This essay is several weeks old now. I wrote it in late November. It still feels relevant to me, a week into the Trump presidency.
10 Responses to a Traumatic Election
For days after the election, I am gutted. I feel small and weak and ignorant.
I don’t know where the pressure points are in “the system.” I don’t know how to help make things better. I don’t know if there’s any realistic hope for human existence on planet Earth, my country’s democracy, the economy, civil society, anything.
Hell, I don’t even know if I can take care of myself.
#2 Spooky Fatigue
Reading a piece in the New Yorker magazine that featured 16 esteemed writers’ commentary on the election, I was suddenly overwhelmed with fatigue and went back to bed.
Waking again an hour or so later. I flashed on an eidetic image of a rat’s eye, or maybe a squirrel’s eye, or maybe a brown rabbit’s eye, twitching, taut with tension, every nerve on maximum alert.
A friend had recently said that Brexit, Marine LaPen, and various emerging strains of nativism and fascism in Europe have been strengthened immeasurably by Trump’s ascendance in the U.S. I’m sure he’s right, but it’s not just the human realm at the effect of this Dark Wave. Even the animal kingdom feels it, this bedrock-level tremor we’re currently calling “Trump.”
#3 Buddha-like Equanimity
I can’t tell if people who are calmer than me are wiser or just less informed. Maybe both.
I was musing with a friend about how, throughout history, when humans have worried about large-scale catastrophes, they might have feared war, or drought, or famine. Today we not only worry about those things, but also about the extinction of the human species from anthropogenic climate change or even nuclear war (see: General Michael Flynn, national security advisor).
I speculated that perhaps, after our species evolves into a more refined and intelligent life form, they’ll encounter ever-bigger threats, like maybe a rupture in the very fabric of space-time.
My friend, whose wife is about to give birth to their second child in a week or two, nodded thoughtfully. “And that will be okay too,” he said.
#4 Stark Horrified Amazement
I don’t know if we will survive this.
Two days before Thanksgiving, President-elect Trump sat down with the New York Times editorial board and said he was “having an open mind” about the Paris climate accords.
The next day I read that Trump intends to curtail funding to NASA’s climate change research division because he deems it “politicized.” (And just to add a little icing to Wednesday’s cake, he’s appointing a school-privatization hardliner as his Secretary of Education.)
It really is incredible how abruptly EVERYTHING most people I know (including myself) care about is threatened. Here is an incomplete, rambling list:
- public schools
- the world economy
- the existence of NATO (never dreamed I’d worry about THAT!)
- the Geneva Conventions
- immigrants’ rights
- abortion rights
- organized labor
- affordable health insurance
- a U.S. Supreme Court that isn’t dominated by hardline right-wingers
- gun control
- freedom of the press
- the natural environment
- the livability of the planet
In the immediate aftermath of the election, Portland Oregon’s Willamette Weekly rated, on a scale of 1 to 5, over two dozen things we have to worry about in the face of a Trump administration, with a 5 signifying the highest likelihood that our worries will come true. For example, the fear that the U.S. Department of Justice will try to re-criminalize pot in Oregon only got a 1. The concern that Trump will reverse efforts to combat climate change got a 5.
I know it’s a mark of privilege to worry about the end of the world, when so many people are facing so much more immediate pain. Still, I am just gobsmack stunned that everything “we” – people like me – were dreaming of is on the chopping block.
What is the “other side” dreaming of, I wonder?
(I recently asked a cousin of mine why he voted for Trump and he replied, “Because change is good, I like surprises, and I’m not crazy about all the abortions.” But somehow that doesn’t enlighten me much.)
#5 Bitter Fury
Protesters in Portland broke local business windows.
At a meeting of Portland climate change activists, a woman proclaimed, “Y’all are too nice. That won’t do diddly squat. This is a right-wing coup! We have to take to the streets!”
A friend fumed on the phone, “I will NOT normalize the American Hitler!”
