Over the past two weeks the election has taken a noticeable turn away from being centered, if it ever truly was, on the economic future of our country, and has instead become increasingly mired in an examination of Trump’s treatment of and attitude toward women and other minorities. While Trump’s flirtation (to put it very politely) with racism, sexism and xenophobia have always been important issues, they did not become election dominating until the infamous video of him talking with Billy Bush was made public. Trump’s primary defense for this video has been the now well-known dismissal of his comments as “locker room banter,” and his debate assertion that it is “just words, folks. It’s just words.” Since then numerous women have come out providing evidence that it is not, in fact, “just words,” but rather a pattern of actions indicating an attitude toward women.
But even if (and this is a yuuuuuge if) these were just words, these are words coming from a presidential candidate, words printed and heard across the country, words that are far from inconsequential. Words are powerful, and for the past six to twelve months Trump’s words have probably been the most powerful as they dominate headlines, are repeated over and over again by news anchors, and digested by citizens across the country. We likely all bear witness to the effect of Trump’s words in our lives through the political frustration of our friends and family, the sadness of watching debates, the anger at the most recent Trump quote. Yet traveling by bike through swing states we have been able to witness a special power that these words have had on the Trump supporters we meet along the way.
A couple days after the video was released, we canvassed on the Grand View University campus in Des Moines, Iowa. While many students we talked with were upset by the video, some students were alarmingly dismissive. One male football player on campus accepted Trump’s rationale, saying, “man, we have all been in locker rooms and that’s what I think it is, just locker-room talk.” Trying to be patient with the guy I agreed that while perhaps men talk about women in locker rooms (and women about men), what is markedly different about this video is the open bragging about sexual assault, the complete lack of respect for women that does not characterize any locker room in which I have spent time. Still the student shrugged it off, “maybe it is a little worse, but not that different.”
A few days later in Omaha, Meredith (hobbling around on a cane at this point) and I were chatting with our Uber driver about the video, probing for his reaction and thoughts. Similar to the college student, our driver largely disregarded the comments. “Honestly, I have heard worse in the military,” the Arizonan man said. I responded by pointing out the glaring difference that none of his military friends were running for president of the United States, but he remained unfazed. “I am still supporting Trump” he said. We left it at that.
While these interactions are troubling in their own right, what is perhaps most striking about these individual’s responses was their unwillingness to condemn Trump’s comments as they became publicly disseminated. In other words, it is unfortunately not shocking that both had heard comments of a similar nature in private contexts; sexism and sexual harassment existed in this country before Trump and will continue to exist after Trump. (Mind you, this does not excuse comments or actions of this nature in any way!). Yet for as long as I have been around, something, call it political correctness, call it self-censorship, call it simple civility, has largely prevented individuals from publicly promulgating sexist, racist, and xenophobic remarks, while prompting most to condemn such remarks once they become public.
Enter the Trump Effect. Over the course of his campaign Trump has unapologetically invoked hurtful stereotypes about women, Muslims, Mexicans, Blacks, Jews, and probably several more groups. When these hurtful statements are broadcasted out to millions of listeners and reverberated throughout the country in newspaper headlines, radio talk shows, and private conversations, it changes what is considered necessarily publicly condemnable and opens a space for many around America to voice similarly sexist, racist, and xenophobic remarks with a newfound publicity. By elevating this language to the national, public, political sphere, Trump has managed to increase the acceptability of these sentiments in many areas around the country. It is the “If Trump can say it, why can’t we?” way of thinking. When these statements dominate the public sphere, it whittles away at our public understanding of decency.
We have observed this whittling in the various swing states in which we have travelled. In addition to the above conversations about the video, there were many related to race. In Belmont, WI we met a police officer who wanted to hang out and make sure we were safe from the evening thunderstorm (thanks, man!). When asked about the happenings of the area, the officer was quick to blame the recent influx of African-Americans from a neighboring town for all of the violent crime. The next evening in Monticello, IA we were told that the nearby Cedar Rapids was having crime issues from the refugees following Hurricane Katrina. And two nights after that in Blairstown, IA we were warned not to camp in a certain area because in the past couple years many Mexicans had moved there and “caused problems.” Of course we do not live in these areas so are unaware of the issues they are referring to, but it is telling that these individuals were so willing to voice these transparently racist remarks to total strangers.
Much was made, especially at the beginning of the election, about Trump giving political voice to a traditionally uninvolved population of the US. And while perhaps he has importantly keyed into an economic frustration amongst lower-middle class rural citizens, it seems evident to us that the most powerful voice he has empowered is a sexist, racist, and xenophobic one. And we are all, young and old, rural or urban, Hillary or Trump, white or Mexican, stuck listening to this voice, stuck hearing these words.
The only immediate recourse our country has for this type of politics is a thorough renunciation of the Trump Effect via the election results on November 9th. So if you, like many, are checking FiveThiryEight projections and feeling as though the country has staved off a Trump presidency, we urge you to recognize the importance of making a statement with this election. Simply put, it is not enough for Hillary to eek out a satisfactory victory in the Electoral College and a few points edge in the popular vote. It feels more important than ever to deal Trump, and his brand of politics, a resounding defeat throughout the country. That is why Hillary’s 50-State campaign is necessary, and why her recent strategy to move into fringe swing states like Arizona and North Carolina is so important. That is also why it is vital that we all vote, whether we live in liberal-as-can-be Massachusetts or hopelessly red Texas. It has become myopic to think that his election’s end goal is merely to put Clinton in office and defeat Trump. Instead it has become a campaign to restore civility to our politics, to reaffirm that this type of language is unacceptable on a public (and private!) level, to ensure that the words shared throughout our country do not encourage sexist, racism, and xenophobia, and to reject Trump’s Effect on our country.
#strongertogether, all the way to the end.
Jamie, Nina, Meredith, Ben, and Mike