Despondency and disbelief – as well as patience and hope – in the US after historic elections
As I set out to cover an anti-Trump protest a day after the US election results, my instructors said something unprecedented: “Be careful.” I’ve been living in Chicago since June. During the initial days of my graduate school, they had emphasised that in America no one can bully the press and get away with it. Their confidence motivated me to report fearlessly about the black community, human rights and women’s rights in a country alien for me. However, the narrative has changed just in a day.
People across the country eagerly waited for the result day. Some were confident that the billionaire realtor and celebrity would be banished from the political scene. But they were in for a shock as Trump clinched one swing state after another and beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. “We all took Trump as a joke. We never bothered to hear what other news outlets were saying,” said my classmate Kelly Wang. She regrets depending on pro-Clinton news outlets like CNN, MSNBC and New York Times, which never took Trump seriously and projected Clinton as the clear winner. News channels did not factor in people’s mood after FBI director James Comey’s letter to the Congress on the eve of elections that may have galvanised people against Clinton at the last moment. The FBI though gave her a clean chit before the election day.
“Voters got completely blindsided. When I was reporting from a Trump rally in Wisconsin, his supporters told me, ‘Don’t believe everything the mainstream media tells you.’ Had I bothered to read what other news media were saying, I would have reported differently,” said Wang.
A day after the elections, I walked into a gloomy and silent newsroom. Our instructors encouraged us to talk about our feelings regarding Trump’s victory and shared theirs. “I was in New York during 9/11. It smelled of death and destruction everywhere,” said my video instructor Ivan Meyers. “I thought that America will never be the same again. But we moved on,” he said trying to encourage us to look beyond the election results.
Karys Belger, another student, was visibly in shock as she listened to Meyers. “I come from a long line of African Americans who put a lot on the line for me to be here today. My family members have been fighting for America since 1812. Trump has inspired hatred for anyone who is different. I am black, a woman and think differently [than Trump]. I never imagined that the work of my ancestors would be undone by one man. People who elected him have never picked up a history book. My mother grew up in the civil rights era. To her, Trump’s victory brings the same kind of gloom that came with the assassination of Martin Luther King or Kennedy or Malcolm X. I was blessed growing up at the turn of the 21st century and now it feels like the 1960s again. It’s terrifying.”
Belger who considers herself spiritual and Christian wonders how Evangelicals could vote for Trump. “Trump preached hate. He preached that somebody’s happiness is dependent on suppressing somebody else’s happiness. They [Evangelicals] did what no God-fearing Christian would do.”
Trump’s ‘birther conspiracy’ targeting president Barack Obama has made African-Americans like Belger deeply worried.
“Even if Clinton had won, it would have been a very close margin. What does that say about us? It shows how divided we are. If she had won by a landslide, it would have been a clear repudiation of all that Trump represents,” said Jasmine Minor, a black woman and graduate student at Medill. In 2013, a study by US census bureau revealed that by 2043 whites will no longer be a majority population in the country. “White Americans are scared to be a minority,” Minor added.
Cesar Torres, 42, came to the US at the age of 12 from Mexico. He holds dual citizenship and identifies as gay. “I voted for Hillary. [But] I am not shocked by the results. A lot of hatred expressed by his supporters is out there,” he said. Keeping his hopes high, Torres still believes that progress is part of the country.
The 2016 election has not only divided Americans on the lines of race and religion but also along the family lines. After the election, younger and liberal Americans are dreading upcoming Thanksgiving family reunions where they will meet their older relatives – mostly Trump supporters. “I and my sister had to leave a family group text after the results were declared,” said Nora Youkin, who could not put up with their excitement around Trump victory.
Meanwhile, many young Americans unable to cope with the Trump-Pence victory have taken to the streets across several cities. In Chicago, an event called ‘Point and laugh at the Trump Tower’ was scheduled on the evening of November 9 to ridicule him. But after his win, the event morphed into a protest. Thousands of people gathered in front of the tower in downtown Chicago. The Chicago police department (CPD) had to close several streets to block the way to the tower. But the protestors were not deterred. They disrupted traffic and called for Trump’s impeachment. Helicopters kept a close watch on the rally amidst chants like ‘Not my president’, ‘Love trumps hate’, ‘Abolish electoral college’, ‘We say no to racist fear, refugees are welcome here’ and ‘No to Trump, no to racism’. The protest brought together a diverse group of Americans – black, LGBTQ, Hispanic, white and Muslim. Many people at the rally said that they would be affected at a personal level if Trump’s policies are implemented. “His vice president believes that sending electric shocks through the brain is a cure for being gay. He openly supports conversion therapy [to ‘cure’ LGBTQ],” said Dan F, a gay man.
“I am a mother. I am a teacher. I am appalled that Trump has won. He represents racism, homophobia, anti-immigrant sentiments. He is misogynistic and a sexual predator. I am appalled that the Republican Party en masse voted for this man. It’s a tragedy and I will continue to be on the streets on behalf of my family,” said a woman protestor.
Matt Leslie, a young white sub-contractor present on the spot, was the sole Trump supporter who took on the protestors. Unlike many Trump supporters, he was not aggressive or verbally abusive. He was rather having a dialogue with the protestors, trying to convince them to give Trump a chance. “I just want to extend an olive branch from the other side. He is not the evil guy that we are always painting him to be. He wants to make this country better. I believe he is an imperfect person who has done some stupid things. He is also great at playing the media by saying outrageous things so that the media will run with it.
