How Veterans and Rape Victims Can Help Us Stop Trump’s Racism

September 22, 2020

It’s sort of pointless to argue whether or not Donald Trump is a racist. His lifetime record of words and deeds proves it. Saturday night he rambled on about how is white crowd in Minnesota had “good genes.” He can pimp out Herschel Walker (who has had his fair share of blows to the head), or suddenly throw $13 billion at Puerto Rico, but 99% of black and brown people know what’s up. The Trump loyalists who don’t think he’s a racist are not going to be convinced by me that he is. Anyone with an a IQ over 80 and a minimal understanding of twentieth century history understands what’s happening in America right now.

And we don’t have to go all the way back to Germany in the 1930s to see the populist swing to authoritarianism returning. Trump is straight up Nixon ’68, revisiting the racist “southern strategy” as he madly tweets at “suburban housewives” that black people (and Antifa!) are coming to destroy their bucolic worlds. The fear mongering worked for Nixon as race riots gripped American cityscapes. Things are different in 2020. The suburbs are different and most of those “housewives” are the primary breadwinners in their families. I doubt Mr. “Grab ‘em by the pussy” and his racist drumbeating is going to frighten them more than COVID-19 killing their children.

So then what to do? How do we deprive this racist lover of dictators of his oxygen? How do we kill the threat of Donald Trump to America?

It will be our veterans that show us the way

The absolute key to this racial mess is understanding the nature of trauma. Liberals and conservatives, antifascists and “patriots” all have a basic understanding of trauma. So here’s how it works.

Step One: Veterans – When was the last time we heard of someone coming back from a war zone and being spit on? We don’t do that anymore. Even hard core anti-war left wingers would never even think of doing that. My father used to joke about torturing a “shell shocked” Korean War vet who was his high school teachers in the 1950s. In the 1970s, tweaked Vietnam vets were the subject of derision. “Dude’s in his own private ‘Nam.” What changed?

In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association recognized Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a very real and life-lasting cognitive condition. Because of the suffering and sacrifice of a lot of vets, we understand how acute trauma, like getting shot at, alters the brain. And we learned that trauma can lie dormant and be triggered by something random, like fireworks going off on the 4th of July. In 1998, I went to a special screening of Saving Private Ryan that honored surviving WWII vets. The opening scenes of the Normandy landing had men in their seventies convulsing like they were back on that beach 54 years prior. They nearly had to stop the film.

We’ve learned that PTSD has a whole host of ripple effects, like depression, substance abuse, and elevated suicide rates. That’s why there is near consensus on helping our vets heal instead of adding to their trauma.

Step Two: Rape victims – Rape is epidemic in our society. Depending on the measure, as many as one and four women in this country will be sexually assaulted at least once. Rape knows no political boundaries, no race or even age. We exist in a rape culture which traumatizes women with sexual violence and the looming threat of sexual violence. Even typing the word rape will traumatize some of the women reading this. I was lecturing about rape statistics in my criminology class at the University of Oregon and a young woman burst into tears and left the class, never to return. I re-traumatized her without even trying. It’s the impact not the intent.

We also have a mountain of research that shows rape victims suffer from PTSD just like our veterans do. The difference is women don’t walk off the battlefield. America is the battlefield, with the next potential attack just around the corner, or, more likely, in the next room. And having entertainment, like Game of Thrones, that turns rape into spectacle and a president who brags about his sexual assaults doesn’t help.

Even the most right-wing asshole dude has a mother or a sister or a daughter or a favorite teacher or a lover who has been wounded by sexual violence. Just like he would never tell an Afghan war vet to “just get over it,” it would be hard to imagine he would tell his wounded rape victim to “just get over it.” Even assholes have hearts.

Step Three: People of Color – I know there are white people who think racism magically ended in 1865, or 1964, or 2008 when Obama was elected. But anyone who has watched the 8 minute and 46 second execution of George Floyd knows that the trauma of racism continues and is a daily reality for people of color. Seeing grown black men, weeping on live TV, begging for black lives to matter was a wake up call for many white people.

Think of the cumulative trauma that results from slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, mass incarceration during the phony “War on Drugs,” redlining, educational discrimination, white flight, police violence, and on and on. Where is the opportunity to heal when the traumatizing impacts of racism are still coming, while white people chant, “just get over it”?

Black, brown, Asian, and indigenous people are marginalized in ways that are often completely invisible to white people. It could be a simple micro-aggression (“So, what are you?”) or a lack of representation (How many black male teachers have you had?). The rising rate of hate crimes based on race is the icing and Trump’s attacks on black athletes as “sons of bitches” are the cherries on top.

