This is a long post, but I think worth reading in order to understand the outcome of the recent election and what faces us during the upcoming administration. It’s my edited and shortened version of an article in the November 21st issue of The New Yorker magazine entitled, “Aftermath: Sixteen Writers on Trump’s America.” Apologies to the writers, but I think their thoughts are important, and unshortened it’s too long to wade through..
In “A Democratic Opposition,” political analyst George Packer looks back at the way our democracy successfully dealt with Watergate’s revelation of “the potential of the modern presidency for abuse of power on a vast scale” by impeaching Nixon. None of the institutions that mobilized to deal with this challenge, Packer says, “could have functioned without the vitalizing power of public opinion. Within months of reëlecting Nixon by the largest margin in history, Americans gathered around the consensus that their president was a crook who had to go…
President Donald Trump should be given every chance to break his campaign promise to govern as an autocrat. But, until now, no one has ever won the office by pledging to ignore the rule of law and jail his opponent. Trump has the temperament of a leader who doesn’t distinguish between his private desires and demons and the public interest. If he’s true to his word, he’ll ignore the Constitution by imposing a religious test on immigrants and citizens alike. He’ll go after his critics in the press, with or without the benefit of libel law. He’ll force those below him in the chain of command to violate the code of military justice by torturing terrorist suspects and killing their next of kin. He’ll turn federal prosecutors, agents, even judges if he can, into personal tools of grievance and revenge.
All the pieces are in place for the abuse of power, and it could happen quickly. There will be precious few checks on President Trump. His party, unlike Nixon’s, will control the legislative as well as the executive branch, along with two-thirds of governorships and statehouses. Trump’s advisers are already vowing to go after the federal employees’ union, and breaking it would give the president sweeping power to bend the bureaucracy to his will and whim. The Supreme Court will soon have a conservative majority. Although some federal courts will block flagrant violations of constitutional rights, Congress could try to impeach the most independent-minded judges, and Trump could replace them with loyalists.
But, beyond these partisan advantages, something deeper is working in Trump’s favor, something that he shrewdly read and exploited during the campaign. The democratic institutions that held Nixon to account have lost their strength since the 1970s – eroded from within by poor leaders and loss of nerve, undermined from without by popular distrust. Bipartisan congressional action on behalf of the public good now sounds as quaint as antenna TV. The press is reviled, financially desperate, and undergoing a crisis of faith about the efficacy of gathering facts. And public opinion? We’re so divided, it no longer exists.
Among the institutions in decline are the political parties. This, too, was both intuited and accelerated by Trump. In succession, he crushed two party establishments and ended two dynasties. The Democratic Party claims half the country, but it’s hollowed out at the core. During Barack Obama’s presidency the Party lost both houses of Congress, fourteen governorships, and thirty state legislatures. Except for Obama, the Party’s leaders are all past the official retirement age. More than Republicans, Democrats tend to turn out only when they’re inspired. The Party has allowed personality and demography to take the place of political organizing.
The immediate obstacle in Trump’s way will be New York’s Charles Schumer and his minority caucus of 48 senators. During Obama’s presidency, Republican senators exploited ancient rules in order to put up massive resistance. Filibusters and holds became routine ways of taking budgets hostage and blocking appointments. Democratic senators can slow, though not stop, pieces of the Republican agenda if they find the nerve to behave like their nihilistic opponents, further damaging the institution for short-term gain. It would be ugly, but the alternative seems like a sucker’s game.
In the long run, the Democratic Party faces two choices. It can continue to collapse until it’s transformed into something new, like the 19th-century Whigs, forerunners of the Republican Party. Or it can rebuild itself from the ground up. Not every four years but continuously; not with celebrity endorsements but on school boards and town councils; not by creating more virtual echo chambers but by learning again how to talk and listen to other Americans, especially those who elected Trump because they felt ignored and left behind. President Trump is almost certain to betray them. The country will need an opposition capable of pointing that out.”
