By Lee Kahrs
I stood in front of the Pittsford town offices on Veterans Day with almost 100 other people at the dedication of the new veterans’ memorial. A fierce cold wind whipped dead leaves in all directions, the temperature dropping by the minute. Flags were lowered and then raised above the new slab of marble etched with the words “Lest We Forget.”
We listened to speeches from veterans about how those who have served come in all shapes and sizes, how some veterans returned home to cheers, others to derision. Veterans are as diverse as our nation itself. They are men, many are women, some are successful business owners, some are homeless. They are white, they are black, they are Hispanic, they are gay, they are straight. They are married, they are single, they are divorced. They are Republicans and they are Democrats. They are all Americans and they are all veterans.
At the end of the ceremony, we all put our hands over our hearts and sang the first four verses of “American the Beautiful.” It was three days after the presidential election and as I looked around at the crowd gathered on that windy Friday morning, I thought that at least half of those people, probably more considering we are in conservative Rutland County, voted for Donald Trump for president.
Many of those gathered at the Pittsford ceremony were older folks, senior citizens, but there were also families and middle-aged people and children. And as I watched the Boy Scouts salute the flag and I listened to the strains of “God Bless America,” I started thinking that a vote for Trump may have been a cry for a simpler time, his “Make American Great Again” tagline resonating with people who want some aspects of American life to go back to the way it was 20, 30, 50 years ago: aging Americans pining for the good old days when they didn’t have to think about using the proper pronouns, or equal rights, or offending minorities by using an archaic word that is now considered a slur. Men were men, women were in the kitchen, and gays were in the closet. It was neat and simple. We’ve come a long way since then. At least we thought we had.
That’s one theory: that Trump’s election was a backlash against too much political correctness, that straight white people in rural areas agree with the president-elect, that it’s O.K. to belittle minorities, mock the disabled, objectify women and criminalize Muslims.
Another theory is that even if millions of Trump voters didn’t necessarily agree with his rhetoric, he promised something they desperately wanted: change. Trump has promised a shake-up of the status quo in Washington. Many of his voters, particularly in the swing states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, America’s Rust Belt, voted for Trump because he promised to bring back those manufacturing jobs that that region lost at the end of the last century.
But while Clinton supporters are wringing their hands this week and accusing Trump voters of being narrow-minded and ignorant, I disagree. I refuse to believe that the 50-million people that voted for Donald Trump are all racist, sexist homophobes. I think millions of people—good, decent, hardworking people—didn’t agree with Trump’s xenophobia but desperately wanted economic change: change which Hillary Clinton, who has spent a lifetime in politics and played to both corporate Wall Street interests and to her base, did not offer.
Many Trump voters have spent the last week defending themselves. Many of these people are our friends, neighbors and family members. They say it’s not personal, that they are not bigots and sexists.
I believe you—and now you have to back that up.
More than ever before, it is up to you, Trump voters, to combat bigotry, sexism, racism and homophobia where you see it. I think that “political correctness” has become a socio-political punching bag and that deriding it cheapens the decades of hard work and struggle that women and minorities endured to earn equal treatment and respect under the law.
Respect and equality are not conservative values or liberal values. That’s not political correctness. It’s basic human decency.
There are lost causes. I know there are Trump voters who think that I, a gay woman, am somehow “less than,” that my black neighbor is a second-class citizen and that a Syrian refugee is a threat to our national security. But there are Democrats who think that way, too.
There are nuances here that need exploring, and there are conversations that need to be had. If the election of Donald Trump accomplishes anything, it will have shaken our country to its core, a core that has been neglected and needs tending.
The trickle-down of Trump’s rhetoric is worrisome. Racism, intolerance and prejudice were ongoing issues in this country well before Trump even announced his candidacy. But his election is being interpreted by the bigots and homophobes as permission to act on their prejudices. It’s already started, with pro-white graffiti and hate crimes spiking across the country just in the week since the election. We have to fight this behavior at every turn, now more than ever.
In our corner of the country, the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union is reinforcing its bullying and harassment policy in schools across the district, encouraging parents, students and teachers alike to report and act. A climate committee has been formed at Otter Valley Union High School to combat bullying and harassment by bringing together students from different groups within the school.
We should take a page from that effort.
So I am appealing to the teachers, the parents, the guidance counselors, business and municipal leaders, the role models of our communities, as well as our friends and neighbors who may have voted for Donald Trump—let’s come together and promote human decency, now more than ever. Lest we forget.
Lee Kahrs is the editor of The Reporter, a sister paper of the Mountain Times.
By Lee Kahrs