Donald Trump, Anti-Flaneur
Lauren Elkin on the Importance of Conversation and Why She Will Never Stop Walking
Walking down the rue Saint-Maur a week before the US presidential election, engrossed in the Facebook app on my iPhone, I nearly walked into a machine gun. Welcome to 21st-century Paris. It’s been this way for almost two years, since the Charlie Hebdo killings in January 2015, intensifying after the brutal terrorist attack of November 13, 2015. For some, the consequences of the attacks have entailed life-altering amputations of their freedom; for others, who walk the streets as usual, we’ve started to think of a state of emergency as an everyday thing. “Whoops, sorry, excuse me,” I said to the soldier, as politely as if I were trying to get past someone to get off the metro.
I was on Facebook while walking—unusual for me—because I’d just posted a screed saying I was willing to talk to anyone who was undecided about why voting for Trump was a disastrous choice, but that anyone whose mind was made up to vote for him was officially persona non grata to me. The responses were piling up, and I was eager to see if there were any minds I could potentially change, any votes I could grab for Hillary.
I first saw the “trumptamatums” (as a friend, commenting on my post, called these ultimatums) a few months ago: “If you’re voting for Trump, you should probably unfriend me now.” It’s too early to give up, I remember saying at the time. Since the Brexit battles this summer, I’ve thought a lot about discourse and discussion and how important it is to keep talking, even and especially across the ever-widening aisle between left and right. In the lead-up to the referendum, I watched my British friends debate with leave voters on their Facebook pages, and in some cases, convince them to vote “remain.” It didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but I was impressed by the people I knew who could see the stakes were too high to throw their hands up. And even though the worst came to pass, those friends of mine can at least say they did everything they could to affect the outcome.
So over the past few months, I’ve occasionally posted things on Facebook, trying to subtly suggest to those people I suspect of being Trump supporters that Clinton is the only ethical choice for president. This has often taken the form of articles about Trump as an abuser of women, and an enabler of men who would be abusive towards us. After the Access Hollywood tape came out, it seemed as if all would be well; Clinton was even campaigning in Texas for down-ticket races! But John Comey’s legally dubious, substance-less, self-serving revelations torpedoed this, and polling soon showed Clinton’s lead dwindling. On Thursday, Trump was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan’s newspaper. That was the last straw. The idea of having anyone in my life who actually thought this guy should lead the country made me feel sick. It was time for a trumptamatum.
Interesting fact about me and the Klan. My great-grandmother was a woman called Mary Goodman. Her brother Charles had a grandchild called Andrew, who in 1964 went to Mississippi to register black voters. He was shot by the KKK, along with two other boys, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. He was 20 years old. You can get the gist of the killings and the aftermath by watching the flawed-yet-powerful film Mississippi Burning (1988).
These people killed my cousin. Not a close cousin; not someone I had ever met (having been born 14 years after his death). Only (“only”) my father’s second cousin, who was two years older than him. Think about your second cousin. Now think about him being murdered at age 20 by white supremacists as he stood up for what he believed in. It would have an impact on you and your children and their children in ways you can’t—I can’t—even begin to chart. It might make you reticent to stand up for what you believed in, or it might do the exact opposite. But it would gift your family a legacy of ambivalence—in the true sense of the word—towards public engagement.
Plenty of like-minded Hillary voters weighed in on my Facebook page, but no one really spoke up as a Trump supporter, except for someone who expressed some concern about whether either candidate was qualified to be president. I was composing a response to her when I nearly tripped over that gun. Walking in Paris, I used to lose myself in the city, in my thoughts, in music, in the confluence of all of those things. Now the political situation repeatedly jolts me out of reverie. Even walking by the Seine, you have to decide: am I going to see those four men in fatigues holding assault rifles, or am I going to pretend they’re not there and this is the same walk I’ve made so many times in the past?
Recently I wrote a book about my habit of walking in cities, and how inspiring that has been for me and for other women writers and artists, like Virginia Woolf, Agnès Varda, and Sophie Calle. It seemed a logical progression from writing about wandering to writing about the right to wander, and in writing about the right to wander, I had to write about the obstacles both legal and ideological that nation-states throw up against the free movement of peoples. Flâneuse was about walking as a declaration of independence, but also a mode of encountering and thinking about difference. “Beware roots,” I wrote. “Beware purity. Beware fixity. Beware the creeping feeling that you belong. Embrace flow, impurity, fusion.”
