Before I get to why Will Smith is probably right, let’s dispense with why his hysterical right-wing critics are definitely wrong. At a press event in Dubai, Smith tried to find a silver lining to the dark cloud that is Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. “As painful as it is to hear Donald Trump talk and as embarrassing as it is as an American to hear him talk, I think it’s good,” Smith said. “We get to know who people are and now we get to cleanse it out of our country.”
Note how he said “we get to cleanse it out of our country.” Not people, like Trump or his supporters, but ideas – namely, the ones that make him feel embarrassed as an American. He obviously was criticizing Trump’s racist philosophy, one that in the past he has described (accurately) as a “separatist non-inclusive xenophobic racist wave that is sweeping the globe.” Interpreting it in any other way is disingenuous.
Is he right overall, though? Are America and the world benefiting from the airing out of these pent up prejudices?
For one thing, the answer depends entirely on what Americans decide to do in this presidential election. Not to overstate the obvious (and a point I’ve made plenty of times already), but the outcome of the Clinton-Trump election will be one of the most important in American history. If Clinton wins, her victory will decisively rebuke the aspirations of demagogues like Trump who believe racial, religious, and gender-based bigotry can bring them to national power. A Trump victory, on the other hand, will send the signal that there elections can be won his way… in which case, no, it definitely was not a good thing.
Assuming that Clinton wins, however (and this is what experts seem to be predicting), Trump’s presidency could be a positive by exposing the prevalence of these attitudes. When millions of Americans are willing to gift its highest office to a man who regularly demeans women and generalizes racial and religious minorities, that reveals something important about where we are as a society. We may have elected our first African American and female presidents, but nipping at their heels were alternatives that staunchly oppose the values symbolized by their presidencies. The Age of Obama and Clinton may be viewed as one that helped empower the marginalized, but it won’t have happened without a fight.
Of course, for it to happen at all, it won’t be enough to stop once Trump has been defeated. Those of us with a voice have an obligation to speak out against all forms of prejudice, wherever they may appear. If we are capable of doing more, than we must do so. There will be more Trumps after The Donald has left the scene – from presidential candidates to the people we meet on the street – and their assorted hatreds cause a lot of real-world harm for a lot of people. Smith is right in his point was indeed that, yes, the first step in confronting them is knowing that they exist. Yet if we do nothing with that knowledge, then we allow them to win.
Either way, the 2016 presidential election is going to count for a lot. If Smith’s voice can in any way help people appreciate that and vote, I’m all for him using it.