinary American—that white male factory worker—excused all cruelty. The chief aggrievement was: The country has forgotten about white people and somebody had better pay!
How many people supported Trump because of his cruelty we may never know, but that at least some supported him because of it seems undeniable, whether the cruelty was aimed at protestors, subversives, critics, women, Hillary Clinton, "the swamp," "the establishment," people of color, Muslims, the press, other politicians, immigrants, Mexicans, and more.
Regardless of whether Trump supporters were disgusted, delighted, entertained, or titillated by Trump's cruelty, Trump supporters share at least one commonality. Trump's parade of cruelties during Election 2016 was not a dealbreaker.
And yet. Oh my, and yet.
On Friday, Bernie Sanders repeated a remarkable claim:
"Some people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and deplorable folks. I don't agree, because I've been there."Sanders' statement here is not careful, qualified, or precise. It instead sets up a false dilemma that encapsulates why the Democratic Primary battle will not go away: that people can be either poor or bigots, but never both. And so, when you read articles about Bernie Sanders being the "most popular politician" in the US right now, I cannot underscore enough how much it appeals to white people to hear politicians deny that masses of white people are bigoted.
But, it's extremely polarizing. Sure, it appeals to many white people, who need their guilt assuaged, but Sanders' claim is also rejected as false by many marginalized people. It asks a lot of the marginalized, to go along with a charade for the sake of building a movement.
Likewise, I can already hear (indeed have already heard) defenders of Sanders saying we ought to interject assumptions of good faith into his statement. After all, they say, even though Bernie said this, he's actually a good ally to marginalized people because he marched with Dr. King and wants to enact single-payer healthcare and so forth. We see white people, often men, hopping into marginalized people's Twitter mentions, questioning the sincerity of our concern for marginalized people, because we dare to criticize Bernie Sanders.
Now, I would agree that Bernie Sanders is a good ally to marginalized people in some respects. But, categorically denying the existence of bigotry in a population that elected a bigot as President does not, actually, constitute being a good ally to people of color, women, immigrants, LGBT folks, and others. (For the record, Hillary Clinton didn't say all Trump supporters were "deplorable".)
It is, after all, the lived reality of marginalized people that we are both on the receiving end of bigotry and are continually gaslit about its existence. We must do a lot of work to convince people that this bigotry is real and not figments of our imagination. Indeed, with a lifetime of navigating this world as a queer woman—and a feminist—my self-preservation instincts have been on high alert since Election 2016, precisely because of the bigotry that Trump tapped into and stoked during his campaign.
However, if Bernie Sanders somehow just knows that no Trump supporter is a bigot, does that mean I can let down my guard? Does it mean that when Trump starts doing some (more) scary shit to immigrants or people of color or women or queers, Trump supporters won't stand for it, because after all, they're not bigots and they certainly won't stand for bigotry even though they voted for a bigot?
Could it be, in fact, that Donald Trump is the only actual bigot left in the United States?
Or, could the situation be something other than what Bernie Sanders says it is. I, for instance, keep this quote by Liel Leibovitz, at the forefront of my mind, still:
"Voters are all adults, and all have made their choices, and it is now you who must brace for impact. Whether you choose to forgive those, friends and strangers alike, who cast their votes so deplorably is a matter of personal choice, and none but the most imperious among us would advocate a categorical rejection of millions based on their electoral actions, no matter how irresponsible and dim. So while you make these personal calculations, remember that what matters now isn’t analysis: It’s survival."I cannot reconcile the terror I feel about what Trump is inflicting on us—with the support of his voters standing behind him—and the fact that Bernie Sanders is touted by his followers as the only true progressive in US politics while he acts so thoroughly dismissive of the bigotry Trump has stoked, provoked, and wielded during the course of his Electoral College win.
We survive and resist, I contend, not through a craven, dignity-destroying, white-man-centered capitulation to a mythical narrative wherein Trump supporters are something other than what they have shown us to be, but rather by speaking the words that our lived experiences have shown us to be true.
I know from experience that while some white people will take an "if Bernie said it, that settles it" approach, the mere words of many women, people of color, and queers will never be taken as similarly authoritative on the matter of whether bigotry exists. So instead, I ask:
The interests of Trump supporters coincide with the interests of David Duke and the KKK, but how can that be, if no Trump supporters are racist?
Progressive women writers received, and continue to receive, death threats and other forms of abuse from Trump supporters, but how can that be, if no Trump supporters are sexist?
Muslim activists are targeted with Islamophobic smears by Trump supporters, but how can that be, if no Trump supporters are bigots?
Anti-LGBT organizations see the Trump Administration as an opportune moment to roll back LGBT rights, but how can that be, if no Trump supporters are homophobes or transphobes?
Thousand of people across the nation regularly chanted their fantastical wish to see a woman locked up, although she has been convicted of no crime, but how can that be if no Trump supporters are sexist?
2016 saw a surge in white nationalism and anti-Muslim harassment that coincided with Trump running a campaign that appealed to white nationalists and Islamophobes, but how can that be, if no Trump supporters are racists or bigots?
Actual statistics show that sexism and racial resentment were key to Trump's win, but how can that be if no Trump supporters are racist or sexist?
Nobody is a bigot, it seems, and yet bigotry is somehow all around us.
Nobody is a bigot, it seems, and yet a bigot was somehow elected as President.
Nobody is a bigot, and yet the day after a bigot was inaugurated, women of color led a grass-roots four-million-people-strong march, which was the largest single-day protest in US history.
A song from this march went viral, in fact, because its lyrics so resonated with the people: "I can't keep quiet." But why can't we keep quiet? Because of Wall Street, perhaps, but also could it be because the United States is built upon a silence that is so often demanded of marginalized people, by the powerful, for some purported greater good? As Neera Tanden tweeted, "I don't think the country has understood how psychologically wounding it was to so many women that Trump won after the Access Hollywood tape."
So tell me. What were the people protesting, if not—at least in part—the bigotry that Trump and his supporters engaged in? Do we—marginalized people—constitute "the people" too, Senator Sanders? Does our resistance count, even if its not spear-headed by you? Is it real, even though we say out loud that yes, bigotry does exist in the world, within actual people?
Perhaps it is a mystery lost to the sands of time as to how bigotry can spring forth, never from actual people, but from a shapeless aether.
Perhaps, though, it's not a mystery at all.
Perhaps it's simply this. Many people are bigoted.
And, even if these people are victims of a corrupt economic system, Donald Trump's supporters also witnessed his cruelty—his countless bigotries—and they supported him anyway. And now, Bernie Sanders is there to re-assure them that what they did was okay. He is, in fact, just one of a long line of white man after white man after white man who in the wake of Election 2016 is making the grotesque request that "our revolution" help Donald Trump supporters live happily ever after by denying the existence of the cruel bigotries that elected a cruel bigot into the White House.
So, Bernie Sanders, I plead. If you are the politician of the people that you claim to be: please stop gaslighting us.
You talk a lot about bringing about a revolution. However, if your movement can only be built by denying that bigoted people are bigoted, you might want to consider that you're not leading a revolution, you are—to many of us—just staging a change in management.