It’s a feeling like the moment after you’ve been struck by lightning.
In speaking with close friends and family in the past weeks, just trying to absorb the election of Donald Trump and the ascendancy of unified right-wing control of government, one essential emotion has floated above the others. The grief—the pure, unmistakble grief—is real. The sense of loss is real. And this notion is real: that we have begun a journey through a calamity so enormous and frightening and unpredictable that to try to map out the worst potential outcomes is a fool’s errand.
Half the people who read this will say, “You’re sad, white boy? Imagine how [insert Trump-denigrated minority group] feels! Congratulations on discovering racism.” The other half of the Twitter replies will be, “You coastal liberal elitist, you lost! Go cry in your Slate.com bubble.” I don’t begrudge any of those feelings. All I can testify to is the experience of this one downwardly mobile, Obamacare-enrolled, unenthusiastic Clinton-voting, son of the Midwest—and this outcome simply staggers me.
I’ve never felt more apart from my home, never understood the nation-state of my birth less—even if I understand Trump completely. Even if, really, I knew something like this was coming, the end result of a great dysmorphia within conservatism, an epistemic closure so grand that it creates an alternate reality. In our politics, only the cultural component remains, the grand spectacle, the Red-state/Blue-state carnival, the reality show endgame. To many Trump voters, it seemed like this man would induce aneurysms in New Yorker readers and MSNBC viewers for the next four to eight years, and that was totally swell.
Meanwhile, they have empowered an intellectually frail, fearful narcissist with a grade school-level understanding of the job he is about to undertake and a cohort of dangerous far-right legislators intent on rolling back a century of social and economic progress.
So the Internet fills with articles about the “5 Stages of Trump Grief,” and Kate McKinnon cold opens Saturday Night Live with a Hillary Clinton/ Leonard Cohen tribute and jokes are cracked about the need for counselors on college campuses. We are told by the forces of normalization, mostly corporate news that requires access and a certain degree of cooperation from any administration, that this is totally silly. Not to worry. Calm down. Give this a chance.
Yet already a real-life, in the flesh, white nationalist has been appointed to a key position. Already there are promises to immediately deport three million people. Already there are murmurs that over 20 million may soon lose their health insurance. Already we are promised a war on environmental protections, and we watch as our last hope to slow catastrophic climate change fades away. Already we hear the President-elect is weighing a “Muslim registry,” something so beyond the pale that who knows what other horrifying ideas might follow.
And it’s only been two weeks. There will be exogenous events to which this incurious, intellectual bantamweight bigot will have to react: a terrorist attack, a major climatic disaster, the collapse of a South American state leading to a European-style refugee flow. He will almost certainly start a war. His ego almost requires it. When the frustrations of the legislative process and domestic mass resistance settle in, he will try to brand his name in the history books the easiest way a president can: a unilateral military action abroad. We can only hope he goes for some easily determined police action like Reagan’s joke in Grenada, and doesn’t spark a shooting war with a nuclear power.
You’re right to grieve, because there is no bottom to this. Not for a long time.
In strange ways, Americans measure eras by the person who occupies the White House. Our minds, hearts, and hopes track the major events of the day. For instance, I was in Grant Park on election night in 2008 when Obama won. You do not need to think Obama was a perfect president to understand how transformative that moment was. That night cracked something open. The joy and possibility and courage of that crowd was so contagious, so affirming—it’s something I’ve never been able to easily discount, even during my skeptical moments of his presidency. That night meant something more to “us” than the sum of its parts, and it certainly meant something to me.
But here’s a memory I put away for a long time: As my friends and I streamed down the crowded streets of Chicago that November night in 2008, making new friends for a few brief moments, snapping pictures, cracking up, buzzing from the core to the fingertips, we stopped at a crosswalk. This old junker flying two huge Confederate flags out the windows pulled to a stoplight a few feet away. Packed into this ride were four young white men with shaved heads, the stereo screeching the kind of music preferred by the antagonists of Green Room.
At the time, I almost laughed. Is this a joke? Am I on Punk’d? This is in very poor taste, Ashton Kutcher. That’s how absurd it felt, how irrelevant and clownish these individuals looked, almost as if we could see the wave of history washing them away. The stoplight turned green and the car tore off to make its statement for others on the night of the first black president-elect.
