The Work We Still Have to Do

By Marie Griffith | November 5, 2020

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

One week after the last presidential election in 2016, I published an editor’s note titled “Where Do We Go from Here?” It began:

The 2016 election is history, and several things are clearer to us now than they were before. It turns out that vast swaths of Americans are comfortable voting for a presidential candidate who has said vile and hate-filled things about Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, women, and the disabled. They are willing to stake their future on an ideologically fuzzy candidate deemed dangerous by an overwhelming number of widely respected liberal and conservative commentators, major newspaper editorial boards, former U.S. presidents, foreign policy experts, and more. A majority of college-educated, affluent whites apparently have no problem voting for such a person if they see him as better for the economy and their own place in it, or for the religious freedom of their own group in an ostensibly hostile world. Strikingly, 53 percent of white women are willing to vote for a man who is a serial groper by admission and allegation. White Christian voters overwhelmingly supported the least religious presidential candidate in recent history.

This week, even as we wait for remaining votes to be counted, much of this appears to remain the same. According to preliminary estimates from exit polls (revealing though not definitive at this point), 76 per cent of white evangelical Protestants supported President Donald Trump, with former Vice President Joe Biden (26 per cent) improving slightly over Hillary Clinton’s support in 2016 (14 per cent). Biden may ultimately triumph over the incumbent Trump, and a thick glass ceiling may have finally been broken by his running mate, Kamala Harris, a woman of color and the child of immigrants. But any win will be a narrow one, the margin of victory much slimmer than most polls predicted. And it’s easy to imagine Trump wreaking lasting havoc by questioning the results, loudly and publicly, for his remaining days on this earth.

Many who supported the Biden/Harris ticket in this election, conservatives and liberals alike, struggle to come to terms with the factors prompting so many others to vote again for Trump. There are, of course, those who condone and even revel in his worst characteristics: the racism, misogyny, cruelty, and gleeful authoritarianism that have permeated his administration. There have always been such people as these, and they will always be among us, somewhere. Far more disheartening are those who claim to disavow such offenses and to be good, caring people; but, because they see their own economic self-interest best fulfilled by Trumpian policies, they exhibit indifference (at best) to large portions of the populace by supporting him. I am no ethics teacher or religious leader, but I’m quite certain that indifference to the suffering of others runs counter to virtually every major religious creed and all but the most selfish, Ayn Randian philosophies espoused by any civic-minded person. And yet this cold greed turns out to be all around us, still, for many even in our own families.

Take racism: According to the exit polling, 71 per cent of voters agree that racism in the U.S. is the “most important problem” we face or “one of many important problems,” while only 26 percent see it as “a minor problem or not a problem at all.” And yet we also know, from other studies, that white Americans tend to see racism not as a structural problem with profound consequences relating to education and economic opportunity but as an attitudinal or interpersonal problem, something that can be addressed simply by being more polite to Black people—an extra warm smile to the Black waiter at your all-white country club, perhaps, or a cheerful “Have a nice day!” to the custodian emptying your office trash. The conviction that doing one’s part to end racism merely requires a bit more niceness to brown-skinned others seems wildly, woefully, even intentionally self-deceptive. It’s delusional to think concrete strategies and structural solutions aren’t necessary—either that, or perversely self-serving on white Americans’ part.

A Biden victory will not cure the venal apathy that is our country’s most grievous affliction. That is work we must do on our own. We cannot keep soothing ourselves with bromides about what good people Americans are or tell ourselves “We’re better than this!” when neo-Nazis march in the streets or anti-maskers scream about their freedoms amid a devastating pandemic; such arrogance has had dire consequences and may be American democracy’s undoing. Far healthier it would be, among white people above all, to acknowledge the shame of our country’s long indifference to others’ suffering, going back to colonial displacement of native peoples, enslavement of millions of Africans on American soil, and violent imperial conquests of peoples in other part of the world into our current toleration for hundreds of thousands of needless deaths because some refuse to take Covid-19 precautions seriously. Far better to confront these self-evident truths about our willful violence, and vow to cultivate a better way of living in the world with and among large numbers of other people.

Biden may have won, and many of us may now feel some relief that Trump has lost a second chance to turn us into an actual shithole country. But the closeness of this election forces us to face the fact that 2016 was no mere blip, Trump’s election no accident. As Eddie Glaude so powerfully argued last year after the deadly anti-Latino shooting in El Paso, “This is us.”

America is not unique in its sins as a country … I think where we may be singular is our refusal to acknowledge them, and the legends and myths we tell about our inherent, you know, goodness to hide and cover and conceal so that we can maintain a kind of willful ignorance that protects our innocence … This is us. And if we’re going to get past this, we can’t blame it on [Trump]. He’s a manifestation of the ugliness that’s in us.

Trump. Is. Us. Even those of us who voted against him live in this nation corrupted by selfishness and have contributed in some way to its decay. With his vile lies and untold cruelties nearing their end, it is only the beginning of the work we have to do. It is a kind of chance to start again, to resurrect the constitutional and social values we say that we cherish and build our life together anew. As 2020 blessedly nears its end, I believe the path of where we next go from here is finally emerging. May we become who we say we are and want to be.

Marie Griffith is the director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics and the editor of Religion & Politics. Follow her @RMarieGriffith.

© 2011 Religion & Politics