Somali-Americans in Columbus, Ohio watched election returns on Tuesday night with intense interest and real anxiety, as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric has worsened anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiment.
(I am writing this now at 11 PM, Nov. 8, and several battleground states are too close to call. We may not have a president-elect in the morning, with one or more states still too close to call. More details here.)
Trump himself has referenced Somali Americans in his speeches, most recently in Minnesota, as the dangerous kinds of immigrants he wants to ban or deport. The FBI last week uncovered a plot by three Americans, white males, to kill Somali Americans, and arrested them. The front page of The Somali Link, a Somali community newspaper in Columbus, reads “FBI, Waad Mahasan,” or “FBI, Thank You.”
Beyond an alarming rise in Islamophobia threatening their physical safety, some Somali-Americans I spoke to worry that Trump’s campaign has undermined the institutions that make the United States the country where they sought refuge after fleeing civil war in Somalia. Now, these Somalis fear that the distrust and hatred between Trump and Clinton supporters could boil over into unrest here. Other Somali Americans I spoke to, however, said that the U.S. constitution and its institutions are strong enough to withstand the divisions caused by the psychedelically-bitter 2016 election. Their perspective comes from growing up in a country where might mattered far more than rights.
“Whoever wins tonight we have to work with them. If we don’t there’ll be chaos,” Liban Hussein, a Somali-American who lives in Columbus, Ohio, told me.
As I write this, the networks have called Ohio for Trump, and markets opening overseas have seen a “plummet,” per a Washington Post alert.
At the Global Mall in the heart of the Somali-American community in north Columbus, Somali Americans expressed faith in the Constitution to keep political disputes peaceful. But only the arcane recesses of the Constitution deal with a tie vote or succession crisis. And nothing in the Constitution anticipated a 24-hour news cycle and millions of voters so wedded to their smartphones that they’re closer to cyborgs than any voters in history. No, the drafters of the Constitution didn’t expect that.
The United States has been able to keep at bay the prospect of widespread civil bloodshed through elections, like many other countries. But there’s no law that says unrest is out of the picture. Somali Americans have seen that type of disruption, having survived a civil war themselves. Which continues, in various episodes, in their homeland, where a fragile provisional government battles back insurgency.
Hussein stressed that the loser accepting the outcome of the election is crucial to avoiding a civil war.
“If Clinton wins or if Trump wins we have to stand behind them and work with them. Otherwise, then the country will be split and people will hate each other forever. Maybe they might…this country might go back to civil war. I was listening to NPR and they invited two people, cousins, and one was for Hillary and one was for Trump and the one supporting Trump said if you don’t vote for Trump I’m not going to talk to you. I was like, Wow, if Trump loses, you know what, this country might go back to civil war, just like in the 1860s. These people are very serious. It’s kind of scary. I hope it doesn’t happen.”
Trump worries Hussein because of his inability to accept defeat or deal with being told no. Trump, in the final debate, said he didn’t know if he would accept the outcome of the election.
“He talks like a warlord,” said Liban Hussein of Trump. “The warlords want to have their own way and if they don’t get their own way they go to war.”
But another Somali American, Mohamed, said he felt that Trump was actually more volatile than a war lord, due to his sense of entitlement. He said that his rhetoric had increased the risks not only for Somali Americans of Islamophobic violence, but also of the collapse of civil institutions.
“The way Donald Trump is talking it looks like he wants to make civil war in the United States. He hates everybody. He’s talking like he has his own America. We are all America. I’m an American and I voted against him. He hates my faith, which is Muslims, he hates my color, he hates my nationality… Every little thing– there is not one issue on which Trump and I agree,” he said. “America cannot allow him to make a civil war inside the United States. Civil war starts when ignorant people get power, because they do ‘I hate this, I hate you’ thing.”
But the Somali Americans to whom I spoke also expressed a consistent faith in the institutions of law and government in the United States. It was a faith that others I spoke to this year, like Alt Right guru Richard Spencer, ridiculed. But as a religious and ethnic minority, Somalis can better see the essential importance of the Constitution and civil society in the United States.
“There is a Constitution in this country. There is no way that he can cross the line. I don’t think the American people will allow it,” Mohamed said.
Fatumo, 23, a nursing student, added that she had faith in the ability of the government to enforce order, depending on a Clinton win. But she and her friends worry that Trump’s supporters will take matters into their own hands.
“I don’t think he represents America. He says bad things about everybody, all the immigrants, even the president, so he’s not even a good example for any new generation. My friends are worried. They’re worried about what will happen if he becomes a president. They worry that a bad war will happen, because the people that support him will fight them,” she said. “It’s like his supporters. That’s what we worry about. The government and the cops, everybody knows the institution and policy that they follow. But his supporters don’t.”
There are others, however, who discount this possibility. Abdi, 41, said he felt that American social and political structures would resist Trump, or make his most nightmarish proposals impossible.
“I think it’s hysterical to think there will be a civil war because this country has institutions, it has checks and balances. It has very robust democratic process and this is not the first time that this country has had elections that were bitterly fought and people have always come together at the end of the day. I am not worried that there will be a civil war or any problems after the election,” he said.
“Do you think Trump will agree to concede if he loses?” I asked.
Abdi replied: “I think he’ll come around.”