What I’ve Learned From 100 Days of Saving the World From Donald Trump
Step back, if you will, to the day after the election, and compare the world as we expected it to be 6 months out to the world as it is.
There are, of course, the politics. Trump was going to deport millions of immigrants, and immediately start building a wall. He was going to launch a trade war with Mexico and China, sabotage the American healthcare system and install malicious morons in every federal agency. Blah, blah, and blah.
Some of those things have happened, some of them haven’t. The incompetencies of the Trump administration have precluded his radical promises. Now these first 100 days look a lot like a normal, if poorly functioning, conservative presidency. Trump’s immigration ban has been blocked by the courts. Neil Gorsuch was confirmed, after an unprecedented and appalling 400 days of Republican trickery to hold the seat open. Trump’s tax-reform plan probably gives every politician’s billionaire buddies wet dreams, but if the Trumpcare debacle showed us anything it’s that Trump isn’t the political closer he pretends to be. We’ve seen typical and surprisingly hawkish approaches to NATO, China, Syria, Iran, etc.
But then there’s the culture, the timbre of the dialogue, the startling and worrisome normalization of racism, anti-Semitism, and islamophobia that seemed to be sweeping the country before the inauguration. Do you remember? Think back. Ten days after the election, The Southern Poverty Law Center published a report documenting almost 900 reports of harassment and intimidation that had taken place across the country (though it noted that “it was not possible to confirm the veracity” of all the incidents, since they were submitted by the public). Mosques were set on fire by arsonists, troubling racist graffiti was popping up across the country, and disturbing fliers were being distributed on college campuses. A watchdog commission tasked with enforcing New York’s civil rights laws reported a massive 60 percent spike in discrimination complaints in 2016.
Unfortunately, there’s no dataset available that can tell us definitively that hate crimes have surged on a national level since the election, because the government’s data and methods of collection are deeply flawed, but for anyone paying attention to the news and worried about Trump’s habit of inciting hate and violence along racial lines, those sorts of headlines filled the days after the election with a nearly all-consuming fear. It felt like hate was on the move in the land of the free.
I expected these things to continue. I expected to be using a toothbrush to clean swastikas off the subway every day. I expected to spend 100 days and even 1,460 acting as some kind of racism avenger, battling the forces of rottenness as they swept across the country underneath Make America Great Again hats.
But let me tell you what’s happened instead.
After the election, I started having the same recurring dream. I was in the subway in New York, where terrible things tend to happen, endlessly riding without a destination. At some point during my dream, I would see someone being harassed.
It would be a woman in a headscarf, or a drag queen that I’ve known in and out of drag, or a man with long, curly sidelocks. They would be viciously attacked, screamed at by some faceless assailant shouting ridiculous and rude and racist things. Sometimes I would say nothing, only watch and listen. In those cases, I woke up full of shame. But most times, I would jump in and save the day. I would be the hero, shut down the aggressor and everyone would applaud. After a few nights I was trying out new scenarios in my unconscious: putting myself between the assailant and the victim as a wall, trying to distract the aggressor and stealing their attention, or taking control and shouting them down. One night, I got an entire subway car full of people to join me in chanting about how hate and fear was not welcome in our city.
I would wake up feeling better, my powerlessness turned into a feeling of euphoria. Maybe there is something that can be done, I thought. Maybe I have a role to play.
It was a silly white savior complex, surfacing in my unconscious every night. In the real world, I knew, the reality would be much different. Maybe me getting involved wouldn’t help. Maybe someone wouldn’t need or want my assistance. Maybe they could handle it themselves. Maybe the person doing the harassing would be a lot bigger than me and a lot more aggressive, and I’d end up getting my ass kicked.
But the dream comforted me. It made me sure that if something were to happen in front of me, I would be, at least, a buffer. That I would act when called upon. It made me start looking for opportunities, in a twisted way. I almost hoped that I would be given the opportunity to meet the moment, and prove that I was made of bigger, better stuff. If it happened in front of me, I told myself each day after waking up from that same dream, I would prove that I could wrestle all the racism in the world into submission with my strong, superior values.
I went to the rallies, and I showed up to volunteer, and I called my representatives. But those things were full of people like me — woke, angry, and scared. I wasn’t sure who we were convincing. There were no Fox News trucks there, no stunned Trump supporters saved by our snarky signs. I kept having the dream and wondering what I would do if some shit went down in front of me.
It was in the midst of this that a friend sent me a Facebook post that seemed like the chance I was looking for to get involved. “I cannot believe I am asking this,” the message began, but would anyone “be willing to accompany a Muslim woman on the train ride to university?”
It was posted by a woman named Kayla Santosuosso, the deputy director of the Arab American Association of New York. Days after the election, she was contacted by a Muslim woman in Harlem who was being harassed on the subway every day on her way downtown to school. The woman was terrified, being intimidated every day by the same man, sure that she would see him again and again. She didn’t wanted to be alone when it happened. She had talked to her friends and family, and contacted the police, but found no one who would travel with her and keep her safe.
