Many Americans woke up terrified this morning.
They’ll wake up afraid tomorrow, and the day after that, and every day of the newly elected Donald Trump administration. January 20 might be especially scary — but not as scary as January 21, or the day after that, or the day after that.
Teachers are trying to reassure their elementary school students that they won’t be deported under a President Trump — while young immigrant adults are putting off those conversations with their unauthorized-immigrant parents, because they don’t know how to address the fact that, yes, perhaps they will be. Longtime US residents wonder if they can travel abroad, or whether they’d be barred from returning due to immigrant heritage and Muslim faith.
My colleague Lauren Williams is worried “about my sweet, oversize baby growing up to be an oversize boy, one who might one day be mistaken by a police officer as older than he is or more dangerous than he is because of the color of his skin.”
By instinct, it’s tempting to dismiss these fears as paranoia — as assuming the worst of a Trump presidency. You might see them as sour grapes from people unwilling to turn the page from a bitter and divisive campaign.
But the terrible thing is that the evidence is on their side, not yours.
For perhaps millions of immigrants, Muslims, and people of color in this country, their fear is rooted in the way Donald Trump has run his campaign for the last 18 months — and 200 years of American history. To these people, optimism is nothing more than denial.
The people who woke up afraid today have been the ones warning, unheeded, that Donald Trump’s campaign was not a thought experiment. Now, they are under direct threat from his presidency. And very little that Trump has said or done as a candidate renders those fears anything less than deeply rational.
People are afraid because they take Donald Trump seriously
Listen to anyone trying to explain what the hell just happened in the US presidential election, and you’ll hear something that Peter Thiel argued in the campaign’s final days: The media took Donald Trump literally, but not seriously. Voters took him seriously, but not literally.
Only a fool, in other words, would believe that President Trump would do the things that candidate Trump promised to do.
Millions of Americans, though — and it’s not surprising that they were disproportionately people of color — took Trump both seriously and literally. They took Donald Trump seriously enough to listen to what he was promising, and believe it.
They noticed that out of only seven policy proposals on his campaign website, two were about immigration enforcement and making Mexico pay for the wall; that while the “Muslim ban” evolved substantially over the course of the campaign, its final form resembled something that a president could easily implement and that might even survive a court challenge.
The “literally but not seriously” line was ultimately a form of denial. It was horrible to believe that Donald Trump’s policy proposals could actually be enacted — so it was better to assume that they were just political theater.
Some clung to the idea that Donald Trump didn’t believe anything he said, and that therefore if he said something he must believe the opposite. But the people who took him seriously from the beginning — who were scared from the beginning — now have to cope with the terrifying possibility that they were right all along.
Donald Trump has no problem with ruling through fear
Donald Trump is the first person to be elected president of the United States without any experience in politics or the military. On the trail, he often gave little indication he was interested in the workings of the federal government much at all.
President Trump is unlikely to take an active role in the day-to-day management of the Department of Justice, for example. But that doesn’t mean that his impact on the federal government will be minimal. It means that his impact will rest primarily on who he chooses to carry out his work for him.
And we know who those people are.
They are Reince Priebus — who never reined Trump in as chair of the Republican National Committee — and Steve Bannon, who’s done as much as anyone to make overt racism cool again.
It is not comforting to a black American to know that federal oversight of police-community relations and voting rights will be in the hands of Jeff Sessions, who doesn’t believe that black voters were ever disenfranchised in Shelby County, Alabama. It’s not comforting to a Muslim-American to know that the person passing along intelligence information to Trump, on a daily basis, is someone who believes that Islam and democracy are headed for a clash of civilizations.
Maybe Donald Trump doesn’t firmly believe that the federal government does too much to protect people of color. But the people around him certainly do.
Donald Trump uses his power to reward his friends and, especially, to crush his enemies. He sees vengeance as a life philosophy, and he believes obedience comes through fear. There’s no reason to doubt that he would approve of such a philosophy being used to govern in his name.
What Trumpism inspired in the American people is every bit as terrifying as what Trump would do
The word that defined Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency, to me and many others, was this: emboldened.
White supremacist organizations are rejuvenated. People feel less constrained by “political correctness” to speak their minds about the problems with society — even to the point, occasionally, of confronting strangers. A generation of children of color is being bullied by threats that the president-elect will send them back — the policy’s appropriation into everyday life is nearly as chilling as the policy itself.
People of color saw this coming. Even in the early months of Trump’s campaign, when it looked like he would try to build a white-black coalition united against the immigrant threat, most black Americans had no interest in hearing what Trump had to say, because they knew that the people responding well to Donald Trump didn’t tend to have warm feelings toward black people, either.
They were right. Trump has won, and former Klansman David Duke celebrated. Many have already reported harassment from Trump’s biggest fans.
Donald Trump’s presidential administration wouldn’t have to do anything to allow these things to happen. Quite the opposite: It would simply need to do less to prevent them.
The US has a long history of extralegal racial violence condoned by an indifferent or tacitly-supportive federal government; it has an even longer history of presidents attempting to float above the fray in times of social conflict, refraining from speaking up about threats to members of the populace for fear of being labeled controversial.
If Donald Trump doesn’t do any of the things he’s promised to do as president, his election still poses a threat to people of color that didn’t exist yesterday. He will need to take positive action to curb that threat — to show people who are afraid of him and those who he inspires that their fear is unneeded, that they are in fact welcome in the America he’s building. And there’s no indication, as yet, that he’ll do so.
It’s one thing to accept the validity of Trump’s election for the sake of democratic transfer of power. It’s another thing to pretend that this is some sort of new chapter.
Some of the people I know are working hard to be resilient. Greisa Martinez of the immigrant advocacy group United We Dream said, the day after the election, that when she told her mother they would have to live under President Trump, it was a hopeful moment as well as a fearful one: “It reminded us of the moment we had to cross the Rio Grande when I was 7 years old. It reminded us that we have faced struggles and we can do it again.”
It’s an admirable response. But resilience is far more than we can ask of anyone.
It is not on people who are under threat by Donald Trump’s presidency — under threat by the America that he was elected by promising — to put their fears aside. It’s absurd to ask them to forget everything they’ve seen that others have ignored.