A Painful Truth

By Priyanka Kumar

Anne Liley’s four-year-old daughter walked into her bedroom first thing Wednesday morning to inquire who had won the election.

“Donald Trump,” Liley told her.

The four-year-old burst out crying.

“We haven’t been talking politics with her,” Liley, a school director in Santa Fe, told me. “But the children talk among themselves.”

It’s not just four-year-olds who reacted emotionally to the shocking result of the 2016 Presidential Election. At the local Sage Bakehouse, an employee said, “We’ve had people sobbing here this morning.” Asked what demographic she was referring to, she said, “Middle-aged women.”

“Not my president” protests have erupted in cities across the country, with some of the biggest occurring in Los Angeles, where hundreds marched onto the 101 Freeway downtown and protesters burnt a Trump effigy in front of City Hall.

In Santa Fe, a popular café buzzed with raw conversations on Wednesday morning. There is something about the-day-after-the-election that causes strangers to confide in one another, to seek one another out to talk. It was a clear blue day outside and the city’s signature mountain, Santa Fe Baldy, sparkled in a fresh coat of snow. But a somber mood prevailed in the café despite the fact that drinks were on the house today — the café’s owner’s gesture of commiseration.

At a table, Ben Lincoln, co-founder of braveART Consulting, spoke about the “witch hunt” Hillary Clinton had been put through.

I feared the witch-hunt had worked, and that Clinton’s defeat would give women the wrong message — that they would be broiled if they reached for a too-ambitious dream. The night before, soon after I had realized Clinton was going to lose, the slap-in-the-face shock was followed by a surprising thought: We should take this as a call to be more engaged, not less so.

Under a Trump presidency, diverse voices will need to be heard more than ever — on environmental issues, on injustices Blacks and Latinos face, on white poverty. A few minutes earlier, when I was standing in line for my latte, Sharon Mitchell, 80, who teaches at a heavily-Latino elementary school, had told me how her students felt earlier in the week about the prospect of a Trump presidency: “The children are scared to death. They say they will be sent back or they will be beaten on the street.”

Lincoln, who has two teenage daughters, looked distraught: “The media is renormalizing it. Listening to NPR this morning, ‘President-elect Trump . . . What do you think of his policies?’ I mean, have an opinion! Have a backbone. This guy is a misogynist and a racist. They weren’t calling out his incivility, his xenophobia . . . ”

A man who had been listening cut in to recall a pre-election conversation he’d had about “the religious vote” with his Trump-supporter brother: “My brother voted for George Bush because my brother is Catholic and anti-abortion. I asked him, ‘On some ledger, do you also take responsibility for the one million people who got killed because Bush started a war, and for the five million who went through hell because of that war? If Hitler were an anti-abortion candidate, would you vote for him?’

“My brother said, ‘That’s a good question.’ ”

At a corner table, Audrey Rubinstein, originally from Michigan, struck a hopeful note. The daughter of a former-colonel and a historian, she leaned toward me. “My father said, ‘We shall see…’ ”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s a corrective measure for the psyche of this country. My friends around the world, including my Turkish sister-in-law, think that Americans have become too complacent. This is a wakeup call.”

“What kind of a wakeup call?”

“A lot of people I know agree with this now: We live in a country with inherent racism and sexism. People are afraid to talk about it. I felt it when Obama was elected President. I heard a lot of racist remarks in Michigan then, including the N word. It’s part of the dark psyche of this country . . . We need to take measure of who we are. There is a lot of healing that needs to happen.”

Just then, Rubinstein’s computer lit up. Hillary Clinton was going to make her concession speech. Rubinstein lent me one of her earphones and we listened together as Clinton spoke. “Our constitutional democracy demands our participation, not just every four years, but all the time.” I wondered if Clinton’s words could apply to the under-the-surface conversations people were having today. Would it be helpful if we had these more often, not just every four years? Or was it naïve to think that?

Later that morning, at a yoga studio, Chrissie Bednarek, a yoga teacher, echoed Rubinstein’s remark that we have become too complacent. “In retrospect, I wish I had directed more of my energy toward this election.” Her gray eyes grew thoughtful as she spoke about how the emergence of female power has always been disrupted. “But this will fuel us,” Bednarek added, referring to Trump’s election.

If Trump’s election is truly “a wakeup call” that will “fuel us,” that’s the only hope I’ve decocted from my city’s dark post-election mood. Not all women are looking for a way out of the darkness, however. Some voted for Trump and are perfectly happy with the results. Among the most surprising conversations I had on Wednesday were with Latino women.

