Facing America’s 21st Century Crisis of Identity

New York, Nov. 24, 2018 — Our long nightmare — 728 days of sheer hell, anxiety and rage came to a slow rolling conclusion beginning on the evening of November 6 and nearly everyday since the election, as Democratic wins piled up daily. Finally, the worm turned on Donald Trump and the Republican party as the women of the Democratic party, fueled by their anger and outrage of the past two years, romped, if not ran roughshod over him and his enabling abetters of destruction, running up the biggest margin of victory in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1974 in the aftermath of Watergate.

We cannot overstate how important it was to win this election. Given the emotional trauma inflicted on November 8, 2016, high anxiety was palpable throughout the country and seemed to hang in the air over us in the final days leading up to the election.

Unprecedented diversity now profiles the demographics of the incoming 116th Congress that includes more than 100 women elected: African American, Latina, Muslim, LGBTQ, military veteran women, of whom a vast majority were first time candidates. Donald Trump himself was the number one issue for voting Democrats and the most significant reason why these candidates filed to run. In this midterm election the greatest number of voters participated or tried to, setting records, while Democratic candidates were elected up and down the ballot, picking up new seats in the Sunbelt and across the country pulling in educated Republican women from the suburbs too. In Georgia and Florida, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, both African American candidates for governor excited voters down ballot, while a marred election process and voter oppression characterized the elections in both states, leaving these inspiring candidates just short of claiming their respective governorships. These losses were heartbreaking to say the least, especially for Stacey Abrams who was opposed by Brian Kemp, a racist bigot who cheated to secure his so-called win.

Young voters showed up too. Despite the media’s negatively laden predictions about them, Millennials actually delivered in early voting according to ABC News exit polls marking an 188 percent increase in early voting among 18–29 year olds, compared to all others, for an overall total 3.3 million voters in this age group.

Trump’s grotesque and continued attacks on women, Mexicans and Muslims and the rest of us who are not white, or Christian and heterosexual, obviously backfired, made evident in this election was a sweeping rebuke of him and the Republican party remade in his grotesque image.

But let’s be frank — this election was a must win — a victory achieved and fought at the intersection of an American Armageddon — a battle for the soul of the country — faced off by the majority of us against those who have no qualms about ripping the heart out of our democracy — the majority disrespected, the constitution be damned, while the rule of law continues to be shredded by Trump and his all too willing minions of destruction.

This battle is far from over. Our democracy has been deeply compromised by systematic voter oppression in several states from North Dakota to Georgia. As Stacey Abrams said in her non-conceding and defiant speech: “Democracy had failed the voters of Georgia” as she pronounced the immediate launch of “Fair Fight Georgia,” an organization that will pursue accountability in Georgia’s elections and integrity in maintaining the voter rolls. This issue is a shameful one — a legacy of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act delivered by Supreme Court Chief Judge John Roberts in 2013. The 116th Congress must take immediate action to pass a Voting Rights bill to restore pre-clearance and affirmative protections for millions of American voters.

We literally stopped the hemorrhaging on November 6th — however, the past two years have felt as if we have teetered on the edge of an abyss — if not staring at a precipitous disintegration of our society, while Trump unleashes one blow after another, attacking former and current political foes, journalists, including more recently African American women reporters who are members of the White House press corps, or world leaders representing our traditional allies like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany or President Emmanuel Macron of France.

Trump has sought to alienate America from the world, leaving us more vulnerable, more isolated and quite frankly, more unsafe. His distancing of Europe, America’s closest allies for more than 70 years and his continued unrelenting attacks on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that was established through American leadership following World War II, now philosophically aligns the U.S. with the Russian Federation, and has blurred our traditional alliances creating a confusing and more dangerous new world order.

At home he has made evident his inability to withhold venom as he doubles down by gas lighting every democratic function of government from the Department of Justice to elections, spreading untruths and falsehoods in a reckless process of sowing seeds of destruction and spreading doubt about who we are from coast to coast. Indeed, Trump has infected our social discourse through his venal attacks, creating fear, anger and distrust, pitting American against American.

These tactics carry over into everyday life from conversations in the office to Facebook and Twitter where the alienation plays out in bold attacks. Polarized and set apart, there is no doubt we have entered a ‘Cold War’ period within America. Quite frankly, as I scan the panoply of issues that reflect my core values, I can see very little opportunity where I could personally compromise with the “other side.” This is a dangerous place to be in relationship with my fellow citizens. But I will be honest, I no longer trust the other side. During the 2016 election I ended many friendships especially with white men both straight and gay during the campaign for Hillary Clinton’s nomination to lead the Democratic party. Since the 2016 election, Trumpism has infected our society at multiple levels and closer to home it has even seeped into relations within my apartment building, after one of the door men, a Trumpster verbally attacked me on November 9, 2016. I have frequently silenced myself from speaking out when I know it will only lead to another heated argument, especially in workplaces that I occupy. Now the battleground extends beyond Republicans and Democrats, but also includes generational standoffs between Baby Boomers and Millennials, which is truly regrettable. Fights have also broken out between progressive women on the degrees of sexual harassment and when does it go too far — for example, was the ouster of Al Franken unfair?

