In October 2018, Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and opened fire on the praying congregants while shouting anti-Semitic slurs, murdering 11. Even as he entered the hospital after having been shot by police, to be treated by Jewish doctors, he was still yelling, “I want to kill all Jews!”
The echoes of Trump’s rhetoric in Bowers’ own xenophobic complaints about immigrant outsiders invading the United States were obvious, the Trump administration’s denials of Trump’s words having inspired the shooting notwithstanding.
We all remember the jaw-dropping and terrifying images of the torch-carrying white mob chanting “Jews will not replace us” as they marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. And we remember Trump’s refusal to condemn them, which shouted loudly a tacit approval of the anti-Semitic white supremacists from the highest office in our land. There were “fine people on both sides.” That was the judgment Trump offered to all American ears, from those of developing infants, to those of impressionable youth, to the ears adults looking to be emboldened, including a teenager like Kyle Rittenhouse who would shoot and kill two people protesting the police shooting of an African American man in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
And then in August 2019, a 21 year-old white man opened fire on shoppers in a Walmart in the Texas border town of El Paso, writing in his manifesto that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” echoing Trump’s repeated references to “invasions” of immigrants.
If Trump’s not directly responsible, if he didn’t powerfully inspire this violence, he certainly emboldened the murderers and legitimated the hate.
And let’s not forget that Trump is the guy who invited his followers at his rallies to rough up anti-Trump protesters, insisting he would pay their legal fees. He is the guy who called a convoy of marauders trying to drive a Biden campaign bus off a Texas highway “patriots.” He is the guy who, when asked to in a debate, could not emphatically and unequivocally repudiate white supremacy, Instead calling out the white nationalist Proud Boys to “stand down and stand by.” This is the guy who cannot simply say “Black lives matter” and who turns the U.S. military forces on peaceful protesters so he can have a photo op.
Wow—just beginning to catalog these few instances, just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Trump’s inflammatory and hateful rhetoric and policies, fills me with anxiety and terror. We will all have a lot of processing to do in dealing with the post-traumatic stress syndrome of Trump’s poisonous presidency.
Democracy, the simple act of voting, however, has proven to be a potent weapon of defense.
After the Tree of Life shooting, my spouse Terrie helped organize a vigil at a neighborhood park in Chicago to mourn the deadly episode, memorialize the victims, and to grieve together the violent and fatal spate of hate abounding in our nation.
She spoke to the many who, because it was a rainy night, crowded into the basement of the old park district building; and her most resounding line, for me, the one that stays with me, is when said, in an inspiring, hopeful, and joyous tone among the bleakness, “Let’s make voting great again!”
This election showed just how great and life-affirming voting can be. I do have to admit that I mis-wrote above—maybe you noticed. I referred to voting as a “simple act.” It absolutely isn’t. For many it was arduous, having to wait for hours in long lines; having to wait in crowds during a pandemic; and dealing with misdirection by republican operatives, as when republicans installed fake ballot drop boxes around the state of California, among the other challenges voter suppression efforts have presented.
But the voters came out in record numbers, many who had never voted and didn’t seem to understand its power and capacity to make a difference.
And this vote, in defeating Trump’s hate and murderous rhetoric and behavior, had to overcome historic gerrymandering, intimidation, suppression, misinformation, and more.
And it was heroic. if you had told me Trump was going to receive 70 million votes in this election, I would have started crying right then, collapsing in the sure prospect of Biden’s defeat.
But the voters showed up against all obstacles.
So, no, voting is not a simple act, even though it should be in a nation that claims and aspires to respect democracy.
But voting, we need to see, saves lives; it can make lives matter.
Last Friday, 122,000 new cases of COVID-19 infections were reported. And still Trump and his administration have shown no concerted effort or even willingness to address the pandemic that killed more than 230,000 Americans.
He and his surrogates, including Donald, Jr., continue to “downplay” its deadly virulence.
So we can see voting matters, and the full power of the vote is beginning, I think, to dawn on Americans, especially those who can’t.
My 14 year-old son expressed frustration, as he waited out the processing of votes, that so much that impacted his life was in the hands of others because he is not eligible to vote.
The other day I saw a commercial featuring several of America’s youth, not yet eligible to vote, urging those who can vote to keep them and their futures in mind. These kids are thirsty to vote, like my 16 year-old son who served as an election judge. They know so much about their lives, their futures, the world we elders leave for them, depends on the vote.
Historically, in a good turnout for a presidential election, maybe 60 percent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot. Imagine all who could vote did. Candidates would have to be much more careful and responsive to all populations in crafting platforms to reflect the interests of all segments of the electorate.
That so many issues this election are matters of life and death was clear this year. Voters turned out as if their lives depended on it because they saw that in fact voting can save lives and make them matter.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.