If we can understand the trauma of veterans and rape victims, why can’t we understand the trauma of racism victims? As a dude on American Ninja Warriors recently said, “Ignoring race doesn’t fix racism.”

An embarrassing story about myself

Two years ago I was taking my daughter, Cozy, to her preschool. I got there early and saw a young African-American male sitting on the steps to the school. His hood was up and he was on his phone. Something ticked in my head, that said, “Danger Will Robinson!” so I took Cozy in a different door, giving the young man a wide berth.

When I came back out, I saw him getting on a school bus, doing what we want every teenager should to be doing. The preschool steps were his bus stop. I felt incredibly embarrassed about my assumption and as he got on the bus, he shot me a look that I will never forget. It said, “What do I have to do? I’m going to school and you still think I’m a thug.” I had wounded him and his day was just starting.

What happened? I grew up in racist America which means I internalized white supremacy, including the belief that black men are threats to our safety. That internalized white supremacy turned into implicit bias, that gut feeling that had me choose to walk in a different door. That young man experienced that as a micro-aggression, he knew I was walking in the far door because he was black. And that micro-aggression was a small but meaningful traumatizing event. Instead of helping him to heal, I gave him YET ANOTHER reminder that being black in America is to be marginalized. I wounded him. And I’m sure there were plenty more woundings that followed that day.

Our president thinks discussing concepts like internalized white supremacy, implicit bias, micro-aggressions, and racial trauma are anti-American. He’s come out hard against the New York Times 1619 Project that tries to undo the whitewashing we’ve done on the history and impact of slavery on America. He wants to institute some Orwellian “patriotic education” curriculum to indoctrinate kids back into the white washing. (School curriculums are mandated on the state level, so he’s just playing to his racist base, again.) I’m waiting for Trump to sign an executive order replacing Black History Month with Slave Owners Had Good Genes Month.

If “All lives matter,” then black lives matter. That’s how words work.

The road out of this backsliding moment is to talk to white people about trauma and healing. If they can understand the experience of veterans and rape victims with PTSD, they can understand the traumatizing impacts of racism and marginalization. If it makes sense that a wounded warrior might be triggered by firecrackers or a rape victim might be re-traumatized by another news report of a sexual assault, than a white person should be able to understand the cumulative impact of another unarmed black person who was killed by the police on black people in general. In 2020, it seems like black lives just don’t matter yet.

Except for sociopaths (and I understand the ranks of neo-Nazis and “Pro-Trump” activists have plenty of those folks), all human beings are capable of empathy. I’ve written about how my road from white supremacist kid from a Klan town to anti-racist educator started with the recognition of how I traumatized a black janitor in my freshman dorm at Oxford College by ripping up a book by Martin Luther King, Jr. and throwing it in the toilet. Good people don’t want to cause trauma. Good people want to help people to heal from their wounds.

The problem is that white people are so damn fragile. They run away from the term “racist,” thinking it only applies to cross-burning Klansmen. We’ve all internalized white supremacy, full stop. Myself included. The switch has to flick from, “I’m not a racist!” to, “I am racist but I want to reduce the harm that’s caused. How can I help the healing?” I think when white people understand the depth and length of racial trauma, they will want to be helpers instead of hurters. Take down your Confederate flag and unclench your white fist into an open hand.

Donald Trump has cast himself as the savior of white America. It might work. There are are still a lot of anxious white people that can’t handle a black football player who cares about justice, let alone people taking to streets, demanding to dismantle racist institutions. Trump’s racism has been unleashed in his desperate eleventh hour attempt to salvage the train wreck of his presidency. Perhaps calm conversations about the wounding racism has caused to people we care about can end his reign of injury.

How Do You Solve a Racist Problem like Donald?

July 17, 2019

After this week, if you don’t think Donald Trump is a racist, you might be a white nationalist. I’ve been interviewing avowed white supremacists for over 30 years and when I do there is two things they ALWAYS say:

  1. I’m not a racist. (I just love my people.)
  2. If you don’t like the way things are you can go back to where you came from.

Only the most sub-moronic of rednecks and Trump apologists do not recognize Trump’s latest hissy fit about Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashid Tlaib is rooted in tried and true racist tropes. Ask any person of color (including Mitch McConnell’s wife) what they hear when a white person tells them to “go back where they came from.” Trump is a racist. Every free-thinking person knows it.

