Faith, Lies, and an American Election
★ ★ ★ ★
By Annie Mark-Westfall
When I became a mother, or maybe when I turned 30, I learned to embrace clichés. For example: Life is full of seminal moments. Wednesday, November 9, 2016 is the day that I lost my faith in America. The day that just 48% of voters, made up of just a quarter of our eligible voting population, elected Donald J. Trump to be our 45th president.
As an American living in Germany, I had already voted with my feet. In July, my husband and I moved with our toddler son to Berlin, after three years of planning and 8 years in New York City. There was no particular moment that prompted our desire to move. My job enabled us to travel regularly to Europe and to Germany, and the more time we spent here, the more we realized that this country aligned with our values. The more time that we spent in the U.S., the more we realized that we did not wish to raise a family there. Watching our government completely fail to pass a single change to gun laws after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was another “seminal moment” in my life.
Growing up in Appalachia, I proudly pledged allegiance to the American flag each day, and absorbed lessons on our country’s unrivalled greatness with rapt attention. I spent more than an hour on the school bus each morning, bumping along the dirt roads of southeast Ohio’s rolling foothills, where my classmates’ homes sometimes had dirt floors, no running water or electricity. My husband calls this area “the West Virginia part of Ohio”; my British colleague calls it “Cold Mountain”; our media sometimes refers to it as “the real America;” some Trump voters call it the “forgotten” America.
I was maybe sixteen or seventeen when I first felt that my country let me down. One day at school, I was proudly discussing how the U.S. had never lost a war. A friend asked what I thought had happened in Vietnam, which we were covering in our honors social studies course.
“We pulled out,” I replied. As a straight-A student, I knew my facts.
“Yeah, why do you think we pulled out? We lost,” he informed me, with a mix of patience and disdain.
What?!?! That America’s great military had lost a war was hard enough to process. Add this to the fact that I had been lied to. My teachers, my idols, had all misled me, used euphemisms, indoctrinated me. If the U.S. military could have lost a major war and our history books did not even mention that, what else could I be missing?
In these recent days following Trump’s election, I keep going back to that moment. Once again, I am left trying to understand how to move forward with the realization that for my entire life, I have been fed a giant lie. The United States is a force for good; we were founded on religious freedom and remain committed to that today; we are a melting pot; we value pluralism, diversity, and equality; the American dream is real. These are our values; our ideals yes, but more importantly, our identity. Or so I believed. I was lied to.
Perhaps worst of all, I lied to myself. I was certain Hillary would win, certain Trump’s hateful rhetoric about registering Muslims and deporting Mexicans would prove too much for Americans. In September, I gleefully re-shared the link to absentee ballot requests and the accompanying article that claimed liberal ex-patriates like me would be the “November surprise that will defeat Trump.” I was wrong.
As I obsessively read the post-election news and tried to process what happened, one point hit me the hardest. In a series of Tweets, “5’7 Black Male” said, “Trump’s presidency is a result of us not really seeing each other or our country for who we are and what it is.” I nodded sagely. I kept scrolling until I reached, “Im [sic] talking to you now surprised white people. I wanna bring you in for an empathy moment…Let this be the last time you are surprised by the prevalence of virulent hatred in this country.”
This is where I am stuck. This is where my grief has settled.
The Berlin neighborhood where my husband, son and I live today—and Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and many other famous and unknown Jews once lived—has an art installation, with 80 large placards detailing the laws passed from 1933-1945 that slowly stripped Jews (like me, I feel the need to add) of their jobs, rights, and eventually their lives. As I walk to the grocery store, I cannot help but recall the cliché that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I read the placard, “Apartments inhabited by Jewish families must display the Jew star.” I console myself that even if Trump tries to register Muslims, we still have the courts; we still have the right to protest; we are still America. And I am not in America. I weep, and I kiss my baby and say a quick word of thanks for visas in a land that has learned so well from its history.
This is where clichés demand a happy ending, a moment of triumph. I should wipe my tears, share words of hope and healing, and declare my unfaltering pride in America and faith in the majority of our citizens who did not vote for the man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. And most certainly, I should pledge to stay angry, stay loud, and fight.
Certainly, I will continue signing petitions, calling my representatives, and speaking out against the galling appointments of people like white supremacist Stephen Bannon as Trump’s Chief Strategist. But not today.
You will never surprise me again, America. I am a liberal cliché, and I am devastated for my country.
The author would like to state that she does not represent any institution and that all views and opinions expressed here are her own.
Annie Mark-Westfall graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio. As a former Fulbright grantee and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she views herself as a cultural ambassador. Her day job is with an international conservation organization. Unable to comment on the complexities of race in America in this short piece, she would like to add that #blacklivesmatter.