Shamed and Shunned, a Nation Divided

As I write this piece on November 15th, 2016, the shock of Donald J. Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton has not yet quite subsided. Many of us who cast a vote for Clinton on Election Day — and frankly, even those who didn’t — have been trying to make sense of how this happened. No matter where you stand, it’s undeniable that fear, sorrow, confusion and anger have spread in our young republic, in this most uncertain of times. We on the left spent months denouncing hatred, racism and bigotry, rejecting a sexist fear mongering xenophobe. We rejected Trumpism as a poison that threatened to destroy our democracy. We were so sure that Clinton was the right answer — albeit, maybe not the best one — and could preserve our Union. In the process of denouncing and rejecting Trump, however, we began to denounce and reject our fellow Americans. We shunned and we shamed. But worse, we silenced those who disagreed with us. We said that anyone who votes for Trump is in the “basket of deplorables,” and we didn’t regret it. After the results of the election, I’ve been stunned into realizing something I should have realized long ago: such harsh judgment and marginalization has shut down political discourse, divided the nation, and made way for Mr. President-Elect Trump.

So how do we make this better? How do we heal, how do we reconcile? I want to take the first step and own up to my own mistakes. I spent this entire election cycle surrounded by a cohort of highly-educated elites. We prided ourselves on our wealth of knowledge about history, philosophy, politics, science and economics. Whenever Trump spoke at a rally, we mocked his speaking — which was below a 6th grade reading level — and scowled with contempt for the masses who attended and cheered for him. When Clinton was criticized for calling “half” of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables,” I went on a personal crusade until the election to argue the idiocy and irresponsibility of anyone willing to vote for this absurd New York businessman. I judged my fellow military veterans as closeted bigots when they expressed support for Trump. Though I was initially a Sanders supporter, to me, preventing a Trump presidency was a form of national defense; Hillary Clinton was the only weapon I had at my disposal when casting my vote. Up until now, I shunned and shamed each and every Trump voter. It was black and white to me. It was black and white to so many of us, and we banded together over it… while pushing away half the country.

I attended Dartmouth College after leaving the military, where I received an amazing education — both within the classroom and without — and became of a scholar of politics. It was a haven for a poor kid like me, hiding away in the Great White North with all my intellectual friends.

It was whenever I descended the steps of this ivory tower and returned home to Boston that my Ivy bubble was burst. Home wasn’t a Back Bay brownstone or 2-bedroom in the North End, but an ugly beige apartment complex inhabited by a mix of white construction workers, strung out junkies, Haitian immigrants whoran illegal daycares, and Brazilians who came and went to work and to party at all hours. This was certainly a different scene than one would find in Hanover, New Hampshire. At home, I’d wake up and walk to Dunkin Donuts to grab coffee and listen to the retirees and variety of denizens chattering away about everything from lottery tickets to legalizing marijuana. Of course, when campaign season kicked off, everyone at Dunk’s became a polemicist — even if they had no idea what a polemicist was. I’d close my eyes and let out a sigh, praying that they would be silent for a moment so I wouldn’t have to listen to their conversations about things they didn’t understand.

Both consciously and unconsciously, I shunned them. I wrote them off as small-minded and out of touch with reality, assuming politics were so far beyond them that they couldn’t possibly make properly informed decisions. They hadn’t read the Federalist Papers, or studied foreign policy with renowned scholars, and they surely hadn’t spent countless hours cross-referencing healthcare statistics to know about the tangible benefits of the Affordable Healthcare Act. These were the people I grew up with and this was my home, and I couldn’t wait to get my coffee and drive back up to Hanover where people knew a lot about a lot of things.

That was my retreat from my home, from my people, from everyday Americans, and their everyday problems. This was my retreat from what so many people refuse to acknowledge is the reality of living, breathing, feeling Americans.

The heat of this election made it easy to forget that human beings are complex and nuanced creatures with many valid fears and desires. While those in my circles feared white supremacy, mass deportation, and economic collapse, another group saw a man who offered hope. While we saw a highly qualified candidate who advocated for progress and equality, the other side saw an untrustworthy establishment figure who would continue to ignore their needs. While we increasingly viewed Trump supporters as evil, stupid, and bigoted, the other side stopped talking to us, to the media, to the pollsters. Trump’s victory is an upset only because we refused to promote discourse with those whom we disagreed. We demonized half of our voters by lumping them in with the vilest the alt-right has to offer.

In the days after the election, it’s been common to see “IF YOU VOTED TRUMP UNFRIEND ME” or some variation thereof on social media. Yet, instead of shunning those who differ from us, we should be starting conversations. I started by asking a friend why he chose to vote for Trump. He said that he did not have confidence in Hillary after so much scandal, particularly over security. He said he disagreed with both candidates and had to vote on the one thing he could differentiate between them. My friend is a devout Christian. I am an atheist. He’s a conservative. I am liberal. We are different. He’s one of the most generous and kind people I have ever met, and he voted for Trump. He sat back while my friends and I lashed out at Trump and his supporters, and he never judged me for it once. Instead of closing the door on me, he patiently held it open. He wanted to have a conversation about the election and I in no way could call him stupid or evil or a bigot — because, no matter what the narrative is “supposed” to be, I know he’s none of those things. Instead of rejecting each other, we started talking.

This has been the most turbulent election cycle in modern American history. Shaming and shunning has done more than clouds polling forecasts and news, it’s blinded us to political realities. It’s been easy to look at the most extreme — and quite frankly, most entertaining — factors, such as hateful rhetoric, endorsements by white supremacist, and violence at rallies. It’s been far more difficult to take the time to consider a former factory worker who has been struggling to support his family for more than a decade, and how for once he’s hearing someone say, “I’m gonna get you your job back.” How about the single mother who skips her own doctor’s appointments so she can afford to pay for her daughter’s? Trump’s pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare sounds pretty attractive then. What about the veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan? To him or her, maintaining national security is paramount. You can’t expect them to turn a blind eye to Clinton’s email scandal. Regardless of anything else, I think it’s fair to say that, when someone has been beyond desperate to make a better life for their family and someone is offering that kind of hope for the first time in what feels like forever, even the vilest of negativity can be rationalized and ignored. It’s easy to condescendingly label people stupid and ignorant because they haven’t attended government or economics classes at a college. It’s another thing, a much harder thing, to understand that they have been too busy struggling with everything to make ends meet. It’s time to stop shaming and shunning our neighbors. Our families. Honestly, our friends. It’s time to stop silencing the things with which we disagree. We should continue to denounce hateful and divisive rhetoric, but it’s also time to restart the discourse with decency and openness, and actual listening. Not listening to the reverberations of the echo chambers in which most of us live, but actual and legitimate listening. We don’t know what a Trump presidency will bring. But if we refuse to come together it will be us — not Trump — that destroys our democracy. We must continue to fight the atrocities of racism and bigotry, but we can only do so as a unified people.