December’s theme is “Time Travel,” formulated months ago in a dreamy state of mind, now all too apt a descriptor for the regression represented by the outcome of the presidential election. It’s a bitter reminder that nostalgia is not just that thing where you miss childhood and ex-partners, but sometimes just delusion experienced en masse, protecting those in power by rewriting a country’s history of systemic oppression as somehow better/purer/more right than the present, which is so classist/elitist/unfair because of the old American values that millions of voters desired to revive (as if institutionalized hate had been lying dormant).
During the 2012 presidential election, we at Rookie tried to create a space where supporters of all candidates felt comfortable exchanging ideas about their respective beliefs. This time around, I struggle to view support of such blatant bigotry showcased by Trump as a political stance. Larry Wilmore wrote of Trump in The New Yorker, “Questioning Obama’s birthright, threatening to ban Muslims, painting entire immigrant groups as felons to be feared—these are not policy positions. They are incendiary words and images meant to ignite a movement.” Words and images now feel, at once, utterly meaningless, and far too authoritative.
Other writers and artists I talk to who’ve tried to use them to communicate messages of acceptance and equality, to make room for nuance and complexity, wonder what was ever the point. All language is drained of meaning whenever I read another new statement of Trump’s where he uses the same shiny adjective multiple times, sounding like an infomercial or a blinking neon sign. I’m reminded of one of his toxic generalizations made about Black people or Muslims or Mexicans. Or the sexual assault brag that would end the career of anyone we were used to expecting more from. Or the libel that became fact to those whose misogyny was dying to make itself known. Or the fake news shared across Facebook and beyond that’s rapidly making us all a little more OK with being manipulated and infantilized. Or the real news about this silly reality show star who thought he could be president that eventually just made ubiquity seem like a qualification. Or the level of authority granted to celebrities and pundits and other professionally charismatic people who had nothing to contribute to conversations around social justice or feminism or politics until they got famous for doing something completely different, like acting or modeling or making music. Even those who say things I agree with, I worry only hurt the cause by further confusing watchability with wealth of knowledge/experience: a miscalculation dangerous enough to have created President Trump. So I organize these thoughts from a place of doubt and self-doubt, wondering what weight any words carry under the new economy of language that assigns the most value to the wholly reductive. I guess I could always start by just saying what happened.
I woke up the morning after the election because my neighbor was screaming. When a neighbor screams abruptly, you go over as quickly as possible to help them recover from whatever sudden accident has taken place. When a neighbor is screaming because their country elected a president who hates them, and it’s not a sudden accident but the desired outcome of millions of your other neighbors, the plan of action is tougher to grasp. In any case, I was busy cocooning myself in my own grief, thinking over and over that maybe the next time I woke up it would have been a dream, or some new development would cause results to swing the other way, or the planet would at least stop shaking. But his screaming was too loud, and all his words were true.
When I finally entered the world, the makeup of the atmosphere had been altered gray, tinged with ash, suffocating the faces across from me on the train. As my sense of perspective and the timeline of progress adjusted to account for the era we were entering, I felt older than ever before, the U.S. felt way younger than I’d thought it had been, and one friend texted me, “It’s like we had to grow up overnight.” My body was in shock, but I was naive to have been shocked. It’s not time travel; it’s the battlecry of prejudice and greed that are still very much around, and are not going anywhere anytime soon. In my head, on a loop—the lyrics to David Bowie’s “Sunday” from his 2002 album Heathen:
Everything has changed
For in truth, it’s the beginning of nothing
And nothing has changed
Everything has changed
For in truth, it’s the beginning of an end
And nothing has changed
And everything has changed
I threw up for a second time when I got to work, where a castmate barely made it into our dressing room before collapsing in tears. He was shaking during his speech onstage that afternoon, unable to help but scream certain parts: “It’s all fiction. What’s real is the filth, and the poverty, and the brutal humiliation and banality of being poor in this country. It scares me. I really think people are better off saying nothing than having more of these ‘serious’ conversations.” We went to a protest after the matinee, and I briefly stopped doubting the value of “serious” conversations online or off because I knew it just felt physically better to be there, chanting, not alone.
We came back for another show as masters of deflection and denial. My character laughed, danced, and squealed with joy. She jumped on a bed and played musical chairs. The dissonance between my insides and my actions was crazy-making, and I threw up a third time. Already this has all only become my “day after the 2016 election” story exchanged with so many friends and acquaintances. I’m sure you have your own.
