black mirror

What a Trump victory really means: America can now see its own ugliness

Getty/Andrew Renneisen

We have yet to find out how president-elect Donald Trump will preside over the country, but one thing is for sure: Trump’s 2016 presidential run will be remembered for the way he routinely dehumanized and disparaged marginalized groups. I’ll never forget the moments when I found myself in shock—not because a presidential candidate believed the things Trump was saying, but because he was actually saying them. A prominent political figure was plastered across our screens all day, bumbling from state to state, shining a light on an America so many were sure only existed in black-and-white documentaries.

Trump supporters favorably cited the fact that their candidate didn’t mince words, which I actually found refreshing, too. It offered momentary relief from the seemingly never-ending burden of calling out prejudice and bigotry. That burden exists because modern America has an advanced degree in disguising its -isms and -phobias, in gaslighting marginalized groups. But finally, here it was in all its grotesque splendor. Watching the anti-PC brigade do its thing under Trump’s tent was therapeutic. It was a regular reminder that I am not going crazy.

Trump’s historic victory is devastating to progressives in so many ways, but it’s also allowing us to see America for what it truly is. Trump voters aren’t all racists, sexists, xenophobes, anti-Semites or Islamophobes, but they are willing to support a man who purposefully peddles in that dark space. We now know we’re capable of producing a president who is wildly popular with white supremacists and a broader subset of voters who don’t fall into that category but will sleep just fine knowing they’re sharing a bunk bed. An orange man without a dog whistle gathered more votes than any other nominee in his party’s history. And then almost 60 million Americans voted for him.

The sharp visibility of bigotry is a direct byproduct of Donald Trump’s circus.

One silver lining: After this nightmarish election, the concerns of groups previously labeled paranoid or too sensitive—when they weren’t being ignored—have been validated on the national stage. The sharp visibility of these issues is a direct byproduct of Donald Trump’s circus.

By this point, you’re probably intimately familiar with Trump’s greatest hits, but here’s just a quick refresher: He kicked things off by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. He tweeted out anti-Semitic images and then feigned ignorance in an electoral climate that’s seen hundreds of Jewish journalists targeted with hateful messages and violent threats. He proposed banning all Muslims from entering the United States, as if Muslim Detection Software exists. He’s talked about deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants for not following the rules while his immigrant wife reportedly worked illegally in the United States. He’s called black people thugs and responds to episodes of police brutality by reflexively touting his support for blue lives. He refused to apologize for the full-page ad he took out in four major newspapers back in 1989 calling for the execution of the Central Park Five, even though the five men who were arrested and imprisoned for raping and murdering a white women were since exonerated. Women wielding Trump critiques are routinely shamed for their appearance by Trump himself. I’ve lost count of the number of sexual assault allegations he’s facing, and who can forget #GrabThemByThePussyGate?

Americans needed to see this. All of it. From a major party nominee. Not because it’s a moment of joy or accomplishment for the targets of his vitriol, but because large swaths of America won’t believe what they can’t see. That explains the extreme shock we’ve seen at the outcome from much of liberal America. It took video evidence of black people dying for plenty of people to believe black people about the treatment of their bodies at the hands of the police. It took a video of former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice punching his then-girlfriend in an elevator to start a public discussion of domestic violence in sports. Similarly, there was a significant portion of the country who never believed that someone with Donald Trump’s track record could ascend to the nation’s highest office. Not in 2016. Because we were past that. Because bigotry’s reserve is in the backwater part of America that watches everything Larry the Cable Guy puts out.

Americans needed to see this. All of it. From a major party nominee.

Trump made it crystal-clear what he meant by wanting to “Make America Great Again.” But before Trump kicked off his campaign on June 16, 2015, it was unclear whether our country would condone, much less emphatically support, his brand of rhetoric. We knew that America would vote for a smoother version of Trump, someone with the same fearful politics who cleaned up well and used “African-American” instead of “the blacks.” But we now know with certainty that America is willing to wave away a lot more than what we originally thought from an aspiring Commander-in-Chief. And if we’re willing to accept that from a Commander-in-Chief, it’s worth wondering what we’re willing to accept in our communities.

Trump’s win is doubly shocking because his toxic rhetoric was greeted with perpetual finger-wagging along the way—first from the left, and then gradually from a more conservative National Review-loving crowd—presumably to let it be known that this is the worst of what America has to offer. Trump achieved this victory despite a long list of prominent Republicans, including former Republican presidents, refusing to endorse him. Trump not only survived this criticism—he thrived, emboldened by the yuge crowds chanting about walls and cheering as he denied knowing any of the women who had accused him of sexual assault, even though one of them was on The Apprentice.

All of this begs the question: Did those detractors really care about these issues or the people targeted by Trump’s poisonous rhetoric, or were they just trying take down a man many perceived to be an unsuitable candidate?

As Trump racked up sexual assault allegations, our televisions, websites, and social media feeds exploded. But what we seemed to be most concerned about was how an alleged sexual assault victim could be used to take down Donald Trump, and not so much with our culture of sexual violence. This pattern of using people’s suffering as ammunition featured regularly over the course of the campaign. Trump’s foul actions and language have been routinely used to cast Trump and his supporters as individually evil. And so injustice often felt like it was relegated to the role of a pawn in a political game—not evidence of a broader national character.

The outcome of this election shows us that this wasn’t just a horrifying blip in our history or the result of a few crazy people; it’s a mirror of our collective reality. Thanks to Trump, we’ve had a rare, pristine shot of injustice in action—and we will continue to have it. That view makes it clear, on a national level, the extent to which so many groups experience vilification and marginalization. Perhaps now fewer of us will need video evidence to believe people’s struggle. Perhaps we won’t need lists of assaulted women to have a broader conversation about assault. Perhaps we don’t need hate-crimes to recognize the strain that our simplistic and oft-misguided national security conversations place on our Muslim neighbors.

Thanks to Trump, so much information, anecdotal and empirical, is already in the air. We can’t unsee the ugliness. And we now know that ugliness won’t stop someone’s meteoric rise in America.