The Gulf that Separates Us

Even as I write this, I am fighting despair over the gulf that divides us. Several months ago, I opened Facebook for the first time in a while to look for photos from a marriage celebration, and saw in my newsfeed a copied-and-pasted post asking readers if they had ever, among other things, “shaken hands with a Muslim Girl Scout” or “seen a Muslim do anything that contributes positively to the American way of life???? The answer is no, you did not. Just ask yourself WHY???” (Later I learned that the anonymous post had been widely circulated, including by a Michigan politican who was later censured by the Republican National Committee.)

My heart sank as I felt the chasm of the political and cultural divide that so many people have tried to describe. By one of those strange coincidences in life, the wedding celebration I had attended the day before was for a Muslim woman who was not only a Girl Scout (and received a national-level Girl Scout Gold Award Young Women of Distinction) but who continues to volunteer as an adult and makes the world and, yes, our country a better place by her very presence, whose family exemplifies good citizenship as well as any family I know, whose siblings I am honored to have taught and call my friends. (It is also important to note that Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and other populations do not have to be exemplary citizens — how many of us are? — to be valued.) Yet, even though words are my bailiwick, I lacked the verbal skill to describe how different my own experience has been from that status message, how wide and deep the chasm felt, and how tempting it is to give up ever trying to explain or bridge it.

I moved from my home state when I went to college, from a rural South Dakota county with a population of 6.9 people per square mile (and a poverty rate of 44 percent) to a large midwestern city. I did not move back and will always feel a little guilty about that, especially when I visit (a guilt shared by many who leave small towns and farms). My heart is in both worlds and always will be.

The road to and from my family’s farm

I will always share a common background with my red state family and friends, yet we have some (okay, maybe many) different visions for the future, different priorities, different choices and life experiences. We voted for different candidates in November. My side lost. As much as I might disagree with many Republican policies, I accept that a change in political parties means a change in political power. I get that, I really do. This is not about rehashing the election or who voted for whom.

What concerns me are, among other things, the authoritarian tendencies of this particular president, regardless of political party. That leaves me feeling helpless and at times terrified, and I’m at a loss of how to explain that my fears are not sour grapes, that I’m not whining (after all, if he were somehow removed from office, Republicans would still be in charge). If I thought that a Democratic president posed the same level threat to our long-held national values, I would hope that Republican citizens would be similarly concerned and vocal.

At his press conference with British prime minister Theresa May, the president said he was “scrorned in the press” for predicting Brexit at his Scotland golf course ribbon cutting ceremony the day before the Brexit vote. However, in June he had arrived in Scotland for the ribbon-cutting ceremony the day after the Brexit vote, and his comments to the Fox Business Network when asked about Brexit before the vote were, “I don’t think anybody should listen to me because I haven’t really focused on it very much.” He was rewriting his role in history extemporaneously on an international stage for an event that had happened only months before and that is easily disproven.

It’s a minor example of a much bigger problem that happens nearly every day now, including inexact language such as the Counselor to the President discussing a nonexistent “Bowling Green massacre” or the president referring to refugees as illegal immigrants. Even the senior editor of The American Conservative is concerned about lies from the administration.

All politicians make campaign promises they don’t keep and have big egos and put spin on their policies, but this is something different, and it’s very dangerous.

First Amendment to the US Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Early in the campaign, I began to read the work of Sarah Kendzior, an expert in authoritarianism. At the time, I didn’t even want to tell anyone about her because her arguments seemed extreme, and , as I read, I kept my fingers crossed that she was wrong. In March of 2016, she published an article at The Diplomat about “what Central Asia’s spectacular states can tell us about authoritarianism in America”:

Spectacle is not all Trump’s proposed America and the Central Asian dictatorships have in common. Trump’s vision of America also supports a restricted press; persecution of devout Muslims and ethnic minorities; totalized control of government through a sequestered elite (Trump refuses to name potential partners and advisors); incredible wealth with little transparency concerning its accumulation (Trump refuses to release tax returns); and paranoid recitation of enemies both foreign and domestic, who are said to threaten the “greatness” of the state — and its leader. These are the standard characteristics of dictatorship, practiced in many countries around the world. But there are more distinct parallels to Trumpism to be found in Central Asia.

Kendzior, who stresses that we all deserve better than what she fears is coming, regardless of whom we voted for, has been unrelenting in her warnings, even as she was called alarmist. But, I kept thinking, what if she’s right? She wrote this even before the Republican nomination:

There are vast differences, of course, in the spectacle of Central Asian presidents and that of Trump as an elected leader. It is hard to envision him receiving the adulation to which he — and Central Asian leaders — are accustomed in the U.S. Congress, or managing to get his punitive and persecutory policies passed into law. But the motto of dictatorship is ‘It can’t happen here.’ Time and time again, it has happened — Trump’s likely GOP nomination being only but one recent example of the formerly unthinkable put into practice.
It is irresponsible to rule out his rule. The greatest and perhaps most depressing difference between the Central Asian and Trump models is the latter’s rise to power. When I asked an Uzbek friend to compare Trump to the Central Asian leaders, he replied: ‘Dictatorship is something that was done to us. But you — you’re doing this voluntarily?Read more (emphases added)

Authoritarian rule would look different in the United States from a bloody coup, but one common factor would be how we get civic and governmental information and the trustworthiness of that information. Authoritarian leaders expect the press’s role is to make them look good. Already, press secretary Sean Spicer said that negative press coverage is “demoralizing” to the president, and Steve Bannon told the New York Times that the media should “keep its mouth shut.”

I do try to go outside of my bubbles, to listen to podcasts and read articles not only by people with whom I agree but from a variety of perspectives, and I urge everyone to do the same. While I don’t expect Fox News fans to tune into MSNBC, there are many Republican and conservative voices who are willing to be thoughtfully critical of the new administration. Some argue that Republicans survived for the last eight years, so it won’t be that bad for the other side this time, but what I and many like me — including lifelong Republicans and committed conservatives — worry about is something far worse.

A good example of such a voice is Charlie Sykes, who for years had a radio talk show in Milwaukee, where I live. Sykes does not stoop to ad hominem attacks, describes himself as a “contrarian conservative,” and is not afraid to question his own party or speak up. He has just begun co-hosting a new national public radio show, and his first episode, with guest George Will, is online at Indivisible. Red state voters might not change their minds after listening, but they will have heard perspectives from two people with deep ties to conservatism and who have the interests of the Republican Party at heart.

If members of Congress ever get to the point of seeing that our president is a political liability (that is, support for him will lose them votes in the future), they do have the authority to step in and exercise their own powers to push back. But they have to know that citizens want something better, especially those who voted for the current administration.

Whatever our voice, big or small, we need to use it — with compassion and kindness, yes, but use it, even when we are accused of whining. The person next to us may be hungry for our words, and we might provide the courage he or she needs to speak up as well. Our voice is a right we cannot take for granted.


This post is revised from a version originally published at www.lisarivero.com on January 28, 2017.