Like most decent people, I watched with horror Monday evening as peaceful protestors were violently dispersed from Washington’s Lafayette Square so that the President could have a photo-op. It was one of the most fascistic moments in modern American history. Those of us opposed to the Trump regime were distraught. Gun control advocate Nelba Marquez-Greene articulated the frustrations of so many by succinctly tweeting: “We told you.”
There’s the rub. We did, indeed, tell them. What many of us failed to understand, or perhaps didn’t want to understand, is that all this — the strongman posturing, the authoritarianism, the brutality — all this is a feature, not a bug. A popular saying on the American left is “this is not who we are.” That is a lie we tell ourselves. This is exactly who we are. It is who we have always been.
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My family spans four states, all of which I have called home. From Ohio to North Carolina, both of which were crucial swing states in 2016, many of them are strident Red Hats. I come from a family, from a part of the country, in which home décor often consists of reclaimed wood painted red, white, and blue and the military is worshipped like God. Beneath the stereotype of “Midwest nice” and “southern hospitality,” a bloviating jingoism, a blustery bullying, a latent authoritarianism has always lurked.
The first authoritarians on these shores were arguably the Puritans, who valued a rigid social order and strict adherence to a narrow set of beliefs. John Adams famously signed the Alien and Sedition Acts to deport foreigners, make it harder for immigrants to vote, and criminalised “false statements” critical of the federal government.
In the 19th century, the Know Nothings campaigned on anti-Catholic, anti-immigration platforms. They were born out of a xenophobic secret society known as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, which demanded members obey orders without question. Andrew Jackson committed an act of ethnic cleansing against the Native Americans east of the Mississippi, marching them along the Trail of Tears. To this day his portrait graces the $20 bill and hangs in the Oval Office. This is who we are. This is who we have always been.
Into the 20th century, the Sedition Act of 1918 was readily passed by Congress at Woodrow Wilson’s urging, severely curtailing free speech in the name of war morale and directly leading to the suppressing of vital public health information during the Spanish Flu pandemic. We interred Japanese Americans in the Second World War. Fifty years ago, student protestors were shot and killed by National Guard members at Kent State University. After 9/11, we renamed French fries “freedom fries” and the Dixie Chicks received so much hate and so many death threats that they went into hiding for three years and then wrote a song about it. Protesters at Standing Rock, opposed to a pipeline across sacred Lakota land, were met by the state with violent force.
And then there are America’s two original sins. Settler colonialism and chattel slavery led to centuries of genocide and reservations and lynchings and Jim Crow. This legacy is still with us in so many ways, including the police brutality the demonstrators gassed in Lafayette Park were protesting. And while all of this happened, a significant portion of the American people cheered.
In 2016, the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams found that high levels of authoritarianism frequently correlate with support for Donald Trump. This does not mean these folks consciously crave dictatorship, but rather that they express classic authoritarian traits — a desire for “law and order” and social hierarchies, for example — triggered by their anxiety over social change. This is what makes engaging with my Trump-voting family so tricky. Most of them are incredibly defensive and utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause because anything that challenges the status quo is seen as an innately bad thing.
Some will never change. A relative commented on a recent Facebook status that “looters should be summarily executed” and “Antifa should be shot. Block me if you want.” That’s a pretty unshakable worldview, and an argument over social media was not likely to change his mind, so I didn’t respond.
Another relative, commenting on a family member’s post in which she worried for her biracial daughters, wrote: “All lives matter.” I did respond to that one, politely pointing out why that phrase was problematic and why Black Lives Matter, both the phrase and the movement, are so important. She hasn’t responded, but I hope it starts a dialogue, one that will continue off social media and into real life.
I won’t pretend it’s easy having these conversations, or choosing a moment to stay silent when someone says something you feel is so indefensible. And I won’t pretend it isn’t hurtful or infuriating when I see people who I love and who love me cheer on our descent into dictatorship. But cutting Trump supporters out of our lives isn’t an option. I tried that, and it doesn’t work. It is only with honest and frank conversations that I have ever seen my friends and family change their minds on Donald Trump.
We’ve done it before. Abolitionists held meetings in churches and town halls, suffragists recruited in their homes and on the streets, anti-war protesters took their message not only to the streets but to their parents’ kitchen tables. The tide of history does not turn on its own, and movements do not start and end with marching. Social change starts at home, with our family and friends. It’s hard, but we can do it.
After all, this is who we are. This is who we have always been.