When I think of the word ‘millennial’, I get a flash of jumbled and somewhat conflicting images: the rise of technology and social justice movements; globalisation; the Harry Potter craze; sardonic memes; Netflix bingeing; the expansion of higher education; a more competitive job market; the shadow of 9/11; and now, unfortunately, the turmoil of a Trump presidency.
Looking at my millennial brainstorm, I realise that, on the whole, it is pretty damn negative—full of lightning bolts and dark clouds. I can’t help noticing just how unhappy a lot of people seem to be with the status quo. It’s this widespread dissatisfaction that allowed for someone like Donald Trump to come to power in my home country, America.
On his predecessor’s election night in 2012, I was a student at a largely wealthy and conservative private university in America. The election was all anyone could talk about.
“Did you vote for Romney or Obama?” one girl asked me, as she blocked my entrance to the dorm. “Obama”, I answered, and she gave me a look of absolute disgust.
I retreated to the showers to avoid further interrogation. As I washed my hair, I heard screams echo through the dorm, and knew Obama had won. These were not screams of joy.
I supposed these students were screaming because (based on the complaints some of them told me) they felt under siege from ‘political correctness’. One guy said he thought “talk of race and feminism was no longer needed”. After the election results, a girl announced to me, “Now that Obama’s president, I won’t be able to get a job. Thanks a lot, Obama!” She was planning on going to graduate school to become a doctor, and she was smart enough to get into a prestigious university and wealthy enough to go without a scholarship. I was shocked by this statement.
These were wealthy, educated urbanites, but they felt their way of life was under threat: their fraternity and sorority cultures, religious beliefs and practices, and ways they hoped to make money were increasingly coming up against what they felt to be unjust criticism from liberals.
My experiences with these people taught me that, for them, issues of racism, sexism and any other form of bigotry were non-existent or not important. Thus, it came as no surprise when I saw some of my former classmates openly share their support for Trump on Facebook in 2016.
Strangely enough, Trump has support among very poor constituents as well as very rich ones. Fifty years ago, you could better predict who someone would vote for based on their income, according to the Economist. Trump has shown this is not the case today.
His support spans the country, and often reflects the rural/urban divide across America. Some people living in rural areas feel especially left out of America’s progress—there are more employment opportunities in urban areas, and many Americans feel their culture is under threat from the secular liberal elite.
Donald Trump, a New York realtor with no previous experience in politics, managed to speak to those people, especially rural Americans, who felt forgotten by powerful political players. He appealed to some people’s greatest fears: job loss, financial instability and irrelevancy in an increasingly globalised and high-tech economy. Trump offered these disillusioned people scapegoats for their fears in the form of immigrants, terrorism, globalisation and social justice movements. He saw the deep divisions that already existed within America and did all he could to intensify them, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explains in a recent NPR interview.
I should’ve known a Trump presidency could happen. It’s not as though I’ve lived in an urban bubble my whole life. In fact, I spent every summer until the age of 18 with my cousins and grandparents from rural Texas. A few of them are quite religious, and I’d long known they would vote for any candidate whose policies or beliefs reflected their own traditional family values and pro-life perspective.
In the past, Trump has described himself as “very pro-choice”, and voiced a more socially liberal mindset. During his presidential campaign, however, he aligned himself with the conservative, Evangelical mindset, true to his demagogic style. The Bible is apparently his “favourite book”.
Trump’s promise to disrupt the status quo was also a powerful campaign hook, and it won him a loyal following. His most faithful supporters have stood by him even as he has continued to attack the institutions that make up the foundations of American democracy, and which also play a vital role in global political stability: the free press, the courts, official diplomacy, the FBI and the CIA.
In short, Trump has sought again and again to divide the American people along racial, cultural and religious lines and discredit the nation’s democratic institutions as a means of sowing discord and gaining control. He has deliberately exacerbated the problems within the United States, and then posited himself as the one to fix them all. These actions, Madeleine Albright warns, are eerily reminiscent of a fascist government—and yes, we should be deeply concerned.
In the lead-up to Trump’s election as president, I was working at a content-marketing agency in Auckland, New Zealand. As an American, I must admit I was selfishly happy to be physically removed from the political chaos. While Trump’s campaign was still a huge topic of conversation in New Zealand, it wasn’t the all-consuming issue I knew it to be in the States.
In the lead-up to election day, I felt certain that Hillary Clinton would win. Especially after watching the last debate, in which she’d articulately delivered well-thought-out solutions—as opposed to Trump, who could barely finish one sentence without diving into a nonsensical tirade.
The day of the election, I felt less confident, though, as I walked into work and made straight for the coffee machine as usual. To my surprise, the election was all anyone could talk about in the kitchen.
“He’s not gonna win, don’t worry,” a co-worker reassured me, noticing how visibly nervous I was.
I laughed it off, conceding, “Yeah, you’re probably right. It’ll be fine.”
When I went to my desk, another colleague was writing the inflow of election results on a whiteboard. He was also an American, from Boston, and had decided the election was too much of a distraction for him to focus on work that day. Nobody else seemed to mind—they all knew how important it was to him, and how significant a moment this was for all of us.
As the day went on, my co-worker began to scribble more and more furiously on the whiteboard, and his expression turned to one of intense worry. His eyebrows became furrowed, and I’m sure I even saw him wipe sweat off his forehead as he wrote out more numbers in favour of Trump.