Santosuosso already found someone to accompany this woman by the time I saw her Facebook message, but comments had kept coming from people in Boston, and Connecticut, and even L.A., all offering to help out and commute with anyone afraid for their safety in their local communities. A few commenters, members of the Muslim community or the LGBT community or others, had chimed in on the comments asking for escorts of their own.
“Realizing the moment of urgency,” Santosuosso told me later, she put up a link to a Google form, asking for people to signup to volunteer. By the next day, 1,200 people had signed up. In the next few weeks, 8,400 people would enter their information. I was one of them.
Behind the scenes, Santosuosso was encouraged by the outpouring of support, but daunted by her new challenge of scale. She had no way to certify the identities of people who had signed up to accompany others. She had no way of verifying their intentions. She had no way to assure that they had the skills necessary to de-escalate a conflict situation adeptly.
And so she flipped the problem on its head, and the Accompany Project was born. Instead of keeping these people on a list and matching them up one by one, Santosuosso decided to train as many people as possible on how to handle conflict situations as bystanders, when (or if) they surfaced in their everyday lives.
That’s what brought me to a tiny conference room in an office building on Wall Street in early January — an email from Santosuosso. Her Accompany Project was offering a training in “bystander intervention,” a framework for effectively intervening in a conflict situation.
And so I went, braving the blustery cold, and when I arrived at the Asian American Federation and looked around the room, I was struck that all the attendees were like me. The room was packed with 35 or 40 cautiously friendly people in their twenties and thirties. All of them were white.
I probably shouldn’t say it that way — they looked white. Everyone was encouraged not to make assumptions about anyone’s identity or background at this training. It was that kind of safe space. We were constantly reminded to give content warnings to people who might be triggered by violence or sexual assault, and advised to avoid victim blaming. When the organizer pointed out the location of the bathrooms in the hall, she apologized profusely for the binary way that they were gendered.
I asked a few attendees where they were from and they said Sunnyside, Queens and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, not insignificant distances to travel. One woman said she came from Inwood, probably an hour away by subway.
The woman sitting next to me, Liz Certa, a software developer from Philadelphia who moved to New York City to go to Fordham and take computer classes, said she felt compelled to sign up for this training when she saw the email because she wanted to know what to do if she saw “some racist shit” go down in public. “We’ve got to do something,” she said.
I immediately felt comfortable. These were my people. I had never felt so woke.
The training kicked off, led by a diminutive and vivacious young social worker wearing a choker and shiny purple boots named Rachel Levy. She promised us that everyone in attendance would walk out of the room with a few strategies that they could use to distract, deflect or defuse situations where someone was being victimized or intimidated.
“No matter what happens in these situation, I promise it will be awkward, I promise it will be imperfect, and I promise that you’re going to analyze it in the days following and wonder how you could have done it differently,” she said. “But bystander intervention is anything that you do to keep yourself and others safe.”
For the next three hours, we talked about negotiating from a calm and centered place. We stood in a circle and practiced saying a confident and assertive no — much harder than you might think, thanks to everyone’s innate aversion to awkward public exchanges — and how to tweak our body language to appear authoritative. She taught us the four Ds of bystander intervention: Direct, Delegate, Distract and Delay. She walked us through tactics that we could employ when and if we decided to get involved, if we mitigated the risks and thought we could help.
(HuffPo’s got a detailed play by play of these trainings here, if you’re interested.)
All in all, she taught us to be “upstanders.” Bystanders are people who witness, she said, but “upstanders” are people who act. People often don’t intervene because of fear, or embarrassment, or because they benefit from silence. But we had been given strategies! Tools! Ammo. And we were ready to fight.
Just when we thought we were finished, and I was packing up and ready to leave, a tiny Asian woman with big, thick glasses and an air of authority sauntered into the room. She stood out immediately; she was the first person we’d seen all night who looked like she might actually be harassed on a subway.
She introduced herself as Jo-Ann Yoo, the executive director of the Asian American Federation. It was their conference room we’d been using, and she who’d donated it. She came in here to say hello, and she didn’t mince words.
“You can’t imagine the panic that we’re feeling now,” was the first thing out of her mouth. “All the people in the communities that we serve, all 17 groups under the umbrella of my organization, all their identities and backgrounds. We are scared.”
On the day after the election, Yoo was in a cab on the way to work and of course, she said, her driver happened to be Muslim. She asked him how he was doing and he replied that he was so scared. That he was terrified. It was 8:30 in the morning.
“It was my perfect Korean drama moment,” she said, “because I got out of the cab and it was just starting to rain and I was waiting for the ferry and I was crying because I didn’t know what to tell him. Because even as advocates, even as someone who has access to the governor, the mayor, all the congressional delegation, I didn’t have an answer for him. I told him I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think it’s a wait and see kind of thing. Maybe he’ll go insane, maybe he’ll take meds. I don’t know.”
And then immediately, upon leaving the cab and waiting for the ferry, Yoo was herself harassed. By a big construction worker, she said, with a helmet on that had Donald Trump stickers all over it, who physically blocked her way and hurled epithets at her.
