This year, I saw America. This wasn't a specific goal, but the circumstance and result of doing some long-awaited traveling. I spent quality time in seven different states, including a part of my home state of Illinois that I hadn't visited in some time. I nonchalantly interacted with locals, tried things I had never previously experienced, met the spouses and family of good friends, and generally tried to appreciate the atmosphere of an unfamiliar terrain. I connected with some wonderful people and created memories that I'll always treasure, in an attempt to temporarily bridge a gap between age, religion, and culture.
I mention age, religion, and culture because I spent of this time in what would be considered "red state" territory. The atmosphere was humble and relatively speaking, socially conservative. I largely avoided talking politics, even though this brutal election was on nearly everyone's minds. I came to realize that Donald Trump, the multimillionaire who finagled his way to the Republican presidential nomination, represented none of these people.
In the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign, I was baffled by how Trump and his incendiary, nationalist rhetoric was polling ahead of the perceived GOP front-runner, Gov. Jeb Bush. As it turned out his anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim, and mostly meninist platform catered to an ignored demographic, a new silent majority of sorts: social conservatives that didn't identify as Republicans. They were on the fringes of society and politics itself: bigots, rubes, conspiracy theorists. The type of people that make the most appalling hashtags trend on Twitter, who only listen to conservative news-talk pundits like Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, and Alex Jones and perceive them as beacons and not bilious entertainers. In other words, people who think mainstream conservatism is too out of touch with their toxic beliefs.
Indeed, Trump took advantage of this silent majority, and made Twitter his playground. If the election was limited to one social media outlet, then the New York real estate mogul would be winning decisively. He ran laps around Sec. Clinton, demonstrating a lack of filter and tact not previously seen by a presidential candidate. The woman who would become the Democratic candidate did her best to take the high road until she finally told Trump off. She tweeted "Delete your account," a succinct but oddly flaccid retort. Where Clinton emphasized her many qualifications (and Trump's lack thereof), Trump just kept attacking anything and everything without remorse. The pandering and flame-throwing was incessant, and his status as the fringe right's patron saint was solidified. Clinton knew better than to add gasoline to a flame war, and stayed on the high road instead.
I grew up around mostly Republicans in a shallow-red Chicago suburb. I was raised to not judge a person by their gender or race or faith or creed, even though my hometown circa 1991 was overwhelmingly white and Catholic. That wasn't something to came to me innately; I remember my first grade teacher, a woman of Greek descent, struggling to explain why Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks were so important to American history to a classroom that was over 90% white. I had two minority classmates, a third-generation Mexican-American and a girl who was half-Haitian, half-African American. The Latinx classmate was extroverted and well-liked, but the other girl was awkward, timid, and a bully target. My teacher failed to make her (and our class in general) understand what King and Parks sacrificed to give her the right to be as equal as everyone else. It was until she moved away, about a year later, that my classmates and I realized how awful we were.
When I see the childish antics of Trump's most ardent supporters, I think back to that first grade classroom. They all had something in common: they were rural or suburban and overwhelmingly white, but also left behind in the new economy, expect easy answers to hard questions, and worst of all reluctant to accept that America is more multicultural and diverse than its ever been. They see Muslims, blacks, and the LGBTQ community as threats, but their real-life interaction with them is minimal and they base their fear out of stereotype. As a result white supremacy, anti-Semitism and sexism have shifted from the fringes to the middle of the discussion. Moderate conservatives, or at least Republicans that supported minimally more palatable candidates like Ted Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson, begrudgingly joined the frenetic Trump bandwagon because, well, who else was going to beat Hillary?
Even though the Democrats have labeled itself as the "party for women," there was a time in the early-to-mid 1980s when the GOP headquarters staffed more women than men. Where Democrats have more or less embraced feminism (with some qualms), Republicans have largely been either ambivalent or oblivious. Where the women of the GOP mostly stayed in low-level administrative roles, women in the opposing party ran for office and inspired the next generation to follow their footsteps. The backward legacy of Phyllis Schlafly, the face of anti-feminism, lingers in the GOP months after his death and will likely do so for years to come. If the 2012 election was a deliberation on women's health rights, then 2016 is about what it means to be an American woman, period.
This is the sixth election, presidential or midterm, that I've covered in this blog. I usually end each pre-election missive with a nonpartisan plea to vote, to demonstrate the most basic tenet of democracy. This year, I can't bring myself to play my intercession down the middle. Where Hillary Clinton has many flaws, Donald Trump has proven repeatedly that he is vile and shortsighted beyond redemption. He is shameless opportunist that will break every campaign promise the moment he enters the White House, then blame his failures on everyone except himself. Trump was overexposed as a reality star 10-plus years ago and exhaustively omnipresent now. Say all you want about decades of unproven rumors and right-wing vilification, Hillary Clinton is the only logical choice to be our next president. Someone will bring up Benghazi and the private emails, but someone else will retort with at least 20 things that Trump did. This election is about a leader against a demagogue. Beyond the former first lady, there is no other viable option.