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I started writing about Trump’s use of racist tactics in 2015 and it’s only gotten worse. I know plenty of former proudly white supremacist organizers who had a reckoning of conscience and are now the most bad-ass anti-racist activists.  At 73, I won’t expect any moment of redemption from the current occupant of the White House. Don’t expect Donald Trump to sign up to be rescued by the good people at Life After Hate. He’s going to carry this diseased bone to his grave like the old dog that he is. It’s not worth trotting out the evidence to convince the unconvinced. Those people are idiots and/or racists themselves.

So we have a virulently racist president who will probably have the bully pulpit until he is sworn out of office on January 20, 2021. (I’m still hoping he’ll just quit like a bloated Nixon.) What do we do about it? How do we adapt to the fact that the office of the President of the United States of America is caked in hundred year old pig shit?

FIRST – There are real victims of Trump’s racism. There are traumatized children at the border because they have been ripped from their parents seeking to protect them from the violence of their home countries. There are families traumatized through prolonged separation because of his “Muslim ban.” There are increasing numbers of Americans traumatized by hate crimes, as the racists who worship Trump scream, “Go back to where you came from!” as they harass and beat and shoot them. The most important thing is to protect, defend, and heal these people until the source of Trumpism is confined to the trash heap of history.

I was a Boy Scout and we were taught to take care of the least among us. “We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” we’d say. We learned that from the American armed forces. I grew up thinking that was an American value. When I watch Trump throw red meat to his rabid base, I wonder if we’re still America or if we’ve become ancient Rome. This is not America. We have to defend those who are the targets of his fear mongering. We have to be willing to stand on the tracks of the Trump train and say, “No more!”

SECOND – Obviously, Trump is not a unifier. He has made America 1861 again. We have never been more divided. We need to resist the divide & conquer tactics. The new rebel finds common ground.

AOC

His moronic refrain is that if you have a problem with America, “you can just leave.” Does he really think that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does not love this country? Or is that just what he thinks his cult of supporters want him to think? In the 1960s, right-wingers would chant, “America! Love it or leave it!” to civil rights marchers and anti-war protestors. The more rational reply was, “America! Love it and fix what’s broken!” I had a lot of fun ten years ago telling Tea Partiers, who where always complaining about President Obama, “America! Love it or leave it!” The irony sailed right over their thick skulls. It didn’t accomplish anything but it was fun.

I’ll admit the divisiveness can be fun. I can go all in for a good Facebook fight. But that only serves Trump and his Russian troll overlords. They want chaos. Remember when Jeb Bush called Trump the “chaos candidate”? Shocker: Jeb Bush was right. The antidote is political civility and unity. It was encouraging to see several Republicans sign on to the congressional condemnation of Trump’s most recent racist tirade. There may still be a shadow of a spine in the GOP. We need more of that. And just not unity in clapping back at the Dear Leader.

There is good research about political civility. It can happen. I know it seems impossible right now but we need to build bridges not walls. There’s a great Special AKA song from 1984 that goes, “If you’ve got a racist friend, now is the time for that friendship to end.” It’s wrong. As much as I want to unfriend people who blather about Trump not being racist (please stop), I want to keep them on board. Keep them engaged. Find ways in. Free them from their bigotry. Bring them to the light side of the Force.

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THIRD – We need to remove Donald Trump by whatever constitutional means possible, including the ballot box. The damage this madman is causing our great nation will take generations to repair. 2020 can’t be about third parties and “voting your conscience.” Ross Perot is dead. There is too much at stake. Whoever the Democratic nominee is, you’re gonna have complaints. “He’s too old!” “She prosecuted too many people of color!” “I can’t pronounce his name!” Shut the fuck up. Get out your debit card and make a contribution. Put a bumper sticker on your Uber. Hold your nose and vote. There are kids in cages. If I meet a single “anarchist” in 2020 who tells me they are not voting because elections are bullshit, I will personally hand them over to their Russian troll puppetmasters. We need everyone, including frustrated Republicans and youth in Che Guevara t-shirts (Made in China, no doubt). We need the sophistics and the folks who never pay attention to politics. We need a massive rebuke of this very anti-American American president.

It’s not worth it to debate Trump’s racism. Too many credible people (Thank you, Don Lemon) have already done it. The question now is who are we as a nation? Are we going to tolerate a tinpot dictator who wants to make America Jim Crow again, or are we going to stand for the great promise of our country holds for all people in the world? You must choose.