In “Health of the Nation,” Atul Gawande, medical doctor and author, addresses “the mismatch between the new administration’s proffered solutions and our aspirations,” using health care as an example. “Eliminating Obamacare isn’t going to stop the unnerving rise in families’ health-care costs,” Gawande writes. “It’ll worsen it. There are only two ways to assure people that they can afford the care they need: a single-payer system or a heavily regulated private one, with the kind of mandates, exchanges, and subsidies that Obama signed into law. The governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, was elected last year on a promise to dismantle Obamacare, only to stall when he found out that doing so would harm many of those who elected him. Republicans have talked of creating high-risk insurance pools and loosening state regulations, but neither tactic would do much to help the people who’ve been left out. If the G.O.P. sticks to its “repeal and replace” pledge, it will probably end Obama’s exchanges and subsidies, and embrace large Medicaid grants to the states, laying the groundwork, ironically, for single-payer government coverage.
It’s through the smaller-scale institutions of our daily lives that we can most effectively check the consequences of poor choices by our leaders. The test is whether the gap between what we preach and what we practice shrinks or expands for the nation as a whole. Our job will be to hold those in power to account for that result, including the future of the left out and the left behind. Decency, reason, and compassion require no less.”
In “Bryant Park: A Memoir,” British author Hilary Mantel describes her experience of the election. “The day before Election Day, the weather in New York was more like May than November,” she begins. It was a great afternoon to be an alien, ticket in your pocket, checked in already at J.F.K., leaving the country before it could elect Donald Trump.
During his campaign, Trump threatened unspecified punishments for women who tried to abort a child. We watched him, in the second debate, prowling behind his opponent, back and forth with lowered head, belligerent and looming, while she moved inside her space, tightly smiling, trying to be reasonable and impervious. It was an indecent mimicry of what’s happened at some point to almost every woman. She becomes aware of something brutal hovering on the periphery of her vision, and wonders what she should do. I willed Mrs. Clinton to turn and give a name to what was happening: to raise an arm like a goddess, point to the place her rival came from, and send him back there, into his own space, like a whimpering dog…
Campaigners talk about ‘a woman’s right to choose,’ as if it compares with picking a sweet from a box, but it’s not that sort of choice. The ‘choice’ is often made for us via miscarriage or some other problem. But, whatever happens, it happens in a private space. Let the woman choose, to the extent that the choice is hers. The state shouldn’t stalk her. The priest should seal his lips…
As the polls were closing, I was somewhere over the Atlantic. As we flew into the light, a flight attendant came with coffee and shocking news. ‘They don’t think,’ she said, ‘that Hillary can catch him now.’ I took off my watch to adjust it, unsure how many centuries to set it back. What would Donald Trump offer now? Salem witch trials? Public hangings? The young woman who’d prepared us for the news was gathering the nighttime blankets. Crinkling her brow, she said, “What I don’t comprehend is, who voted for him?”
No one we know – that’s the trouble. For decades, the nice and the good have been talking to each other, ignoring what stews beneath: envy, anger, lust. On both sides of the ocean, the bien-pensants put their fingers in their ears and smiled and bowed at one another, like nodding dogs or painted puppets. They thought we were all rational sophisticates who could defer gratification. They thought they had a majority, and screened out the roaring from the cages outside their gates. In this election as in any other, no candidate was shining white; politics isn’t a pursuit for angels. Yet it doesn’t seem much to ask – a world where a woman can live without jumping at shadows, without the crawling apprehension of something nasty constellating over her shoulder. Mr. Trump has promised a world where white men and rich men run the world their way, greed fueled by undaunted ignorance. He must make good on his promises, for his supporters will soon be hungry…I wanted to see a woman lead the great nation, so my own spine could be straighter this blustery sunny morning. I fear the ship of state is sinking, and we are thrashing in saltwater, snared in our own ropes and nets. Someone must strike out for the surface and clear air. It’s possible to cut free from some entanglements, some error and painful beginnings, whether you’re a soul or a whole nation.