As this initial nausea subsides, as it feels more appropriate to post on Instagram about anything else, and the answer to “how are you?” starts to account more for our day-to-day, and jumping on beds and squealing with joy come more and more easily, we would do ourselves good to remember how it felt the morning after. That, for many others, the feeling of helplessness, physical danger, and personal attack is more severe. That it would be bizarre not to feel emotionally afflicted by the symbolism of seeing this fucking guy over and over and over, a meme who became president in spite or because of the fact that he embraced his endorsement by the KKK by neglecting to condemn it, has been accused by two-dozen women of sexual assault, was accused of raping a 13-year-old, has boasted the permission granted by his celebrity to touch women without consent, mocked the physicality of a differently abled individual, and/or demonized the color of your skin, and/or demonized your religion, and/or demonized the country you and your family came from, creating a fictional hellscape of demons who are keeping nobody’s country from being as great as it never was. That it’s a setback many in our history have already experienced, people who had even fewer precedents of hope than we do, who had to be their own precedents. That cocooning oneself further is cold comfort to the neighbor shrieking across the shaft.
“It’s important to ask ourselves why it feels like grief,” my dressing roommate said. “And I’ve been thinking a lot about how I felt when my mom died, and learned that when you don’t grieve, you come out of loss unchanged. You burn out quicker. And we’re in this for the long haul.” Loss not like losing in a fight, but like a giant death. Because our president-elect is the living embodiment of capitalist values, he is obsessed with the former kind; even had to be told by the Secret Service on November 10th that no, he couldn’t go watch the Ultimate Fighting Championship to celebrate his victory; he had to prepare to be president now. This loss isn’t the sting of being the loser, but the loss of a belief—now so silly, it seems—that more Americans would use their vote to prevent a fascist autocrat from assuming the highest political office. I’ll become useless if I stop believing that the arc of history bends toward progress, but I am grieving the narrative that we were further along than we actually are, and grieving the lives of those who will suffer in the process.
This grief then morphs from paralysis to motivation when I remember that the currently very popular word “apocalypse,” translated from Greek, does not, in fact, mean the end of the world. It means the end of concealment. The lifting of a veil. The truth. A bunch of shit we’d have to tackle even if Trump had not been elected, and which would’ve maybe been even harder to prove still exist with the democratic victory of a first female president. “The good thing about all this—if there is a good thing—is that white liberals are learning that these other kinds of white people exist,” another castmate, who is 62 and black, told me. “We’ve already been saying it for a long time, and now you finally believe us.” And as we scramble to place blame and figure out who is responsible, I can do so from a much smarter place if I can recognize what within me has the potential to grow old and vote for the 2032 or 2056 or 2072 version of Trump. Maybe when she was younger, your racist old relative was actually considered one of the more progressive people in her town or workplace. How to catch those forces within myself before my beliefs erode to ignorance, before I start to see myself as the real victim when I am not, before my internalized misogyny finds its holding place by complaining about the lack of charisma in the next female presidential candidate?
In addition to “apocalypse,” the idea of “having empathy” for the Trump voter is also being echoed around the Internet (or at least, my own hyper-curated, insulated experience of it). But as Alex-Quan Pham wrote on Rookie last year, “We can’t talk about empathy without talking about how systems of oppression influence who gets empathy and who doesn’t. And we can’t demand that empathy be given to all people while ignoring the fact that some people are still denied their basic humanity.” So for those of us who will suffer less, who do not have a chance of losing health insurance or being deported or outed by a teacher or sent to gay conversion therapy or targeted by a hate crime, who will suffer fewer consequences for speaking out, who don’t know what it’s like to be sick of educating white people or straight people or cis people or rich people who don’t respect what you have to say in the first place, who have time and/or money and/or other resources to spare: It is in our best interest to have the empathy required to understand why this happened, how we can recognize those same impulses within ourselves, and how to make the future as painless as possible for those for whom this is not just really depressing symbolism. If we’re going with this idea that liberals like me were so blindsided by Trump’s victory because one is able to experience the internet to only get the news they want to read and the opinions they agree with, I write now from the assumption that the person reading this has a life somewhat resembling mine, with the advantages laid out above, not because I want to exclude anyone, but because I don’t want to tell anyone who is more at risk under this administration how to feel or talk or fix it. I believe I have a large audience of, like me, white, well-to-do, straight, cis, able-bodied women who can try to empathize with a Trump voter without it feeling like a total compromise of self-respect, who would like to alleviate the trauma of the coming years for those with much more at stake, who use social media frequently and often as a tool for this very cause.