Hell to Pay

I love our country, but since election night, nothing here feels, looks, sounds or smells the same to me. I’m far from alone in this. Indeed I think a great many of us are deeply dismayed and therefore want to imagine that what just happened has precedent, and that the phrase “President Donald Trump” is shocking, but somehow manageable.

I don’t know whether most Trump supporters are also experiencing our nation in a different way, but I imagine they are. Actually, regarding some of them I don’t have to imagine. I can see the violence, and hear the vile words. Things that used to be submerged are now at large again. But even so, I keep trying to make these dark feelings temporary, like the flu, or a recession, and logical, like what goes up must come down. I know that the term for what I’m doing is ‘denial’, but I haven’t quite achieved it. It’s like trying to block out a siren by putting my fingers in my ears and yelling. As soon as I breathe in, the alarm returns.

 

Clearly some are better at denial than others; like those insisting that Donald Trump’s victory is really a story about our country’s better angels being just a little bit out of practice. This is adorable, the way people who say, “I don’t see color, I just see people,” are also adorable. But it doesn’t work either, because what really happened on Tuesday, November 8th 2016 was the arrival of America’s latest hell to pay, and when there’s hell to pay, skipping to earnest conversations about our ‘common humanity’ is no solution. In fact I’m confident that Trump will pay lip service to our common humanity come inauguration day, further cheapening an already beleaguered ideal. Instead I submit it is our separateness that we must acknowledge, and then really stare at, the way a drug addict who wants to live must stare, and keep staring, at the face in the mirror.

 

Webster’s defines Fascism as ‘a political philosophy, movement or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader.’ So, let’s admit that President Elect Donald Trump will be our 45th President, and that he is by word, action and association, looking, sounding and behaving like a Fascist, and that this has never happened before. Then let’s admit that the most economically fortunate in our society have spent decades purchasing liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness, while acting as if those fine ideals are the norm for everyone. After all, ‘crime is low’, ‘wages are rising’, ‘we elected a black president, twice’. But what millions of us don’t want to admit is that our nations real origin story, of slavery, exploitation and genocide, and of one group of racist states defeating another group of even more racist states, is not in the distant past at all. It is present, and it is still being written.

 

There’s an organization called Facing History and Ourselves(https://www.facinghistory.org/), that is doing very important work. I’m sure their phones have been ringing off the hook since the election. Even their name is a bracing idea. It implies that facing history, and ourselves, should happen simultaneously, because after all our country was formed by our actual history, not by our wishful ideas about it.

 

All great nations are born in blood and violence. The United States might be exceptional, but it surely hasn’t skipped many days of blood and violence since its’ bloody, violent birth. This is what we must face, because for too long too many of us believed that, as a people, Americans are well armed to recognize and oppose despotism.

Well, we are armed, that’s for sure. But we are a stratified and disorderly country, precisely because we have not yet been able to face history and ourselves without making the wishful assertion that we are somehow ‘past’ the most difficult parts. We have given ourselves far too much credit for building our declared national virtues into a living culture. Progress has been made, but Trump is the latest and darkest hell to pay that always follows progress in America.

 

So, let us put an end to conversations that begin with, “This isn’t about,” followed by pick one: Race, Religion, National Origin, Language, Color, Blood, all of the things that the most important American conversation is always about. Let’s instead acknowledge that every conversation about Trump is about all of those things, because he is a result of our failure to live up to our founding principles, which are, under present circumstances, going to be even more difficult to live up to now.

 

But not impossible.

 

The ascendency of Trump is I daresay one of the greatest tests yet of America’s founding principles. Will we the people uphold those principles, or allow them to be rendered meaningless?

Donald Trump declares, almost continuously, that he wants to do things as president that are antithetical to our constitution. Other Presidents have made and carried out similar actions:

The disputed election of Rutherford B. Hayes, for example, led to federal troops being removed from the former Confederacy, which allowed Jim Crow to infect the South. A good argument can be made that the Ku Klux Klan would not have become such a malign influence if it weren’t for the series of craven deals that led to Hayes’ presidency. The Klan is once again out of the closet. They will hold a parade to celebrate Trump’s victory, unless we stop them.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt allowed internment camps to be built and filled with American citizens during the 2nd World War. His administration also developed the practice of redlining throughout the country, which imposed “prohibition of occupancy of properties, except by the race for which they are intended”. These are but two examples of wrongs that got righted. But Trump and his enablers appear damnably eager to reopen those wounds.

America has been at war with itself since birth. The battle lines have changed and blurred, and many have been erased, only to appear again under different names. Trump is building an administration that appears all too willing to bring buried evils back from the dead. They must be stopped every time they try.

 

I am a white husband of a black wife, a white father of black children, a white loved one of a black family. Thirty four years ago our marriage brought together two big American families with vastly different American experiences. We all have a lot of skin in this game, and so on behalf of both of our families, I submit this promise: we will fight for our country.

But it won’t be easy. Already there is disagreement regarding what just happened. The white side of our family is generally inclined to believe that ‘most Trump voters aren’t racist,’ which is an opinion treated with more than a little skepticism by the black side.

Just typing these words makes me feel the unquiet future. Because what I have learned in half a lifetime of being a (no longer) White American, is that race is everything in our country. It is the lens, and the camera, the words and the paper. It’s who and what we are. People of color recognize this as reality. White people, even white people of good will, tend to be intricately selective when it comes to recognizing their own levels of privilege, naïvete, and especially racism: the trick being to exclude oneself from any hint of any of those things, while sadly recognizing their vestigial presence in others.

And so the arguments begin. Usually with assertions like, “Most Trump voters aren’t racist.”

To which I answer, yes they are, and so were a huge number of Obama voters. The white man in Denver in 2007, whom I heard say, “I just figured what the hell, this time I’ma vote for the nigger!” was voting his economic self interest as honestly as anyone I’ve ever heard, and he was far from unique. This is a racist country which in recent history was at least becoming ashamed of its’ racism. It is also a great country. It’s greatness lies in its’ continual effort to overcome itself, to be better than before, to be free.

So, here is the challenge. Let us Face History and Ourselves honestly in this moment. Let us recognize how important each one of us is. Let us understand that this is a country of savage inequalities from birth, which has, through bitter strife and flashes of extraordinary wisdom, recognized, fought against, and atoned for its terrible sins.

And let us most urgently recognize that Trump is our greatest hell to pay yet, because he is an arrogant, ignorant, disinterested amateur demagogue, whom we have freely elected President of the United States. We must oppose him with everything we have. We must stand in his way. We must drop the ridiculous pretense that we are past any of America’s essential terrors: misogyny, xenophobia, corruption, and most of all racism. Let us reimagine this country as what it is, a great and terrible place full of hope and despair, all of which we the people are responsible for.

Trump: This charismatic celebrity con-man, has tapped into the worst impulses we have, and he and his minions will now work to normalize them. In the process he exposed the breathtaking levels of corruption in our politics. It is the one thing we should thank him for, as we spend the next two years working to elect the best opposition we can in the House of Representatives, and the next four years (if that’s what it takes) working to get him out of office.

There are no extremes of language too damning for Donald Trump. Everything about him is a lie. We must fight him, and in so doing we will be fighting the lie within ourselves, which says that any of America’s great sins are safely locked behind history’s door.

No, they’re not.

Trump is who we are.

Let’s make him who we were, and will never be again.

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