The morning after Donald Trump was elected the President of the United States, I had to explain to my precocious six-year-old son, yet again, that building a long wall between our country and Mexico was impossible. But this time, when he asked whether he should mention as much to his Mexican friends at school, I had to remind him that they had nothing to worry about.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because,” I replied, “they’re Americans.”
Suddenly, I realized what journey we had just begun as a nation: no matter what your age, what it means to be American is more confusing than ever.
This will be an especially arduous road to travel for those of us who consider ourselves progressive, who see the value in multiculturalism, who worry about the natural world, and who are proud to be not just citizens of the United States, but citizens of the world. We’ll have to continually reassert that fighting for the voiceless, whether that means equal rights or the environment, is the right thing to do. We’ll even have to remind ourselves what it means to be American again and again.
Parents of young children may have it hardest. We try to teach our children that bullying is wrong, that people of all genders, colors, and backgrounds need to be respected, that doing your homework is mandatory. This election is a visceral counterpoint to all that. We’ve now officially entered the Age of Rage, when fear of The Other and disdain for progress into modern globalism counts for more than the rationality we learn in school and the morals of kindness and respect that we teach our children.
For me and much of the country, the shock of Tuesday still stings, evidenced by high school walkouts from Goleta to Pittsburgh, protests in front of Trump Tower, and the most widespread display of sadness, anger, and fear for the future that I’ve ever seen across social media. The reaction goes far beyond political party allegiances, and, at least for me, deeply questions the core of our country’s morality.
Many, if not most, of those of us who voted for Hillary Clinton were voting against Trump, whom we saw as a demonstrably wicked human being, willing to publicly thrash women, Mexicans, Muslims, and refugees, proud to not pay taxes, happy to have left a mess of unpaid business associates in his cutthroat wake. Verifiable facts and well-documented anecdotes attest to this reality.
Likewise, many who voted for Trump voted against Clinton. Since Clinton was, by all available measures, the most qualified candidate for the position of President in modern history, she stood for the Establishment. That strong connection to the long-standing political class, where lobbyist-directed donations play so powerfully into decision-making at all levels, is the same reason Bernie Sanders did so well. And though Clinton’s alleged crimes were wrapped in innuendo, conspiracy, and seemingly unverifiable charges, they haunted her to the ballot box, fatally so for her glass ceiling-shattering aims.
Somehow, when it came to the electoral college, the alleged negatives of Clinton outweighed the obvious ones of Trump. Probably more powerful, though, were the wide-ranging complaints and promises of the latter, delivered often with red-faced rage and spit-flecked intensity. Trump loudly blamed all of our problems on President Barack Obama, and then assured he alone could fix them, pledging to somehow bringing back dying industries like coal and steel, make sure we are safe from terrorism by banning Muslims and denying refugees, and, yes, building a wall and making Mexico pay for it. The claims were so ludicrous and insulting that most self-respecting Republicans distanced themselves as well.
Yet we must be extremely cautious to claim that all Trump supporters are hate-mongering imbeciles, or residents, as one social media meme put it, of “Dumbfuckistan.” Certainly, the “whitelash” to Obama and an increasingly browner populace as well as the misogynistic motivations cannot be overlooked. Nor can the fact that Trump carried a remarkable swath of non-college educated citizens be understated.
But there is clearly real pain out there in the Rust Belt, the Midwest, and forgotten corners of rural America. Technology has zoomed ahead, leaving many old industries in the dust. The country is far less white than it once was, and it’s never going back. Change is indeed scary, and the world is speeding up every day. So we cannot discount this very real longing to return to the country to its former self, presumably with white picket fences and paperboys. That’s what Trump tapped into.
Good Luck Elephants
Regardless of the reasons why, now Trump and the Republicans, even those who previously denounced their new President, are in the driver’s seat on this chariot ride into the Age of Rage. Throughout the era of Obama — a president who inherited the worst economy in a lifetime and, against a steady headwind of congressional opposition, turned it around, with unemployment now way down and wages going up — these Republicans have become experts at criticism and obstructionism.
