Ways of Seeing: View the election through a new prism
It’s been a long couple of weeks to say the least. The election has been called for former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris. Now comes the wait for individual states to certify their official counts, which will be followed by several baseless legal challenges alleging fraud, cheating, and whatever other ridiculous malarkey (to use a Biden term) that Donald Trump and his team can conjure up. But in the end, given that Trump’s claims are unsubstantiated, I believe that our system of checks and balances will work and Biden and Harris will prevail.
Still, the process already feels excruciating. Even though I knew better, a very, very small part of me had hoped that somehow, the fury that so many Americans had felt would have compelled even more people to go out and crush Trump, leaving us with a clear Biden victory much sooner. After all, Trump has spent his time in power abusing people of color, disrespecting women, and inciting and condoning violence across the country, not to mention his several policy decisions that have marred our international standing, wreaked havoc on our economy, and resulted in the death of nearly a quarter of a million Americans in the midst of a growing pandemic.
But in the end, I was not actually surprised that the race was too close to call for several days. And although it did shock several of my liberal friends, I found myself in familiar territory even though I was simultaneously disgusted that 70 million Americans voted for someone that I see as a bloviating bigot.
I grew up in South Texas, a state that has traditionally favored republican presidential hopefuls. As a child I was surrounded by people who voted for Republicans for a host of reasons. Some folks out-right backed everything a candidate stood for and believed whatever they said, to be sure. In fact, I am related to several people like that. Others, as so many voters do, chose the Republican candidate because they agreed with most of their positions and saw them as the lesser of two evils. And still others were one-issue voters: anti-abortion or worried about losing their guns, and it seemed to them that the Republican candidate would protect those rights, so they always went that way, regardless of who was running. These tendencies, by the way, crossed class and racial lines.
My own working-class, Mexican-American family, for example, votes Republican every time. My grandfather, a Mexican immigrant who fought for the U.S. in World War II and became an American citizen, voted in every election once he could until he died at the age of 95 and was proudly Republican, as was his wife, who is currently 94 and a Trump fan. To my knowledge, so are all of their children — some are more vocal about it than others, of course. My parents are clear on their support for Trump, which is often very hard for me to swallow, but we manage. My generation has several far left-leaners like me, but there are still several Republicans among us.
My South-Texas, Mexican-American family is not that unique, but it is the one I know best and as I aged and learned more about my own heritage, our family’s migration story, and then as I began to study history in college, I really started to wonder how on earth my grandfather, who had himself crossed the border as a child with his family could disparage others who were doing the same. How could he advocate for stopping unsanctioned migration when that was how his own family had gotten here? How could he argue that people needed to speak English when he didn’t learn until my grandmother taught him and several of his siblings never did? I confess to having knee-jerk reactions to this in my late teens and early twenties. I never once spoke to my grandfather disrespectfully (nor will I write about him that way here), but I certainly carried some anger for him at times, but probably even more for my parents, about what I felt was a blatant disregard for their own histories. But then I listened to my grandfather talk to me about his experience in the war. He told me about the camaraderie he felt for his fellow soldiers and how proud he was to serve and to be a citizen of the United States.
As I aged and I continued my studies in history and continued my visits home, I always made sure to see my grandparents (and of course my parents), and I absorbed the nuances of their own stories and I learned to appreciate them. I realized that because of my grandfather’s military experience he identified as American first and he instilled that in his children, which overshadowed their Mexican identity in some big ways. There were other identities at play as well. My grandparents and their parents were Catholics who raised their children in the Catholic faith. They did not use birth control and they did not believe in abortion. That’s one of the reasons my grandmother had ten children and, I truly believe why, at 94, she seems way more exhausted than my grandfather did even on the eve of his death at 95. Patriarchy takes a toll, but that’s a different column.
Many of these things influence the way that my parents and aunts and uncles think. They hold great respect for my grandfather and his service (as do I) and they see his path as different than newcomers’ paths. They also see themselves as picking themselves up from their own bootstraps and perhaps view unsanctioned migrants who can work for lower wages as threats to their own ability to thrive. And, for my own parents, religion also plays a critical role in their decision to support Trump. Even though they have admitted that he is not a beacon of holiness, they do see him as a person who can appoint judges who might influence the court to rule in more conservative ways, and he has done just that. My point is that it is a complex web. We are socialized in different contexts with different worldviews. I have been fortunate to have had exposure to many, my parents and theirs did not have access to that.
Those of us on the left have a tendency to think in terms of identity politics as monoliths and then can’t understand why people of color might vote for Trump. But people of color are individuals with varied experiences and nuanced belief systems just like everyone else (if you want to really learn about how Hispanics have leaned Republican and why, there’s a great new book by Geraldo Cadava called “The Hispanic Republican” you can read). Other times we liberals want to say that Trump is a monster and anyone who votes for him must also be one. I am guilty of saying these exact things. Just this week as I was sitting with a friend while I had a four-hour infusion at the hospital and we watched in horror as we thought that Trump might still have a chance at winning the election, I said something like, even if he doesn’t win, I am still dismayed there are at least 68 million hateful bigots we will have to contend with when this is over.
And here’s the thing: Many of those who voted for Trump are bigots. Many of them are hateful. Many of them are racists. But it is also not that black and white. And for those who righteously claim it is that simple, I would challenge you to consider a number of movements and institutions that liberals do typically support or find to be “good” for society: traditional gender roles, the institution of marriage, the environmental movement. I could argue that every single one of those things is either restrictive, outdated, patriarchal, elitist and/or racist, but I don’t have the space to do all of that here. My point is that many Trump supporters may be terrible, but it is also possibly true that many did not love him, but they saw Trump as a path toward moving the rest of the world to a place that they believed would make things better in what fit within their belief system.
If we can all pause now and try to start there, then perhaps we can unite more easily on a road to recovery. One, that I cannot leave this column without noting, which will be lead not only by Joe Biden, a devout Catholic, but by Kamala Harris, the first woman of color to hold the second highest office in the nation. This woman of color is especially hopeful that these two as a team can help to bridge what has felt like an ever-increasing divide.
Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history and Latino/a Studies at Penn State University. She lives in Weybridge, Vermont.
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