In “Four-Cornered Flyover,” Peter Hessler, an author from southwestern Colorado, writes about how the views of people he knows, particularly women, have changed over time. He says “there’s something static about” demographic voting categories that’s not reflected in reality, especially this year. “For an unstable electorate, Trump was the perfect candidate, because he was also a moving target. It was possible for supporters to fixate on any specific message or characteristic while ignoring everything else. At rallies, when people chanted, ‘Build a wall!’ and ‘Lock her up!,’ these statements impressed me as real, tangible courses of action, endorsed by a faceless mob. But when I spoke with individual supporters the dynamic changed: the person had a face, and the proposed action seemed vague and symbolic. ‘I think that was a metaphor,’ a woman friend said, when I asked about the border wall. ‘It’s a metaphor for immigration laws being enforced,’ another woman added. Trump’s descriptions and treatment of women didn’t seem to bother them – in their eyes, it was a show of strength to ignore the candidate’s crudeness and transgressions. They thought only the weak would react with outrage.”
Hessler says it’s “hard to imagine a president entering office with less accountability. For supporters, this was central to his appeal – he owed nothing to the establishment. But he also owes nothing to the people who voted for him. Supporters cherry-picked specific statements or qualities that appealed to them, but didn’t attempt an assessment of the whole, because, given Trump’s lack of discipline, this was impossible.”
The black woman novelist Toni Morrison sees the results of the election as a reflection of whites’ concern about their continued domination politically and socially. In “Mourning for Whiteness,” she points out that immigrants to the US have always known “that if they want to become real, authentic Americans they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate to their whiteness. Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force, the definition of ‘Americanness.’
Under slavery, the necessity for color ranking was obvious, but in America today, post-civil-rights legislation, white people’s conviction of their natural superiority is being lost. There are ‘people of color’ everywhere, threatening to erase the long-understood definition of America.” This is why some whites are “abandoning their sense of human dignity and risking the appearance of cowardice, slaughtering churchgoers inviting them to pray and shooting black children in the street. To keep alive the perception of white superiority, these white Americans tuck their heads under cone-shaped hats and American flags and deny themselves the dignity of face-to-face confrontation, training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs. Only the frightened would do that. Right? These sacrifices, made by supposedly tough white men, prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost [or threatened] status.
The comfort of being ‘naturally better than,’ of not having to struggle or demand civil treatment, is hard to give up. The confidence that you will not be watched in a department store, that you are the preferred customer in high-end restaurants – these social inflections, belonging to whiteness, are greedily relished. So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. On Election Day, how eagerly many white voters, however poorly or well educated, embraced the shame and fear sown by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.”
In “The Dark-Money Cabinet,” journalist Jane Mayer points out that Trump is doing the opposite of draining the Washington corruption swamp. “During the presidential primaries,” she says, “Donald Trump mocked his Republican rivals as ‘puppets’ for flocking to a secretive fund-raising session sponsored by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire co-owners of the energy conglomerate Koch Industries. Affronted, the Koch brothers, whose political spending has made their name a shorthand for special-interest clout, withheld their financial support from Trump. But on election night David Koch was reportedly among the revelers at Trump’s victory party in a Hilton Hotel in New York.
Likewise, many of Trump’s transition-team members are the corporate insiders he vowed to disempower. Marc Short, who until recently ran Freedom Partners, the Kochs’ political-donors group, is a senior adviser. The influence of the Kochs and their allies is particularly clear in the areas of energy and the environment, and the few remarks Trump made on these issues during the campaign reflected the fondest hopes of the oil, gas, and coal producers. He vowed to withdraw from the international climate treaty negotiated last year in Paris, remove regulations that curb carbon emissions, legalize oil drilling and mining on federal lands and in seas, approve the Keystone XL pipeline, and weaken the Environmental Protection Agency.
Michael Catanzaro, a partner at the lobbying firm CGCN Group, is the head of Trump’s energy transition team, and has been mentioned as a possible energy czar. Among his clients are Koch Industries and Devon Energy Corporation, a gas-and-oil company that’s made a fortune from vertical drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Another widely discussed candidate is Harold Hamm, the billionaire founder of the shale-oil company Continental Resources and major contributor to the Kochs’ fund-raising network, who’s ‘done all he can to subvert existing rules and regulations,’ according to Wenona Hauter, of Food and Water Watch.
Myron Ebell, an outspoken climate-change skeptic, heads Trump’s transition team for the E.P.A. Ebell runs the energy-and-environmental program at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an anti-regulatory Washington think tank that hides its sources of financial support but has been funded by fossil-fuel companies, including Exxon-Mobil and Koch Industries. Etc.
