A meditation after the election
An email letter to a circle of friends:
I slept badly on election night, and the following day made my way to Cleveland. On a long walk that afternoon and into the evening, I found myself drawn into an alleyway in West Cleveland, where I watched the clouds blow through the sky above an apartment block. I kicked through the leaves on a neighborhood junkpile of discarded wood, tires, a toilet.
It's hard to know what to do with the anger and the sense of defeat. It's hard to know what to do with the sense of disaster, with the fear, the feeling of peril. Charles Blow in The Times puts his finger on something for me when he writes: "It is hard to know specifically how to position yourself in a country that can elect a man with such staggering ineptitude and open animus." And he concludes, and I agree, that the first thing to do is count yourself among the resistance. Still it's less clear to me how to go about that resistance, when it means going beyond the world of those you know already agree with you. And if not to resist there, with those who are different, then where?
As I made my way from Atlanta to Cleveland, I found myself trying to read people, to read their politics––as if reading their politics were a guide to their trustworthiness, which side they were on ethically. I can't ever remember feeling the need to do that with such compulsiveness. Standing in the security line at the Atlanta airport, I was sandwiched between a sourfaced middle-aged white woman wearing a red "Make America Great Again" hat, and a middle-aged orthodox Jew with a delicate yarmulke, whom the black Homeland Security officer greeted by saying "Shalom." If statistics are any guide, a quarter of the people among me had cast their lot with Trump––given that he was elected by 26% of the population (while 45% of eligible voters didn't bother to vote). But who were the Trumpists around me? Apart from the red-hatted woman, I couldn't tell.
On the airplane ride, I sat next to a white woman probably in her thirties with a one year old on her lap. I found out she comes from Youngstown, Ohio. "I spent time in Youngstown once," I told her, "looking into the post-industrial landscape there." "Yeah, we lost everything," she said. And I couldn't tell whether she was one of the now-typecast resentful undereducated whites who like Trump. When I asked her daughter's name, she told me "Jimena," and spoke to her daughter in Spanish. "Is your partner from Mexico?" I asked, and indeed he is. Hmmm, I thought, so maybe she's not a Trumpist. But again, I couldn't tell, and more to the point, I couldn't bring myself to ask. It was as if the subject were too explosive, as if I should err on the side of politeness, as if politeness were itself an expression of decency in an indecent moment. At the car rental desk in Cleveland, I had a conversation with a middle-aged white woman who, she told me, had stayed up all night watching the election returns. We agreed that the results were "very surprising," but I couldn't tell how she understood that surprise––welcome or unwelcome. Our conversation switched to sports. At the cafe on the ground floor of the hostel in Cleveland, I chatted with a white woman in her twenties at the counter. "I'll take the 'bottomless cup' of coffee," I said, "because I've been up all night with the election." She looked me dead in the eye, and said, "You got it... fucking right wingers." And she went on: "Clinton rigged the election, yeah right...so she would lose. Idiots!" And this felt like solidarity in that moment. When I talked to my Polish teacher from Kraków a few hours later, he said to me in English, "So I guess the headline should be 'Trump is Put in.'" His wit put chills in me.
That night, as I walked through Cleveland photographing, I talked with my friend Menachem in Detroit, who told me he had gone to Grand Rapids a few days ago to attend a Trump rally, just to see it for himself. He couldn't get in, and milled around the crowd outside, talking to people. "They were utterly normal," he told me, "...looked utterly normal, like normal middle-class white people." Except that their normality is different than Menachem's, or mine. For them, apparently, it's normal to refer to Donald Trump as "Elijah" and Hillary Clinton as "Jezebel." It's normal to believe that Donald Trump is religiously blessed––if not an exemplary Christian then a repentant Christian, and if not a repentant Christian then deserving of Christian forgiveness, a leader to be reclaimed and bettered by his followers. "Are you saying to me that they have invented Trump for their own needs?" I asked Menachem. "That's what I'm saying," he said.
Yesterday I had a long conversation with my daughter Miriam, a first year student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "I don't really remember 9-11," she said, "but I have a feeling that people had then––that this is a turning point in my life, that this is a moment I will always remember. It feels like this is the start of a war." And she proceeded to unfold a litany of incredulities, including "the unbelievable reality of literally the least qualified person beating the best qualified––no matter what else you think of Hillary," "the absurdity of a serial liar and a tax evader and a sexual predator being preferable to someone because she's a woman," and special contempt for "single-issue voters who think their one issue is enough to sacrifice the world for." She ended with a confession: "I just don't know what to do. I feel so powerless." I tried to talk to her about this being a moment for students to reawaken their sense of social agency, but I don't think I convinced her. The shock is too new.
Like Miriam, I've been on the internet, consumed with commentary, and maybe less than her I've also been off it, resistant to its echo-chamber effect, which only makes me feel worse. This morning I sent Miriam Masha Gessen's piece in the New York Review of Books, which seems to me to balance urgency and a particular clear-headedness. Gessen sees Trump's rise through the prism of her work on Putin's Russia. In her view, this is the first time in U.S. history that a candidate was not elected president, but autocrat. She sees Trump explicitly as a strongman in a more or less classic mode: promising to jail his opponent, to round up millions of people, to use torture in pursuit of national interests, to enrich himself and his friends, with his race-baiting and sexism only enhancing his charisma and his appeal. Gessen is resolute about not normalizing such a leader, not apologizing for him and not entering into compromises with him––accusing Obama and Clinton of immediately setting the country down that path. Gessen tells us our sense of shock is extremely valuable, and warns us not to lose it.
We know that it's not so easy to tell what a vote means. The same act can express assent-to or dissent-from, an endorsement or a protest, a specific allegiance or a generalized aggrievedness. We don't know whether those voing for Trump felt part of a movement, or alienated from one, so that their vote felt like a fuck-you statement stripped of a sense of consequences. Maybe somehow it could mean both at once. I am asking myself: how to distinguish belief in Trump from all the other stupid and irresponsible reasons someone would vote for him? Maybe it's only the results that matter at this point, but me, I want to know the intentions, and I can't read them, can't compute them, can't process them. I can't quite see the "normal" Americans around me as made in the image of Trump's hatefulness, his bigotry, his sexism, his pettiness, his arrogance, his dangerousness. And if I'm really honest with myself, I don't want to learn to see them that way. I don't want to learn reflexively to reduce and prefigure and wall off those I oppose, and I don't want to learn to take refuge in my own sense of rightness. I don't want to learn to trust categorical thinking in the absence of knowing what else to trust, and I don't want to learn categorical condemnation, justifying it as vigilance and resistance. I fear this tendency in the left, and in me. Is it the hopeful part of my nature that causes this cognitive dissonance?
From Cleveland with confusion and love,
11 November 2016