I’m in the minority these days in that I’m not counting down the days until Trump is impeached. It’s not that his physical presence doesn’t inspire revulsion in me, and it’s certainly not that his policies don’t inspire horror. But I feel like he is good medicine for this country right now. Every day, when I see the latest disasters in the news, I cycle through the predictable emotions—but it usually ends on an almost giddy joy. Trump is refusing to let us rest, much less go back to sleep—and, though it’s exhausting, I find this to be a huge gift.
Although I’m extremely cognizant of the very real suffering Trump’s policies are creating, Trump’s relentless onslaught on all the issues and communities that I care about is also lifting the veil on the suffering those communities have always endured, which is actually a tremendous relief to me, as someone who has spent my adult life devoted to educating people about injustice. In a weird way, my work has actually gotten a lot easier in the current climate.
My housemate, who when Trump was elected told me that she doesn’t think that politics impact her anyhow, is now attending city council meetings and eating only at immigrant-owned restaurants. A good friend in Minneapolis is suddenly texting me wanting to know about my life as a transgender person because her heart has been awakened by the hatred and scapegoating she has seen in the media. Not only has hate been emboldened in this context; so has love.
When people ask me how I am enduring the transphobia of the Trump regime, I never know how to answer, because it assumes that Trump’s agenda is significantly different from the kind of fear and violence and hatred and scapegoating and existential erasure I have always experienced as a trans person in this country. I just experience it more honestly now, without the suffocating rhetoric of “progress” surrounding it.
Sure Trump is outrageous, sure he is provocative, sure he has upped the intensity and frequency of the onslaught against all marginalized people—but he is not doing anything particularly novel (the Obama administration actually deported more people than any other administration in history). Trump is just allowing ordinary (i.e. privileged) folks to finally see what has always been going on, because it has become blatant enough to break through the luxurious bubble of obliviousness that privilege enculturates and demands. This is tremendously hopeful to me, because it means that as a country, we are actually becoming more on the same page with one another—even though on the surface it looks like one of our most divisive moments ever.
I will be honest with you—what has inspired nearly equal ire in me has been the response of the Democrats, in particular the invocation of “American values” to undermine Trump. I get regular emails with this sort of language:
“Trump is CORRODING our American values and DESTROYING what makes our country already great. President Trump is delegitimizing some of our most fundamental American values. Trump’s behavior flies in the face of everything we stand for as a nation.”
This is shameless self-deception. Donald Trump is not the antithesis of American values, he is the ultimate embodiment of “our American values”—that’s one of the reasons why he makes people so uncomfortable (and it helps explain his popularity). He outstandingly personifies American arrogance, exceptionalism, and isolationism; the brutal violence and entitlement that was at the heart of the founding of this country; the toxic masculinity and rape culture so prevalent in the media and on our college campuses; the greed and toxic capitalism that are at the heart of our economic and social policy. He may not represent who we want to be, but he surely represents who we are.
The toxic whiteness that Trump skillfully deploys is not an example of “bad whiteness” as many white middle-class liberals want to argue—instead it is central to the operation of whiteness itself. “Whiteness” as an idea originated in the colonies in order to co-opt the loyalty of poor white people, to get them to pledge their allegiance to wealthy whites rather than bond with poor people of color. They were given the comfort of white supremacy to compensate for their economic disadvantage—a dynamic that was at the heart of the November election.
The reason that Trump is our current President is exactly because we need to take an honest look in the mirror, and Trump uncomfortably reflects back to us the areas we desperately need to work on—which is why I consider his presence to be a gift. The biggest danger of this moment in history, in my opinion, is that we might delude ourselves into believing that it is Trump that is the problem—and that somehow getting rid of Trump will be the answer.
This week my students are reading Sylvanna Falcon’s outstanding piece, “Rape as a Weapon of War: Rape at the U.S.-Mexico Border,” and one of her most powerful points (from the work of Beverly Allen) is that “rape occurs when fear and insecurity are joined with power and immunity from prosecution” in a hierarchical social system. I think this simple observation explains so much of what we are seeing currently in this country, beyond sexual violence and beyond the border. I think one of the most urgent tasks in our country right now is to heal fear—and as each of us does this and refuses fear in our own lives, we also start to shift this patterning in the collective and become less susceptible to manipulation.