It is our ethical responsibility to ask what someone might mean when they talk about “belonging.” The one thing you hear the locals say in Mississippi Burning, again and again, is: those boys were outsiders. The Feds are outsiders. How dare they come here and try to make us live like they live. It’s on the basis of this investment in a way of life that they commit atrocities against people who they believe are unlike them: the way of life becomes a weapon. To belong is necessarily to exclude.
What is the vision of belonging that Trump offers? This is what I wanted my Facebook friends to address. This man does not speak for you, I wrote. He is a misogynist, a racist, a homophobe. This man speaks only for himself. And he is willing to be instrumentalized by the very basest, extremist members of American society. I feel very worried about the people he is empowering, and the kinds of attacks he is encouraging them to commit. Have we ever seen a presidential candidate invite his followers to shoot his opponent before? Or one who has treated women’s power over their own bodies with such disrespect?
Trump’s attitudes towards women are essentially infringements on our right to occupy public space. Its most common form is street harassment, a subject which is central to my work on women in cities, but often leads to frustrating dead-ends when we talk about what can be done about it. Is street harassment the place where discourse and discussion meet their limits? How should I have responded to the man a few years back who said “hellllllo sexy!” as he passed me bounding down the sloped moving walkway leading to the library—the library!
“Fuck you!” I shouted back, as he passed me going up instead of down on the moving walkway. I tightened my jacket around me. I hadn’t noticed that my chest was bouncing as I went down the walkway, but he made me aware of the ways in which my body was different from his, making it something to look at and call attention to. Instead of being just another person in the city in a hurry to get to work, I was now some kind of Baywatch babe. For the rest of the day, I wondered if my sweater was too tight. And now every time I go down this moving walkway I’m self-conscious, careful to make sure my jacket is closed, or my bag held in front of me.
“I was trying to compliment you!” he protested as the walkway carried him off. Maybe the fact that I spoke back to him means that next time he’ll keep his compliments to himself. But what can you say back to a man or group of men who are hassling you on the street at night? You keep your head down, you keep quiet, you keep moving. That is not the time for conversation.
Having Trump running for president is like constantly being harassed on my way to work. Even when he’s confined to the television set, or my computer screen, the man makes me feel seriously, deeply uncomfortable. And I’m not alone: therapists have noticed an increase in the number of women who, because of Trump, feel traumatized by the election.
We were traumatized in Paris after the attacks, and the fear has given way to everyday forms of social control: we get patted down at concerts; entering a restaurant, we automatically look around for the emergency exits; we are subject to identity checks, to being searched without a warrant, being placed under house arrest. I know the soldiers on the streets are there to protect us, but there’s also the sense that they consider anyone a potential threat. As I moved away from the soldier on the rue Saint-Maur, I felt, irrationally, that I had to perform not being a terrorist. This was nonsense: a white woman wearing a Yankees cap and carrying an iPhone is probably not going to raise a soldier’s concern. But I still felt I needed to walk away from the soldier in a way that demonstrated that I had not purposefully come a little too close to his gun. We react to this kind of interpellation by accommodating suspicion in our posture, in our walk, in our self-presentation. For black men it’s an old story, a serious curb to the freedom to walk in the city at will, as Garnette Cadogan reminds us: “In this city of exuberant streets, walking became a complex and often oppressive negotiation. I would see a white woman walking towards me at night and cross the street to reassure her that she was safe. […] The sidewalk was a minefield, and every hesitation and self-censored compensation reduced my dignity. Despite my best efforts, the streets never felt comfortably safe. Even a simple salutation was suspect.” What it comes down to is that the further you are from the “belonging” stride of white male neutrality, the less safe and secure, in one way or another, you are made to feel in the public arena.
I want to keep talking, and walking. Remaining open to dialogue feels physically urgent—freedom to wander and to wonder are only a letter apart. Anecdotes—like the one about the gun, or my cousin, or my sweater, or Cadogan’s about the things that have happened to him as he’s been out walking—feel like crossing-points, ways to pit real, lived experience against polls and statistics. One of the fundamental reasons that Trump would make such a catastrophic leader is that he doesn’t listen: during the first debate, he interrupted Hillary Clinton 51 times, to her 17 interruptions. By not listening, he lets his basic human empathy wither, as if it were, to him, a useless limb. Now there’s a guy who definitely doesn’t walk in the city. Donald Trump, anti-flâneur. So let’s keep talking, even beyond Election Day. No matter who wins, we’re going to need to keep exercising our empathy limbs to face the conflicts to come.