Is a divided nation always a bad thing? In theory, the answer is pretty obvious. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” as the revered Abraham Lincoln once said. There is a typical American conceit that we have to solve America’s problems together. However, the reality is that there is and always has been a sense of rebellion. It was through rebellion, after all, that we came to be a country in the first place. Further, the disenfranchisement of minorities is not an anomaly and can be cited at our country’s conception. As such, the archetype of the American melting pot has proven to be aspirational at best—an illusion that, in effect, primarily benefits those in power. Because in the face of systematic oppression, there can be no melting. We must instead stand up and say “hell no.”
So what, if any, are the possibilities for American unity in this moment, when so many of us must stand up to fight for our rights and our lives?
In 2016, just hours after Donald Trump was projected to win, Sean Hannity of Fox News claimed that it was a triumphant victory for the American people. It’s clear that Hannity had a narrow view of the American people, considering how many groups Trump had isolated.
During his campaign, Trump made vicious attacks against people who don’t perfectly resemble his demographic. It wasn’t just the typical American xenophobia. Trump attacked war heroes, military families, and the disabled with no remorse. Nobody was safe from his hateful vitriol; and yet, there was simultaneously a narrative that what we, as a country, needed was unity. The supposed remedy to our division was that we stop partisan fighting and come to a level of understanding. But what would it actually mean for us to understand each other? It is not a mystery as to why a voter with an interest in preserving white supremacy or exclusive financial gain would vote for the current resident of the White House—so is it accurate to attribute our disunity to a lack of understanding?
On Wed., Nov. 9, 2016, the oppressed took to the streets once again to express our rage over the newly elected administration. Our protesting was not about misunderstanding; rather, it was about the blatant disregard for the livelihood of so many Americans. The Trump win was bigger than just him, and we could feel another surge of white supremacy on the rise.
Although the reasons someone might vote for Trump are simple, they aren’t easy to justify. Since he’s been elected, political analysts have been trying to figure out the conditions that led voters to elect Trump. Contrary to the popular narrative, Trump supporters are not just poor and uneducated whites that depend on his promise of bringing back jobs and the incredibly small-minded slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Trump also has the support of powerful white supremacists and his candidacy galvanised citizens that have the resources and influence to set our country on fire. His racist rhetoric has become the spark for modern white supremacy. This is evident at his campaign rallies, where white power exremists feel at home. To further this point, on Nov. 12, 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center released emails composed by White House aide Stephen Miller that irrefutably reveal a history of his ties to white supremacist websites. His alliance with these sites is yet another example of the current administration’s comfort with racist ideologies.
According to pundits like Hannity, however, Trump won the support of voters because he gave the middle of the country a voice: he eschewed political correctness and claimed himself the hero of those left behind by a bad economy. Notably, when pundits make these arguments, there is no acknowledgment of the price many of us have to pay for a Trump supporter’s satisfaction. It seems that any justification and prospering of the Trump administration necessitates the erasure of the blatant prejudice and intolerance of his ideology. However, it’s no secret that Trump has the support of some people of color that he points to whenever he wants to cover up his overt racism. Minorities that support Trump have interesting justifications, but more notably, Trump uses these supporters as a way to weaponize anecdotal evidence for political gain.
Beyond the justifications for his election, there has since been a growing plethora of arguments that attempt to excuse Trump’s behavior. Even as we enter the impeachment investigation, the GOP continues to deny the truth of his obvious corruption. They remain committed to preserving the narrative of Trump’s integrity, of his good intentions—no matter what he says or does.
So, if everyone at the metaphorical table can’t even acknowledge the indisputably racist, political, and self-serving motivations behind the current administration’s words and actions, then it becomes hard to trust even the idea of compromise. Because nearly everything displayed by this administration shows there is an agenda to bring the process of liberation to a halt—from the passing of multiple abortion bans challenging Roe v. Wade to the zero-tolerance policy on immigration to Trump’s record of action against transgender people.
Any vision of a united country today requires rose-colored glasses. And as one animated bird once said, when you look at something through rose-colored glasses, “all the red flags just look like flags.” America first needs to accept that hate crimes are real, white supremacy is an epidemic of terrorism, and equality in this country, as it stands, does not truly exist. If there is an unwillingness to agree on these basic realities, how can moments of unity be sustainable?
If the foundation of unity is compromise, then we’re out of luck: there are too many issues that all sides view as non-negotiable. The right to choose is a classic example of such non-negotiable divisions. Historically, whenever minorities have attempted to compromise with their oppressors, they only end up being further exploited. Our protests are labeled disruption and our fight is seen as an untimely disturbance. In his famous 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King addresses the impossibility of painless compromise with one’s oppressors:
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well timed’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered.”
Achieving liberation is not about making everyone happy. It’s not even about unity; because as we’ve seen, we cannot build unity upon foundations that exist in alternate realities.
Instead, liberation is about collaborating with allies, those who are willing to seriously acknowledge both privilege and oppression, those who recognize the necessity of intersectional justice—meaning the concept of freedom for everyone of all genders, races, ethnicities, income levels, disabilities, etc. There is power in numbers and functional unity is possible, but only among those who are willing to stand for the most vulnerable under the Trump regime.