I spent Tuesday knocking on doors in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a swing county in a swing state where most of the rural conservative counties swing red. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I felt optimistic about Clinton’s victory: I was knocking on the doors of registered Democrats. I met a woman wearing a belted pantsuit, in honor of Hillary, who had stocked up on blue foods – blueberries, blue cookies, blue corn tortilla chips – for her victory party that night. I met a woman who hobbled to the door when we rang the buzzer, who said her leg was in excruciating pain and she was waiting for her medication to kick in so she could go vote for Hillary. She was eager, but she needed a ride. We gave her a number to call. I met a woman who was confident Hillary would win, but afraid she would get assassinated. Back in August, Trump had said the ‘Second Amendment People’ might be able to ‘do something’ about her. That man was on the ballot, but I knew he wouldn’t – couldn’t – win.
I felt confident, just like the woman in the pantsuit. Just like women everywhere, in pantsuits. My heart was stocked with blue foods. I believed in our country. I did not feel naive. I did not feel afraid. Now I do: I feel afraid, and I do not know what to make of yesterday’s belief, which seems to belong not just to another day but to another era. I can see that belief like an object shimmering underwater, a kind of relic.
How do I regard that artifact? Was that belief foolish? Or do I need it even more than I did yesterday?
When I drove to Bucks County, I drove with four friends and a pile of brownies in the backseat, brownies from the same batch I’d baked and taken to a bake sale at my stepdaughter’s school, where I’d waited in line outside the gymnasium to black an oval for Clinton and Kaine, where I’d looked at Trump and Pence on the ballot and felt comfortably buffered from the prospect of their election.
The ballot felt like the final tombstone on the surreal nightmare of Trump’s candidacy. Each debate, and each successive scandal, had begun to feel almost reassuring: his absurdity, his incompetence, his unpaid taxes, the odd integrity of his unmitigated and undisguised self-interest, his status as a gloating sexual predator – all of these mounting horrors felt like confirmation he wouldn’t get elected. The ritual of voting itself made me swell with pride: all these people waiting in line, with their toddlers and infants. Their citizenship was body heat in the room. Democracy felt good. It felt necessary. It felt righteous.
An hour before I voted, I’d been on my hands and knees in our living room, wiping my stepdaughter’s vomit off the floor and assuring her that Trump wouldn’t win, that he couldn’t: I found myself often attaching those two verbs of negation, one always rushing to stand behind the other. Both lies.
Two days earlier I’d been explaining to her, nearly eight years old, that Trump supporters weren’t terrible people. I felt confident enough to summon tremendous amounts of goodwill. Many of the people who would vote for Trump, I told her, were just angry and disappointed. They’d just picked the wrong savior: a bigoted, xenophobic, politically inexperienced predator, a man who sang populist hymns from an Upper East Side penthouse. They’d just chosen the wrong man to deliver them from their troubles.
In Bucks County, I felt proud to be an American. Maybe that sounds silly. I felt connected to the other Americans I was meeting: a woman in a pink shirt celebrating the first woman in the white house; a man whose twin sons, maybe six years old, both proudly, shyly told me they’d voted for Hillary in their school election, burying their faces in their father’s legs. I felt proud to live in a democracy, proud to see the sign that said: your vote is your voice. be heard.
Last night, we heard. We heard that Ohio had been called for Trump, and then North Carolina, and then Florida. By midnight, Clinton’s path to victory had grown frighteningly slim. Michigan and Wisconsin mattered. We were holding out hope for votes that hadn’t yet been counted in Milwaukee and Wayne County, holding out hope that these uncounted votes would flip these should-have-been-blue-but-weren’t-blue states blue again. We were holding out hope because the Detroit Free Press had called Michigan for Hillary, so didn’t that mean she still had a chance? Didn’t it?
We were getting tired of watching Wolf Blitzer grow increasingly panicked as John King ran his magic hands over the magic map that showed the states and counties, the places that were speaking. ‘Show us New Hampshire,’ Blitzer said, wanting to see the blue shapes of Nashua County and Portsmouth; wanting to believe that we just needed the rest of the votes counted; or perhaps I projected this wanting onto him because I felt it so fiercely myself.
