Humor was in the air on election night. Six of us crammed into my New Haven apartment to watch the returns. Four of us were Muslims, one a Hindu, one a white liberal from the South. As the returns rolled in, we started to joke around. “Does everyone have their papers ready?” someone said, alluding to Trump’s promise to ban all Muslims from entering the country.
“Should we go report ourselves now?” another asked.
“At least we aren’t in Syria.”
How could we not laugh? Trump was a buffoon, a cartoon, a caricature of a caricature. He was the embodiment of all that was ugly in America—from the excessive makeup to the narcissism to his persecution complex. The writer Aleksandar Hemon had described Trump as a “reality-TV starlet high on Viagra and racism”—we thought that he was right and that most Americans would agree with us. But underlying our laughter was a deep unease. Trump had proposed to ban our families and to monitor our friends. He had likened us to terrorists because of the color of our skin and the faith in our hearts. In attacking Khizr Khan, he had attacked our uncles and our fathers. In mocking Ghazala Khan, he had mocked our mothers. In cheapening the sacrifice of Captain Humayun Khan, who was slain on the streets of Iraq defending this country, he had cheapened the sacrifices of our Muslim brothers and sisters serving in uniform.
Then Ohio was called. Florida. North Carolina. Trump was up in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. All the election models that had assured us 24 hours earlier that Hillary Clinton would handily win the presidency now switched their forecasts to a Trump victory. We watched in stunned silence, the room around us shrinking, the air growing thick with anxiety.
Then one of us said, “He’s going to win.”
At that moment our lives changed. We had lost much more than an election.
We Muslims have done everything that was asked of us. We worked hard, staying up all night to study and taking on menial jobs to care for our families. Our lives were difficult, but they were no comparison to the struggle of our parents who had emigrated to the West, defied the odds, learned a new language, and built enough wealth to give their children a roof over their heads—even if they were nervous about next month’s paycheck. They put up with one setback after another so that we, their children, could accomplish our goals. We wanted our lives to validate their struggle; we wanted to be worthy of their suffering.
So we stayed in the library all night accumulating knowledge, worried that with one or two bad moves we might end up on the streets. The world around us had been an unforgiving place. Before we legally became adults, we saw the Twin Towers fall, saw countries occupied, saw financial markets collapse, saw a black man with a Muslim name get elected to the highest office in the land. Throughout it all, what was important was to keep faith—faith in meritocracy, faith in America. Our parents had overcome unthinkable hurdles. What excuse did we have?
So we kept working, kept hustling.
We saw ourselves as fulfilling the promise that previous generations had made: that if you worked hard and stayed optimistic, you would be rewarded. We did everything that was asked of us. We jumped over every hurdle, surpassed every expectation. But when the election was called, all we could do was watch in silence as the narrative of our lives shattered before our eyes. We felt in the deepest chambers of our being that America had betrayed us, had repudiated who we were. In a matter of minutes, the shining city on the hill became an armed citadel determined to oppose our existence.
The election of Donald John Trump on November 8, 2016, will be rationalized on economic grounds. It will be explained as the rage of the white working class against the elites who had forgotten them. The same pundits, pollsters, and editorialists who guaranteed a Clinton victory will now guarantee that everything will be fine. The same Democratic Party that cleared the field to run a flawed candidate will ask that we not blame them. The preachers and speech-makers will tell us to spread love because “love trumps hate.” But as people who come from the edges of society, we know what the face of white terror looks like and what Trump’s victory means for our future. There is no silver lining.
It is true that many of the people who voted for Donald Trump were not racists; many were good people, kind-hearted and selfless. Every racist and white supremacist, however, cast their ballot for Trump, a man who successfully empowered the right-wing fringe of America, which believes minorities are inferior to the white race. The people who voted for Trump exercised a privilege we minorities do not have: the privilege of assuming that Trump’s vile rhetoric and authoritarian proposals were just abstractions. They, the white men and women who betrayed us, had the supreme luxury of thinking that Trump did not mean what he said. For Muslims and for minorities, there exists no such privilege. We have spent our youth distancing ourselves from terrorists and condemning terrorism, all in an effort to prove to white society that we are not monsters but human beings. White America responded to our struggle by electing a monster of their own.
There is no cause for optimism among us, for in Trump’s America we see our own undoing. We see white supremacists and overt racists of every kind coming out of the sewers they have been hiding in since the Civil Rights movement, to remind us once again of who’s boss. We who have been unjustly forced to take responsibility for every crime committed by our kinsmen—Muslims having to address “radical Islamic terror,” to employ the right’s fetishized term—know that white voters who put Trump into office will never take responsibility for what he and his supporters will do to us. The awesome power that white supremacists now have is to define the terms by which we are judged, and to enforce policies that will affect our bodily existence.
When all the networks declared Donald Trump the president-elect of the United States, I got a flurry of texts from my mother, a hijab-wearing woman who prays five times a day and keeps every fast during the month of Ramadan, even when it’s blistering hot outside. She lives in Canada and was planning to visit me at Yale for the first time later this month.
I expected her texts to convey a deep-seated fear because I was deeply afraid. In the last three years, I have been in Istanbul after an ISIS attack, Jerusalem after knife attacks, and northern Iraq as ISIS was surging, and yet I felt the vulnerability of my existence in New England on election night 2016. I thought she would tell me how frightened she was to be a practicing Muslim in a world that had condemned her.
But my mother, my beautiful mother, said that we had to give Trump a chance, to remain hopeful that he would do the right thing. She said that forgiveness and love are what her Muslim faith taught her—to accept all people, and to always see the best in humanity because there was a light even in the dimmest of souls. The same religion that Trump and his fascist underlings had vilified as a barbaric, violent, anti-American creed was at the core of my mother’s forgiveness of all that Trump had done.
From my teenaged years, I had been in love with America, with the precious words of the First Amendment, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. I had believed in the overwhelming idea of America, enshrined in the Statue of Liberty, that called this great republic a “Mother of Exiles.” I had seen in America a reflection of my own story, as the son of strivers who rebelled against improbable circumstances and, through sheer sweat and toil, put a roof over my head and a desk where I could finish my homework.
As much as I wanted to believe my mother’s words, all I could think was that she, in her innocence, had no idea of what was coming. Evil was real in the world, and it was most insidious when championed by individuals who were otherwise good people. Many—most?—of Trump’s voters were probably decent human beings, which is precisely what made their support of Trump so dangerous. If good people could salute a xenophobe, imagine what terrible people are now thinking?
A new era of progressive radicalism begins now. The old media establishment is finished, having fed self-righteous liberals data and arguments that confirmed their beliefs. The old Democratic Party is done, too, as is the myth, which President Barack Obama believed and propagated, that America had somehow made progress against the shadows of racism and hatred of the Other. There is no room for optimism anymore, only the hard reality that exists for those of us born with the wrong color of skin, into the wrong religion, worshipping the wrong gods, and struggling for the wrong virtues.
Those of us who are Muslim or Hispanic or black, those of us who for centuries have been condemned as foreign pestilences, we can disregard whatever plans we had the day before the election. Our life for at least the next four years will be one of opposition. This is our fight now. This is our reality.