At the advocacy organization at which I work, we had made all these plans for human rights recommendations to various Clinton team officials, trying to weigh out which ones might have some traction. We had no illusions about the crew that we were expecting to be elected that night. But we figured that, like Obama, they were people from whom we could expect modest and occasional movements in the right direction, under concerted pressure -- that we would be operating in some sort of legal and political framework in which progress could be made, in other words, rather than as a member of a tiny, stigmatized, and irrelevant oppositional subculture. I was so certain that this would be the next four years that I allowed myself to feel and even express a certain ennui at the prospect.
That's why, at about 10:00 PM on election night, I was feeling my heart thudding and my palms sweating with what could charitably be described as dread, but which was really more akin to excitement. Here was suspense. Here was a chance for martyrdom, for glory. This was the time when my vision could finally be realized of standing in civil disobedience in a human chain along the U.S. border, as the Trump bulldozers bore down upon me and began to erect the famous "Wall" over my stubborn unyielding form. I felt this way because I still didn't think it would actually happen. The friend I was with compared it to a young soldier's emotions at the outbreak of war. I was that duped young man signing up for the trenches and singing "We're Going Over" and reciting Rupert Brooke -- like him, I could do it all with a wink and a spring in my step because I assumed we were still safely in the realm of fantasy, that I would never be the one "laid out cold and dead" (Hughes).
Reality intruded shortly thereafter. No... I thought. No... It can't actually be happening. Not really. that energy deserted me. That sense of irony. That stupid callous joking. That half-serious desire for self-immolation. Here the thing was. In concrete staggering fact. The Trump presidency.
I woke up literally shaking the next morning, with that classic five to ten second crescendo of gathering awareness that Tranströmer describes so well in "The Name" -- wait, something happened last night, wait, that?? That happened? That really happened? And then confronting the thought that I might never be able again to think about anything else -- that those fifteen seconds of Tranströmer's "Where am I? WHO am I?" feeling (Fulton trans.) were all the respite of kind forgetfulness I would ever get -- my only taste of Lethe.
Checking my inbox that morning, I expected a torrent of commentary. But things were eerily silent. Walking through Somerville on my way to work, people were not speaking or making eye contact.
At my job, I discovered that an emergency meeting had been called-- at which, it turned out, everyone at the table was crying quietly and offering as they were so moved, as in a Quaker funeral, a few words that tried to encapsulate the shock of what had happened.
I offered the observation that I had awoken in a totally different country from the one on which I had closed my eyes the night before. I had deeply imbibed the narrative, all this time, that the progressive coalition now had a permanent demographic advantage in U.S. elections. I had believed the Republican party to be in shambles, that the GOP had torn itself apart and might not even exist as we know it ten years from now. And yet somehow, by about three in the morning the night before, I had found myself in a world in which that same Republican party controls all three branches of government, and Donald J. Trump is president-elect of the United States. Donald J. Trump -- whose odious name I would often see obnoxiously flaunting itself in block letters as I walked down State Street in Chicago. That guy is now the President of my country. He will have an oil portrait of himself hanging in the White House. That man is the successor to our first African American president. Him. Donald Trump.
But okay, I thought... okay. At least... at least what? At least everything now is crystal clear, right? At least the lines are drawn and the stakes are plain. There can be no more Greenwaldian recriminations now, to the effect that Hillary might actually be worse -- doesn't matter now, Glenn, since we'll never know. Surely, there can be no more contrarian nonsense about how maybe Trump is more "anti-interventionist," or about how he has "tapped into a genuine strain of economic discontent among those who have been left out of the global economy," and blah blah blah. That's all done. All that matters now is la lucha. All that matters now is resistance. Tomorrow, perhaps, the post mortem. Tomorrow the scalpel performing the painstaking liberal self-analysis. "But to-day the struggle," to borrow Auden's phrase.
Surely everyone can see that now, I thought. Surely that's as plain as day. This is the moment when the Left will finally get it's backbone again, when we will band together in mass acts of non-violent non-cooperation, in peaceful but total opposition to the now wholly hostile institutions of the state; when we will say with Claude McKay, "If we must die, let it not be like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot[.]"