“For all of the access and all the privilege that I have in the middle class, being a lawyer, I can call the governor’s office and someone will pick up, I can call the mayor and someone will pick up. For all that I am, he thought he could intimidate me, because he didn’t see everything that I am. I was like, wow, this is my new reality. This is my new life. This is the new reality for my friends and for my colleagues and everybody that I work with and I care about, this is how we’re going to have to live our lives.”
“And to be honest? We don’t know where our allies are. New York is the most diverse place in the world but this shit happens to us every single day and now it’s going to happen to us more and more. We just all want to leave now. Because we don’t get to step out of our skin.”
She paused for a moment after this. She was a fast speaker, but she didn’t know what to say next. It was a moment of deep vulnerability. The room was perfectly still, and silent. Finally, after perhaps a full minute, she continued.
“I’m really grateful for all of you for signing up, I’m grateful for your leadership,” she said. “Your neighbors are counting on you. Even the people who you don’t really realize are your neighbors. You need to look and see who they are. A lot of your neighbors are invisible. But right now we need to count our allies and know who we can rely on.”
She thanked us again, and the organizers closed us up for the night, three hours in, and people packed up their things and started to leave.
But I couldn’t go. I sat there and thought: I am such bullshit. Because really this whole thing was about me. I was having that dream because I didn’t want to be the victim. I knew that I would probably be safe if I kept my mouth shut because I’m white and male and gay, not Asian or Muslim or brown or whatever and I wouldn’t ever need to step out of my skin. But the truth was, I felt unsafe too. It was that simple. I felt just like Jo-Ann. The uncertainty she described was my new reality, too. And not uncertainty about whether I’d be called on to help someone else who was the target of bigotry or discrimination, but uncertainty about whether it would be directed at me. Painting myself as the savior was my way of putting myself in the “benevolent but safe” bucket in my head, not wanting even subconsciously to believe that I could be next. I would get to choose whether or not I was involved. Coming here and painting myself as a racism avenger was a way of planting my feet in a world that felt like it was spinning out of control. And that was a good thing, because that impulse led me to do some good in the world. And that was also bullshit.
I was one of them. These people were my neighbors. And maybe one day one of them would be the hero that I needed, and maybe one day I would get to be that for them in return.
I talked about this with my friend Jessica Newsome, a social worker in Chicago and a wise, life-long friend. She asked me if I remembered the Stanford experiments by Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. They’re the subject of many required college psychology courses and many more movies and documentaries. The experiment investigated the effects of perceived power by using college students as fake prison guards and prisoners. When they immediately turned dark and depraved, they were called off after 6 days because of the objections of one graduate student named Christina Maslach. She was the only one who told Zimbardo to stop the experiment when it went south — and she kept telling him to stop until he did.
Zimbardo later married Maslach and started trying to study why she did the right thing when it was really hard and no one else would. The prison experiments are what he’s famous for, but he actually spent a much larger portion of his life trying to figure out what the difference is between bystanders and upstanders — between people who are invested in not causing waves and people who step up and make themselves a target by speaking out.
“In a lot of ways, the hero narrative is an important way to motivate people,” Jessica told me. “I tell all of my new social workers that they came here to save the world and that’s a worthwhile impulse that says a great thing about who they are and what motivates them, but that same motivation will burn them out in the end and leave them more racist and sexist and classist than before if they’re not careful.”
All of helping other people, Jessica warned me, every time you exit your comfort zone and do this kind of work, involves existing in a place of contradictions and learning to work within and balance those contradictions.
I wasn’t expecting that. I wasn’t expecting the first fight to be with myself.
In the end, the everyday things that I was expecting out of 100 days of Donald Trump haven’t materialized. Certainly, there have been blunt policy implications to this administration’s courtship of outdated fear-mongers —Jeff Sessions was once deemed too racist to be a federal judge, for chrissakes — and I’m still calling my representatives and showing up to the rallies. But in the everyday, the personal, the intimate moments, not much has changed — the subway’s still the same. I never got a chance to use the skills that I learned in that bystander intervention training, not yet. I never saw someone being harassed, never jumped in to save the day waving my hero flag.
But I learned that it’s as simple as this, as simple as Jo-Ann Yoo made it sound: You are always surrounded by your neighbors, even if you don’t realize it. Sometimes you have to look to see who they are. You have to pay attention. A lot of them are invisible. A lot of them don’t need you to worry about them, don’t need your help, thank you very much. But they’re all your neighbors anyway. And your attention to little things, your kindness and your consideration and the way that you make people feel seen and considered, the way you make room for them and welcome them into your day can go a long way towards calming that unsettled feeling, that nightmarish insecurity you feel when you’re surrounded by strangers and MAGA hats and the unknown. And maybe, if you prepare, when shit hits the fan, when you are called on by circumstance to be there for the many different kinds of people around you, you can live up to yourself, and know that you did the right thing, and that can be that.
Your neighbors are counting on you.