Questions to Trump’s transition team about its conflict-of-interest rules have gone unanswered, as have questions to the lobbyists and industry heads involved. All of this runs counter to a set of anti-lobbyist proposals that Trump released in October, to be enacted in his first hundred days. It called for a five-year ban on White House and congressional officials becoming lobbyists after they leave public office, and a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying for a foreign government.
In “On Saying No,” New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos says law professor Eric Posner told him “that, with both houses of Congress in Republican control, the greatest obstacle to the president’s use of power will be not the separation of powers but, more likely, the isolated actions of individuals in government positions. They won’t actually do what the president tells them to do, they’ll drag their feet, or they’ll leak to the press to try to embarrass him. Posner admitted that such actions are pretty unusual though, because they risk job loss or even going to jail if they leak confidential information.”
Sharing some thoughts about the Supreme Court in “The Highest Court,” lawyer and author Jeffrey Toobin writes that it “every major political issue of the day eventually winds up in the Justices’ courtroom, and they either embrace or resist what’s happening in the rest of the world. But resistance from the Justices never lasts long. The truism that the Supreme Court follows the election returns is true.
For the past eight years, a majority of the Justices have upheld the work of the Obama administration, most notably in two cases that posed existential threats to the Affordable Care Act. In other cases, the Court has rebuked the president. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Court rejected the administration’s view that the A.C.A. required closely held corporations to subsidize forms of birth control that the owners opposed on religious grounds. Overall, the Court has reflected the fierce partisan divisions in the country. Conservatives won many cases (striking down campaign-finance regulations and gutting the core of the Voting Rights Act), while liberals won others (expanding gay rights and reaffirming abortion rights).
Trump will have a Supreme Court vacancy to fill as soon as he takes the oath of office, thanks to the Republican-controlled Senate’s blocking of Obama’s nominee after the death of Antonin Scalia. Most of the possible nominees on Trump’s list are Republican appointees to the federal courts of appeal or state supreme courts, all strongly conservative in outlook. We can thus look forward to a conservative majority of five Justices, with Anthony Kennedy occasionally and John Roberts rarely voting with the liberals. Democrats have never mounted a successful filibuster against a Republican Supreme Court nominee, and McConnell would probably abolish the practice if they even tried. So Trump will have his Justice in short order.
When the new Court begins confronting the Trump agenda, two issues are likely to stand out: immigration and recent state-level Republican efforts at voter suppression. Photo-identification requirements and limitations on early voting and absentee voting, for example, may have limited Democratic turnout in such battleground states as Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina. Some lower federal courts, especially those with judges appointed by President Obama, have been interpreting what’s left of the Voting Rights Act as justification for curtailing these practices. A conservative majority on the Court would likely give the states a free hand, allowing them to enact even greater restrictions.
The Court’s senior liberals, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, are 83 and 78, and Kennedy is 80, and the chances for dramatic change on such issues as abortion rights and affirmative action hinge on their continued service.”
In “Donald Trump, Poet,” poet, essayist, and memoirist Mary Karr admits “at the risk of sounding like a total candy-ass,” that she’s developed “P.T.S.D. from the venom of this election. When I confessed to my shrink a month ago that I was sleeping less and checking news outlets compulsively, like a rat pushing a bar down for a pellet, she said, ‘So are 100% of my patients. So am I. Those of us who experienced trauma as children, often at the hands of bullies, have felt old wounds open up hearing Trump’s fierce idiom of threat and vengeance. For him, it’s not enough to ban abortion; women who have abortions should be punished. Similarly, it’s not enough to defeat Hillary Clinton; we have to hate, jail, possibly even kill her.
This violent poetry has been gathering force on our airwaves for decades. Then, there’s the ubiquitous browbeating by social media. It was only a matter of time before a hair-triggered guy took this vernacular to the national political stage. Nasty talk didn’t start with Trump, but until recently it’s been the province of people we all viewed as idiots – schoolyard mobs, drunks in bars, guys hollering out of moving cars.
