A no-holds-barred look at the American presidential race
★ ★ ★ ★
Image by Eric Eckhart
When the Unimaginable Becomes the Unbearable
By Maria Behan
Well, that happened.
This is my tenth and final column on the 2016 U.S. presidential race for The Wild Word, and it’s by far the hardest to write. I started off this series with relish, savoring Bernie Sander’s principled populism—and sizing up Donald Trump’s cynical pseudo-populism as enough to bring down the Republican party, but not the country. When I wrote last month’s installment, the election was a couple of weeks away, and this Sanders Sis was spending a lot of time hanging out in the “secret” Facebook group Pantsuit Nation (thanks for inviting me in, Wild Word editor Kusi Okamura). I emigrated to Pantsuit Nation not out of a love of Hillary Clinton, but because it was dawning on me that Trump might win. So I retreated to a warm and fuzzy safe-space where I shed joyful tears over photos of toddlers rocking lady-president pantsuits and grandmas sprung from the nursing home to cast a vote for America’s first female leader.
I’d hazily envisioned that the night of November 8 would involve dancing with Beyoncé and Hillary to “Run the World (Girls)” amid a blizzard of red, white, and blue balloons. Instead, I found myself binge eating alone in front of the TV (despair had broken up my family’s victory party soon after Ohio went Trump), watching the Orange Cataclysm declare himself “the president of all Americans.”
Since then, like hundreds of millions all over the world, I keep hoping to wake from that nightmare and find myself back in a pre-Trump reality. One in which kids aren’t crying because grandma might be deported, or someone covered their schoolhouse with swastikas and slogans like “Trump 2016, build the wall higher,” as happened at a Spanish-immersion school five miles from my home in what’s supposed to be liberal California. An America where the idea of a Muslim registry is inconceivable, and jeering goons don’t threaten to hang a woman by her hijab. One in which women aren’t braced for an increase in sexual harassment and assault—and perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, forced childbearing. One in which climate change isn’t dismissed as a “Chinese hoax” (a Trump two-fer: science-denying with a xenophobic twist). A country where the Supreme Court won’t be packed with individuals handpicked for ideological rigidity and willful ignorance. One in which white supremacists aren’t packing their robes and pointy hats for a move to D.C. so they can get cracking in the new president’s cabinet. One in which America’s first black president isn’t relinquishing the White House keys to an unfunny joke of a candidate who launched his political career by questioning that black president’s legitimacy to hold office. One in which a 70-year-old colicky baby won’t be handed a vast military—complete with nuclear weapons—to play with.
How did we arrive at a dystopian reality that most of us could scarcely imagine before Election Day? (Trump seems squarely in that category, since he’s clearly unprepared for, and overwhelmed by, the prospect of stepping into President Barack Obama’s shoes on January 20.)
This election had its extraordinary aspects—none more so than the victor—but in many respects, it was business as usual, at least the way U.S. politics have been going lately. The coasts-vs-“heartland” trope was familiar, as was the divide between the college-educated and non-college educated (after winning the Nevada Republican caucus this past February, Trump crowed, “I love the poorly educated!”). That Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but had victory snatched away by America’s democracy-suppressing Electoral College should come as no surprise to anyone who was around in 2000, when the same thing happened to Al Gore.
In the end, Trump won by a mere hair’s breadth, which is heartbreaking, yet reassuring on two scores: first, because only about 25 percent of eligible voters supported the vile excrescence that is Donald J. Trump; and second, because changes to our electoral process may revive our ailing democracy. For instance, there’s a strong push to finally retire that undemocratic relic from the slave era, the Electoral College. And going by the ongoing outcry and protests against Trump, it looks like some of the more than 40 percent of eligible voters who didn’t cast ballots—especially the young—finally understand that political apathy can yield catastrophic results.
Scary as America’s emboldened white nationalists are (and though there’s much to choose from, they’re probably what scares me most), Trump wasn’t propelled to victory by a surge in white enthusiasm for the Republican party. His numbers were in line with Mitt Romney’s in the previous presidential election. Instead, it seems that a small but fatal dip in voter enthusiasm for Clinton was the deciding variable that gave us President Trump. (Yes, I think Bernie Sanders would have been a far stronger foe, but rearguing the Sanders vs. Clinton debate strikes me as pointlessly divisive—and a waste of energy better used elsewhere. As Brother Bernie put it himself, “What good does it do now?”)
Electoral issues aren’t the only ones being recognized and grappled with in the wake of the catastrophe that is Trump’s ascension, profound, long-repressed societal ills are coming to the fore as well. Whites are finally understanding what people of color have always known: Racism is alive and well in America. Privileged elites who look down on people without their advantages of education, status, or economic security are beginning to realize that the people they sneer at or patronize know what they’re up to—and those “little people” can fight back. And as we embark on the administration of President Pussygrabber, women are waking up to the realization that each of us—even those with money, status, and male “protection”—need feminism. These are huge and daunting problems to tackle, but it looks like we’re finally starting to take them on, rather than pretending they don’t exist.