No longer was any of this the thrilling prospect it had been in fantasy. Now it was a gut-muscle-tightening kind of thing. But it was the only way I could think of to make meaning of what had happened.
Why, just the other day, had I not been saying to people with a tone almost of wistfulness, that in the old days -- the days of Martha Sharp and Waitstill Sharp, of the Jewish Labor Committee or the Emergency Rescue Committee... or of, let's say, the original Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s... -- back then they had worked outside of, and against, the institutions of government, whereas now we seemed to do everything through the courts... through sending letters to our representatives. "I wonder," I had asked, "when we will run up against the limits of that strategy. When we will not be able to make any further advance in protecting the human rights of refugees or migrants or others from deportation to their death by following the rules set by the state, and will have to turn to outright civil disobedience?" When I said those words, I was assuming, with almost total certainty, that Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States. But here we are, within a matter of days, with a government that will be wholly adversarial to human rights advocates -- and, more importantly, to the communities with whom they try to partner. Be careful what you wish for. I and the people who share my values had become a counter-culture again. Overnight.
For all its many disadvantages, I thought, surely this new adversity would bind together the strains of an anti-fascist coalition -- organized labor, civil liberties groups, Muslims and immigrants and students and feminists and on. We'd get ready to push back -- beyond Congress, beyond the courts, beyond the presidency, beyond all those institutions that can't help us now, if they ever could.
Except -- it hasn't happened. Well, sure, it's happening some places. But it is not the dominant sound in the post-election noise. Perhaps it is merely symptomatic of the transition to the "Bargaining" phase of the famous five-stage grief progression on the part of liberals, but I am suddenly hearing a lot of "Trump probably didn't mean what he said about..." "He can't really do...." "Maybe he'll pivot, and live up to what he said about 'I intend to be the president for all Americans.'" Trump's notoriously scatter-brained and substance-free utterances on matters of "policy," as well as his well-established promiscuity in matters of party affiliation, have given rise to this fantasy that all his campaign rhetoric about Muslims, immigrants, and others will melt away into the night as soon as he takes office. But look to the company the man has kept over the course of a long life, and you will know his heart and what his team will be capable of. You will find people with very specific policy goals, and who know exactly how to go about achieving them -- Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Roger Ailes, Roy Cohn, Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Newt Gingrich, Joe Arpaio. A cabinet full of them and their like probably won't be able to deport 11 million people. But they know exactly how to do things like erode still further the existing due process protections for immigrants or criminal defendants, legislate mandatory minimums for "illegal reentry," and on...
Buzzing as an undertone, meanwhile, has been the familiar whine of liberal self-reproach. Ever ready to shift blame onto themselves, or those slightly to the left of themselves, our center-leftists can already be heard to sigh that the real problem all along in this election, the reason everything went south, is that we didn't listen to the legitimate grievances of the Trumpists. That we were too polarizing. That we alienated them. That if we hadn't been so P.C., we wouldn't have driven them off.
Very seldom mentioned in this line of thinking is the fact that Hillary Clinton, at last count, actually won the popular vote. Meaning that more human beings cast a ballot for the Democrats than they did for Trump, and if we had a remotely rational democratic electoral system of one-person/one-vote, she would have secured the White House.
Seldom too do our relentlessly self-scapegoating liberals pause to remember that the only reason that we do not have a full nine-member Supreme Court right now with a liberal majority is due to the Republican Senate's historically unprecedented strategy of utterly stonewalling the President's nominee. They also seem to be forgetting that this was an election -- the first of its kind in fifty years -- to be held without the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, in a country where many critical states recently passed Voter ID laws that were specifically designed to discourage, dissuade, and even suppress outright black, Latino, and Native American voters.
The real story of this election is that all this invidious skulduggery from the GOP worked. They got away with it. They were planning the heist for years and they just carried it off.