A stranger on the street asked me for directions. We wound up walking a little together, and discussing the election. She said that Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie were like mafia dons, and she was sure it was Giuliani who had leaked the information about Hillary’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s computer to the FBI, which resulted in Comey’s last-minute letter to Congress, which may have swung the election.
I said that sounded unlikely, and that more logically the leak would have gone the other way, from the FBI to Giuliani.
She said, “Well, I think Giuliani leaked it. Of course Russia was involved too.”
We parted ways.
I believe Russia hacked the emails that were released via wikileaks. I think it’s unlikely that Russia hacked the actual voting machines or somehow instigated the kerfuffle with Weiner’s computer. What I know for certain is that sputtering rage and complex paranoid speculations fill me with toxic dread.
#6 Nonviolent Activism
My friend Adam thinks it’s a “coin flip” as to whether we now become a fascist country.
Nonetheless, he points out that “the more chaos and fear there is, the easier it is to move people to the darkness. Nonviolence and positivity are an invitation back to the light.”
He acknowledges that seriously nonviolent resistance is not easy. It requires discipline, maybe even training. And it’s hard to get millions of people to buy into it. But it’s the only kind of activism that does not increase Trump’s power. Engaging with hatred and blame won’t help anything. Like Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.”
I mentioned to Adam something I’d read about on facebook. A woman was jogging the day after the election and some guys shouted at her, “Who owns your pussy now?”
Adam responded wearily, “There’s a lot of angry, broken people in this world. People who would say such things, who would taunt … it’s just brokenness.”
#7 Retrospective Reflections on My Candidate
I like Hillary Clinton a lot. Maybe I’m just a sucker for an agile mind and a precise vocabulary. I’m also in awe of her resilience.
But there is a price to be paid for being so tough. Toughness makes your nerve endings a bit brittle. You lose some sensitivity.
Barack Obama, I have long felt, brought wisdom as well as intelligence to the presidency. I never quite felt that Hillary had that quality. While infinitely preferable to Trump, she is probably not an inspired leader for our times either, though the platform she ran on was terrific.
She didn’t do much campaigning in the late weeks of summer. Rather, she attended many small fundraisers, and reportedly told donors, probably with a smile, “I’m all that’s standing between you and the apocalypse.” Now that may have been true (we’ll find out) but let’s face it, that was a message of fear if ever there was one. An invocation of raw fear, worthy of a dictator. Employing terror to get people to open their wallets. It takes a special kind of person to do that.
Then when she described half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” I never bought the story that it was an offhand mistake. She knew the press was there; she is way too savvy to have imagined it wouldn’t make waves. I believe her calculation was that it would reify certain cultural divisions in our country which would ultimately redound to her electoral benefit. It was an unwise move.
She also blew what was probably the most important moment of the second debate with Trump, the town hall debate where he followed her around the stage, the debate that took place shortly after the infamous “Hollywood Access tape” became public. Hillary won it hands down of course by every rational measure: she was far more cogent, informed, poised.
But this is the era of the extremely-low-information voter, the voter to whom civil discourse and policy positions are mere background noise, the voter who just decides “from the gut.” So when the final questioner asked both Clinton and Trump to say something nice about each other, that may have been the critical moment.
Hillary could not answer authentically. She insincerely praised Trump’s children. Trump could answer authentically; he expressed genuine admiration for Hillary’s toughness and resilience. Never mind that this contradicted his repeated charge that she “lacked stamina” – it was an honest moment, and I believe that many millions of low-information voters perceived it as such, and in their “guts” it may have even won the debate for him.
But what else could Hillary have said? What could she possibly respect about Trump? He’s a walking caricature of all things vile. Maybe she could have dug deep though – if she were wise – and come up with something true. Maybe something like: “I admire how powerfully Donald connects in an emotional way with his supporters. I connect well too when I talk to people one on one, but as everyone knows, I struggle a bit on the stump. Donald has tremendous ability to move large crowds; it’s a great talent. He is very charismatic.”
