The Test We Face

This is one of those days when I both love and hate being a writer. I hate it because it’s my job to try and provide some meaning to what happened yesterday at a moment when I honestly feel speechless. The truth is that most of what I thought to be true about our country leading up to this election seems to be wrong. It’s time to re-examine all of those assumptions. To pretend otherwise is a lie.

On the other hand, I love it because writing gives me the opportunity to collect my thoughts and try to organize them. Without the need to do that, I suspect that I’d simply be roiling today from one thing to another with no coherence. What follows here is my best attempt to represent what I’ve put together so far.

This morning I was reflecting on what it was like in the weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attack. What I remember most is how alone I felt. It seemed like after the shock wore off, the entire country skipped over the grieving process and landed permanently on anger and the need for revenge. I felt left behind with my overwhelming sadness and confusion about what had just happened.

In subsequent years, I found out that I was not alone. Others told me that they felt the same way. It’s just that we were all quietly trying to heal the wound and sort things out on our own while the voices of anger and revenge were on public display for everyone to see. This country made some major mistakes as a result. So I learned my lesson. As much as I’d like to retreat and try to figure this all out in private, it is through writing that I will try to add my voice to the mix in favor of slowing down and paying attention to the the deeper questions that we need to struggle with.

I know that personally I have to create some space for that process to happen. So there are some things that I will either do or not do. First of all, I’ll recognize that I am grieving a loss. It’s not the loss of a person – but of an assumption about where we as a country are on this journey of “perfecting our union.” The America that just elected Donald Trump as our next president is not the country I thought we were. Before I get busy trying to figure out who we actually are, I need to give myself the time to grieve that loss.

In the movie The Interpreter, Nicole Kidman’s character says something that has always struck me as very powerful. She said, “revenge is a lazy form of grief.” The process of grieving takes time and it is extremely uncomfortable. We try to short-change that and control things by moving on too fast – usually in an effort to lash out in anger. When I notice myself doing that, I’m going to try to step back and check in to see whether or not that is what I am authentically feeling.

The second thing is something I won’t do. I won’t reach for quick or simplistic reasons to explain what happened – especially those that are designed to do nothing more than assign blame. There is no one reason why this country elected Donald Trump and it will take time to sort through what everyone – including the Republicans themselves – missed. People make names for themselves in this business by pretending that they have “the answer.” But that does nothing more than create the kinds of memes that are impervious to actual data and understanding. Beyond that, as Anne Kim wrote, the assignment of blame creates the kinds of divisions that we just tried to overcome in Trump’s distorted vision of America.

The final thing I won’t do is to make sweeping projections about what all of this means. To be sure, I agree with David Remnick that the election of Donald Trump combined with a Republican-controlled Congress is an American tragedy.

There are, inevitably, miseries to come: an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court; an emboldened right-wing Congress; a President whose disdain for women and minorities, civil liberties and scientific fact, to say nothing of simple decency, has been repeatedly demonstrated. Trump is vulgarity unbounded, a knowledge-free national leader who will not only set markets tumbling but will strike fear into the hearts of the vulnerable, the weak, and, above all, the many varieties of Other whom he has so deeply insulted. The African-American Other. The Hispanic Other. The female Other. The Jewish and Muslim Other. The most hopeful way to look at this grievous event—and it’s a stretch—is that this election and the years to follow will be a test of the strength, or the fragility, of American institutions. It will be a test of our seriousness and resolve.

Throughout this election season I refused to take Donald Trump’s actual policy proposals seriously. He’s a con man who said whatever he needed to say at the time to inflame his supporters. The divisions in the Republican Party that were the fodder of so much discussion over the last few months are still there. And I am reminded of how Mitch McConnell and John Boehner crowed about all they’d get done following the 2014 midterms when Republicans won both branches of Congress – and then failed so miserably. This is not a party that knows how to govern and – as we’ve seen from Trump over and over – his response to questions about what he would actually do were often not much more than “something great.”

Beyond the “othering” of so many of our citizens, we can be more certain of what won’t get done than we can be about what will happen. Inaction on the two biggest problems we face as a country – climate change and income inequality – are certainties. Having staked their claim on things like repealing Obamacare and funding for Planned Parenthood, I don’t see how Republicans will be able to avoid moving on those fronts. There will surely be no immigration reform. But as we saw throughout the campaign, Trump’s promises to build a wall and deport ’em all waned under the scrutiny of the general election.

On a global scale, Trump – like other presidents – will have much more leeway to act independently of Congress. That is perhaps what concerns me the most. Trade wars, backing out of our commitments in the Paris Climate Accord and the collapse of the Iranian nuclear agreement are just a few of the things that we can expect. Contrary to so much of Trump’s bluster during the campaign, these things provide a tremendous opening for ISIS, Russia and China.

Recently I’ve heard a few people suggest that if any of us ever wondered how we might have reacted to the institution of slavery or the Jim Crow South had we lived during those eras, right now is our opportunity to find out. As Reminick said above, this will be our time to test our seriousness and resolve. For the future of our country and our children…I certainly hope we pass that test.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.