The Normalization of Hate
I know who is responsible for the fear I feel when I hear gunfire. It’s you, Mr. Trump, just as if you pulled the trigger yourself.
It sounded like a firecracker or an engine backfiring, but it wasn’t. I was in bed. My wife was downstairs grading papers. The dog, who’d been asleep in the bed with me, lifted her head and growled.
“What was that?” Deedie shouted. But we both knew what it was.
“I’ll come down,” I said. I got out of bed. So did the dog. She growled again.
A week before, my old friend Russo had sent me an email. I knew he had mixed feelings about sending it to me, lest it needlessly encourage fear or paranoia at my end, but he sent it anyway. “At the risk of sounding alarmist, are you taking your personal safety seriously? I was talking with my daughter this morning about recent events and the emotional temperature of the country as our friend Mr. Trump continues to give winking permission for unspeakable acts. She admitted that she too is concerned about how highly visible you are, as well as being a symbol to a certain kind of crazy.”
I looked out the window. We live on a dirt road in a small community on a lake in Maine, the kind of place that is abundant with summer people from the Fourth of July to Labor Day, and quickly thins out after that. Now, in early autumn, the boats have mostly all been pulled out of the lake, and the aluminum Shore Master docks stand on dry land, waiting for next year. Last weekend we hauled in the summer furniture. Each week, it gets quieter. Which is the way we’ve always liked it — until now.
There was no sign of life on our road — no cars, not even the beam of a flashlight.
“Was that — a gun?” my wife asked.
“Who would be shooting a gun?” I asked.
We imagined the possible answers. People in my village (population 4,000) are generally welcoming to strangers, but you hear stories. Three years ago, they finally caught the North Pond Hermit, a man named Christopher Knight, who’d been living by himself in the woods for 27 years. He survived by committing over a thousand burglaries over those years, mostly of vacant summer homes, places with sheets over the furniture and the water drained out of the pipes. Last week, a man was arrested in Fairfield for shooting his wife in the head twice and burying her body in the backyard of his parents’ house. Like I said, you hear stories.
I went to the front door and swung it wide. The dog stood by my side, growling softly. “Hello?” I called into the dark.
I thought of that scene at the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” when Jem and Scout (dressed in a ham costume) walk through the woods. Jem stops as they walk. “Thought I heard something,” he says. “Stop a minute.” Occasionally there was a sudden breeze that hit my bare legs, but it was all that remained of a promised windy night. This was the stillness before a thunderstorm. We listened.
From the lake came the calling of loons.
I closed the door, and I pulled the bolt. For years the lock on the door was broken, but we hadn’t felt any need to fix it. But then, sometime in the last year, we’d had it fixed, and started bolting it again. Why did I do that, I wondered? What had changed in the country, and my view of my place in it, to alter my sense of safety?
Well, lots of things have happened in the last year. One of them is Donald Trump.
“Part of the problem,” he said at a rally back in March, “Is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.” In February, in Iowa, he noted, “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you?”
On August 9th, in North Carolina, he suggested that “Second Amendment people” could take matters into their own hands if Hillary Clinton is elected. (Later, he suggested it was voting he had in mind, not violence.)
For a long time, I thought that anyone who took Trump’s words without a grain of salt was taking the man way too seriously. After all, the key to Trump is that he’s all blast and blowhard — the only way he matters at all is if we fail to see him as a clown.
And yet, to millions of his supporters, there’s nothing ironic or exaggerated about the man’s words. “Telling it like it is,” is supposed to be his strong suit. And so the world is now full of people who chant, “hang the bitch” or “kill the bitch” at rallies. A Trump campaign advisor suggested that Clinton be “put in the firing line and shot for treason.” Trump himself appeared on the radio show of Alex Jones, a crackpot who suggested that the federal government wants to round up gun owners “like Jews in Nazi Germany.”
Writer Mike Signorile of the Huffington Post, tweeted last week that “Jimmy Fallon inviting Trump on is part of the normalizing of hate.” In response, Signorile received scores of hateful screeds, like this one from “Deplorable Garrett,” who wrote “I’m sure losing the respect of a faggot is causing him to lose sleep at night. Faggot.” Anti-Semitic attacks have been aimed at the Times editor Jonathan Weisman and writer Julia Ioffe. One individual sent Signorile a photograph of a person being thrown off of a building, with the line, “One solution for freaks like u.”
I’m a fairly outspoken member of the LGBTQ community; I write columns for the New York Times; I’m the co-chair of the board of GLAAD; I have appeared many times on television to counter various right-wing ideologues. (On Chris Matthews earlier this summer, I made the controversial statement, “People should open their hearts.”) Once, after a speech in Findlay, Ohio, a young man approached me after the talk and said, “You know, you really opened my eyes. Before I heard you speak tonight, I used to think people like you should be — you know, exterminated.”
I’ve spent nearly a third of my life in the public eye now as an advocate. It has been grueling, discouraging work sometimes, but never — until this year — did I ever worry that I was a target for — as Russo put it, “a certain kind of crazy.” But now I worry about it. As I think about what the right response can be, I admit that — for the first time in my life — I’ve thought about buying a gun. There’s a store just across the river that I know sells handguns like they’re soft preztels.
If you live in Maine, you know plenty of people who hunt, and many of my friends have firearms in their houses; it’s a way of life in the country.
But it’s never been a part of my life. I can’t imagine firing a gun, or being in a situation in which the most likely consequence of my having a gun in my hand isn’t grave injury to myself, or the people I love.
Is this what we’ve come to, though? A gun in the house?
Whatever Donald Trump has unleashed, it’s unlikely to be caged up again by a Clinton victory in November. If the election of Barack Obama appeared to unhinge a certain kind of crazy, the election of Hillary Clinton will surely result in still more unhinging, not less. I don’t know what can restore things to the way they were any more. I can’t imagine returning to those days — as recently as a year ago — when my door stayed unlocked.
I am still determined not to fear — well, as FDR said, fear itself. My wife and I are going to keep living our lives in our little town, raising our family, grading our papers. This will be our protest against everything I dread we have become. We will lead this protest with the force of our own unashamed lives, and go about our business with dignity and kindness just as we have for 28 years now — 12 as husband and wife, 16 as wife and wife.
But it’s unforgivable that we’ve come to live in a time in which living one’s own life without fear is an act of defiance. We never found out who shot the gun that night. But I know who is responsible for the fear we felt. It’s you, Mr. Trump, just as surely as if it was your own finger that pulled the trigger.
This essay was written for the Dedicate Your Anti-Trump vote project. Jennifer Finney Boylan is Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University. She is the national co-chair of GLAAD and serves on the board of trustees of the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Jenny is also the author of 14 books, including the upcoming Long Black Veil (2017) and the just-published YA anti-bullying book, Falcon Quinn and the Bullies of Greenblud.