“I am convinced that we need this to kind of shake up the entrenched power structures in Washington. All the money tied to the politics, media and the banks, I want to see it all shaken up. One thing that happened here is that it has exposed the corruption of not just Hillary Clinton but [also] other stuff that is going on behind the scenes. Candidates getting questions from moderators, that shouldn’t happen. This election proved that journalism is dead. There are good things coming out of it. If you guys don’t like him then we don’t vote for him in four years, OK?”
The results have also made Indians living in America uncomfortable. “For now, it’s just a lingering strange feeling, slowly fading shock and unconsciously viewing at least half the Americans as conservative and, well, dumb. Trump makes it scary, because of his impulsive and hotheaded nature,” says a medical professional in North Carolina, preferring not to be named. She moved to the US after marriage in 2014. Though she admits that she has a democratic leaning, that doesn’t mean she is opposed to all Republican ideologies.
“Most of my friends are anti-Trump. But the moment I see someone, I wonder if they’ve secretly voted for him, because Trump won the majority in North Carolina,” she said. To her, Trump voters represent his way of thinking, which makes her worry about the kind of people America really is constituted of and might encourage in the future.
“He has definitely not created an image among us that allows us to trust him as a leader. But considering the turn of events, I will wait to see him mess up before I make an assessment about his proficiency as a president. I will wait and see how he deals with topics he has expressed scary opinions about, before drawing conclusions. And then again, we don’t really have much of an option, do we?” she added.
Colleagues of Debdipto Misra, a data scientist working in healthcare research in Pennsylvania, are worried for his safety after the results. Trump won Pennsylvania which has been a pro-Democrat state. “After Trump’s victory I feel less secure as I think his rhetoric has legitimised bigotry. It’s not a good time to be non-white, especially in rural Pennsylvania,” he said.
As I reached out to friends and family to gauge their mood after the results, a relative cautioned me against directly talking to people. “Use Survey Monkey or some other anonymous tool. Otherwise it will introduce the same selection bias that stumped the pollsters. I still think there are many Trump voters or supporters that would not want to come out in the open,” said Avinandan Bhattacharya, a banker in New York City. Even among Indians? “More so among Indians. Except hardcore RSS, who would want to come out and say they support Trump even if they do,” he added.
Some, however, decided to be patient, to wait and watch. Bhabani Dash, a US citizen and IT professional based in Chicago, said: “It was a peaceful election. There was no violence or booth capturing. Everything happened in a fair manner. The people chose Trump. They must align with what he says.”
He gave an example to prove his conviction. Two days after the election results, someone at his son’s high school scrawled “Whites Only” outside the girls’ restroom. The school has taken the matter seriously. In fact, students have come out in solidarity against racism. “This country takes law and order very seriously. Despite the racist elements in society, the Klu Klux Klan could not establish its dominance. They were warded off and today are only a fringe element,” he said.
He believed at times the media exaggerated Trump’s nasty remarks. “Trump did clarify afterwards that he is against illegal immigrants, and not all immigrants. But that never got reflected in the media.” He further added that America will not be unjust as “America cannot survive without immigrants”.
Sraboni Chakraborty, his wife, also an IT professional, said that initially she was disappointed. But she realised that Trump got elected following a democratic process. “Half of the country saw hope in him which I failed to comprehend at first but my rationale tells me that many people have many grievances regarding everyday issues like job, financial security, healthcare which were not properly addressed by Washington during the second term of Obama,” she said.
“I don’t believe that all Trump supporters are racist, sexist or bigot. They believed in him and hoped for a change that as a political non-elite he promised to bring. As an Indian, I am not concerned about losing my right or security in post-election America,” she added. “I think Trump will turn out to be another politician, all talk and no action eventually.”
Miles Painter, 29, believes that journalists’ contribution is more important now than ever before. “We have to try and understand where [the people who voted for Trump] are coming from,” he said. “It is easier to think white blue-collar workers or rural America voted for Trump. It’s much more complex than that,” he added. He suggests that in the coming four years, there will be a lot of change and we must wait and see how the people who voted for Trump feel then. “Maybe he used alarmist tactics but may not turn out that bad, who knows.”
Also, he pointed out Trump has not clearly outlined his policies. “All we know that Trump is going to do something ‘great’. Now I feel galvanised to go report on these ‘strong men’ politicians. It is a tendency of strong men to create an inner facing circle where love, shared identity, solidarity is directed towards people like them. They project hate, xenophobia and racism outside towards everyone else,” said Painter. “Democrats were blindsided by a division within their party. In many ways Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were the protest candidates and they both met with opposition from the political elite, donors and media. Only one of them went through and today is the president-elect. The anti-establishment protest flowed only in one direction [with Sander’s defeat in the Democratic primaries],” said Painter.
Women see Clinton’s defeat emblematic of a societal problem where better qualified candidates get passed for their male counterparts. Many had hoped that Clinton would shatter the glass ceiling by becoming the first woman president. In her concession speech Clinton urged her supporters to fight for what’s right. “It’s worth it,” she had said.
Painter said that Hillary Clinton had been under scrutiny ever since she was the first lady of Arkansas – when Bill Clinton was governor of the state. “We know all of her dirty laundry. Trump manipulated the scrutiny [findings] to suggest that she is not transparent, when she is the more transparent among the presidential nominees.”
Bhattacharjee is a student of master of science journalism at Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University
(The article appears in the November 16-30, 2016 issue)