Now, as a presidential candidate mocks a disabled man or a Muslim family that’s sacrificed a son for our country, the behavior is stamped with a big “O.K.” Some Trump supporters felt O.K. shoving and hitting protesters. At a Wisconsin football game, a fan wore an Obama mask and a noose. The vicious language of this election has infected us with enough anxiety and vitriol to launch a war. Still, I believe the hardest thing about democracy is the boring and irritating process of listening to people we don’t agree with, which is tolerable only when each side strives not to hurt the other’s feelings.
Historian Jill Lepore talks about significant beginnings and endings in “Wars Within,” admitting that it can be hard to see “the moment when a marriage started to fall apart; the hour when the first symptoms of a fatal illness set in; the season when a species of sparrow, trying to fly north, falls, weakened by the heat; and the day when the people of a nation began to lose faith in their form of government. The election of Donald Trump, like all elections, is an ending, the ending of one presidency and the beginning of another. But, unlike most elections, Trump’s is something different: it ends an era of American idealism, a high-mindedness of rhetoric, if not always of action, which has characterized most 20th– and 21st-century American presidencies.”
Lepore says we have to hark back to the Civil War for a rupture as big as this. Noting that the division of the nation then was over slavery and quoting Frederick Douglass (“We have sought to bind the chains of slavery on the limbs of the black man, without thinking that at last we should find the other end of that hateful chain about our own necks”), she says the problem now “is inequality: the forms of political, cultural, and economic polarization that have been widening, not narrowing, for decades. Inequality, like slavery, is a chain that binds at both ends.
The nation is at war with itself and with its ideals. Many Americans, having lost faith in a government that’s failed to address widening inequality, and in the policymakers and academics and journalists who have barely noticed it, see Trump as their deliverer…
Douglass saw that the end of a republic begins on the day when the heroism of the struggle for equality yields to the cowardice of resentment. Has that day come? It’s thought by many, lately, that the republic has seen its best days, and that it remains for the historian to chronicle the history of its decline and fall. I disagree. Sparrows may yet cross the sky.
Gary Shteyngart, an American writer born in Leningrad, writes about seeing the kind of prejudice he experienced as a Jew in the Soviet Union now in the US. He says that on Twitter nowadays “it’s impossible to know if the person pointing out your ethnicity and telling you to jump in an oven is an amateur troll in St. Petersburg, Florida, or a professional troll in St. Petersburg, Russia. What this election has proved is just how intertwined those two trolls may be.
‘Russia will rise from her knees!’ were the lyrics I heard outside a suburban train station in St. Petersburg half a decade ago. The song was coming out of an ancient tape player next to a bedraggled old woman selling sunflower seeds from a cup, who examined my physiognomy with a sneer. At the time, this seemed like just a typical Russian scene, the nation’s poorest citizens bristling at their humiliation after losing the Cold War, their ire concentrated on a familiar target, the country’s dwindling population of Jews. The surprise of 2016 – post-Brexit, post-Trump – is just how ably the Russians tweak those lyrics to ‘Whites will rise from their knees!’ and megaphone them into ready ears in eastern and western Europe and, eventually, here in the US. The graffito ‘Russia is for the Russians,’ scribbled next to a synagogue, and the words ‘Vote Trump,’ written on a torched black church in Mississippi, are separated by the cold waters of the Atlantic but united by an imaginary grievance – a vigil for better times that may never have existed.
I can understand these people. Growing up in 1980s Queens, my friends and I, as young Russian immigrants, unfamiliar with the language, our parents working menial jobs, looked down on blacks and Latinos, who were portrayed as threats by the Reagan administration. The first politicized term I learned in America was ‘welfare queen,’ even as my own grandmother collected food stamps and ate government cheese. We hated minorities, even though the neighborhoods many of us lived in were devoid of them.
If Ronald Reagan was the distant protector of us endangered white kids, Donald Trump was a local pasha. My buddies and I walked past his family’s becolumned mansion in Jamaica Estates with a sense of awe. Donald was a straight shooter, a magnate, a playboy, a marrier of eastern European blondes, a conqueror of distant Manhattan. He was everything a teenager in Queens could dream of being. If we were ever blessed to meet him, we knew he would understand the racism in our hearts, and we his. Successful people like him made us secure in our sense of whiteness.
