I remember a time, as a young man, that I was utterly uninterested in politics. It felt far removed from my everyday life, a game of backstabbing and machinations that highbrows played in courts and halls; it was difficult to see how one president or another could really make all that much of a difference. I grew up in England in the era of Tony Blair and the Labour Party, and the things that were discussed then – even whether or not to go to war in Iraq – seemed of little consequence. Sure, people fought, people died, but everyday life carried on, as it always did, and I actually never voted in England, because it felt like there was no point.
Even when Bush Jr. was elected in 2000, and Al Gore seemed like an ideal candidate to align with my own personal beliefs about topics such as climate change, it didn’t feel like a moral degradation of society. It just felt more like the ‘other guy’ won, and that despite the then-presumed emphasis on business, tax cuts for the rich and oil, it never seemed as though the communities I lived in would really be affected all that much. And arguably, the Bush administration responded to the 9/11 attacks – despite the rapid-fire counterstrikes that seemed almost entirely unjustifiable at the time – better than Gore might ever have been able to.
When Obama was finally elected in 2008, it felt like there was a subtle shift in morality in the country, and when I returned to the United States in 2010, things felt, well … progressive. We had a black president, an intelligent, well-spoken and charismatic president, someone who seemed to have his finger on the pulse of my generation, and who actually seemed to stand for positivity, tolerance, and civility. I voted in 2012, but again, it felt a little pointless – a reinforcement of what it seemed like society at large was ready for.
When Barack Obama was reelected in 2012, I don’t recall anyone really thinking forward to the subsequent election that would obviously follow in 2016; no one really wondered if someone might come along and undo the progress that had seemingly been made over the previous four years. I remember laughing, like most people, when an incompetent, bumbling oaf threw his hat in the ring for the Republican candidacy – surely it was just a joke, an attempt to find a candidate that was as unlikely as possible.
Even when Donald Trump secured the nomination, things didn’t necessarily feel wrong – not yet. Bizarre, yes; unfathomable, certainly; but there wasn’t too much hint at the potential danger that was to come. It wasn’t until he started campaigning hard as the Republican candidate that red flags started showing: the vacuous, borderline-hateful rhetoric, the casual sexism and misogyny, the outright racism and mockery that came across as childish, petulant and crass were all deeply unsettling warning signs.
That was the first time when it truly felt like being politically active mattered; that a thing I could do, a choice I could make, could actually make a difference to the country I lived in – because it was becoming rapidly clear that Donald Trump himself was capable of making a difference – to great harm. There were people in the world who thought like him, who felt like him, and who not only believed his words, but saw them as validation of their own prejudices that, for years, they’d been told were wrong.
I get it – no one likes to feel like they’re wrong. No one wants to be told the way they perceive the world is harmful. There’s a comfort in nostalgia for the past, and Trump brought with him the idea that grown adults could act like children and get away with it. That there was nothing wrong with the old games of Cowboys and Indians, that calling someone names because they hurt your feelings was okay, or that it was totally normal to dislike people who were different from you. He made people feel like their own feelings and perceptions of the world were valid, and that what we were told as children was, in fact, not wrong.
But somewhere along the line, a line was crossed. It began when people with true social power – police, judges, politicians and lawmakers – began to believe they could act on these childish emotions without consequence, because the man they voted for – the man with the highest authority in the country – could do the same. It isn’t a question that more ‘bad’ things happened under Trump’s administration than under Obama’s; don’t forget, Brock Turner got away with rape six months before Trump was elected, and the massacre at Sandy Hook happened only just after Obama’s second term began. In both of these cases, there was raging debate about who was to blame and how it could have been prevented, but when a world leader comes along and says things like “there are fine people on both sides”, it does incredible damage to the moral fabric of society.
Instead of denouncing horrible people as the villains they are – for there will always be villains amongst us – Trump at best failed to speak up at all, and at worst defended these people through words and through actions. When George Floyd was murdered by police in broad daylight, he didn’t condemn his killers, but made it seem as though Floyd’s death was of his own making – that the police were justified in their actions.