“We’re very conservative,” said Lorena (who asked that only her first name be used), a preschool teacher and Trump supporter. She is from Mexico, and her husband, originally from Eastern Europe, owns a photography store in town. They have a 15-year-old son. “We work hard . . . My husband was very happy this morning. He said, ‘Maybe my business will now get back to how it used to be in the old days!’ ”

I asked if Trump’s comments about women had given her pause, and she said bluntly, “Women in Mexico go through a lot worse.”

Ada, a Latino woman in her 20s who works at a bakery, said: “Latinos did go out and vote. I was surprised about Florida . . . But the Latinos here, many of them voted for Trump.”

Taking in my bewildered look, she added, “They have their papers, so they don’t care.”

I wondered if the Latinos she was referring to had cast a religious vote. But before I could ask, Ada eyed her supervisor hovering nearby and got back to work.

Instead, I followed up with Lorena two days later and learnt that many Latinos (the ones who have their papers) feel anxious about illegal immigration. Lorena thought that Trump’s tough immigration stance is why he got more of the Hispanic vote than Mitt Romney did in 2012.

“My neice’s ex-husband is a border patrol agent,” she said. “People are pouring in here from all countries, not just Mexico, but China. And Clinton would have opened the doors.” She admitted that as a Latino woman voting for Trump, she sometimes felt like an outsider. “I’ve had to keep quiet about it.”

A Latina who has stayed on in this city for family reasons, though her visa has expired, saw the matter differently. She remarked on Trump’s negativity about other groups. “He doesn’t like people from other countries,” she said. “He only wants gringos.” She proudly sports a Bernie sticker on her car. Devastated after discovering Trump had been elected, she added: “He is a racista. He wants to deport a lot of people. But who is going to do the dirty work around here? Who? I’ve looked into working at a hotel. It’s ugly.”

Even in a seemingly liberal city like Santa Fe, there are hidden complexities. On Wednesday morning, a middle-aged caucasian woman had told me: “A black woman who is a local is afraid to walk in the plaza with her white husband.”

The hidden racial tensions concern Rubenstein as well. “The Ku Klux Klan was established to re-exert tribal identity in this country,” she said when we spoke Thursday morning. “This election took the pulse of the American psyche.”

If that is true, and Americans chose a man to lead them who doesn’t pay taxes, who stiffs his contractors, who allegedly defrauds students, who allegedly assaults women, and who denigrates other racial groups, then the American psyche is a puzzling thing. Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud put together couldn’t begin to psychoanalyze us.

Rubinstein feels a measure of calm because she has some context in which to understand the results: Her father reminds her of what it was like when as a schoolboy he hid under a desk to practice “duck and cover” drills to prepare for an atomic bomb attack, or what it was like to wake up in 1968 to the news of a Nixon Presidency.

“It’s a wakeup call to realize that so many people are feeling disenfranchised,” she said. “We need to start talking to one another.  Right now, we’re just talking to ourselves.”

But how do we get around the fact that people in cities talk to people in cities, and people in rural areas talk to those in rural areas? Social media can cut through geographical barriers, but as we are finding out, social media can be an aid to conversation, but not a substitute for it.

Not to mention that some Trump supporters may be satisfied with status quo and may not want to talk to the rest of us. But as my 90-year-old great-aunt says when I avoid talking to a difficult relative, “Keep trying.”

Walking away is not an option.  What kind of a disaster might President Trump lead us into if we sleepwalk through his presidency? In dealing with ISIS, will his Twitter-happy approach morph into a trigger-happy approach? Will he withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement as he has threatened to do? Are the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline now toast?

Even though Trump thrives on divisiveness — that’s how he won — should we follow the counterintuitive strategy of not shunning Trump supporters and instead have conversations with them? We could ask them questions such as: If Hitler were an anti-abortion candidate, would you vote for him? And we could also eat breakfast with them, as did Andee Baker. “I had to buy my friend, Rudy breakfast because we had a bet,” she said. “He is a Trump supporter.”

Having lived in Columbus, Ohio most of her adult life, Baker is used to talking to the other side. “In the coffeehouse I went to there, it was a 50-50 split during the Presidential elections of 2008 and 2012 . . . So I would stay up late to be sure Obama had won.”

“I feel like this is a physical kick in the gut,” she said about Trump’s election. “I had fallen asleep Tuesday night knowing that Trump had won. I had a bad dream that night that Trump had won. I woke up knowing it wasn’t a dream. Oh, crap!”

