What 9/11 Can Teach Progressives About Facing Trump

I’ve been remembering how it felt in the months after 9/11, around the start of the Afghanistan war. I had been working for a peace group, and it was like our world was turned upside down.

I believed so fully (and still do) that violence begets violence. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the innocent people, including children, who would be hurt and killed by our bombs.

At that time, people who thought like me were a small minority, and we were getting shouted down by an angry and righteous majority. Peace Action canvassed in Oakland and Berkeley, and even in those progressive enclaves, we were at times accused of being un-American for our opposition to the war.

And the truth is, I felt un-American.

I felt sick and alienated. The convictions of most Americans at the time rang with a dissonance I could feel in my teeth and bones. Many of the same feelings arose yesterday, as it became clear that Trump would win the presidency.

So I’ve been reflecting back on what got me through it all, back in 2001. How we came back to ourselves, found our strength, and a way forward.

What made a difference to me were the people around me. My colleagues and friends, and particularly, the people I looked up to as leaders. 

I saw them cry. I saw them angry, and I saw them grapple with uncertainty. What I also saw was their capacity to grieve while facing our new reality, eyes wide open, with courage and heart. I had the sense that they were going to continue to show up, no matter what. Their courage and strength were a comfort to me.

They didn’t feed us easy answers.

There were no pep talks. There were lots of honest conversations, as together we grappled with what to do.

They didn’t rush to fill in the gaps of uncertainty. Nor did they stick their heads in the sand, trying to go back to the way things once were. They hung in there as the dust settled, and we took things one day at a time. Eventually, a new sense of purpose took shape, and we rediscovered a cause that felt worth fighting for.

It will take time, but I believe we can do this again. We can find our way back, and we can again be focused and fierce.

The First Step: A clear-eyed assessment of exactly where we are.

That means digging beneath the rage, and not giving into despair and all or nothing thinking. It’s breathing through the shock and fear. It means catching ourselves when we oversimplify and dehumanize others. And it takes a capacity to dance with ambiguity and uncertainty, and to be fiercely honest with ourselves, especially when it hurts.  

And we do it again, everyday, until the shifting earth under our feet starts to settle, and we begin to move forward.

So here’s what I know to be true, right now:

1. I’m floored. I’m weary and fatigued. My weariness is weary and my fatigue has fatigue. And I feel sick to my stomach whenever I hear news of Trump planning for his administration.

2. I’m not alone in these feelings. People I love and respect are right here, on the floor with me. Hi guys.

3. I won’t stay here long, and I don’t believe you will either. The shock and hurt will pass. We will, in time, adjust to this new reality. This isn’t what I wanted and I’m scared, but I can face it. And I trust in our collective resilience.

4. We know each other better than we think. I was as blindsided as anyone by the robustness of Trump’s support. I share the questions: “How can this happen? How could so many people, even women and people of color, vote for that man?”

But I don’t think we are as foreign to each other as it appears on the surface. Trump played on people’s suspicion of difference and fear of change. He exploited the fact that it's easy to dehumanize someone if you can't find anything in them to relate to. He made political differences seem like a whole other breed of humanity.

Can you relate to any of that?

If you can find in yourself, with compassion, your own tendency to turn difference into caricature -- whether along race, gender, political affiliation, or other lines -- you have in your heart the raw material needed to build a bridge.

It’s not easy, but it’s truer and a hell of a lot more empowering than staying stuck in alienation.

5. We are still the same people we were on Monday. Our reality has shifted, but who we are has not changed. We’re just seeing more of it now.

The America that elected Trump is the same America that elected Obama in 2008 and 2012, and now gives him a 56 percent approval rating. It’s the same America that legalized marriage equality.

The America that lynches black men for nothing is also home to the shining brilliance of the Black Lives Matter movement. The America that elected a man who thinks nothing of sexual assault also gave the popular vote to the woman who normalized the pantsuit. America has always been both good and bad. It’s a lot like humanity that way.

Over the last 8 years, I’ve gotten use to having a president and first lady I could relate to. Even though he often disappointed and frustrated me, having a person of color and the son of an immigrant in the White House gave me a sense of belonging in this country that I had not had before. Donald and Melania are going to take some getting used to.

But even though Trump won, we don’t live in Trumpland. I’m not willing to give up my sense of belonging, as if it ever relied on who occupies the White House. And those of us fighting for social justice are as intrinsic to the fabric of this country as Trump supporters.

6. We can’t predict the future. That makes the present hard, but there is freedom in knowing that even Trump doesn’t know what’s going to happen. And there is freedom in choosing to build on what’s real, in the present.

7. Hate is real, and so is what divides us. So is love, and what connects us.

8. We can’t unsee what we’ve seen. The question is, can we stay awake?

9. We've got work to do. We're down now, because we have some grieving and some soul searching to do. But we won't stay down for long.

My requests to you:

1. Be kind to yourself. Get enough sleep. Eat good food, and take walks. Laugh with your loved ones. Take care of your heart. These next few years will be tough, and we need your resilience.

2. Be kind to each other. We are all shaken, but some folks have more reason to be shaken, perhaps because of their ethnicity, religion, history with assault, or immigration status. Some folks have been struggling with anxiety and depression throughout this election cycle. Reach out to them with support, or ask for help if you are in this boat.

3. Don’t block. Listen. I’ve been seeing a trend on social media over the last few months of people declaring that they will unfriend people who voted differently than them. Some have stated their intention to cut off friends and family even in offline relationships. I get where that’s coming from. But I ask that you consider not doing that.

By all means, unfriend and block the people who are trolling your feed, whose viciousness is making you ill, or who won’t respect your boundaries. This about balancing self care in a tender time with an understanding of how this collective blind spot is hurting all of us.  

We were blindsided by this because we are cut-off from people who think differently from us. We have so little influence with each other. There is little mutual respect, and even less trust.

When we cut people off because of their political beliefs, we contribute to intolerance, and the dis-integration of civil society.  Facebook already has algorithms that filter reality into something that feels safe and comforting.

Don’t reinforce the algorithms. Seek to counter them by keeping a wider diversity of people in your social networks. Notice your reactions to what they post, and practice building your capacity to tolerate them. Listen to them, and listen for what makes them human.

4. Dance your dance. Remember who you are, and what you’ve been working to create in the world. It still matters. It’s still beautiful. That hasn’t changed.

I’d love to hear how you’ve been taking stock, and what truths you are connecting with. Please share them in the comments.