This Trump Patriarchy on steroids has proven to be particularly corrosive in undermining sisterhood. Given how many white women who have supported Trump, relations between black and white women remain quite tenuous, which is understandable. I have forged lifelong relationships with a number of black women. So to counter this mistrust, I actively join solidarity actions and speak publicly about how white people undermine and compromise people of color. To be full partners in ridding our country of this racial hatred we are obligated to call it out and take sides. As an out lesbian, I do understand this betrayal, and I have personally experienced how dismissive and patronizing white heterosexual women behave when their privilege is challenged.

Because of the rise of Trump and the events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia two years ago I have often contemplated the question will fascism or a white nationalism come to America? Will it begin through violence — and could it explode into a civil war?

These are scenarios I could have never contemplated happening in America before the 2016 elections.

America once embraced slavery, its unquestionable original sin and out of that heinous chapter of our history rose the movement of white supremacy that seeks a state form of dominion which is, in fact nationalism — white nationalism. Clearly it has never completely been eliminated. Indeed, it has reemerged with a vengeance during Trump’s rise. And it is frightening.

As a student and scholar of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, I have studied authoritarian regimes for nearly 25 years. In America today, we can sadly point to the tell-tale signs of nationalism flashing in neon that indicates that we are in trouble — from the most significant unequal income gap between the upper one percent and the average salary within America, we are number one in the world, coupled with the increasing dysfunction of government and poorly managed elections and the active suppression of minority voting, all have factored into our decline.

The 2018 Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index reported that America was ranked as a “flawed democracy.” The Index also reported that more than one half of the countries in the latest update of a democratic health index saw their scores decline. Even more troubling, the Index concluded that less than five percent of the world’s population currently lives in a “full democracy.” The global trends are indeed troubling: from India to the Philippines, from Italy to Hungary and Poland, to include Turkey, most of the Balkans to include Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Russia and China, are among the top poorly functioning illiberal states or in many cases “captured states”. Trump’s rise is not unlike that of Slobodan Milosevic, also known as the “butcher of the Balkans.” Milosevic was a banker who rose through the communist party to power by demonizing Muslim Albanians, a national minority. By controlling levers of political power and by using television as the means to advance his messaging, Milosevic lit the fuse of ethnic hatred that destroyed Yugoslavia, by prosecuting three wars, killing thousands of people, millions of whom became refugees, and all this occurred after Yugoslavia had been thought to be the most benign form of socialism until its breakup began in 1991.

Characteristics that point to the rise of nationalism include attacking the press, suppressing speech, attacking women and their bodily integrity and targeting minorities. This is Trump’s baseline trifecta: he has forged his politics by doing all three: escalating press attacks by pulling CNN’s Jim Acosta’s hard White House press pass, targeting black women journalists to include April Ryan, a 20-year veteran of the White House Press pool; and secondly, Trump is known for his exploitation of women throughout his public life and in the policy realm he has supported the removal of birth control from insurance coverage and diminishing access to legal abortions. Finally, his demonization of immigrants and refugees has plied his trade in xenophobia.

The ground has been plowed for the rise of an illiberal state in America with Trump’s election that was possibly aided through a criminal enterprise of conspiracy with the Russian Federation. I could imagine a scenario in which Trump declares martial law in the event that Robert Mueller issues a damning report or if Trump were to run for re-election in 2020 and lose. Today, I do not have confidence that he would willingly step down.

It has occurred to me that such an individual who has frightened millions of people and who has sought to hurt many, is a purveyor of evilness.

Martin Buber, a renowned Jewish philosopher wrote in his seminal work Good and Evil: “the wicked are those who deliberately persist in impurity of heart…the state of the heart determines whether a man lives in the truth”…I do not think of Trump as having a heart, indeed he is heartless. A man who lacks empathy and a genuine goodness of character. How could anyone seek to separate children from their parents if they were not evil? How could anyone attack Mexicans calling them rapists and criminals if they were of pure heart?

A serial liar, Trump is not only evil, but arguably mentally ill. His actions reflect depraved indifference to the suffering of others. His bizarre conduct displays narcissism that psychiatrists refer to as “malignant” combined with characteristics of a sociopath that mental health professionals consider untreatable. The media has all but stopped discussing Trump’s mental health. Indeed, his obvious state of mental illness has become normalized.

One thing is clear, as long as Trump remains in office, he will continue to do damage to our country and its institutions and to our reputation in the world, making us increasingly unsafe. It is an imperative to elect a Democrat to the presidency in 2020. The victory on November 6th positions us to retake the White House, thus it remains incumbent upon all of us to stay engaged as citizens by supporting local institutions and national ones where each of us can make a contribution and by participating in the resistance. Preserving democracy is not for the faint of heart. The next two years will be critical ones in our path forward — will it be an agenda for inclusion, justice, fairness and dignity, or will the country choose to enter a period that will likely end the American experiment? That outcome is up to each of us.

This essay was read at the First Person Plural Harlem forum held on Nov. 18, 2018. This is a version from the original reading.

Balkanist, HumanRights,Prof @ColumbiaSIPA @HarrimanInst, Adj Lecturer Hunter College, Prez Advisory Board @PCRCBiH, Host & Editor of The Thought Project podcast