“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair”—Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias.
It pains me to focus this blog’s inaugural post on a note of melancholy, but the deeply distressing outcome of the presidential election seemed to demand some type of written response. I won’t pretend to proffer unique thoughts or sentiments—my reaction is akin to that of half the country in the wake of this bruising and traumatic campaign. There is no inherent virtue to novelty, and there is value in expressions of solidarity. I would argue that this is particularly important in light of a result that has so profoundly shaken our faith in one another as citizens. And, as Graham Greene observed, writing is itself a therapeutic exercise.
I came of age politically in the shadow of September 11th, in a household that would become increasingly critical of the Bush administration. By 2004, I was old enough to begin assembling those criticisms into my own worldview, limited though it might have been. I knew just three things: 1) I felt strongly about a woman’s right to choose; 2) Everybody should have guaranteed medical care; and 3) George W. Bush appeared to lack the intellect and gravitas that seemed to grace the other men in my book of U.S. Presidents, including Dubya’s own father. Not too shabby for the eighth grade.
I recall disappointment and some anger when John Kerry lost. Youth and age-related ignorance notwithstanding, I knew enough to be offended by the swiftboating of a decorated war hero. As the Bush administration and I aged over the next four years, the country would come to rue a war with increasing resemblance to Vietnam, a storm that exposed our national neglect, and a looming second depression.
Unsurprisingly, Barack Obama’s arrival on the national stage was welcome. Here was a candidate with a political philosophy and governing style that I would come to deeply admire, a president who was attuned to my generation’s concerns, and a man of character, thought, and dignity. I was moved by his biography. His cultural experience connected with my own identity as the child of immigrants whose stories span four continents. His work as a community organizer, though much maligned by right-wing critics, struck me as a noble follow-up to an Ivy League education. And, though I will never experience American life in the same way African-Americans do, the significance of a black man ascending to lead a nation fraught with racial history was not lost on me.
Evidently, it has been lost on half the voting public.
We have just now endured an election in which a presidential candidate endorsed authoritarianism, misogyny and sexual assault, and racial and ethnic discrimination. He endorsed war crimes, called for the jailing of political opponents, and conducted a campaign predicated on conspiracy theories, innuendo, and hate. His political identity was founded on the racist lie that our president couldn’t possibly have been born in America because he was black. That is unforgivable.
I mentioned above that 2004 made me angry. 2016 just makes me sad.
First, Hillary Rodham Clinton. In my view, she represented the true progressive choice—even in a head-to-head comparison with Bernie Sanders, who never had any realistic strategy for enacting his platform. The heart of liberalism is the pursuit of social justice and advocacy for the most vulnerable, and when the stakes are that high, there is no room for error. Presented with the choice, I will always choose the piecemeal progress that is guaranteed by incrementalism, the governing style that characterizes both Hillary and Obama. Moreover, here was a candidate eminently qualified, internationally respected, deeply knowledgeable, and tough-as-nails. Here was a lifelong advocate for children and an architect of the Children’s Health Insurance Program that has saved and improved the lives of millions. Here was a civil servant who favored substance over style, a prioritization that the public professes to want in its government. Here was a feminist icon and trailblazer, whose perceived insularity and cautiousness were a reflection not of her, but of our political system’s systematic bias against women. Hillary Clinton has committed her life to service to the vulnerable and endured repeated insult and injury, only to re-emerge for further abuse and humiliation. The oft-repeated refrain: ‘I don’t like Trump, but I could never vote for Hillary’ rings hollow. Really? Never vote for Hillary? Her campaign was imperfect and marred by the e-mail scandal, but there was never, never any legitimate comparison between her and Trump. This reeks of the sexism that has plagued Clinton for decades—women with ambition are bossy, shrill, not to be trusted. She was held culpable for her husband’s infidelity, an asinine and hateful argument that should have been strongly and forcefully rejected. Even during her concession speech, pundits fell over themselves to describe her as “emotional”…after months of calling her scripted and detached.
