Are individual rights in America exclusive to white, male, Christian gun owners, and if not, does expanding this concept require more work than Trump supporters are willing to do?
Last month, I visited my favorite museum in D.C. – the Newseum – and stood in front of a crisp white plaque that reads the following:
“People have a need to know. Journalists have a right to tell. Finding the facts can be difficult. Reporting the story can be dangerous. Freedom includes the right to be outrageous. Responsibility includes the duty to be fair. News is history in the making. Journalists provide the first draft of history. A free press, at its best, reveals the truth.”
“HEY!” someone shouted over my shoulder. “You’ve GOTTA take a picture of me in my hat!”
I followed the sound out the door to the terrace, which overlooks some of D.C.’s most photographed landmarks. Two women bustled ahead of me, fanny packs fastened, cameras at the ready. “Take a picture of me in my hat!” the first woman shouted again, posing in front of the Capitol. She adjusted her red MAGA cap, spread her arms out over the terrace wall, and grinned broadly as her friend clicked away.
Before I could wonder why such an ardent Trump supporter would visit a museum dedicated to journalistic integrity and the freedom of the press, I heard more screaming. “NO! None of these are GOOD! How hard is it for you to take one decent picture? DO IT AGAIN!”
That hostility is a lot of why I’m hesitant to engage with people who still (still) defend Donald Trump. I’ve made the effort. I’m from the reddest part of the bluest state in America, and I think, “Sure, I could be the Margaret Mead of Trump supporters.” But most times, I’m met with one or a combination of the following:
- An enthusiastic bombardment of meaningless phrases like “Make America Great Again” and “Build the Wall,” which signal that the concept of winning is more important than the nuances of policy.
- An angry tirade of name-calling – “typical liberal academic,” “feminazi,” and my personal favorite, “loser.”
- Though within a civil discussion and productive exchange of ideas, an argument rife with resentment toward “the other” (Muslims, Mexicans, LGBT folks), toward perceived attacks on “personal liberties,” and toward suggestions that a larger issue (climate change, child vaccinations) requires individuals to take action.
The last part of the third point is crucial. Almost every time I’ve talked to a Trump apologist, I’ve been asked, “OK, but how does this affect you personally?” It’s a yuge problem.
#WhyIMarch has become a popular way for those resisting the Trump agenda to share their stories on social media. The morning of the D.C. Women’s March, I made my own list: I work in immigration for an institution that researches climate science, I’m a woman who needs hormonal birth control for multiple reasons, I’m a teacher horrified at what Betsey DeVos wants to do to public education, and I don’t want my mother to lose her Obamacare.
On more than one occasion, I’ve trotted these concerns out for those who ask how I’m personally affected by this presidency. My job is drastically different since the inauguration: Much of my time is now spent reviewing all the latest news and legislation, addressing concerns from nationals affected by the travel ban, and worrying about potential funding cuts to research. Decisions about my medicine are being made by men who don’t understand all of the things it treats. The effects of confirming someone with no experience in education to lead its department will last for generations, and will challenge my capacity to serve future students.
Most of the time, this proves useless anyway. People who can’t (or maybe won’t) see outside of themselves will ask about personal impact as “evidence” that there’s something wrong with this presidency, but if my reality isn’t reflective of theirs, they’ll dismiss it as easily as anything else. (Example: “I’m sorry you feel that Trump doesn’t respect women, but unless he personally grabs at my daughters, I think they’ll be OK.”)
I briefly flirted with libertarianism in college. The principles sounded reasonable until I realized that the individual liberties can only be so privileged, so boundless, within a nation that should operate for the well-being of all its citizens. Essentially, that it’s not just about me – we’re all in this together. Fast forward to the 2016 election cycle. Selfishness is politically-sanctioned; the individual taxpayer is fetishized. Second amendment advocates decry submitting to background checks before purchasing firearms, while Floridians are gruesomely shot to death in an Orlando nightclub. When essential women’s health benefits are removed from the Trumpcare bill, a male senator laughs, “I wouldn’t want to lose my mammograms.”
Individual rights have become so revered that they shape larger debate on what should be settled issues. Following George W. Bush’s famous push to “teach the controversy” between evolution and creationism in schools, religious objectors to evolution were suddenly vindicated. Textbook series like Answers in Genesis satisfied those personally offended by fact-based curriculums, and It’s not what I believe became a vehicle for equating pseudoscience with scientific consensus.
The consequences of clinging to personal belief or individual rights in the face of reality can be dangerous, even deadly, as we see in the still-raging anti-vaxxer movement. Despite a 2013 report from the National Academy of Sciences concluding that the current child vaccine schedule is safe, celebrities like Jim Carrey, Selma Blair, and, yes, Donald Trump maintain that vaccination is a matter of “parental choice.” Which doesn’t leave much choice for the rest of us who like living in a world without polio.
If self-centeredness has become politicized, then, naturally, so has human decency. George Saunders, who penned an exhausting account of Trump supporters for The New Yorker last fall, recently sat down for an interview with Vox. “Defense of democracy, defense of diversity, kindness, empathy: All these things now are really being challenged. And you have to be fierce while being empathetic, which is pretty tricky,” he said. “You have to think about these groups that are suffering under Trump, and even sort of include these Trump supporters as one of those groups. It’s really morally challenging.”
In other words, practicing fierce empathy toward those who view it as the mark of weak, liberal crybabies is the ultimate test. There are no “Unfriend” and “Block” buttons for the physical world. “I can’t believe I gave them my business,” my mom sighed after The Guardian released a story on this antique store in our hometown, whose owner charmingly noted that he “wouldn’t spend money on the wall. I’d just shoot them as they come over.” “He and his wife were so nice to me,” Mom said, then quickly reconsidered. “Probably because I look like them.”
Are individual rights in America exclusive to white, male, Christian gun owners, and if not, does expanding this concept require more work than Trump supporters are willing to do? We can understand the conditions that molded them – the rise of fake news, widespread lack of media literacy, a campaign that blatantly vilified the “other” – but that doesn’t mean they’re off the hook when it comes to cultivating compassion. If anything, it means just the opposite: that they must be pushed harder to think outside of themselves.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.