When the dust in the Midwest had settled in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Donald Trump was officially made President-elect, clinching a shocking Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival. The real estate (and reality TV) mogul - mocked by President Barack Obama in 2009 for even entertaining the notion of a presidential run - thrashed sixteen republican candidates in the primary election. An unapologetic renegade, he overcame a myriad of scandals and allegations in the leadup to November 8th. Even as the polls closed and reported vote counts poured into newsrooms, Trump was dismissed. Liberal reporters frantically zoomed in and out of electoral maps on touch screens, searching for improbable ways in which Secretary Clinton could seize the win that the country expected. Then, Pennsylvania was lost. Michigan and Wisconsin, Democrat-voting states in the last two decades, turned a shocking red. And after a nearly twenty month long election cycle, the world went silent - not with a collective sigh, but a seismic paralysis.
At the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins, a several day stretch of sunlight and autumn colors was broken by a foggy, gray Wednesday morning. The air was cool, but heavy, and heavy were the looks of students who managed to cling to a thread of normal routine despite the morning’s news. To describe the atmosphere as surreal is not enough: conversations were frenetic, seeking an explanation and security; students’ Facebook timelines exploded with lengthy statuses, varied, but all impassioned in a frankly moribund display of American pluralism; and President-elect Trump mumbled about bringing everyone together, as if to clumsily reconcile the inter-faction conflict he stoked for months.
Trump’s most fervent opposition - including minority groups who have felt the most vulnerable in his rise to power - organized nationwide protests in major urban centers, including our own Baltimore. A Hopkins-based congregation joined a city-wide protest that circled the M&T Bank Stadium and flooded the busy streets that stretched the city to Inner Harbor. Chants were blunt - understandably so. “Not my President!” and “F*ck Trump” intermittently unfurled from the massive crowd.
Despite Trump’s shift in rhetoric immediately following his victory, women and various minority groups are seething after their prolonged subjugation to hateful promises catered to the white working class. Were the rhetoric to be cemented as policy, undocumented immigrants would be deported, as Trump continues to label them as “rapists” and criminals who wreak havoc on the United States. The LGBTQ+ community would not at all be protected, with Vice President-elect Mike Pence supporting ‘conversion therapy’ and opposing President Obama’s directive on transgender bathrooms. Muslims from certain countries would be prevented from entering the United States on potential terrorism grounds. Refugees, too - including women and children - have been deemed too dangerous to enter the country. Domestically, Trump asserts that inner city impoverishment and crime can be ameliorated through ‘law and order,’ a buzz term for further ravaging many African American communities. When contemplated together, the narrative becomes clear and its implications horrifying: white America must be insulated from internal and external threats at whatever cost possible.
Meanwhile, journalists have been occupied with in-depth prognoses of the future. What does a Trump presidency look like? Does his somewhat refined rhetoric indicate a less off-the-rails tenure, guided by the Republican Congress?
Indeed, many casual observers have already brushed aside the xenophobia and ‘us vs. them’ tone summoned throughout the campaign. They assure that it was “just talk.” Yet, the lasting impact of Trump’s hateful speech has taken on a life of its own. Journalists have too eagerly dichotomized candidate Trump and President-elect Trump, as if a page had suddenly been turned to write America’s story anew. Contingency, malign and fuming, is the poison attached to President Trump’s future no matter what path he takes on his political adventure.
The Republican leadership in Congress may take advantage of an inexperienced president in office and seek to impose the party’s agenda. Even then, House Speaker Paul Ryan and fellow Republicans would be prudent to sustain a hold on the wide constituency that Trump attained through his rhetoric. It is doubtful that the leadership would outwardly renounce all the discriminatory claims, especially with Mike Pence - a scarily competent, anti-gay presence - possessing keys to the White House. Republicans could, to an extent, inherit Trump’s rhetoric by virtue of his executive authority, and milk the impassioned voters that it garnered.
The final broad scenario is unequivocally best for the long-term well being and stability of the nation and the various groups who have felt threatened by Trump’s rhetoric. He may abandon the demagoguery and run the country through fairly broad appeal. But, his white working class constituency would feel betrayed once again; the so-called movement to “make America great again” would not end. Trump has birthed a mass that channels much of its perceived economic strife through a platform of hate and exclusion. The anti-establishment angle kick-started by Bernie Sanders in the primaries has eroded under Trump because it points its fingers at the ambiguous “others.” For Sanders, the focus remained a political system in which both major parties have been captured by corporate interest groups. For Trump, the evidently broken system was also laid at the feet of the “others.”
Ultimately, it is not enough for Trump to do away with the rhetoric that propelled him to political superstardom. The damage is done. It is ignorant and dangerous to dismiss campaign rhetoric as a mere political strategy, especially in this case. President-elect Trump repeatedly employed language aimed at demonizing minority groups and has shown rampant disregard for the progression of their rights. The lasting impact of such a campaign should not be understated. If we allow ourselves to flaunt inflammatory rhetoric for political ends, the line between “just talk” and conscious discrimination becomes worryingly slim.
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