A food staple when I was growing up in Arizona was a Mexican-ish dish with lots of beans and spices. We called it Wetback Special. Because this term was never used in any other context in my family, I was at least 17 before I realized it was a derogatory term for illegal immigrants (who were generally from Mexico). My family, like the families of most voters, did not teach me to hate people because they were different. We were schooled in equality, love, and inclusion. But we also ate Wetback Special. As I struggle to understand why people I love and respect voted for a candidate who embraces discriminatory language, practices, and political groups, I keep coming back to that story. And as I hear everyone talking about being OK or not being OK (now or in the future), I wonder how many of my smart, thoughtful Republican voter friends are currently eating Wetback Special for dinner.
When I reached out to people I respect to talk with them about their vote (try it! It’s fun to talk respectfully with people you disagree with), I found that much of their reasoning focused more on the idea of a Republican administration and less on the candidate himself. In fact, one Republican voter said that the Access Hollywood tapes were nearly a deal breaker for her, until she thought about what she hoped to be the effects of a Republican administration. I approached it from an entirely opposite angle: more about the candidate and less about the Republican/Democrat divide. The reason for this was threefold: 1) the sky has not fallen in these years with Democrats in the White House (speaking, of course, from my own limited perspective); 2) party affiliation, in and of itself, does not qualify a person to govern; and 3) the Republican candidate did not/does not represent what I would call Republican values. It wasn’t a choice between Republican or Democrat for me. It was a choice between a person espousing inflammatory policies and empowering the worst impulses of our society and a person who, to put it succinctly, knows how to behave in polite society.
The interesting thing I found in my research was that every Republican voter I talked with agreed that the Republican candidate’s behavior was poor. Nobody defended him, personally. One Republican voter even went so far as to say “he is me from 10 years ago, so I know he can change.” He felt that this was a person who could change for the better in office. The Democrat? Not so much. I noted that those were some pretty ambitious therapy goals for a guy with a very busy schedule and, from all appearances, zero desire to change, but this Republican voter remained convinced that the mantle of the presidency would be enough to expunge the excesses of the campaign. One voter dismissed troubling behavior by noting that it was just another example of the bad parts of our society that were already there and accepted (which seems about as good of reasoning as choosing to eat dirt because pica exists).
I didn’t go around asking people who they voted for (my research was with self-identified Republican voters), but I suspect that the people running around on Nov. 9 talking about being OK were this sort of voter. That’s how they could talk themselves into voting for someone so personally offensive. They felt it would be OK in the end. I can’t fault them for that entirely. Isn’t that how a lifelong Republican voter talks herself into voting for a Democrat? Where we differ is what things we felt were insurmountable.
And to make sense of that, I go back to the Wetback Special. The immediate universe I lived in as a child was a place where people didn’t call each other offensive names, so I didn’t have personal knowledge of why that is harmful (though I certainly knew the concept in general terms). Is it possible that people could dismiss sexist and racist rhetoric not because their core beliefs are sexist and racist but because they do not viscerally understand the impact of what they know, generally, to be wrong? Are they so insulated from the effects of authoritarian men, sexual predators, and just plain crazy folks that it doesn’t seem like a big deal?
Even as I listened to my friends soften their candidate’s extreme positions and talk about the troubles they have seen with the Democratic administration, though, all I could think of was how these people that I love and trust listened to a man defend himself against rape allegations by saying the woman wasn’t pretty enough to rape and, by their actions in the voting booth, just shrugged their shoulders. That wasn’t media spin. That wasn’t 10 years ago. That wasn’t “out of context.” That was straight from his own lips. And the thought of people I trust being OK (in any way) with casual approval of sexual assault makes me feel unsafe. I don’t know how long it will be until that feeling subsides (or if it will). One Republican voter kept begging me to tell him what he could do to make me feel safe, and (since he couldn’t — and probably wouldn’t — go back in time and change his vote) I had nothing for him. It’s like turning on the blender and then saying, “How can I make this smoothie into a piece of fruit for you?” Maybe stop letting stuff like this go. Recognize that words have impact. And recognize the small and large ways that we do this stuff, too (and then stop it).
Some time ago, and with a bit of the necessary family drama, we stopped eating Wetback Special. We call it Mexican Haystacks now (due to its vague resemblance to a dish called Hawaiian Haystacks). And while it is still the same beans, spices, and corn chips, it tastes so much better. We can’t change the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. We can’t make the smoothie a piece of fruit again. But maybe we can stop eating Wetback Special.