I kept thinking about the people I’d met in Bucks County that morning and afternoon: I wondered about the woman waiting for her medication to dull the ache in her leg; I wondered where her health care came from, and whether it was going to get repealed. I wondered about the woman who said she’d never voted, and never would. I wondered if she regretted it. I wondered about the man who said he was a registered Democrat but wasn’t going to vote because it wouldn’t matter anyway. We said: ‘Pennsylvania matters. Bucks County matters.’ What I meant, and should have said, was this: Your vote matters because this man is going to make our world less safe, less respectful of basic human dignity, and every voices matters when it says: This cannot happen. What’s also true: Every voice matters when it says something else.
This cannot happen: a billionaire who hasn’t paid taxes in nearly two decades, whose restricted monthly personal budget runs to the scale of $450,000; who lives in a penthouse wrapped in marble; who has somehow sold himself as the champion of the common man.
Your vote is your voice. Every voice did matter. But not every voice was saying the same thing. Which is the triumph of democracy, and also its difficult diet. I can’t write the whole script for what my country wants to say; can’t write the soundtrack that corresponds with whatever particular patriotic swell I feel – or want to feel – in my heart.
Bucks County did matter, but it wasn’t enough. Clinton carried the county 48.4 per cent to 47.8 per cent, but she lost Pennsylvania, just like she lost almost every battleground state, along with Rust Belt states we didn’t know were battlegrounds: Wisconsin, Michigan, the objects of our terror and our clutching hope in the final hours.
When I say: Our voices matter. We were afraid. We held out hope. Who is we? Who is our? My fear was another man’s triumph. That sentence is easier to write than this one: My fear was another woman’s triumph. 91 per cent of white Republican women voted for Trump. Millions of people who voted for Obama four years ago voted for Trump. Who are they? How would each of them describe for me what he felt, what she felt, at the polls yesterday? How would she describe the four years, or the whole lifetime, that delivered her to that vote? What about every man and woman kept away from the polls because of Republican legislators pushing through new voter ID restrictions? How would they describe what brought them to the vote, and how it felt to be turned away from it?
It’s a useful question: What do we mean by we? In a sense, it’s the question we all woke up to this morning.
When I say we felt fear, we watched Wolf Blitzer feel fear, I literally mean myself and my husband – lying in bed, turning our faces away from the screen, feeling sick. But when I woke in the morning, I felt a strong desire for a larger we. I wanted to be around other human bodies: on the sidewalk, on the subway. I wanted to be in touch.
I was in touch with my aunt, who works as a clinical social worker providing therapy for many people whose health care will most likely get repealed once Trump is in office. I heard from my friend Rachel, who said her ten-day-old baby had been crying through the night. I heard from my cousin, who teaches English to teenage immigrants and said she had no idea what to tell her class. She couldn’t tell them everything would be okay. I couldn’t tell her she could tell them everything would be okay. When Rachel said it felt like everything was falling apart, I couldn’t tell her everything would be okay. I couldn’t tell my stepdaughter everything would be okay. Everything was falling apart. It was a hyperbolic morning. Nothing but hyperbole felt honest. Every time I heard a siren wail through the streets of Manhattan, some part of me thought it was probably headed for Trump – for his physical, suited body; as if he was a fire that could be put out. When the fire alarm went off at my office, it felt more honest, more appropriate, than the fire alarm not going off in my office.
When I talked to my mom, we vowed to each other to spend the next four years fighting for all the people Trump’s election had put most at risk. She’s a public health professional who gets arrested with union workers fighting for better wages in downtown Los Angeles. She’s an episcopal deacon who has given communion through the mesh border separating San Diego and Tijuana. She watched a young man get locked up and threatened with deportation because he protested the deportations of others. This is what she means by risk. This is what she means by fight.
Who is we? I want to figure out how to belong in the same ‘we’ as everyone who voted for Trump, but I also feel confused about how to feel part of that collective body. I know that blaming Trump’s election wholly on the people who voted for him, many of whom feel largely, and rightly, underserved by the system; people who want, understandably, more than what they have, is missing the larger problem of how our country needs to meet the needs of those who feel invisible within it. But this election has also taken certain kinds of frightening visibility – visible misogyny, visible racism, visible xenophobia, visible discrimination – and effectively made all of them acceptable.