You'd never guess it from listening to the liberals, however, who are fully persuaded that they were beaten fair and square, and that the fault was in them. They are convinced they lost because democracy voted against them, and that they now need to figure out how to "reconcile" with the people who just routed them. This is how they intend to proceed, as always, and this is how they go on losing, year after year. As William Hazlitt once wrote, "It is on such unequal terms that the refined and romantic speculators on possible good and evil contend with their strong-nerved, remorseless adversaries [...] Reasoners in general are undecided, wavering, and sceptical, or yield at last to the weakest motive[.]"
As much truth as there may be in the critique that the Left strayed too far in the direction of "political correctness" the past few years, and there probably is much -- I certainly have offered such a critique myself no end of times in the time since I created this blog -- what frightens me is that this is how the entire culture will shift right-ward, if we let it. This is how the Trump White House will set the tone for the rest of us over the next four years (or longer). This is how the pendulum moves back in the direction of reaction -- first because Trump pushes it, and second because dithering, self-doubting liberals grease its hinge.
You will perhaps have noticed how much more essentially savage our pop culture was during the Bush years than it has been since, how neatly it played into the agenda set by the political party in charge. Those were the days of 24 and 300 -- two great testaments to the glories of "enhanced interrogation" and "perpetual war."
Since 2008, our politics have changed profoundly, and our popular culture and attitudes again changed with it. Same sex marriage enjoys near universal acceptance today (or, ack, so we thought). Our popular culture may feel "over-policed" by the so-called "Social Justice Warriors," but what that really means, at its best, is that it has become a lot harder to be casually hurtful, contemptuous and dismissive in our media of people of different abilities, sexual orientations, races, gender identities, etc. than it used to be.
I had assumed that this change was here to stay. That this was the world in which we now lived. I accepted the storyline that has been passed around on the Left a great deal lately, that we are about to experience a great progressive resurgence; that the time had come for our rise in the political cycle; that this moment is just over the horizon -- that because of Black Lives Matter, we are finally going to rethink our punitive criminal justice regime; that immigrants rights groups have placed civil rights for undocumented people on the national agenda; that we are seeing a concerted push for a higher minimum wage and progressive taxation.
Then I woke up yesterday to find that that was the progressive resurgence. That thing we've been experiencing for the past eight years, that's all we get! An embattled and compromised health care law, that at least -- despite its flaws -- has set a precedent that people can't be refused coverage due to preexisting conditions and that universal health insurance is a worthy aspiration. Marriage equality. Those small numbers of executive pardons for people serving mandatory sentences for non-violent crimes. That limited reassessment of the use of solitary confinement under certain conditions. A few ended contracts with prison prison companies at the federal level. A couple measly executive actions to shield some folks from deportation, which can be immediately revoked by the next President (which were "Born in a night to perish in a night" (Blake)). Some transfers out of Gitmo. That's it. That was our moment of the pendulum swinging in the progressive direction, and now it's over, and is heading back. We are already in Thermidor.
Liberals are going to make this great reaction possible by joining in the laughter at the expense of themselves and their allies -- just as the loudest hoots against aging "hippies" and "flower children" and other naive idealists often came, in the Reagan years, not from the newly empowered conservatives, but from self-declared agonizing and self-critical people of the left. That's how the whole culture follows the lead of the White House. And just think, if 300 was what we got out of a Bush Presidency, what can we expect to get from the presidency of one Donald Trump!
Oh, we liberals. Poor liberals. We liberals who are ever ready to be "chastened." Who want to reach out a hand of "understanding" to the people who have just cast us into the dirt. Who speak of reconciliation as if we had the power, as if we were in a position to be magnanimous, in the very moment of our greatest defeat on all fronts.
At this moment, at least, I feel no desire to join in the mood of self-reflection and self-condemnation. No part of me wishes to pretend that the Trumpists have some lesson to teach us, some wisdom to impart, some truth to tell, and that it is on us to listen. Some things in this world just have to be fought. Some ideologies and forces cannot be loved away, they can only be resisted. Today, as I contemplate that team of "deplorables" that just destroyed so many of my hopes -- that pack of vultures and liars and scoundrels -- Gingrich, Christie, Priebus, Carson, Sessions -- that just made "a vast shipwreck of my life's esteems," (Clare) -- the only words that have the ring of truth in my ears are those of Hugh MacDiarmid:
It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.