Could she have gotten away with such frankness, such vulnerability? I think so. It might have been a remarkable moment of grace. It could have won her tons of votes. Who knows? It certainly would have garnered a lot of attention in the modern media environment.
Then again, speaking of graceful moments, her concession speech, in which she dignifiedly reassured the nation of the peaceful transfer of power and the sustaining order of things in our democracy, was poignantly brave and patriotic.
But a few days later, she publicly blamed FBI Director James Comey for her election loss. I submit that this was not high-minded leadership. Identifying a scapegoat did nothing to ease the crushed hearts of her supporters. I believe it merely reinforced feelings of rage and helplessness and victimhood. If Hillary were a wise leader, she might have said something along the lines of: “We are at an historic crossroads … there are many reasons why we lost this election … the onus is on me … this is a painful moment for us all … but now it is up to you not to lose heart, to keep sight of our values …” and so on. She could have spoken with the interests of the people foremost in her mind, rather than focusing blame on an individual.
#8 Reflections on Trump
Let’s admit it. There would have been a nationwide Trump ridicule-fest had he lost. We would have danced on his grave. We would have gorged on gloating. Personally, I couldn’t wait to see the son of a bitch humiliated.
It would not have been wise or mature, but I would have “given in to it.”
Instead, as it is, I’m praying for him every day, praying that he should find his heart, that he should awaken to peace and compassion. At first I had some resistance to making that prayer, because after all, why does Trump, of all people, deserve peace of heart, the most precious thing there is? (More on that later.)
I speculated to a friend, the one who called Trump the American Hitler, that he’s a wounded person.
She snapped: “He’s not wounded! He’s disconnected from his soul!”
“So that’s not a wound?” I replied.
She said, “There are people who take pleasure in killing others. He is one of them.”
That I don’t know, though Trump does have a long, storied record of cheating, hurting, and demeaning people, apparently without remorse.
Yet, post-election, even his arch-foe Bill Maher had to give him credit. Maher said something like, “Trump certainly did it his way. If anyone has the right to sing the song ‘My Way,’ Trump does.”
I give Trump credit too. He really sparked a movement. He did it largely by appealing to people’s basest instincts, elevating ignorance, lying incessantly, inciting fear, and fomenting violent resentment. He demonstrated a certain feral astuteness: He did not overestimate the American people like the liberals did.
(For the record, I do not have a grand explanation for What Happened. Michael Moore’s analysis of working class people throughout the Rust Belt feeling forgotten and aggrieved makes sense to me. So does a friend’s observation about how all Hillary’s celebrity surrogates were hip and beautiful, and how economically marginalized people with low self-esteem might have felt alienated and “left out” by that. I know people generally act –and vote — from their needs and hurts. I’m sure bigotry and racism were in the mix too.)
But for all his pettiness and meanness, Trump does not seem to possess the smug sadism of a Stalin, the maniacal vendetta of a Hitler, or even the steely hatefulness of a Mobutu or Pinochet.
After Trump’s pre-Thanksgiving sit-down with the New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni wrote an op-ed entitled “Donald Trump’s Demand for Love.” Bruni described how, before the meeting, Trump touched his arm, looked him in the eye, and stated, “I’m going to get you to write some good stuff about me.” Bruni, openly gay and very liberal, had been nothing but excoriating of Trump for over a year.
Bruni went on to write: “It’s entirely possible. I keep an open mind. But I’m decided on this much: Winning the most powerful office in the world did nothing to diminish [Trump’s] epic ache for adoration or outsize need to tell everyone how much he deserves it.”
I trust Bruni’s insight. It’s consistent with what we’ve all seen. Clearly, Trump has a conspicuous and insatiable desire to be loved and adored.
And what if we fed that desire? What if, instead of hating Trump, we tried to love him?
Does the very thought make you want to throw up?