As someone who has done research in South Africa since the late ‘90s, I have been struck for some time by the ways that the contemporary U.S. reminds me very much of the end days of apartheid in South Africa. Increasingly since 9/11 we have pursued the misguided and hysterical belief that more control equals more safety—often manifested as hyperfocus on regulating people’s movements through fixation on identity documents and brutal enforcement of artificial borders. Although we portray ourselves as an immigrant nation, we are actually highly suspicious of people who don’t stay in place—whether the borders people move across are physical or social, such as gender fluidity.
Dominance is always linked to fear. It is rooted in the belief that control is the only way to get one’s needs met, that if you are not dominant you will be taken advantage of. Dominance requires the vigilant maintenance of one’s position (including pre-emptively), so it not surprising that the U.S. has the highest levels of anxiety of anywhere in the world—even more than countries where people are living in dire poverty or under the devastation of warfare. This is why I believe that the U.S. will never experience peace and true happiness (not just the addictive frenzy of unfettered consumption touted as “freedom” and “happiness”) as long as it insists on its current role in the global community. I think being aware of this connection between dominance and fear also offers insight into the amazing ability of the U.S., especially post 9/11, to represent itself as global victim and hero while operating as global bully.
One of the things I know about bullies, from my decades of spiritual work, is that bullies are deeply wounded people—who are often carrying so much pain internally that the only way they can survive is to project that pain outward and disperse it into the environment around them. I actually have a lot of compassion for Donald Trump. I think it takes a lot of soul strength to so publicly and strikingly embody the extremes of toxic masculinity, toxic whiteness, toxic nationalism, and toxic capitalism so that people are finally able to actually recognize what we have been participating in and have the opportunity to choose to reject it. Donald Trump is showing us what is unhealed in our nation, the work that urgently needs to be done, and he is giving us strong motivation to get over our fear and complacency and resistance and get to that work—for our own survival.
I don’t want to “annihilate” or “humiliate” Trump, as the Democrats have been boasting. I don’t want to live in a world where anyone has to be humiliated for my happiness. Instead, my vision for Donald Trump is that he will go down in history as the man who killed capitalism (and hopefully the American Empire along with it). It seems entirely possible—we’ve been in the late stages of industrial capitalism for some time now, and Trump represents so beautifully the excesses of corporate greed. I think it would be such a fitting legacy for him and a really lovely role of service to the collective.
Wake Up, Everybody
While many folks around me are finding comfort in nostalgia about the Obama years, the last 5 years were actually a time of great despair for me. We are currently in the process of transformation that I thought was coming in 2012. When 2012 came and went and nothing was different, I fell into a deep depression and resigned myself to the possibility that we were not going to evolve in my lifetime. I certainly did not expect Donald Trump to be elected President, nor expect his election to be the catalyst for the kind of transformation I was born to help facilitate! But here we are, finally, and I am filled with relief and gratitude.
Five years ago I made myself a 2012 mix CD, and the heart of its message was found in the Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes song “Wake Up Everybody,” which was a significant song of my childhood (it was featured in a commercial for the United Negro College Fund that was formative in my desire to become a teacher). In addition to directing Phoenix, the trans choir my partner and I started in 2015, I sing in Mosaic Gospel Choir on the CU campus. Incredibly, this semester we are singing “Wake Up Everybody!” And it has given me a weekly opportunity to reflect on my gratitude to Donald Trump for helping us to wake up and giving us the courage and motivation and determination to create a better world. We may never get another chance, so now is the time for us to bring our best selves forward to at least try to actualize what we’ve been dreaming of.
“Wake up everybody, no more sleepin’ in bed. No more backwards thinkin’, time for thinkin’ ahead…. Wake up, all the builders, time to build a new land. I know we can do it if we all lend a hand…. The world won’t get no better, if we just let it be. The world won’t get no better—we gotta change it yeah, you and me.”