This story is by Vanessa Shinmoto and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Election night 2016 started out with a hopeful excitement that history would support our idealism. Eight years ago, we elected our first Black president and now it was time to continue the upward trajectory of progress and elect a woman. Even if that woman was Hillary Clinton, whom my circle of liberal, creative and artistic friends did not initially support. The media and other political and cultural elites took it for granted that a Clinton presidency was a cinch. Our feminist dreams lay almost within our grasp and we were ready to make history.
But that’s not how things turned out. Instead, a billionaire buffoon who spent much of his life chasing celebrity and getting off won the U.S. presidency. Those who elected him simply did not care about his lack of political experience, his outrageous and insensitive remarks geared at anyone lacking white skin and a penis, much less the possibility that he sexually assaulted women. None of that mattered because he articulated their simmering rage at a political establishment that funded special interests with their tax money and at media elites that enforced an oppressive political correctness on the American masses. He articulated their pain and appealed to their sense that they had built this country and once made it great.
The Trump Perspective
At least that is how one former socially conservative, white co-worker expressed it to me during the Great Recession, years before Trump’s unprecedented election. We worked together at the same crappy temp job at an alternative energy company with no health benefits. It was the only job she could get after she lost her former job as a mid-level manager at an insurance company where she had worked for over 20 years. When she lost her job, she also lost her pension and health insurance. Even her retirement savings mostly vanished when the stock markets crashed in 2007. The Great Recession shattered her dream of spending her golden years traveling, relaxing and playing with grandchildren. Instead, she scraped by on the same pittance I made, wondering how to afford all the medical bills from her husband’s COPD.
Her bitterness was palpable and undeniable and she needed to blame something or someone. The Obama administration, affirmative action and permissive attitudes that in her eyes condoned sexual immorality became obvious targets for her rancor. She was proud of her American ancestry and her Polish, German and Italian roots that went back to the 1820s, during that first wave of immigration to the U.S. The small rural town where she grew up in southern Illinois never fully recovered from the loss of a major manufacturing plant. In her view these jobs went to less deserving people in pathetic developing countries with despotic and corrupt leaders. Affirmative action policies excluded her children while Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Asians and other immigrant newcomers got ahead at her expense. And, to to make things worse, she now had to use politically correct language to avoid offending people in our somewhat multicultural office.
I often wondered how clearly she saw my Asian face when she said things like that. She knew about my mixed-race ethnic heritage, about how my Japanese American–born father met my Colombian mother at a party in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. What she did not know was how long my father’s family had been in the U.S., maybe not quite as long as her family but long enough, over a hundred years. Both my father’s paternal and maternal ancestors emigrated to Oregon and California from Japan sometime in the late 1860s. But their non-European genetics marked them as permanent foreigners, ineligible for U.S. citizenship and even land ownership. Her ancestors had not faced this type of discriminatory legislation but in her view such discrimination was a thing of the past and not worth agitating about. After all, we now had a Black President. End of story.
So I kept my mouth shut for the sake of workplace civility and allowed her raw anger to give me a glimpse into her world, a world vastly different from my socially liberal and culturally diverse world of creative types: artists, writers, musicians, actors, photographers and filmmakers. Many of my close friends openly challenged traditional values and social norms in their lifestyles and their art. One performance artist friend stood on her head naked in a suburban train station and got arrested for public nudity. Another wrote and directed a satirical and revisionist version of the birth of Jesus, where she always cast a gay drag queen to play the part of Virgin Mary. Her play included a scene where the Virgin Mary experiences an orgasm during the angel Gabriel’s visitation. For us, our Black President only represented the potential for a truly enlightened, multicultural society.
The Failure of Multiculturalism
Such an idealized multicultural society did not exist in her world. Good, old-fashioned Christian values already provided a framework for the idealized society and multiculturalism was too complicated. Besides, her ancestors had been here first and had built this country into the great nation it once was. I bit my tongue as I thought of the Native American tribes our government ruthlessly displaced during the era of manifest destiny to clear the way for her ancestors. She told me, “You educated people can worry about multiculturalism and that bullsh*t.”
I smirked at her underlying barb and enjoyed my sense of superiority for a moment. She was a fat, dumb hillbilly from the sticks and I was a hip, progressive artist from California. Then it struck me that we worked at the same crappy temp job where my education pretty much meant sh*t. All my patient explanations about civil rights, legislative policy, social justice, parity and discrimination meant nothing to her. None of those paid the bills that kept piling up as she fretted about her children’s college debt and her dim future. And truth be told, all my knowledge on these issues gave me no real advantages in terms of my financial security as I struggled to pay down credit card debt that I racked up during two years of unemployment.
I often think of her whenever shrill and angry posts about Trump and his supporters show up on my Facebook feed. I remember the way her voice cracked and the deep pain in her eyes when she expressed her belief that minorities and recent immigrants enjoyed better opportunities. Perhaps I could have pressed on with my progressive ideals and insisted that she understand my history. My Japanese-American grandparents lost everything when they were interned, and my bitter grandfather fell into a deep depression after he chose to repatriate to Japan and saw with his own eyes the horror of the aftermath of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. After all, her ancestors never experienced anything like that.
But the hard-line stance many of my close friends take against Trump supporters ignores the more complicated and nuanced reality behind her racism. To dismiss my former coworker and those like her as vile and stupid bigots only creates more division and prevents the possibility of any productive dialog on these difficult issues. The general dialog around racism in America myopically focuses on race and ethnic heritage without taking into account larger, long-term economic trends that began in the 1970s. Wage stagnation, the shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy and increasing wealth inequality have eroded our faith in the American Dream as we struggle with higher costs and worry about our future.
Our political leadership has failed us in this regard as they have not adequately addressed these larger economic trends. Instead they have exacerbated these trends with trade agreements and monetary policies that serve the interests of capitalist elites who fund their political campaigns. With the help of a media industry that profits from sensationalism, politicians and capitalist elites exploit our racism and bigotry to maintain a status quo that serves them. Thanks to them, we are all in the same crappy economic boat, working longer hours for less pay, bickering over social issues and anticipating the potentially bleak future that awaits us if things do not change.