I was trying, with difficulty, to concentrate on work, when I heard him utter, “Oh, my god … I think he’s going to win.”
My eyes widened. Surely not.
There was a keyed-up feeling in the office then; by 4:30pm, people had pushed their work aside and were gravitating to the television to hear what the commentators had to say.
A Mexican-American girl, from Massachusetts, was also working that day. Just days beforehand, she’d written a post in support of her family on Facebook after a man had stood outside her father’s Mexican restaurant back in the States with a Trump flag. The man then posted a picture of the display on Facebook demanding her family “pay for The Wall”.
Election day was her birthday. It was hard to wish her “happy birthday” without sounding glum because of the increasingly likely possibility of a Trump presidency. She left the office at 5pm wearing a party hat and a beautiful black dress, and an undeniable frown.
I went home without saying bye to anyone. When I looked at the results myself, it only became clearer that Trump was going to win. My heart sank deep into the pit of my stomach, but I refused to accept defeat until it was a sure thing.
Later that evening, busying myself with dinner in the kitchen, I heard Trump’s acceptance speech on TV. I saw his orange face on the screen, and anger slithered up my throat, but no words came out. Instead, I burst out crying.
I couldn’t help myself. As the warm tears rolled down my cheeks, I was all too aware that many would laugh at me for being so emotional in this moment, would call me overdramatic, a delicate little flower or, a ‘snowflake’, as the internet trolls say.
But I did cry. I cried because I was imagining people I know—and even some I don’t know—watching this acceptance speech, and imagining how this man’s victory would pain them.
I pictured my mom, who had taught me all my life just how far women have come thanks to the feminist movement, watching this sexist man declared president of our country. This was a man who had repeatedly degraded women, reducing them to their sex appeal rather than their value as individuals or presidential candidates. This was a man who had publicly discredited a woman by saying she had “blood coming out of her wherever”, and called another “Miss Piggy” in reference to her weight. This man had pandered to inherently sexist religious beliefs and said that a woman should actually be punished for having an abortion.
I then thought of my friend, a survivor of rape, watching this man relish his victory when he had consistently positioned women as lesser, easily manipulated creatures available for him to sexualise and touch whenever he pleased.
I imagined the people of colour I knew, who would be watching this moment with horror and dread, wondering to what extent white supremacy would prove to define Trump’s presidency.
I pictured my Mexican-American friends watching this man win even after he disparaged Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists”. What about Muslims watching a person who had unconstitutionally called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”?
It was equally difficult to stomach the reality that a huge number of people voted for this man, fully aware that he had popularised a racially motivated myth that our former president was born in Kenya as a means to invalidate his presidency. Even after he forced to Obama to produce a birth certificate, he called it fake. He seized on the racism that had brewed during the eight years of Obama’s presidency, sometimes with terrifyingly violent overtones. And so, I thought of Obama himself watching this awful scene. I tried to imagine what he might be feeling as he watched this cruel man being chosen to succeed him as president.
The list of Trump’s offenses towards women and minorities goes on and on.
And yet people I know—those I knew at that university, in my extended family, and even those who didn’t support Trump and consider themselves socially progressive—refused to admit or were willing to overlook his racism, sexism and many other forms of bigotry. Trump and the people who tolerated or loved him brought out a sad anger in me that I’d never known existed, but which erupted on that day.
On the bus to work the next day, I looked out over the water as we crossed the Auckland Harbour Bridge, and watched the endless rain falling into the vast grey ocean. Each of my furious thoughts about Trump felt like one of these meaningless raindrops in an ocean of criticism—criticism which has ultimately been unheard by the people who need to hear it most. I felt in that moment that there was no point in fighting—there was no getting through to people who saw this man as anything other than incredibly dangerous.
Being a millennial is an anxiety-inducing experience for many reasons, but it is particularly so now that this man is in power and people block out criticism of him.
All of our fears about his presidency have turned out to be true. Take, for instance, his failure to condemn the Charlottesville white supremacist rally , which made it glaringly obvious, even to previous deniers of Trump’s racism, that his presidency would indeed be characterised by white supremacy.
It will take years to repair the cultural turmoil that the U.S. has fallen into. This means that, for the most part, it is millennials who will be taking on the unfortunate task of transforming anger into change.
Luckily, there have been moments of real breakthroughs. For example, the #NeverAgain movement led by students who are advocating for tougher gun regulations seems to be a step in the right direction; they’re calling attention to an issue that directly affects them. Black Lives Matter is continuing to group together and refuses to keep quiet about the racism that still exists in violent ways in our society. #MeToo has also made great strides towards making the issues of sexual harassment and rape heard. Young people are gathering and standing up for themselves in the face of Trump’s bigotry and lies.
I hope millennials who were originally enticed by Trump’s rhetoric have begun to listen to people their age who believe he is a serious danger to our country and world. All millennials who actively oppose Trump can do right now is continue protesting against Trump’s cruelty, divisiveness and attempted destruction of our democratic institutions that are damaging for everyone and will never be the way to move forward.
Katie Hollister is part of the Grattan Street Press team in Semester 1, 2018. She is an emerging writer and editor originally from the US but now based in Melbourne. She’s studying a MA of Publishing and Communications, and hopes to publish others’ stories and continue to write her own.