Every time I’ve sat down to write something about virtual reality in the past couple days my thoughts get hijacked by Trump. I’m trying to process what just happened in America outside of my progressive, Pacific Northwest bubble. As a child of Watergate (I was born the day after Nixon was re-elected), I grew up in an atmosphere of anti-authoritarianism, in a part of the country populated by farmers and back-to-the-land hippies. I was raised to understand the struggle for civil rights by black America to be the primary moral narrative of our nation. While there were very few African American people living in Skagit County in the eighties, I was proud of the chapters of my own family’s story that intersected with this narrative. My maternal grandfather who led an all-black ordnance unit in Korea and promoted his black officers over the objections of white officers. My paternal grandfather, a Unitarian pacifist who participated in civil rights marches in Washington, D.C. in the forties. My parents, who lived as racial minorities in the Virgin Islands and whose reaction to derogatory language and attitudes against minorities was always furious and unequivocal.
Skagit Valley is one of the state’s most fecund agricultural centers, and it’s only become more beautiful to me over time. The valley’s economy depends on the subsistence wages of migrant farm labor from Mexico. I learned to read and write in classrooms where the sons and daughters of doctors and attorneys sat in the same rows as the children of men and women who stooped over rows of cucumbers and cauliflower. Every year, around the beginning of November, a handful of children would vanish from our classrooms. Three or four kids who’d been sitting in the back would one day be gone. The children of the migrant families who managed to secure year-round work became the friends and later girlfriends and boyfriends of the descendants of the Scandinavians who, a hundred years prior, had first seeded the fields with irises and daffodils.
My best friend Epi Sedano was the oldest son of a foreman on a farm, a man we referred to as “boss of the Mexicans.” I spent nights at his house on Fir Island and made his family laugh by pretending to lip-sync to the ballads playing on the local Chicano music station. Epi and I read the same fantasy novels together and acted out scenes on the dike that kept Puget Sound from flooding the fields. Epi was an empathetic little boy with a tremendous heart who was always there to comfort his friends when they felt upset. When we were in junior high, Epi and I decided to join a freestyle wrestling club together, and became such inseparable sparring partners that we got the “Best Buddies” award at the end of the season.
During this election, whenever I’ve heard Trump’s hateful rhetoric about immigrants, I have thought of Epi and his family. He still lives in the valley and he’s now coaching the Mount Vernon Pitbulls, that same wrestling club where we used to take turns letting each other win. Having seen how hard good people like the Sedanos worked gives me perspective on my own heritage. I can now better imagine what my Irish ancestors went through. My mother recently told me that one her father’s earliest memories was of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross in his family’s front yard. You don’t hear much about the Klan targeting Irish papists anymore.
White people in America used to be Irish and Polish and Norwegian, French, Italian, British. Now we’re all just white, and a significant portion of us just threw an electoral tantrum. I have never felt more embarrassed for the color of my skin. I have never felt this ashamed to look my black friends in the eyes. The story of America that I had embraced, the long arc of history of which Obama spoke on that euphoric night eight years ago, appears to have been upended by an absurd subplot.
Perhaps we can take comfort in the idea that this election represents a lancing of the boil. Now all the hypothetical plans of paranoid bigots will be put to the test. We’ll watch the faces of the rust belt majorities, standing with hands held out, as they realize the fortunes they’ve been promised will never materialize. And that will be the moment when those of us in more privileged spheres must reach out and let them know it’s us, the ones who believe in an America of equality, compassion, fairness, and rule of law, who have had their backs all along.
I grieve for the women and girls. I spent election night with the woman I love and her daughter, and I was assuming I’d get to enjoy the privilege of celebrating the first female president in their company. The next day my mother, crying, said she hadn’t felt this way since the assassinations of the sixties. I said it felt like 9/11 again, except that at least after 9/11 we felt unified.
In the past couple days I’ve been wondering if there isn’t some far deeper logic to what just happened. Sometimes to move forward we invent crises. An argument between spouses is never really about the broken dishwasher or the unpaid bill. Maybe America needs to have a loud, messy divorce with its racist and misogynist past. Remember what Al Gore used to say about the Chinese word for crisis? That it includes the word for opportunity?
I almost couldn’t believe the tweet from Donald Trump yesterday. For a split second I thought The Onion was behind it, but I really should know better by now. It read, “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”
Unfair. You don’t say.
And upon reading this tweet, it occurred to me how easy Trump will be to defeat. His skin isn’t the just different from the President’s because one is black and the other is the color of a melting Creamsicle. Trump’s skin is paper-thin while President Obama’s is hardened by a childhood as a mixed race boy in Hawaii and Indonesia, a career fighting for the underprivileged in Chicago, a lifetime of going high when they go low.
The protestors are about to get very professional indeed. As Trump splits the Republican party in half by checking off his revenge list of Never Trumpers one-by-one, he’ll create conditions for a new coalition of establishment Republicans and Democrats. Perhaps we’ll see bipartisanship like we’ve never seen before as the Republicans who get kneecapped by vengeance-obsessed Trump turn to the only ones who will have them, Democrats in the process of getting outflanked on the left by vindicated progressives rallying for a Sanders/Warren 2020 ticket.
The only way for this to work is if we refuse to be divided by fear. When the Muslim registration program kicks in, we all pull a Spartacus and give the federal government a nightmare of red tape by declaring ourselves Muslim regardless of our true religious affiliation. We stand, we fight, and we do not relent in our ridicule of this bloviating man-child who is more bewildered than anybody to find himself President-elect.
Millennials, it’s time to rediscover the resistance of punk rock. Your generation was forged in the trauma of 9/11, and like the Greatest Generation and their response to Pearl Harbor, you sought group identity and enforceable social norms. You just got delivered your Watergate, but it’s a Watergate that’s inside out and upside down. Instead of a crime exposing the venality, paranoia, and bigotry of a sitting president, a venal, paranoid bigot was just elected President despite his many crimes. This is the post-W Republican party, a party that maintains its power by force of its impunity. A party that knows its policies are unpalatable to a majority of Americans and must gerrymander and suppress votes to keep seats and assume the presidency. A party that well knows its vision of the world, as a place where white men rule and women and minorities know their place, is dying in the hearts of young people for whom an African American president was a given.
I’ve tried to comfort my children these past couple days. And one thing I’ve told them is that they got to experience their childhoods during the presidency of a man of wisdom, courage, and grace. For the rest of their lives they get to measure every president against the example of Barack Obama. President Obama wasn’t perfect–I was never comfortable with the drone strikes–but who can argue with the job growth, climate treaties, and the respect he earned from the rest of the world?
All this election means is that it’s time for privileged patriots to stand in solidarity with our fellow Americans who’ve been targeted by this President-elect’s hateful rhetoric. Preserve the freedoms enshrined in our foundational document by using them. Resist, ridicule, and speak up, loudly. Speak in unity for those whose voices just got drowned out under a wave of racist, sexist garbage.
Sometimes we make decisions after carefully considering our options, and other times, fatigued, we make decisions by saying “Fuck it. Whatever.” This was that kind of decision. A collective throwing up of the hands, a crisis manufactured to force us to confront, perhaps once and for all, cancerous ideologies that have always bubbled under the surface of this American experiment.
We’re going to get through this. Ours is a country that survived a civil war, assassinations, impeachments, and whose narrative is generations long and has relentlessly foreshadowed greater equality. President Barack Hussein Obama was right about the arc of history. It’s still very much in our power to bend it.