To Red State Family and Friends: Why I’m concerned for us all and not whining

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At his press conference with British prime minister Theresa May, the president said this:

“I happened to be in Scotland at Turnberry cutting a ribbon when Brexit happened and we had a vast amount of press there. And I said Brexit — this was the day before, you probably remember, I said Brexit is going to happen and I was scorned in the press for making that prediction. I was scorned.

And I said I believe it’s going to happen because people want to know who is coming into their country and they want to control their own trade and various other things, and low and behold, the following day it happened and the odds weren’t looking good for me when I made that statement because, as you know, everybody thought it was not going to happen.”

However, in June he had arrived in Scotland for the ribbon-cutting ceremony the day after the Brexit vote, and his comments to the Fox Business Network when asked about Brexit before the vote were, “I don’t think anybody should listen to me because I haven’t really focused on it very much.”

Not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things one week post-inauguration, and that’s the point. Our newly elected president was rewriting his role in history extemporaneously on an international stage—emphasizing that he was scorned by the press for a prediction he had not made—and it is already business as usual. All politicians make campaign promises they don’t keep and have big egos and put spin on their policies, but this is something different.

We already know we can’t trust what our president says. Is this really okay?

I moved from my home state when I went to college, from a rural South Dakota county with a population of 6.9 people per square mile (and a poverty rate of 44 percent) to the fifth largest city in the midwest. I did not move back and will always feel a little guilty about that (a guilt shared by many who leave small towns and farms). My heart is in both worlds and always will be.

Road to family farm
The road to and from my family’s farm in Todd County, South Dakota

 

To my red state family and friends, you and I most probably voted for different candidates in November. We have some (okay, maybe many) different visions for the future, different priorities, different experiences.

I am not trying to convince you to change your political party or even to understand my point of view, but I do want to try to explain why my concerns about the next four years are neither partisan in basis nor sour grapes.

As much as I might disagree with many Republican policies, I accept that a change in political parties means a change in political power. I get that, I really do. This is not about rehashing the election or who voted for whom.

What concerns me are the authoritarian tendencies of this particular president, regardless of political party. That leaves me feeling helpless and at times terrified.

Running a business, even a global business, in which one is ultimately the only person in charge and accountable to no one is very different from heading one of three branches of government and being accountable to a broad public. That’s not to say that someone can’t make the transition from business leader to effective governance, but it is not necessarily going to happen and can’t be bought. It’s a different kind of leadership.

The president stated repeatedly throughout the campaign and after that he is smarter than experts on any given topic, and he is acting on that belief. For example, Fortune reports that the administration’s flurry of executive orders have been “drafted with little input from the relevant government agencies. Almost all of the headline-grabbing orders were seen by experts to have some clear or potential conflicts with existing laws.” One law professor said “the rush of orders without careful review makes errors likely.”

The chaos and confusion caused by the recent travel ban indicates lack of care (and caring). Is this really okay?

Early in the campaign, I began to read the work of Sarah Kendzior, an expert in authoritarianism. As I read, I kept my fingers crossed that she was wrong. In March of 2016, she published an article at The Diplomat about “what Central Asia’s spectacular states can tell us about authoritarianism in America”:

Spectacle is not all Trump’s proposed America and the Central Asian dictatorships have in common. Trump’s vision of America also supports a restricted press; persecution of devout Muslims and ethnic minorities; totalized control of government through a sequestered elite (Trump refuses to name potential partners and advisors); incredible wealth with little transparency concerning its accumulation (Trump refuses to release tax returns); and paranoid recitation of enemies both foreign and domestic, who are said to threaten the “greatness” of the state – and its leader. These are the standard characteristics of dictatorship, practiced in many countries around the world. But there are more distinct parallels to Trumpism to be found in Central Asia.

Kendzior, who stresses that we all deserve better than what she fears is coming, regardless of whom we voted for, has been unrelenting in her warnings, and many find her arguments alarmist, but what if she’s right? Remember that this was written even before the Republican nomination:

There are vast differences, of course, in the spectacle of Central Asian presidents and that of Trump as an elected leader. It is hard to envision him receiving the adulation to which he – and Central Asian leaders – are accustomed in the U.S. Congress, or managing to get his punitive and persecutory policies passed into law. But the motto of dictatorship is ‘It can’t happen here.’ Time and time again, it has happened – Trump’s likely GOP nomination being only but one recent example of the formerly unthinkable put into practice.

It is irresponsible to rule out his rule. The greatest and perhaps most depressing difference between the Central Asian and Trump models is the latter’s rise to power. When I asked an Uzbek friend to compare Trump to the Central Asian leaders, he replied: ‘Dictatorship is something that was done to us. But you – you’re doing this voluntarily?‘ Read more (emphases added)

Authoritarian leaders expect the press’s role is to make them look good. In just the last week, press secretary Sean Spicer said that negative press coverage is “demoralizing” to the president, and Steve Bannon told the New York Times that the media should “keep its mouth shut.”

In other words, prop up the president and silence the press. Is this really okay?

I do try to go outside of my bubbles, to listen to podcasts and read articles not only by people with whom I agree but from a variety of perspectives, and I urge everyone to do the same. While I don’t expect Fox News fans to tune into MSNBC, there are many Republican and conservative voices who are willing to be thoughtfully critical of the new administration.

A good example is Charlie Sykes, who for years had a radio talk show in Milwaukee, where I live. Sykes does not stoop to ad hominem attacks, describes himself as a “contrarian conservative,” and is not afraid to question his own party or speak up. He has just begun co-hosting a new national public radio show, and his first episode, with guest George Will, is online at Indivisible. You might not change your mind after listening, but you will have heard from two people with deep ties to conservatism and who have the interests of the Republican Party at heart.

Even as I write this, I despair over the gulf that divides us. Several months ago, I opened Facebook for the first time in a while to look for photos from a marriage celebration, and saw in my newsfeed a copied-and-pasted post asking readers if they had ever, among other things, “shaken hands with a Muslim Girl Scout” or “seen a Muslim do anything that contributes positively to the American way of life???? The answer is no, you did not. Just ask yourself WHY???”

My heart sank as I felt the chasm of the political and cultural divide that so many people have tried to describe. By one of those strange coincidences in life, the wedding celebration I had attended the day before was for a Muslim woman who was not only a Girl Scout but who volunteers and makes the world and, yes, our country a better place by her very presence, whose family exemplifies good citizenship as well as any family I know, whose siblings I am honored to have taught and call my friends. (It is also important to note that Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and other populations do not have to be exemplary citizens—how many of us are?—to be valued.) Yet, even though words are my bailiwick, I lacked the verbal skill to describe how different my own experience has been from that status message, how wide and deep the chasm felt.

Likewise, I’m not confident I have explained myself well here. But I have to try, even if only for myself.

I am not telling anyone what to think or believe. I only hope that we hold the president accountable. That we don’t trust that he or his spokespeople or one cable news network is giving us the full picture. If members of Congress ever get to the point of seeing that our president is a political liability (that is, it will lose them votes in the future), they do have the authority to step in or at least exercise their own powers to push back. But they have to know that we the people are not happy, especially those who voted for him.

To everyone who has read this to the end, thank you (truly), and whatever your voice, big or small, please use it—with compassion and kindness, yes, but use it. The person next to you may be hungry for your words, and you could provide the courage he or she needs to speak up, as well. It’s a right we cannot take for granted.

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