After the Election
It’s Friday, less than 3 days after Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory. Like the rest of the nation, I’m still in the grip of powerful emotions; it’s just too early for sober, rational reflection. Still, there are a few thoughts I feel compelled to share.
1. Blaming one another is not productive.
Yes, white people all have family and friends who voted for Trump. Yes, people of color all have family and friends who didn’t vote. Yes, some people voted for third-party candidates. Yes, some people stayed home because they wanted Bernie instead. We ALL bear responsibility, and we should ALL do everything we can next time around.
What’s important now is what we profess as one of our fundamental beliefs: We are stronger together. Our differences make us better. To put it in classic terms: “If we don’t all hang together, we will all surely hang separately.”
2. Going overboard on identity politics is nonproductive.
Making or believing assertions about “all Trump voters” or “all white people” is no more valid than doing the same about “all people of color,” “all Muslims,” or “all LGBTQ people.” Whatever side you’re on, if you hear yourself˜—or anyone else—saying THEY or THEM, please stop and reflect.
Let’s all try to learn and use the phrase “many but not all.”
3. Diversity includes those who don’t agree with us.
This is going to be particularly hard to remember, and even harder to act upon. I’d like to quote Jim Cummings, an old and dear friend of mine: “If you don’t have friends who disagree with you, then you don’t have enough friends.”
I’ll admit that right now I have a powerful, not-entirely-emotional urge to call for blue states to secede and form their own nation. That’s a familiar world to me: I wrote about such a future in Dance for the Ivory Madonna, which wasn’t exactly a dystopia. It certainly seems that many-but-not-all of my friends and I have little in common with many-but-not-all folks living in rural middle America.
One thought that’s been floating through my head since Tuesday night is “I feel like this isn’t my country any more.” That I feel unwelcome in this post-Trump world. I’m guessing that many of you have had the same thoughts.
Well, guess what? That’s EXACTLY what many-but-not-all Trump voters have been saying for quite a while. Read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. For what seem to me to be mostly emotional reasons, many-but-not-all folks in rural America have felt unwelcome in the pre-Trump world, have felt that this isn’t their country any more.
This feeling is something we now have in common.
I don’t know what to do with this. Many-but-not-all of my friends and I live in what I’ll call New USA; many-but-not-all Trump voters live in what I’ll call Classic USA. Neither of us feels particularly welcome or comfortable in the other USA. It hasn’t been getting any better over the last few decades. I think we’re stuck with this cultural divide for the foreseeable future.
Creating a country in which both groups feel welcome and comfortable is a daunting idea: squaring that circle is going to be very difficult.
4. CAN we live together?
In our federal system, some rules and customs apply to the entire nation, while others vary depending on state or locality. Can we apply this principle to both Classic USA and New USA? Things like traffic laws, construction regulations, and sales taxes change from state to state; maybe we just need to tweak the balance to better fit the two USAs?
Take the Second Amendment and gun control. A very serious case can me made for applying different gun laws to urban and rural populations. If you live in upstate Maine or on a ranch in Montana, a gun is an essential tool; if you live in urban Chicago or Baltimore, a gun is an imminent danger. Wouldn’t it make sense to tweak the Second Amendment to take such a division into account? (When the Second Amendment was written, there WERE NO urban areas as we know them today.)
The rub is that we’re a mobile people. From westward expansion to the Dust Bowl, we have a cultural tradition of getting up and moving somewhere else in the quest for a better life. Some of us get transferred for our jobs, or have to move to where the jobs are. Our families are spread out all over the place, and we want to be free to gather them together wherever we want.
Fifty sets of traffic laws and sales taxes are acceptable, but when we come to the realm of human rights, things are different.
As a gay couple, my husband and I have played the game of Married in One State, Not Married in Another. We would drive past an invisible border, and have to worry about car accidents: if one of us wound up in the hospital, would the other be allowed in to see him? If he’s covered on my health insurance, will it be accepted here?
Imagine two sets of laws dealing with public accommodations and religious freedom. In Classic USA, would any business be able to refuse to serve my husband and me (or our friends R and J, a straight interracial couple)? In New USA, would a Classic believer be forced to deal with someone they consider a heretic or unclean?
I don’t see how these two realities could be accommodated by a federal system. If we are to have one nation, then one or the other reality must control.
5. A two-state solution?
So are we left with secession? Balkanization? If we can’t live as one nation, maybe we could be neighbors. This is the world I wrote about in Dance for the Ivory Madonna, with the former United States divided into half a dozen different nations.
In an earlier century, we fought the Civil War to keep the nation together. I’m trying very hard to channel my inner Lincoln and try to figure out why “keeping the nation together” is a worthy goal.
I guess that boils down to the question “what does it mean to be a United States citizen?” If the answer is “to have a common culture,” then I think we’re losing that battle.
I see two visions of what it means to be a United States citizen. One is the argument from tradition: to be a citizen means to have the sort of common cultural heritage we’re taught in schools, common language, “the American Dream.” Another answer is the argument from philosophy: citizens share common values of the importance of diversity, the dignity and worth of all human beings, the desire and commitment to keep improving, to keep moving toward the “shining city on the hill.”
The argument from tradition looks to the past for our best days, and challenges us to live up to them. The argument from philosophy sees our best days always in the future, and challenges us to progress toward them.
Are these two arguments compatible, or are they mutually exclusive? If, as I suspect, they’re mutually exclusive, then would the two USAs be better served by separating? (And if they do, what about the massive disruption to families, individual lives, property, taxation, and…well, everything? Where do we draw the lines? What do the borders look like? What happens to people who are stuck on the wrong side of those borders?)
I don’t have answers.
6. What to do now?
All of this is long-term stuff. What about the short-term? What about today, tomorrow, next week, next year?
I can’t give anyone any answers. I have no hope or reassurance to offer. We live in a bitterly divided country, and folks who profess to hate me and mine are going to be in charge.
Sufi poets told the story of a great king who commanded his wise men to create a ring with the power to make him happy when he was sad. They gave him a ring with the following words inscribed on it: “This, too, shall pass.” While the ring worked its magic successfully, it also humbled the king when he was happy. I’ve only been around for 58 years, but already I see the wisdom of that ring.
It’s said that during the Watergate period, when Richard Nixon was drinking heavily, his senior aides told the staff not to pass through any nuclear launch orders, but to call the aides instead. During the Cold War, there were several “false alarms” (on both sides) that sent apparently-valid launch codes to specific installations—the soldiers in the bunkers and submarines did not act on those codes, but called for confirmation. There’s some sort of comfort there.
Bureaucracies have an enormous amount of inertia; they’re difficult to move. Authoritarians, having destroyed their enemies, inevitably turn on one another. A million reporters, professional and amateur, want to be the next Woodward and Bernstein and will be unceasing in their efforts to uncover scandal. Mr. Trump has already proven a propensity, given a bare modicum of rope, to hang himself. There’s some more comfort.
Here’s what I’ve settled on over the last few days—my way to go out the door and engage with the world without dismay or fear. Over the next year and whatever follows, I’m planning to sit back and watch the Trump Presidency self-destruct. I rather enjoyed that with the George W. Bush administration, so it seems a workable plan.
And there’s always the 2018 election.
…If, of course, there IS a 2018 election.