The America I Thought I Knew

StatueOfLiberty

[Note: I’ve still got a lot of raw emotions, and this post is written in the spirit of catharsis. If that’s not what you need right now, feel free to skip it. You may also like this one: Dear America, Stop Gaslighting Me]

Over the last few days, I’ve been cycling back and forth through all the stages of grief, trying to come to terms with what’s happened. I’ve come to realize that the reason that last week’s election results were such a devastating and unexpected blow – even besides the massive failure of the polls – is that they shattered a story I had been telling myself, a story that I very much wanted to believe.

It’s true that America has committed some awful evils. But until last week, it was so easy to believe that we were leaving the past behind; that we had set ourselves firmly on the path of becoming a more compassionate, more humane, more tolerant country. Recent history fit so neatly into that narrative of expanding progress: the first black president, a major step toward universal healthcare, marriage equality nationwide, protests breaking out to affirm the importance of black lives. The first woman president seemed a natural next step in that evolution, and a marker of more and greater progress still to come.

But history knows nothing of these patterns we try to discern in it. If anything, this ought to be a lesson that it’s far easier to slip backwards than to inch forwards. Entropy is a force in politics no less than in physics.

I thought Trump’s buffoonish cruelty would seal his defeat. It couldn’t have been more obvious that he utterly lacks the dignity, magnanimity and humility that characterized the greatest of our presidents. He boasted of it, bragged about it – his lust for dominance, his view of the world as a zero-sum game of humiliation, his bottomless thirst for adulation and his fury at those who won’t give it to him.

But it’s clear that millions of people voted for him because of this, not in spite of it. The only conclusion I can draw is that they share his spirit of cruelty. They want to reverse all our tenuous progress toward greater social equality, and they think he’s a weapon they can aim at the people they hate. The apparent surge in Trump-inspired hate crimes since the election only reinforces this.

Given the evidence, I’m forced to accept that the America I thought I knew – that land of decency, of moral enlightenment and stubbornly slow progress – doesn’t exist, and perhaps never did. There’s a wide and deep streak of sadism in our society, and in this election, it found a way to express itself. America has chosen to become a much crueler nation, and hundreds of millions of people will be living with the consequences for years if not decades.

Let’s be honest, whatever happens, I’m probably going to be fine. I’m a privileged white guy, I make a decent living, I know my rights. I may even get a tax cut. But it’s not me I’m worried about.

I’m worried about one of my good friends and her husband, who’s a Muslim. They have a two-year-old daughter together. Could you blame them if they feared for what the future may bring? If they wondered whether their family has a future in this new America?

I’m worried about my friends with chronic health problems, who are almost certainly facing a return to the bad old days of insurers cutting off your coverage because you had a sniffle twenty years ago. I’m worried about people becoming homeless and destitute from medical bills, and emergency rooms again becoming the last resort for routine care.

I’m worried about my Latino relatives, in the family I married into, who have renewed reason to fear hate-crime attacks from emboldened racists and bigots – not to mention persecution from police who feel, now more than ever, that they have impunity. I’m worried for the young people who face deportation even though America is the only home they’ve ever known.

I’m worried about my women friends in the workforce, who got a painful reminder that powerful men can brag about committing sexual assault without consequence. I’m worried for the millions of poor women who face the very real prospect of a return to back alleys and coat hangers.

Most of all, I’m worried for my son, a little over two months old, and for all the children in his generation and the generations to come. It seems clear to me that our last, best hope to arrest climate change is gone, and because of the choices we made, our descendants are going to face devastating consequences – cities will flood, glaciers will melt, and famine, war and mass migration will ride hard on their heels.

This has forced me to confront whether political activism makes any difference. If people couldn’t be persuaded to care about this election, when the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been and possibly ever will be, is there a point in trying to get them to care about anything lesser? I can’t come up with any answer to that question that satisfies me. But giving up entirely, retreating from the world and vowing to only care about myself and my closest companions from now on – that doesn’t seem thinkable either.

The one slim consolation I take is that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, and not by a narrow margin. That is a sign that goodness persists in our society; that a plurality, perhaps a majority, of Americans reject this cruel vision. It gives me a glimmer of hope that things may be different, some day in the future. But that’s cold comfort now, when the undemocratic apportionment of power in our country decrees that those excess votes made no difference. And I can’t help but believe that things are going to get worse for a long time to come before there’s any hope of them turning to the better again.

Image: Did we ever really mean it? Via Shutterstock.

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