After Ohio was called for Trump, I saw the crowds gathered in his DC hotel, the same hotel he plugged during every single presidential debate, chanting: Lock Her Up! Lock Her Up! Lock Her Up! I thought about the woman in her pantsuit singing the virtues of a pantsuit nation, standing behind the last door I’d knocked on that afternoon, and I wondered if she was still eating her blueberries and her blue tortilla chips, or if she felt sick to her stomach, as I did. I thought of the special confetti Hillary had designed, to fall from the ‘broken’ glass ceiling of the Javits Center, during her victory party, and how that glass ceiling wasn’t broken yet. I thought of Kellyanne Conway, how she kept talking about the secret vote for Trump – how it would emerge, like a predator in hiding – and wondered how much of his vote had been fueled by people afraid of a country of color; how much had been fueled by people disappointed by the Dream they’d been promised; how much had been fueled by men who stepped up to the ballot box and somewhere, in their guts, could not believe that a woman was enough. I didn’t want to condescend to his voters by relieving them of responsibility, denying them the agency of moral reasoning, and culpability; but I also did not want to pretend that the primal cry of their vote wasn’t also – in many cases – the illegitimate expression of legitimate discontent. More than anything, I didn’t want to pretend they were a monolith, when of course they were millions, a multitude, as many particular constellations of anger and investment as there were bodies blacking ballots. I contain multitudes, Whitman wrote, and did I still believe in a coherent thing called ‘America’ that could contain these multitudes? I did. It was my country.
Claude Mckay—an immigrant, a man of color, a poet—begins his poem ‘America’ with a conjunction: ‘Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,’ forcing you to wait – suspended, wondering – for whatever redemption might follow: ‘I will confess / I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.’ The line break makes you wait for it a beat longer: What love can he confess? Why has love itself become a confession? Because so much bitterness has been fed, so much has been harmed.
This morning, I got on the subway in Brooklyn, a county that split 79.7 per cent to 17.9 per cent for Clinton, and told myself that pretty much everyone around me felt wrecked the same way I felt wrecked; or else they felt their own versions of resonant wreckage. It was one of the few comforts available: to feel divided and angry, to feel the we of everyone devastated by this election pitted against the we of everyone who made the nightmare come true.
But I know that the people who feel wrecked like I feel wrecked aren’t the only people I need to feel communion with and committed to. They aren’t the ones I need to understand better. The truth is I am still part of a we that includes everyone who voted for Trump. I am also part of a we that includes the millions of people his presidency will put in acute danger. Which is to say: I am part of a nation. I have no desire to move to Canada. I have no desire, really, to make jokes about moving to Canada. When people of privilege talk about moving to Canada, it’s either a misunderstanding of the problem or an abnegation of duty: As if the people of privilege need to save themselves by fleeing, or just want to keep their hands clean.
This morning, I tried to explain to my stepdaughter that Trump voters weren’t terrible people, but they’d done a terrible thing. I wanted to believe in a separation between the two. But wasn’t the definition of a terrible person someone who did terrible things? Someone who submitted to the alchemy of turning disappointment and fear into aggression?
This morning, my husband and I told our daughter that we will protect her. But I felt an even stronger urge to tell her that we have to protect everyone. We have to fight for everyone. We have to fight for the people who believe they voted for their own strength.
We are all more vulnerable than we were yesterday. But some of us are more immediately vulnerable than others: the immigrants Trump wants to deport, the people of color who will be unfairly targeted by the stop-and-frisk policing policies he supports; the people who will lose their health coverage when the Affordable Care Act is repealed; the women who will lose control over their bodies if his Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade.
The question of vulnerability isn’t just a question of policy; it’s a question of dignity and message. One of my friends told me he feels like he just got punched in the face by a schoolyard bully, and the bully got away with it. This is part of the shock and reeling ache of Trump’s victory: millions of Americans let him get away with it. By voting for him, they suggested it was somehow tolerable to call Mexicans rapists, to say Muslims should be banned from our country, to say that having enough power and money means you can grab a woman’s pussy and get away with it. The collective body was supposed to say: Enough. It was supposed to say: You can’t tell a whole religion it’s not welcome here. You can’t claim power gives you free reign to violate the bodies of women. Your fearmongering can’t spin despair into racial hate. The popular vote said that. But the election didn’t. It’s unspeakable, to know that our nation has announced: This man will put you at risk. We have voted for him anyway. But it has been spoken. We voted for him anyway.
Photograph © nathanmac87