We owe it to our children to explain post-Trump extremism and never look away
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The day before the inauguration, my 9-year-old asked if we could have the day off from school to celebrate. I thought about my work meeting, scheduled at exactly the time of inauguration, then considered the uniquely post-Trump inaugural scene, set up like a war zone to protect attendees from the looming threats from Trump supporters. We agreed she could have the day off, but that we’d wait until after my meeting was over to watch a recording of the ceremony together.
Fortunately, the ceremony proceeded without disruption. It was moving to watch the ceremony that transitioned us from a dark era filled with ineptitude and callousness to one of competence and compassion. Biden’s speech was filled with optimism and hope and the same overarching theme we’ve heard for months of unity and healing. I’m never quite sure what to do with those sentiments these days. Often I scoff.
Who is Biden talking about uniting with, I wonder? The Republicans working from within the House and Senate Chambers to undermine a legitimate election? Violent insurrectionists, who stormed the Capitol? The more than 70 million people that voted for Trump? Is every conspiracy theorist eager to trade democracy for power?
Every Trump supporter is someone’s friend, someone’s neighbor, someone’s parent or kid. And regardless of how we know them, their beliefs and their behavior make them dangerous.
I was talking the other day to my partner about this wild article I’d read in the Washington Post that reported on the people turning in their white nationalist family members to the FBI. My 9-year-old overheard us and was aghast. “They’re turning in their family to the police?!” My partner looked at her and said, “If you saw a picture of your friend, T, at the Capitol, bragging about breaking in with a mob that scared and hurt and killed people, would you keep it a secret or would you tell someone?” She said, “I’d tell someone.”
It’s a hard thing to fathom. Usually, we think about all of the ways that we’d protect our immediate and distant family. But, over the past four years, many of us endured inflammatory remarks from family members who were willing to put us and those they claimed to love in harm’s way. We’ve looked on as some of them embraced a twisted ideology that traded in our humanity and our ability to feel safe in exchange for political power.
The distinction that names Trump voters as those that actively participated in hurting marginalized people and threatened democracy is vital. Severing relationships or turning in insurrectionists to the FBI are not acts of harm against Trump supporters; they are legitimate responses to threats. I didn’t initiate the damage to relationships when I established boundaries or cut ties with some family members; the ones who voted for Trump initiated that damage. My reaction to their platforming of bigotry and upending democracy isn’t hostile; it’s protective.
My youngest has been processing how she could have been deceived by people she loves – how they could say they love her but vote against her future, how they could proclaim the inner love of Jesus but align with white nationalism and policies that center hate. As she works through it, I affirm her feelings — they are big and they are valid. We talk a lot about her worth and who gets to define it. We talk about the importance of boundaries.
While my daughter reconciles her feelings, I’m also evaluating the constant state of stress from the past four years on my own mental health and my body – the kind that damages cells and the immune system, that speeds up the aging process. These repeated calls for unity in the context of a barely post-Trump era are familiar to those who have survived abuse. Both Trump supporters and domestic abusers rely on lies to enact violence, both attempt to frame violators as victims, both demand submission, both insist they acted out of love.
Pro-Trump extremism isn’t just a subset of camo-clad, gun-toting, Capitol-storming Trump supporters. Everyone that aligns or sympathizes with Trump’s hate-based policies — those who avert their eyes from caged children, those who rationalize their support under a single “moral” issue, those who agree with attempts to undermine the election — are all extremists. If Trump voters have taught us anything, they’ve taught us who they are. And I believe them. At this point, we all should. Just as you can’t reconcile with abusers, you can’t unify with extremists. Fascism, like abuse, thrives when people are complicit, are willing to look away, or want to minimize their role.
We can’t pretend the horrors of the Trump administration didn’t happen. We can’t downplay them, we can’t ignore the riots or suggest they were a few bad apples. We must not pretend that the rioters didn’t represent the 70 million supporters as a whole; like they weren’t sent on a mission by the president, himself; like they weren’t egged on by scores of GOP lawmakers.
Every Trump supporter is an extremist and it’s not hostile to speak that truth out loud. In fact, if we ever hope to move on and heal, we have to begin there. How can there be accountability without openly identifying an ideology that threatens our nation? Accountability isn’t about vengeance; it’s about justice for the nation and protection for the most vulnerable. It’s about silencing a dangerous movement, it’s saying that democracy will not be so easily bent.
Trump voters sacrificed family members, neighbors, co-workers, and friends in exchange for a promise of white supremacy and fascism. That’s a story that no one should be willing to re-write in some white-washed attempt to make this part of American history more palatable. What happened in my body as I feared for my family’s safety and the safety of people I love and people I don’t even know isn’t erased because Biden won the election. It’s not as though the Trump presidency didn’t happen, didn’t alter the world, didn’t change the course of people’s lives.
My family wasn’t at the Capitol. I don’t have to consider outing them to the FBI. But, for those whose votes and rhetoric align with Trump, I will name out loud the extremists that they are. If we care about democracy, about our kids’ future, about the most marginalized and vulnerable, we must be willing to name the white supremacy that defines who Trump adherents are. Extremists don’t want unity or healing, they want power.
Teachers and parents were afraid to watch Wednesday’s transfer of power with their kids for fear that they’d witness violence unfolding live. The inauguration looked like a war zone because of the threat of Trump, because of the threat of GOP lawmakers, because of the threat of Trump supporters. It’s tempting to get comfortable, to agree to just move on, to look to the future and never look back on this painful period. But, our kids’ future demands that we never look away.
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