Thirty years later, every Jew on Twitter who’s received a Photoshopped version of herself or himself in a concentration-camp outfit followed by ‘#MAGA’ knows how fleeting that sense of security can be. The idea that Jews should move to their ‘own’ country, Israel, brings together racial purists from Nashville to Novosibirsk. The jump from Twitter racism to a black church set aflame on a warm Southern night is steady and predictable. Putin’s team has discovered that racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism bind people closer than any other experiences. These carefully calibrated messages travel from Cyrillic and English keyboards to Breitbart ears and Trump’s mouth, sometimes in the space of hours. The message is clear. People want to rise from their knees. Even those who weren’t kneeling in the first place.
My parents and grandparents never fully recovered from the strains of having lived in an authoritarian society. Daily compromise ground them down, even after they came to America. They left Russia, but Russia never left them. How do you read through a newspaper composed solely of lies? How do you walk into a store while being Jewish? How do you tell the truth to your children? How do you even know what the truth is? A few days ago, I visited a local public school. On a second-grade civics bulletin board I saw written in large letters: ‘Citizens have rights – things that you deserve; responsibilities – things you’re expected to do; rules – things you have to follow.’ The message seemed to have come from a different era. What do those words have to do with America in 2016? I reflexively checked FiveThirtyEight on my phone. I thought, I grew up in a dystopia – will I have to die in one, too?”
Journalism professor Nicholas Lemann addresses economic issues in “Days of Rage.” Beginning with the crisis of 2008, he notes that the Republicans and Democrats cooperated in addressing it, which ended in “Congress authorizing the government to spend as much as $700 billion to stabilize the big banks. After Obama won the election, he made it clear that he’d continue with this approach. Altogether, these fiscal interventions,” which Lemann admits benefitted the rich far more than those who were really suffering, “were more aggressive than any ever taken by the federal government, surpassing even those taken by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his Hundred Days. Financial institutions got trillions of dollars’ worth of help to stay afloat, far more than the government spent on economic stimulus, unemployment benefits, or mortgage relief. The cities where finance is headquartered, especially New York and San Francisco, recovered quickly, while the suffering in great swaths of the rest of the country continued. Bankers got bonuses, the size and influence of the half-dozen or so largest financial institutions grew substantially, and not only was almost no one who led them was punished, they continued to reap unearned profits… By 2010, the Tea Party had become a national movement, and dozens of its adherents were elected to Congress. The left generated a protest movement, too, with Occupy Wall Street, which revolted against the mainstream of the Democratic Party and led to the emergence of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as major Party figures.
Astonishingly, the main political beneficiary of all this energy has been Donald Trump, a plutocrat with a long history of taking on too much debt, stiffing his business partners, and not paying taxes. While most of his primary opponents ran on familiar limited-government themes and Hillary Clinton dueled with Sanders, Trump figured out that a Republican could run against Wall Street. He also made unsubstantiated, sweeping, and brutally effective attacks on Clinton for having ‘done nothing’ for thirty years about the economic troubles of middle-class and poor Americans. Now he’s almost certain to enact policies that will exacerbate those difficulties. He’ll undo as much as he can of efforts like the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, which returned some regulation to the financial system. He’ll cut taxes in ways that will increase inequality, and restrict trade in ways that will decrease prosperity. He won’t reappoint Janet Yellen, the most unemployment-obsessed Federal Reserve chair in American history, after having subjected her to a barely veiled anti-Semitic attack, in a campaign ad that called her a tool of ‘global special interests.’ It’s yet another tragic consequence of the financial crisis that it’s brought to power the politician most likely to create the next one.”
Producer, actor, comedian, and writer Larry Wilmore addresses the new racism in “The Birther of a Nation,” saying that “for a long time, Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency seemed like a joke. How could this six-time-bankrupt billionaire-slash-reality-TV star expect to be taken seriously? His opening move – labeling Mexican immigrants rapists – immediately lost the left, and his demotion of John McCain, a former P.O.W., from hero to loser looked as if it would cost him the establishment right. After tussling with Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly at the first G.O.P. debate, and suggesting that she had blood coming out of her ‘wherever,’ he even lost Fox News. How did this mango Mussolini expect to win the White House? Who was left to vote for him? Apparently, half the country.