But it’s easy to critique and propose talking-point alternatives when those ideas are never put into play. Now, with Trump as President and the Republicans owning both sides of Congress, they will have free reign to enact many if not all of their plans, from tax cuts and renegotiated trade deals to ending longstanding treaties, destroying worldwide agreements to combat climate change, and shifting foreign policy in the Middle East.
The fear of many progressive and moderates is that the modest if imperfect advances made by Obama to boost the economy, insure the uninsured, protect the environment, and insulate hard-working immigrant families from the threat of deportation will be undone — and all for the sake of pleasing Middle America with symbolic gestures rather than because any smart, forward-thinking policies have been developed. Fast forward a few years, and we everyday Americans may once again be dealing with the short-sighted consequences of an unchecked Republican overhaul, much as we did following Reagan’s failed trickle-down economics, Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, and so on.
If it’s anything like past Republican administrations, we’d be wise to prepare for dirtier air and water, fewer restrictions on greedy corporations, a faster widening gap between rich and poor, and more, not fewer, global conflicts. Unless this is a new breed of Republicans who will actually take on their corporate overlords like they say they will, history is likely to repeat itself yet again. That’s not even to mention the potential damage inflicted by an ultra-conservative Supreme Court justice, who could threaten everything from abortion rights and gay marriage to basic environmental law and gun laws.
Searching for Hope
It’s highly likely that Trump saw the election as a reality show of sorts, and employed a strategy of playing to populists primarily to get elected. He’s also a Manhattanite, surrounded by the most liberal of social scenes on the planet, which means he probably will not prove a direct threat to many of the equal rights issues that the country has overcome under Obama. (His Supreme Court, however, could be another story.)
So maybe he’ll chill out a bit, and, without having to perform in front of rallies every day, maybe he’ll try to fix the broken parts of Obamacare and take on the insurance companies that are thwarting its success, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe he’ll realize that deporting tens of thousands of immigrants will just hurt the economy and destroy families, rather than help anything, and that blocking Muslims is the definition of un-American. Maybe he’ll even stop pushing for a silly wall. Now that he’s elected, Trump can do whatever he wants, which means not doing some of these ridiculous things as well.
Maybe Trump will surprise us all by governing from the middle. It would certainly surprise those who voted for him.
No matter what happens, the Republicans will no longer have the simple luxury of blaming Democrats. They’ll have two years until the midterm elections to do almost as they please, so we should all pray that they act with prudent wisdom rather than scornful swagger. If not, we’ll be left cleaning up the mess for years, yet again.
And If That Fails …
In 2004, George W. Bush was reelected, against plenty of rational evidence that he was taking us down the wrong path. (Cue: Great Recession.) Because California was so insignificant during that entire election season, I changed my official political allegiance from “independent” to California Liberation Party. Today, as the world’s sixth largest economy, the notion of California seceding from the union isn’t merely a funny notion. Right after Trump’s election, the #Calexit hashtag erupted, and the YesCalifornia.org website exploded in popularity, complete with a blue book on how to make such a move in spring 2019.
Yes, I am one of those folks who refer to myself as Californian rather than American, and I do believe that the Golden State would make a fine country unto itself. And, as the polls closed Tuesday night, I also made sure to register CaliforniaLiberationParty.com and CaliforniaLiberation.com as official websites.
But I’m far from convinced that California seceding from the union would make any sense whatsoever. It certainly won’t help when explaining what it means to be American. I guess we’ll see what the first two years of unchecked Trump will bring.
In the meantime, despite the message this election sent, I plan to keep teaching my kids to respect everyone and everything, to help the less fortunate, to stand up to bullies, to do their homework.
Most of all, I will constantly remind them that the ever-evolving experiment we call America has always been great.
Let’s just hope it stays that way.