The US has long been a deeply complicated and paradoxical country. Our country, although built on slavery of African Americans and genocide of Native Americans, has also offered more freedom and prosperity to more people than any country in human history. We have a foreign policy that is capable of overthrowing foreign leaders we don’t like, seemingly on a whim, and of murderous folly as in Vietnam or Iraq, but also one that has played an indispensable role in defeating fascism and Soviet Communism and, at times, has been on the side of human rights and provided humanitarian assistance to people in many corners of the world. We are a country that promises economic mobility, but where multi-generational poverty is widespread and where any billionaire heir can grow up to be a political outsider.
For decades our country has struggled to turn the promise of our constitution and often lofty rhetoric about freedom and equality a reality. We all know the names of many of the people who have been part of that struggle, from Frederick Douglass to Harvey Milk. In 2008, that struggle won out at the polling place and we elected an African American president who represented the best in ongoing story of America’s journey towards real equality and democracy.
Last night told a very different story, one about a candidate who ran a campaign where he married racism, intolerance and anti-Semitism with buffoonish threats and an extraordinary disconnect from a fact based world, opting instead to simply make up facts to fit his twisted world view. That candidate got elected by winning a big majority of white, straight Christians and losing a majority of pretty much every other demographic group.
Americans of both parties have lost elections in the past. Conservative Republicans can remember the anger and frustration they felt in 2008 or 1992, just as liberal Democrats can recall a similar feeling in 2000, and if they are old enough, 1980. This year, however, is something different. Trump’s coalition looks a lot like a typical Republican coalition, but he is no typical Republican candidate. Partisan panic aside, the reality that we have elected a President who campaigned on racist demagoguery, threatened to not accept the outcome of the election if he lost, has indicated a desire to limit press freedoms, and has evinced no knowledge of the checks and balances that constrain presidents, raises unique, and frankly, chilling questions about the future of our democracy.
Before we panic too much we should recognize the possibility that given how little Trump knows about governance, me may just turn the government over to Vice-President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader. It is an extraordinary reflection of what is happening in to our country that a lifelong left wing Democrat sees governance by what would be the most right wing triumvirate in American history as a hopeful outcome, but it is better than the enduring damage there is good reason to believe a more engaged President Trump will inflict on our democratic institutions. We have survived right wing governments led by the likes of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. They too seemed frightening and dangerous; and they did long lasting damage to our country, but our democracy survived. However, neither of those ideologues ran against the mores, conventions and attitudes that make our democracy function. Nor were they hyper-sensitive, angry at the world, or convinced that the world was rigged against themselves personally. Trump is, and he will go back to those wells of hatred and intolerance whenever he wants to mobilize his base, or perhaps simply when he gets bored.
So, where do we go from here? For many Americans, the idea of leaving this country is simply not realistic or not something we want to do. Moreover, by leaving, we abandon those with fewer options to live under what could become a very ugly regime. Instead, we probably need to begin by taking a deep breath and steeling ourselves for the struggle. This is not the struggle to simply find a Democrat who can win 270 electoral votes in November of 2020. At this point, it is more important to make sure that election happens. I exaggerate here, but only slightly.
The struggle will include things like finding ways for person to person dialogue between people with different political views. away from the anger of social media, and our new president. It will also mean, standing up for each other. Donald Trump ran with the goal of creating a country where bigotry, sexual assault and hate is acceptable. We must make it clear that is not the America we want every time we see those hateful things in writing, in a Tweet and in the physical violence that Trump seems to think is ok. We also cannot be cowed by this bully. We must keep fighting, writing and working because it is worth it to get our country on track to the vision of tolerance equality and democracy that we all cherish; and because the alternative is unthinkable.
Photo: cc/Stephen Melkisethian