“You thought Clinton would win?”

“I was more worried about it than most people. It’s also because I am a sociologist and I pick up that there’s a lot of resentment in this country and it was directed at Hillary. It’s the anti-woman thing. A lot of people were hiding their vote. I hate to bring up systemic discrimination, but I saw it in academia when my female colleagues were up for tenure.”

“I’m still angry,” Lydia Madrick, a piano teacher, said on Thursday evening. The day before, she needed to drive an hour south of Santa Fe to Albuquerque. “I was driving so fast, the car was shaking. I was angry. I was crying. I’m meeting all my girlfriends for dinner tonight. We’ll all be sobbing.” Another woman spoke of colleagues throwing up in the middle of the day. In shock and still grieving, how can we hope to overcome the negativity and divisiveness we have woken up to?

I can hardly bear to look at the news anymore. I can’t face the circus-show reality that awaits us. Like many others, I am tempted to zonk out. The temptation is so great, even the New York Times succumbed to it for a day. Though it was Trump who was elected President, the Times had a picture of Hillary Clinton front and center on their site on Wednesday.

Even if Clinton and Trump supporters were to somehow find each other, how would we get past the biases we have about each other? Mitchell, the 80-year-old teacher had told me with staccato fury: “People don’t read. In rural areas. They don’t read the newspaper. They watch television. Or they’re in an alternate digital universe. Trump knows that. He took full advantage of that.”

A couple days later, having seen Trump talk on TV on Thursday, she added: “He’s got nothing up here,” pointing to her head. “He was a nervous wreck.”

A bookstore owner, Rick Palmer, 50, agreed that in addition to Trump, not enough people read in this country. “People don’t read newspapers. I’m an old-fashioned guy. I read the newspaper.” He patted one he had just purchased.

Reflecting on how Trump had threatened to throw his opponent in the Presidential race in jail, I said that Trump didn’t seem to care about upholding our democratic values.

“He doesn’t know what they are,” Palmer countered.

He expressed surprise that women could vote for Trump after the derogatory ways in which he had spoken about them. Others I spoke to also lamented that we now have a President who has assaulted women in the past.

What didn’t surprise Palmer were the election results. “I’m a libertarian. We don’t live in a democracy, we live in a corporatocracy. It’s about how the government can keep the billionaires going. Do you think that Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump are in touch with what the common man’s problems are?” he asked rhetorically. “It makes no difference whether Trump or Hillary got elected. Nothing would have changed. Look what happened under Obama . . . ”

A Native American woman who lives just outside the Santo Domingo Pueblo, south of Santa Fe, had a different way of describing how she saw the Trump presidency. “Having Trump as President is like taking your broken car to someone who has never fixed a car before.”

She is no Clinton supporter either. “It would go against my religion,” she said. “A woman cannot be Governor of our Pueblo. So how can I vote for a woman President? In the Pueblo, women have our rights and we have made our peace with that. So when the Pueblo endorsed Hillary and sent elders door to door to get us to vote for her, I felt that would go against our beliefs. Even though I want women to lead . . . ”

Then she made a surprising concession. “If Hillary had come to New Mexico, she would have gotten brownie points with me. I would have voted for her. But she didn’t come . . . ”

That this Native woman felt that if Hillary had only tried to reach out personally to her state, she would have overcome long held beliefs and voted for her, suggests that initiating a conversation can be more powerful than we might imagine.

In the coming weeks, as we parse out the demographic complexities that have given us a President Trump, we might initiate more conversations, as awkward as they may be. If this whack-in-the-head election lead us to be more awake and less complacent, Hallelujah! Maybe we can even hope a little (yes, we can?) that our incessant presence will hold Trump accountable to our democratic values, or just ensure that he knows what they are.

One thing is for sure. Crawling back into our bunkers, as comforting as that might seem, is probably not the smart way forward. “It feels like coming out of a coma,” said Melissa Spamer, an Ayurvedic councilor, referring to how she’d thought that “Obama will take care of it all.” Not anymore.

“My teachers have lived through moments of great conflict,” she reflected, “and they held on to the potential of peace through it all.” Though she wore a sunny yellow shirt, the gloom on her face was evident. “How do we cut through the anger and the grief and still hold on to the potential of something better through it all?”

That’s the question of the moment. Talking to each other might just help.

 

Priyanka Kumar, author of the novel “Take Wing and Fly Here” and the writer/director of the documentary “The Song of the Little Road,” has written widely on race relations

 

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