Second, the press. Journalism is, to be sure, in an unenviable position in the digital age. The decade-simmering tension between the profit motive and editorial responsibility seemed to finally explode during this campaign, to the benefit of a man who conjured his rebirth via reality television. Trump saturated television, manipulating the media with the promise of ratings. In return, he received wall-to-wall coverage of his sensational rhetoric and theatrics. Most attempts to hold him accountable for his extreme views and and vacuous policy proposals were too little and too late. When asked about his misogynistic comments, he wriggled away, dismissing them as statements made for “entertainment.” The logical follow-up—what is so entertaining about calling women pigs?—was never asked. On his proposed Muslim ban: should the government additionally restrict the rights of Muslims to worship? To assemble? To use public spaces? To my knowledge, only once during the campaign was persistent follow-up employed. When Chris Matthews interrogated him on his newfound position on abortion, Trump attempted again to evade scrutiny with his characteristic circular answers. Matthews was unrelenting. Trump finally revealed his view that women should be punished for abortions. It was clear that he was inventing his answer in real time; you could see the wheels turning. It exposed his thoughtlessness and how easy he could be manipulated. It was compelling television and an important moment of journalism. The dearth of accountability was coupled with a false equivalence of the candidates and a normalization of Trump’s extreme and hateful campaign.
Now things get really dark.
Congressional Republicans have made it their stated goal since 2009 to obstruct and undercut the Obama presidency. They are now in a position to make good on those threats. Most notably, this means the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, as well as financial and student loan reform, all of which could be repealed by the Republican-controlled legislature and would be signed by the new President. Even if Democrats attempted to defend the legislation, use of the budget reconciliation mechanism would easily override a filibuster. The executive order regime spanning issues from immigration to climate change could be even more easily undone. The Obama administration’s hard-fought and lengthy list of accomplishments are at risk of been wholly wiped from existence, and with it, the Obama legacy. This erasure is troubling enough—until you put it in the context of the persistent campaign of delegitimization made most famous by Trump himself, but entertained by the entire Republican establishment. The racial dimensions cannot be overstated—this has been a concerted effort to erase the first African-American President from the history books. That Barack Obama, a symbol of racial progress and reconciliation, will pass on the office to the leader of the birther movement, is a gutwrenching reality. The photograph of the two shaking hands in the Oval Office will be framed by the press as evidence of the peaceful transition of power, but the racial message will be unmistakable.
Finally, this election has been framed as a rejection of Clinton, Obama, and the elites by a disenchanted public, but it must be seen as an indictment of the American public. Trump’s supporters have been allowed to distance themselves from his racist and sexist rhetoric under the guise of supporting his economic policy. ‘Sure, sure—we don’t approve of that kind of dialogue, but this election is really about [insert issue here].’ This is inexcusable. It normalizes hate and provides it a recognized space in our political discourse. Michelle Alexander’s essential book The New Jim Crow underscores that our society’s racial order is sustained by indifference to the welfare of oppressed minorities. Even if Trump lost, his rhetoric would have had a lingering effect on our political life, but in this election, over fifty million voters stated that they were willing to tolerate Trump’s bigotry. Lines must be drawn. Respect for all persons must be sacrosanct. Intolerance cannot be tolerated.
Candidly, I await the next four years with deep fear and apprehension. The seemingly inevitable repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the basic safety and security of the country are top of mind, as is the effect this will have on the psychology of American children. We have elected a President whose standards of personal conduct have been thoroughly incongruous with basic human decency.
The way forward seems less clear than ever. The lone bright spot is that among voters aged 18-25, Clinton won in a landslide. In an election among young Americans alone, she would have amassed over 500 electoral votes.
The Obama-Clinton legacy will be rolled back in some fashion. This will have real consequences and cannot—must not—be minimized. But what the above map shows is that our values—diversity, economic fairness, environmental protection, and respect for all persons—these principles will endure, but only if we sustain them. Cynicism, reticence, and disengagement must be defined as a dereliction of civic duty. We owe this to Barack Obama, we owe this to Hillary Clinton, and we owe this to each other. We owe ourselves a country in which love trumps hate.
“They killed us, but they ain’t whupped us yet.”—William Faulkner