They fell, one by one. Then all in a row. Then in a flood.
At first, it was easy to dismiss how they rooted for Trump. It was early on, and it all seemed like a game. One that we all knew would end well for us, but which we had to farcically drag ourselves through to get all our angry demons out.
But as time passed, it got worse and worse, and it became clearer and clearer that these people meant business.
They still fought for him when he encouraged the people at his rally to physically attack the protesters. They still defended him when he put journalists in a pen, claimed he would open up the laws so they could be intimidated into silence. They still defended him when he called to stop Muslims from entering the country. They still defended him when he said he was open to registering Muslims. They still defended him when he jokingly suggested that if Hillary won, his supporters should assassinate her. They still defended him when he promised to lock her up after the election.
Every time, we waited. Surely, this would be the breaking point. Surely, they would see it had gone too far.
After all, people are good deep down, aren’t they? Most, at least. That’s what we thought.
But after each declaration, we watched in horror as that assumption was tested and failed.
I remember when that illusion was broken for me. It was after the tape was released. The one where our current president bragged about sexually assaulting women. I posted something on my personal Facebook page, sure that my friends, my readers, my community members would be forced to finally introspect. To finally regret. To understand that no matter what their issues were with Hillary, picking an alternative just for the sake of having an alternative is a fool’s game.
But these people, the same people I had seen stand up to sexual abusers in the community I live in, the same people I had defended over and over again in my writing, the same people I thought I was allied with because of my religion, because of my stance on Israel, failed miserably. They defended him. They evaded, they tried to talk about Bill Clinton as if he was running for president. They pointed at all of Trump’s accusers and acted as if he himself did not admit to the acts. They talked of “locker room talk” and other ridiculousness they never would have said in any other context.
That was the point where I wondered, finally, if the people I knew who supported Trump were simply bad people.
They defended or rationalized racism, Islamophobia, authoritarianism, weakening free speech… and now, sexual assault.
Perhaps they didn’t have a breaking point, but it turned out that we who were anti-Trump did. There was only so much we could accept “economic anxiety” and “the other side is bad too” and “but Israel” before we had to finally look within ourselves and admit that we no longer saw the spark of goodness in the people we disagreed with. We all had our own lines, our own moments, but I think most of us had some part of ourselves that had suddenly lost faith in many of the people we share the country with.
What was hard for me, as someone who knew and was friends with many Trump supporters (that’s changed), was seeing people I knew were good people fall into the same traps. People who I had seen do good with my own eyes. People who had inspired me, changed my life. One of my best friends sat with me shortly after the election and, when I pressed him on the potential for a Muslim registration, said he thought that Japanese internment had actually been a good idea.
There is no going back after we hear things like this. That was why this election was about so much more than politics for so many of us, why us “snowflakes” can’t just “let it go.” We’ve learned things about those close to us we never imagined possible.
Our friends, our neighbors, our community members, our families, our country… they weren’t good people.
And, more than anything, this dichotomy has torn me up since the election. The people I’ve seen say and believe these truly ugly things are the same people I’ve seen do incredible good. The people I know, when not tested by the election, spend most of their time building the world up, making it into something beautiful. Godly.
But to see that ugliness is impossible to ignore. These people, they may do good, but to be okay risking the lives of others? To justify registering people based on their religion? To make the case for killing the children of terrorists?
For the first time in my life, I wondered if all the good I saw in the people near me was a lie. Were these actually bad people? What other name is there for people who are okay with such things, who justify them? Or even rationalize them?
I know so many others struggling with this, and I think that until we do, truly fixing what we’ve seen over the last year will be impossible. You can’t build a better world with people you see as bad. We can’t truly live with those we see as so deeply flawed that they are beyond trusting.
So then, I have to look deeper. I have to look within. To know what it even means when I say that I think these are bad people.
And I am reminded of a conversation I had over 8 years ago.
I didn’t know it, but today would change my life. I had slipped again, screwed up and started getting back into bad habits, and it was tearing me up.
“Why is it so upsetting?” my therapist asked me, in the way he always did when he would ask me questions that to him seemed obvious but to me seemed insane. Of course it was upsetting! Why wouldn’t it be?!
“Because… because I messed up.”
“But everyone messes up, don’t they? It’s normal.”
Normal? Normal? This didn’t feel normal. This felt horrible.
“I guess, I’m worried. Afraid.”
“Why? What is there to be afraid of?”
He didn’t say this like there was something wrong with me. He said it in a way that made it seem like he was truly trying to understand.
I took a deep breath, trying to collect my thoughts. Why… why did making mistakes scare me so much? I never asked myself the question. I figured it was just a natural response to failure.
As usual, when I had trouble knowing what to say, I decided to just talk and see what came out. I had come to a lot of realizations that way.