Shortly after that first debate, I joked in the writers’ room of my now defunct television program, ‘The Nightly Show,’ that Trump could win. I was immediately shouted down and told I was out of my mind. But I was half serious when I made that prediction: a part of me was deeply uneasy with the type of energy that surrounded the Trump insurgency. It was the same energy I’d felt around the ‘birther’ movement a few years earlier – a concerted attempt to delegitimize the first black president. In any case, my colleagues and I decided to title our coverage of the election ‘Blacklash 2016, the Unblackening.’
A little more than a hundred years ago, D. W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was screened at Woodrow Wilson’s White House. The film gave a distorted but sensational view of the Reconstruction South, where white heroes, in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, put uppity black villains back in their places. It was the Klan’s job to rescue white women from the black devils trying to rape them and create a mongrel race. The reality, of course, is that mixed-race Americans were [and are] largely the result of the cream being poured into the coffee, as it were, and not the other way around. But this lie – the myth of the black sexual predator – was powerful, both onscreen and off. It provoked a resurgence of the K.K.K., and led President Wilson [a Virginian] to praise Griffith’s film.
When Donald Trump expended so much effort not only criticizing President Obama but attempting to un-Americanize him, he was drawing a direct line from that horrible legacy to himself. When I heard chants of ‘Take our country back’ or ‘Make America great again,’ I wondered who trump supporters thought had stolen their country. Hint: the chief suspect lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I don’t mean to suggest that every person who voted for Trump is a racist. But there’s no denying that his message appealed to the lesser angels of the American psyche. Questioning Obama’s birthright, threatening to ban Muslims, painting entire immigrant groups as felons to be feared – these aren’t policy positions; they’re incendiary words and images meant to ignite a movement. My hope is that our country is more ready to come together than to be driven farther apart. But buckle up just in case.
As a 23-year-old woman of color, writer Jia Tolention says in “On the Streets” that she’s always thought of “pussy-grabbing as a pathetic, confusing cultural vestige that would would die out eventually, because women would be recognized as equals. Then nearly 50% of the American electorate voted Donald Trump into the Oval Office. We picked a president whose ex-wife once testified that he ripped out her hair and raped her, a man who’s been accused of sexual assault and misconduct by almost two dozen women, a man whose own words corroborate his accusers’ claims. In the ‘Access Hollywood’ videotape, Trump bragged about committing sexual assault – one of many hideous offenses he believed would make him appear powerful. For millions of Americans, it seems, he was right.
The night after the election, my girlfriends and I joined a protest that had been announced earlier that day on Facebook that brought thousands of people to Union Square in Manhattan. The crowd was young and colorful, restless and expectant. A gentle rain wilted signs that said ‘Not the End’ and ‘We Will Look Out for Each Other,’ and the men in front of me waved a rainbow banner and a blacked-out American flag. My girlfriends and I hugged each other, our eyes smeared and swollen. We hadn’t thought that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was specifically focused on women, but we experienced her loss as a woman-specific disaster.
The rain intensified as we marched from Union Square to Trump Tower. We high-fived cabdrivers and whooped at the office workers who opened their windows to cheer. ‘Our body, our choice! the women around us chanted, and men echoed, ‘Her body, her choice.’ A sign floated above the crowd: ‘Why Don’t Sexual Assault Victims Come Forward? Because Sometimes We Make Their Attackers the Leader of the Free World.’
I’m part of the generation that’s forced a mainstream reckoning with the misuse of other people’s bodies; we’re the victims of and the protestors against police brutality and sexual assault. During the Obama administration, in no small part because of the respect that the First Couple instilled for women and people of color, I had begun to feel, thrillingly, like a person. My freedom no longer seemed a miraculous historical accident; it was my birthright. Now I’m afraid that the empathy and respect that I’ve always had to display to survive as a woman of color will never be required from men or from whites. I also understand that I mistook a decrease in active interference for progress toward a world in which my personhood was seen as inextricable from everyone else’s.”
