Driving through New England on my way home from a recent trip, I glanced down at my navigation screen. Realizing I was only a few miles from Salem, Massachusetts, I abruptly hauled my rental car off of the I-95. The history buff in me was intrigued. I carved through a thicket of trees before finally reaching Salem. Amidst the eerie beauty of scattered church steeples and blood-red buildings, my eyes scanned across a row of Donald Trump campaign signs — “Make America Great Again!” — hammered into the dry earth; a tingling trepidation crept over me.
For those of us raised in the United States, the town of Salem brings to mind a cautionary tale, warning of the atrocities terror can reek on a credulous society. The Salem witch trials, which in 1692 left nineteen innocent people hanged to death and hundreds more imprisoned, are among the many stains on the historical fabric of this nation. Centuries have since passed, and though unconcealed hysteria of this caliber is unlikely to occur again, the road to the 2016 presidential election has devolved into a modern day witch hunt, mostly owing to billionaire-turned-demagogue, Donald Trump.
After months of fluctuating polls, passionate debates, and nationwide primaries and caucuses, the bad dream many of us hoped to eventually wake from has turned into reality: Trump has become the official Republican nominee.
When Trump first began his campaign more than a year ago, many of us shrugged him off as a non-threatening entity. In most minds, including my own, a President Trump was simply not possible. But in the months since, the Trump name has slowly taken on an insidious new meaning.
Rallying his followers on the backs of several of this country’s racial and religious minorities — including Latinos, Muslims, and African Americans — Trump has repeatedly accused swaths of this nation of being rapists, terrorists, and thugs and has transformed many of us into national scapegoats. He has proposed several discriminatory parameters — thousand mile walls, travel bans, and other forms of vigilance and control — ostensibly to save the country from these ‘threatening’ groups. But even when called an authoritarian and likened to some of history’s cruelest dictators, Trump has remained coolly indifferent.
From outright racism to belittling comments about women, Trump has quickly become the face of modern racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. And yet somehow, he has managed to indoctrinate millions while inching his way towards Capitol Hill.
As I reflect upon our current political climate, I can’t help but let my mind wander back to 17th century Salem. Much like them, we seem to have trouble recognizing the magnitude of our situation. If elected, Trump could destabilize the already shaky foundations of this nation with pollyannish policies that would engender more violence, further strip rights, and alienate much of this country — and the world — in the process.
Contrary to Trump’s campaign slogan, there is no need for this country to revert to its previous iterations; regression is no recipe for greatness.
As far as I’m concerned, there has never been a perfect president, and it is likely such a thing does not exist. Still, for a time I allowed myself to believe that we, as a nation, were slowly moving towards a more enlightened political future. Indeed, this country is still rife with ghastly realities, but with growing diversity and more intuitive access to information, I convinced myself things were getting better. Today, I am no longer sure.
Like so many, I am profoundly threatened by Trump’s increased proximity to the White House. As a queer woman, a President Trump could mean losing further control over my own body; it could mean losing the right to marry someone I love. As a daughter of a Latina immigrant, a President Trump could mean being forced to watch people who look like my mother be further demonized and discriminated against. For some, these issues are conceptual; for me — and so many others — they are overwhelming.
Too often in politics, words lose their meaning. “Muslims,” “gays,” “immigrants,” “terrorists” become tools used to evoke fear and pit one group against another. Somewhere along the way, these words have been divorced from the nuanced realities they ought to represent, leading many of us to misjudge reality and make impetuous choices based on fear. But the words that make up our political climate are not abstract: they have the power to destroy people’s lives. We must not allow our fears to eclipse our reason.
Today, we must regard the tragic fate of Salem as more than just a page in our history books; it is a sobering reminder of what can happen when we allow fear to govern us. In the coming months, the actions we take will decide whether this country will continue to move forward or repeat the same mistakes that plague our history books. Ultimately, the decision is ours to make.
Top photo: The Crucible (1996)
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Ludmila Leiva is writer and artist based in Brooklyn. She likes telling stories that matter, and her work has been previously published in the New York Times’ Women in the World and Brooklyn Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter and see more of her work at ludmilaleiva.contently.com.