Birthing the Beast
Everybody’s piling on the media these days, and for good reason. With shamefully few exceptions, American news outlets prostituted themselves to profit from the ratings boost offered by the country’s appetite for freakish reality shows—and Trump’s campaign proved to be not just the freakiest, but the realest. Cable stations like CNN and Fox broadcast his speeches in their entirety, while those from Clinton and Sanders were reduced to brief snippets—if they were covered at all. The misinformation and outright lies spewed by Trump and his camp were often shared without context or correction.
Even when they were trying to offer perspective and not just report Trump’s every speech, tweet, and belch with faintly horrified relish, most so-called “political experts” fell pathetically short, especially the television commentators. I think my favorite howler was one talking head’s take on the dilemma Republican politicians faced when deciding about endorsing Trump: “There’s a real tightrope act in threading that needle.”
On his final broadcast before the election, one of our smarter talking heads, comedian Bill Maher, uttered a chilling warning: “There is a slow-moving right-wing coup going on. Media, do your fucking job!” But he was too late.
Now that Trump is the president-elect, the media isn’t doing any better. As this biting piece from Glenn Greenwald points out, the country’s top media “stars” are vain, venial, and not very bright. At least most of them. And they’ve abdicated even the pretense of the integrity and impartiality the fourth estate once aspired to. As Greenwald and others have reported, a contingent of popular and influential media reps agreed to an off-the-record meeting with the president-elect in Trump Tower on November 21, where the Orange Rumpelstiltskin harangued and insulted them. Afterwards, some members of the media broke their vow of silence to complain that they were really, really mad at Trump’s disrespectful treatment—but they’d get over it. The hardest thing for me to believe about this account is that it took them that long to realize that Donald Trump isn’t a nice man. And sadly, the easiest parts to believe are that they see no problem with the fact that they met with Trump on those very compromised terms—and now plan to forgive and forget Trump’s erratic, autocratic performance.
Democrats Acting Like Donkeys
I won’t sugarcoat it: Democrats like to see themselves as the smart political party, but they’ve been outplayed by the supposedly (and sometimes actually) dumbass Republicans. Because they’re better at packing courts with partisans and redrawing legislative districts to support their candidates, Republicans have managed to entrench themselves despite demographic trends that should doom them. Yes, Democrats won the popular vote for both the presidency and the congressional races this year, but thanks to the gerrymandering that’s been a cornerstone of the long game the wily Republicans have been playing, the GOP came out ahead in 2016.
When Trump turns up in January to begin the process of gilding the White House and gutting the Constitution, Republicans will hold the presidency, both branches of Congress, 33 of the states’ 50 governorships, and soon, the Supreme Court. They will have more political power in 2017 than the Republican party has had since 1929, when Herbert Hoover took office. And we know how well that turned out.
Grim as things look (and it’s hard to imagine them looking grimmer), I’m optimistic that the Democratic party (or the progressive party that will replace it) will rise from the ashes, led by its most principled and fierce fighters, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. After the Democrats’ stunning defeat, both senators stepped out from the party’s rubble to wave a white handkerchief at Trump. “Mr. Monster…er, President-Elect Monster,” they announced in voices that quavered only slightly, “we will fight you if you try to strip away civil rights, but if you’re really serious about championing the little guy, we’ll work with you on that.”
Some, myself included, indulged in desperate normalization fantasies for a day or two, envisioning progressives and Trump supporters working together to not only create greater economic and social equity, but to heal the ulcerous rift that divides red and blue America. Maybe it was Stockholm syndrome, or something I smoked (the recent election legalized marijuana in California), but I even had a moment when I dreamed Trump might appoint Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court as a concession to the majority of voters who’d twice elected the president who nominated Garland for that post several months ago, as well as the majority of voters who’d chosen 2016’s Democratic candidate.
Then Trump began to float names for his cabinet, and that was that. As I write this, his list is rife with alt-right hate mongers (Steve Bannon, General Michael Flynn) and 1990s gargoyles (Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich). Seriously, can’t Trump find a fresh face who’ll at least surprise us with his deplorableness?
Apparently, no—deplorable is the new black. This week Bannon, the ex-Breitbart News head picked as Trump’s chief strategist, told The Hollywood Reporter that “darkness is good” before riffing on the theme: “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they [progressives] get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
I’m not sure we needed it, but thanks for the tip-off, Steve. We’re sure as hell not blind anymore—and it isn’t just us lefties who are on to you and the other occupants of Trump’s scary-clown car. Many millions of people, not just in America, but around the world, understand that our national reality show has given way to an old-fashioned moral battle. And you know what? We’re up for it.
These are dark days, and we must brace for even uglier ones ahead. The heartening part is that American complacency has given way to an urgency and a resolve I haven’t seen before in my five decades on the planet. I’m hopeful that there’s still enough democracy, idealism, and compassion in the United States to sweep away Trumpism’s fascist filth and propel us into a cleaner future. Besides the online petitions, phone calls to Congress, and protests we’ve seen across the country every day since Trump was elected, demonstrations that will likely be millions-strong are being planned for his January inauguration. Trump claims he’ll be “the president of all Americans”—and as he takes office, we’ll remind him who we are and what we stand for.
Maria Behan writes fiction and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times, and Northern California Best Places.