And those same people who initially saw Trump’s words as an excuse to erase progress and fall back into old, hurtful ways now took his words as an opportunity to speak up – and speak loud – that they were being oppressed for not being able to “tell it how it is”, or for voicing controversial opinions on race, gender, and so many other things.
And somehow, throughout all of this, there remained an enormous number of people who continued to feel the way I used to – that life for them carried on as it always did, that the squabbles and race riots didn’t apply to them, and so it really didn’t matter – it wasn’t that big of a deal. In an ideal world, a Republican candidate should be able to align with a large portion of the country based on the merits of their beliefs and policies, and I think that a lot of those who voted for a second term for Trump did so out of the notion that even if he might be a deplorable person, he represents the party that they most identify with.
The people who rioted in the Capitol last week represent a tiny minority of right-leaning conservatives – I don’t believe that most Republican voters would laud them for their actions. They are the far-right, unjustifiable in their beliefs, and deplorable in their behaviors. The problem – what any sane-minded politician would recognize – is that whilst there will always be these people in our society, they must be allowed to act out their hate-fueled rhetoric. These kind of people are the worst kinds of cowards, and they would not have acted with such violence had they not believed they had the encouragement, and indeed the approval, of the man they believed represented them.
Let’s be clear: Donald Trump does not represent anyone but his own self-interest. He is a power-hungry man-child who most likely believes, deep in his heart, that he is owed all the fame and money in the world. He doesn’t care at all about the people he governs, and his words following the DC riots show this perfectly: had it not been for the danger of impeachment and presidential protection being removed, he would certainly not have condemned the rioters – even as weakly as he did.
But the complacency of the Republican Party is was allowed last week’s riot to take place. The belief of millions of conservative voters – who have every right to be conservative – that it just doesn’t matter that much – is what led to the insane far-right to summon the courage to march on Capitol Hill and break down the doors to the Capitol Building, beating a police officer to death in the process.
Complacency is what allowed Hitler to rise to power; it’s what allowed Trump to nearly secure a second term. And if it continues, it will only lead to further discord and unease between political parties in the United States. I’m not exaggerating when I say that as I walk in public today, I look at the people around me and wonder quietly – is that person capable of the kind of violence we saw last week? Could this person serving me coffee, or getting their phone fixed at my work, be a rabid far-right conspiracy-theorist? I’m not exaggerating when I say that I actually feel a deep, unsettling fear simply stepping outside my front door, because Trump has allowed a very small number of people to believe that they can act without consequence. And although those people are few and far between, they are very, very dangerous.
So please – come the next election, whether you lean Democrat or Republican, whether you are conservative or liberal – please consider your candidate with more care and caution than in 2016 and 2020. Please ask yourself if this person might enable dangerous, violent people. If the answer is even “maybe” – then you’re voting for the wrong person.
Politics today is no longer about the candidate representing the party you most align with. It’s sadly become about the candidate that can do the least harm to the country. If that means that, as a life-long Republican you find yourself having to vote Democrat, so be it. The alternative is what we’ve just witnessed in Washington D.C., and what we’ve seen seeing for the past four years.
That complacency is extremely dangerous. And the United States can’t afford it again, because next time the person you vote for might not simply be a self-serving, bumbling buffoon: they might be a cold, calculating power-seeking dictator in the making. The United States, the shining example of democracy for the world, is not impervious. Without even trying, we came this close to losing what we claim makes us so great; imagine what would happen if someone tried to undermine the country’s democracy with intent.
Voting absolutely matters. And it absolutely matters who you vote for: not Democrat or Republican, Libertarian or Green Party, but rather between a seasoned politician who knows how to govern, or an egotistical, self-serving megalomaniac with no concern for human life. This cannot – cannot – happen again.
If it does, it could be the end of the United States as we know it.