“I’m afraid I’m a bad person. That I’m broken.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but in that moment I had articulated the “fixed mindset” famously depicted in Carole Dweck’s book Mindset. It’s when a person sees themselves as unchanging, and so when they fail, instead of seeing it as part of a process, they see it as revealing who they are inside. And the thing was, I had somehow picked up a darker form of this thinking, in which I assumed I was broken, bad, a failure, and that it was just a matter of time until I was discovered (this is called the Impostor Syndrome).
My therapist looked at me and he said, “Okay,” as if this was all just an intellectual and philosophical exercise, “But what are you? I mean, if ‘you’ are bad and broken, what is this ‘you’ that you’re discussing.”
I tried to define it. Tried to say I was my personality, and he pointed out that personalities change. I tried to go deeper, to say I was my choices, and he said those change even more. No matter how I tried to define myself, I could not come up with one.
“Maybe,” he said, “there is no you? At least in the way you define it. Something that you can pin down and define?”
Upon hearing those words, I remember seeing a flash of light in my mind, similar to the one I had seen during my near death experience, and suddenly experiencing a moment of freedom and clarity. There was no me. Because there is no fixed definition of a person. Because we are flowing, moving, changing creatures. Someone can’t be bad if there is no way to define a person.
We spent the rest of the appointment talking about this idea, that to try and define a person as good or bad, especially ourselves, is a dangerous proposition. And inaccurate. There is no you because there is no easy way to define a person. A person is defined by change.
I didn’t know this at the time either, but what my therapist was proposing was essentially a “growth mindset”, the one from the book by Dweck. The mindset here sees things like failure and pain not as revelations of some inner definitions of ourselves but simply part of the ever-flowing process of being a person. Part of our growth, in other words, and thus opportunities to rise higher.
This is why my therapist acted perplexed when he asked me why failure upset me so much. Perhaps he actually was that perplexed. Or perhaps he wanted me to realize why that question should be perplexing. Failure can’t be upsetting if it is natural, if it is part of being human, if it is what allows us to grow and rise and change. Even if it is upsetting, it would never be as soul-shatteringly scary as it was for me at the time.
What this all came down to: the problem with trying to define myself as bad was that the question itself was flawed, and that’s what my therapist was guiding me towards understanding. A lot of times, when we look for the answers to our troubles, we are often feeling lost because there is no answer. Because the question is flawed.
And so to ask of ourselves if we are good or bad people is the wrong question. The correct questions are: “What am I doing to make myself a better person? What can I learn from this moment in time to grow? In which direction am I headed?”
These are the questions of the growth-minded individual, the person who defines themselves based on their decisions instead of some imaginary pre-constructed definition.
So, what does it mean to be a bad person? The answer: there is no such thing (except when there is, but that’s the exception that proves the rule). There are people who make bad decisions, or who have dangerous preconceptions and prejudices, or who live in a culture that encourages hate. And a million other things.
But people are not inherently bad, and using a choice they made to define them as people is just as unhealthy for us as when we do it to ourselves.
In other words, this struggle I’ve had since the election, looking at the people who seemed to make decision after decision that was wrong, immoral, bad… if I look at them as stuck in time, as unchanging, and defined by those moments, then I will lose hope. That is a big part of the existential fear and pain that so many people that were anti-Trump are experiencing right now. We look at a world we thought was good, that was going on a steady direction towards good, and it suddenly seems upended.
But the world was never good either. It was never good nor bad. And when we keep trying to see it as one or the other, we are bound to live in a state of perpetual moral whiplash.
Because the world will keep doing the wrong thing. And then the right thing. Whether we see it is up to us.
And now, as Trump destroys America piece by piece, eating it up and spitting it out like it’s his personal buffet, lying to all the people he conned, not giving them a thing they wanted while failing each time he does try to enact the hateful agenda he laid out during his campaign, we are presented with an opportunity. Just like every failure, like every horrific decision your or I or anyone else has made, we have the chance to take the reigns of change. That is the beauty of a world of growth, of people growing.
Instead of looking at the world and thinking to ourselves, “Wow, I thought the world was good. I guess it’s actually bad,” we can look at this as a moment for us to grow. Both internally, seeing what went wrong along the way, as well as externally, speaking up and prodding the world to grow and change and evolve.
Because it will. It always changes. It always grows.
The only question is if we’re part of the process or not.
It has been eight years since I had that talk with my therapist. Eight years, and I am still learning to guide myself in the directions I hope to grow in. Still learning not to attack myself for the bad decisions I make, to focus on action instead of judgment. Almost every week I speak to him, I have to remind myself of it again.
But as I do, I see myself becoming more empowered. I see myself becoming less and less paralyzed by fear. I see my life becoming more and more what I always dreamed it would be.
It is only now that I’m realizing it is not enough to do it for myself. If I look at others in the same way, I am disempowering them as well as myself.
This is an opportunity, then. An opportunity to truly see the world accurately. And it is only then that we will all become truly empowered.