But I think that’s part of the problem.
I think Trump is kind of a sponge. He absorbs what gets thrown at him and then secretes it back out.
I don’t expect to be able to conjure love for the man simply by virtue of deciding that it may a good thing to do. But I will recognize that it’s probably the sanest response, and maybe, ultimately, the only hopeful one.
(Thinking of Hillary again: Was she harder to love than Trump?! Even her supporters, at times, seemed to imagine that she was so tough she didn’t need love. Talk about a fatally flawed candidate!)
#9 Thoughts on What to Do, Where to Stand
Hard times are coming.
We have not hit bottom yet, not even close. Who knows what “bottom” will even look like? It’s going to require us to step up and be bigger in ways we can hardly imagine, especially those of us who’ve lived a life of relative stability and comfort for decades.
Maybe if millions of us commit to doing at least just a little bit more than we’ve been doing thus far to create and sustain the world we want – whether “a little bit more” looks like political activism, or civic involvement, or volunteerism, or civil disobedience, or simply remembering to speak from our deepest hearts more often – maybe this will, cumulatively, provide some counterbalance to the forces of “Trumpism.” Maybe it will even be enough to save our country, our planet, ourselves, and each other.
Of course, it may not be enough. The challenges ahead are overwhelming. But as Mahatma Gandhi stated, “Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it is most important that you do it.”
Attending a community meeting may seem downright quaint in the face of a political juggernaut that stacks the federal judiciary, undoes every environmental regulation in effect since the 1960s, disenfranchises millions of voters, slashes social services, and generates chaos. It may feel like shooting peas against a fortress wall. (Or barely even that.) But I think we have to be humble. Our only hope is each other. And we have to be realistic about what each of us can practically do, or is willing to do.
At the very least, it soothes the soul to join together with other bewildered, devastated people and make some consistent effort.
For starters, I will work with my local climate change group, 350PDX, and volunteer as an overnight host at a local homeless shelter at least a few times a year.
And I will at least remember – even if I don’t always live – my deepest values. This means remembering that blaming is useless. It means remembering that – as the principles of nonviolent communication state – everything everyone does or says is in service of their needs (one way or another) and we all have the same needs. Even those bastards coming into power. Oh – and I’ll quit name calling too. Really.
I’ll also try not to be so reactive any time I feel slighted or insulted, which isn’t easy. I’m sure I’ll fail often. But I’ll do my best.
I’ll keep my heart as open as I can. I’ll speak the truth as I see it. I’ll be honest with myself.
I seriously think that these coming times will require us all to be spiritual warriors.
Then again, if being a warrior means – as I heard or read somewhere – being impeccable, I won’t qualify. But I don’t like the sound of “spiritual soldier” so … maybe spiritual striver. I can strive every day to act and speak consistently with my heart’s best wisdom. That much I can do.
#10 Message of Peace
I got the message while I was out walking one night recently:
Despite my weaknesses, my preoccupation with myself, and all the ways I’ve let myself and others down – and despite the state of the world, and the gathering darkness ahead — I deserve pure shining peace in my heart.
And so do you. So does everyone. Even Donald Trump.
We’re all broken into pieces. We’re all reaching out from a fractured place. To the extent we find peace, we behave sanely.
I’m thinking of the person who left the climate change meeting, because it wasn’t angry enough for her. I’m thinking of all the people who feel that their activism requires anger.
I’m not going to argue against anger that arises naturally. I think it’s a fundamental emotion.
But don’t feel you should be angry even when you’re not. Don’t feel you have to be militant and oppositional in a blaming way. It may just be your delusional mind’s way of telling you that you don’t deserve peace.
You don’t have to hit back in anger against injustice before you can have peace in your heart.
You may feel like you have no right to peace, given what’s coming, given the crimes being committed, and all the people who are hurting. Given your own shortcomings and “sins.”
But you do deserve it, now. You really do. We all do. Do you really doubt that?