On 8 November 2016, the night Trump became president, I was a senior at Texas A&M, a large football university in the small town of College Station. When I walked across the stage and grabbed hold of my degree a few weeks later, I couldn’t wait for it to become my one-way ticket to New York.
I wanted nothing more than to leave my state of Texas, especially because of its unchanging political climate. Both inside and outside of my lecture halls, I felt surrounded by narrow-minded thinking, disguised as patriotism and fiscal conservatism. The subtle racism and intolerance I had observed as a child became increasingly overt during and after the election.
Growing up desi in Texas, my existence was pulled between learning square dancing in elementary school and scurrying off to Nanna’s house to learn Arabic afterwards. The monologues I memorized as a teenager from my favorite Bollywood movies sat awkwardly among the Brooks and Dunn country tracks in my head. I never fully belonged to one part of my hyphenated identity and nor do I now. And so the state I loved so much, with its sprawling landscape, comfort foods, and friendly disposition also became my enemy. Where was I supposed to fit within its Republican values of religious guilt and intolerance?
In hushed conversations by boys in pastel shorts and fishing shirts, I heard racial slurs slung around without remorse and the women who dared to speak up to them called “annoying bitches”. Gross, misogynistic and racist memes saying immigrants should go back to ‘their country’ got shared on my timeline by the same people who attended my high school. Did they know other people could see what they were sharing? Did we not receive the same education?
So I fled Texas for New York, hoping to find my political home.
As someone who left Texas to escape the ignorance that surrounded me, it was surprising for me to land in New York and find a different kind of intolerance.
I have seen many people talk about how much they want Trump out of office, while simultaneously denouncing young people’s “unrealistic” and “idealistic” hopes for this country.
As a 25 year old burdened with student loans and part of the first generation to be worse off than our parents, I found it disheartening to see my generations’ politics dismissed by people with disproportionately less social and financial burdens than their younger, more diverse counterparts. I fled the rampant racism of the south, only to come face to face with the disconnected elitism on the east coast. Supposed liberals, laughing off ideas that would make the lives of the less wealthy tangibly better: a free healthcare system, a universal basic income, the erasure of student debt. These ideas are only radical if you don’t need them.
My generation is not lazy, idealistic or apolitical. We are the creatives pioneering on TikTok; the generation who needs two jobs instead of one to get by. We work harder than our older counterparts to make rent and pay off student debt, while being dismissively referred to as “side-hustlers”. Yes, we are hustlers. But not by choice.
Young people are often blamed for their political apathy. We’re told we don’t show up to the polls because we don’t care. It is true that 40% of non-voters in 2016 were millennials, the reason for not showing up is not as cut and dried as apathy.
Young people are just as, if not more likely, to have contributed to a political campaign; contacted an elected official, or canvassed in the last year as almost every age group except seniors. My fellow young people are not uninformed or dispassionate; they are tired.
The candidates that energize us are mocked. When we backed Bernie Sanders, people called us radicals, bros, socialists. When the squad – the group of new, radical, congresswomen of color who have so inspired millennials – was dismissed by Nancy Pelosi as only speaking for “their Twitter world”, it feels like a self-important finger saying “shh” to America’s youth.
It’s another act of silencing that makes me feel like a political foreigner, wherever I go.
In April 2020, I moved back to the suburbs of Houston. In a global pandemic that forced us to become shut-ins, I wanted to leave the confines of my shoebox apartment and craved wide open spaces.
Upon my return home, I found myself in the same position I was in a few years prior. My morning drives were punctuated by Trump signs, pinned to the 10-foot-tall windows of grand, lavish estates. I know the people who inhabit these gated communities, tucked away behind perfectly manicured bushes. They are my neighbors, my parents’ friends, my friend’s parents.
These charming members of my community know my family is Muslim – the group of people so vilified by the president he put a point-blank ban on people from “Muslim countries” from coming into the US. They know my mother is a public school teacher – the group of people the secretary of education has abandoned and sent back to school amid a pandemic. They know I am a journalist, the group of people set upon by vigilantes and police alike, dubbed by the president as the “fake news media”. None of these facts matter to the people who continued to invite us over for summer barbecues or send me money every year on my birthday. Their ability to separate our background from their politics is a luxury and privilege I envied.
Envy soon planted seeds of resentment. Left and right, I cut ties with people I had known for years. I began to look at everyone that crossed my path with Trump-colored glasses. Is that a red ball cap? Is there a bald eagle in their profile picture? Cancelled. For four years, these thoughts consumed me. They still do.
Just because I understand why my peers are experiencing political fatigue, doesn’t mean it’s easier to swallow. In fact, it makes me feel more lonely.
What terrifies me is not the rampant, full-throated Trump supporters in Texas, it’s the people around me who seem so fed up with politics, they seem not to care about anything at all.
It’s like it’s contagious. One night, after being rebuffed by a friend who didn’t want to hear me complaining about compromised mail voting any more, I caught it, too.
“Dude, we get it. You care about politics and want to change the world. Can we just watch a movie now?” my friend had said. This was the very friend that spent her weekends nannying other people’s children to pay down the student loans she was drowning in. How could she not care?
I had come to embody the social justice warrior trope not just to older people, but to my peers as well. Even though we belonged to the group of people that could benefit the most from political change, I felt like my friends had drunk the political Kool-Aid. For the next few weeks, I barely read the news. I didn’t have the energy. What was the point? I accepted the fact that Trump may very well be re-elected. For my mental health and sanity, I chose to make peace with that reality.
I have a deep respect for the Greta Thunberg’s and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s of the world. I hope to fight alongside them in some capacity. But I often wonder if these warriors take breaks and lay down their armor if even just for a few hours to stare at a blank wall or go for a walk. How do they keep pushing on when doors are slammed in their face?
I am hoping to get there soon – especially as the news has become unavoidable again. This past month, even my politically disinterested friends felt the tremors from the earthquake of events that shook the nation. Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. The intimate details of Trump’s taxes were finally revealed, showing a president who pays less in tax than me. And in the greatest plot twist of this never-ending dystopian, horror film in which we all live, Trump and a slew of other republicans caught the very virus they spent months playing down.
The cynic in me knows these will be mere blips on the timeline of this presidency. And the country will suffer from amnesia as it heads to the polls, or when it chooses to stay home instead.
But in the meantime, I refuse to adopt a defeatist attitude. I am back to being vocal and passionate. Sometimes it’s just online. Sometimes I just share a post. I might not be screaming “the end is near” in the town square like the local lunatic any more, but I am having conversations with people if and when they are willing.
Recently a guy who I went to high school with – a solid red, air-force Texan - responded to a post I put on my Facebook.
“Apparently 12 years of tuition-free public schooling is not considered socialism. But add four more years and suddenly it’s a communist plot,” the post read.
“Holy shit … That’s actually a really good point,” he responded.
It might sound small, but it made me happy to know I can change the way someone I know looks at an issue, to make them look outside of the scope of their usual outlets. And if that’s all I can achieve, I can sleep at night.