Reflections on the presidential election and violence

On Election Day 2016, a highly contentious election came to an end with the upset victory of Donald Trump being elected as the next President of the United States.  Since the election, the nation has seen a spike in violence and harassment.  The Southern Poverty Law Center documented over 400 hate crimes and incidents in just one week, and some protests against the election of Trump resulted in rioting.

I have been doing anti-violence research for about 20 years, including co-founding a nationally-renowned violence prevention program on my campus that encourages students to speak up and to safely and effectively intervene when they see potentially violent acts occurring.  I’m sad to say that those of us who do this kind of work anticipated the kind of hatred, bigotry, and violence that have occurred since the election of Trump as President.

Decades of research shows that when people in positions of authority are models of hatred, bigotry, and violence – and those actions are rewarded, or not punished or condemned – that behavior is likely to be repeated by others.  We now have someone poised to become the highest authority figure in our country who is accused of multiple sexual assaults, who has disparaged Mexicans, Muslims, and people with disabilities, and who encouraged violence by his followers.  This behavior was apparently rewarded by our country electing him President of the United States. 

Research also shows that in places where hate and bigoted speech are allowed to continue, hateful acts are more likely to occur.  Of the many hate incidents since the election, it is particularly disheartening that many of these have occurred in our schools, most likely because children and adolescents are particularly susceptible to these influences.

No matter who we voted for, and no matter the issues on which we disagree, the overwhelming majority of Americans want to live in a peaceful, civil society.  However, the violence and harassment are unlikely to end unless something changes.  What can be done?

The best way for this violence to end is for Trump to repeatedly and strongly condemn it.  Unfortunately, however, he most likely won’t. When questioned about it on 60 Minutes, he first didn’t believe it was happening, and then weakly said that if it was, “Stop it.”  That same day, it was announced that his chief strategist will be Steve Bannon, a known white supremacist who has denigrated racial/ethnic minorities, Jews, women, et al.  He also appointed the Family Research Council’s Ken Blackwell as the top domestic policy adviser on his transition team. The Southern Poverty Law Center has named the FRC as a hate group because of its extreme anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.  By rewarding people like Bannon and Blackwell with these high-level positions, the President-elect is further modeling and rewarding hatred, bigotry, and violence.

If Trump won’t stand up and speak out, the American people need to do what he won’t. Americans who believe in the basic human rights and dignity of our fellow human beings – regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, disability status, sexual orientation, or gender identity – must act, and act non-violently. Urge the new President to appoint people who have demonstrated their commitment to these values to positions of responsibility. Write your public officials at the federal, state, and local levels, and demand action.  Speak out when you see injustices. If you see a hateful or bigoted act, step in to protect and help the victim.  Research shows that such actions will decrease the violence.  Once people speak up and step in to help their fellow human beings, more people follow their lead. When more people follow their lead, we create a culture that values human rights, dignity, and non-violence, and discourages others from acting in ways that are contrary to that culture.

Standing up for the American values of equality, tolerance, respect, and non-violence is not just the job of those who voted against Trump. Americans who voted for him have a special responsibility to make it clear that they did not vote for bigotry or harassment. Furthermore, Trump supporters may well have more influence in delivering these messages of tolerance and are likely to have more influence on him and his new administration.

This is a pivotal time in our history, and we cannot afford to be complacent: what we the people do in the face of expressions of bigotry and hate truly matters.   This election may be over, but the decision about what kind of country we will be remains in our hands.