Journalist Mark Singer writes about Donald Trump as a “persona” in “In Character.” He says that “right after Trump met with Obama at the White House, he described the experience in language that, uncharacteristically, approached humility. It didn’t last. By dinnertime the same day, he was tweeting a familiar whine: ‘Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!’
After my first face-to-face encounter with Trump – twenty years ago, in his Trump Tower office, I told a colleague, ‘This guy’s a performance artist.’ To one degree or another, in our encounters with others we all inhabit a persona that masks our most intimate reflections, doubts, and feelings. Beyond Trump’s extraordinary talent as a salesman, however, his singular dubious achievement has been to remain fully in character at all times. He’s deliberately chosen to exist only as a persona, never as a person. No one’s ever figured out what truly goes on inside his head.
Among the grave uncertainties our country now faces, we can only wonder what becomes of ‘Donald Trump’ once President Trump takes the oath of office. I asked a number of highly regarded actors and acting teachers what to expect from a leader with such a thoroughly calculated persona.
Richard Feldman (Juilliard): ‘My hunch is that the persona is a complete creation, almost without volition. What makes Trump so powerful is that he believes his own story. My dismay is that millions of people don’t get that. No matter how deep their dissatisfactions, they were still willing to vote for someone who’s clearly a hollow person.’
Austin Pendleton (HB Studio): ‘With a really great actor, it always comes down to a feeling of spontaneity, that what they’re giving out is what’s happening to them in the moment. Trump has that – the freshness of a fine actor-artist. The reason his positions are all over the map is because he lives in the moment. That’s electric to some people, far more important than what he’s actually saying. Because if people were really paying attention to what he says he would never have been elected.’
In “Radical Hope,” Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz gives a friend, himself, and all of us dismayed at Trump’s election, a way forward. He admits to his friend, ‘Querida Q,’ that the first time they talked after Trump’s victory he didn’t really know what to say. “I thought about your e-mail all day and during my evening class. My students looked rocked. A few spoke about how frightened and betrayed they felt. Two of them wept. No easy task to take in the fact that half the voters – neighbors, friends, family – were willing to elect to the nation’s highest office a toxic misogynist, a racial demagogue who wants to make America great by destroying the civil-rights gains of the past fifty years. What now? you asked. And that was my students’ question, too. I answered them as poorly as I answered you. So I sit here now in the middle of the night, in an attempt to try again.
First and foremost, we need to feel. We need to connect courageously with the rejection, the fear, the vulnerability that Trump’s victory has inflicted on us, without turning away or numbing ourselves or lapsing into cynicism. We need to bear witness to what we’ve lost: our safety, our sense of belonging, our vision of our country. We need to mourn all these injuries fully, so that they don’t drag us into despair, so repair will be possible. And while we’re doing the hard, necessary work of mourning, we should avail ourselves of the old formations that have seen us through darkness. We organize. We form solidarities. And, yes: we fight. To be heard. To be safe. To be free.
For those of us who have been in the fight, the prospect of more fighting, after so cruel a setback, will seem impossible. At moments like these, it’s easy for even a matatana to feel that she can’t go on. [Matatana is a slang word in Spanish. Used by Dominicans, it means a female who’s the best at whatever she does. Such a guy would be a matatan.] But I believe that, once the shock settles, faith and energy will return. Because let’s be real: we always knew this shit wasn’t going to be easy. Colonial power, patriarchal power, capitalist power must always and everywhere be battled, because they never, ever quit. We have to keep fighting, because otherwise there will be no future – all will be consumed. Those of us whose ancestors were owned and bred like animals know that future all too well, because it’s our past. And we know that by fighting, against all odds, we who had nothing, not even our real names, transformed the universe. Our ancestors did this with very little, and we who have more must do the same. This is the joyous destiny of our people – to bury the arc of the moral universe so deep in justice that it will never be undone.
But all the fighting in the world won’t help us if we don’t also hope. What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. ‘What makes this hope radical,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it’s directed toward a future goodness that transcends our current ability to understand what it is.’ Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as ‘imaginative excellence.’ Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible. Only radical hope could have imagined people like us into existence. And I believe that it will help us create a better, more loving future. Time to face this hard new world, to return to the great shining work of our people. Darkness, after all, is breaking, a new day has come.