That moment came back to me with more and more urgency in the eight years that followed. When Congressman Joe Wilson yelled, “You lie” during the president’s health care address. When Tea Party protests erupted and astroturf organizations like Americans for Prosperity, intending to whip up support for resource extraction, ended up fueling racial resentment. When a billionaire reality star began talking about Obama’s birth certificate, and when that man began to actually gain traction in the polls. When Dylan Roof walked into a church and murdered nine people, including two grandmothers. Finally, the memory of that car of young men came back to me this week during an Uber ride when the driver, a lesbian originally from Bogota, told me she’d never been more scared in her life, and she’d lived through the Colombian government’s war with the FARC. Before me, she said, she’d picked up a man going to Anaheim, to a rally of the Ku Klux Klan.
What has long festered in this country, impolitic to point out but alive nevertheless, is in the process of being mainstreamed. A dark thing has been uncorked, and it’s not going back into the bottle easily. Our grief is tied to the sense that whatever this scattered “us” was trying to do—this loose collection of like-minded people who used to have no particular party affiliation, who simply believed in quaint ideas like justice, pluralism, and compassion, that nobody is reduced to a skin color or religion or gender, that we are all simply messy, imperfect, struggling cracked vessels, who deserve the same opportunities and the same right to self-autonomy, and maybe we’ll argue about how best to do that, but at least we all have the same North Star—we actually failed. We are haunted by the fear that maybe we can organize, protest, fight, resist, but what has just happened is more than a setback. This is something that can never be put back all the way, that can never be made right.
What a monumental realization to grapple with, one deserving of mourning in its most literal sense. As I speak to people I care about—the kind of friends a normal person who’s never taken a selfie with Mike Pence accumulates in his life, Hispanic, Muslim, black, female, and yes, even a few white men—I can’t help but hear how this event will live like a twin with whatever else is going on in their lives. Whatever sadness, loss, past hurt, squandered opportunities, or missed chances were weighing on them before, Trump’s election has dragged it all out into daylight, magnified it, set it ablaze. For the foreseeable future, as this bilious human megaphone stands sentry over our lives, we will associate it with personal and professional disappointments, the people we miss, the things we wish we could have done better, the outright mistakes that led us so far from our North Stars.
I had an uncle I was close to, who died in an accident a few years back. He was one of those people in your life who was just relentlessly good and decent, who you knew had your back no matter what. Even if our big Ohio family had plenty of members who couldn’t stomach my writing or my politics, he read virtually everything I ever published and gave me the best kind of hell for it (“Chapter Eight—maybe too much information,” were the first words out of his mouth about my book). He’d spent the night at our house when I was a toddler prone to night terrors, when I’d wake up screaming for no reason, and 28 years later he still thought it was hysterical, still told every girlfriend I brought around about his shrieking, diaper-wetting nephew. He was this clever, fun, incredibly kind man, whose death absolutely wrecked me. After several years, I thought the wound had scabbed over, but this past week the stitches just came shredding out. For whatever reason, I couldn’t stop thinking of him, missing him, and feeling that bottomless love and emptiness—like my aunt had just called with the news all over again.
Maybe that’s unfair, to compare election results to that kind of tragedy, but I don’t think so. The very nature of tragedy is that it has the capacity to take your breath away, to astonish you with its unfairness, its injustice, its rank pointlessness. To leave you gasping in your own brain, This just cannot be.
Maybe that’s the first step, though. Before the battle begins in earnest, we must simply acknowledge that in this moment all of our synapses are leading us back to what happened in this election, that we’re all speaking from a place of true grief right now. The storm came without warning, and we are still smelling ourselves cooking after the strike.
The Buddhists keep telling us this life is nothing but that flash of lightning, a streak in the darkness, as fleeting as it comes. Yet within that bolt of lightning you see how jagged it can be, you bear witness to all the tributaries and broken corners, the directions the ions could have flowed but didn’t. Studying an image of lightning, you’re faced with all the myriad ways that bolt could have traveled.