So far, my time within this mortal coil has coincided with the terms of six -scratch that- seven presidents, from Carter through Trump. I was too young to remember anything about Jimmy Carter, but I do have clear memories of parents and teachers talking about Ronald Reagan. The first presidential election I paid any attention to was the Bush/Dukakis contest, probably because of the SNL debate sketches, but spurred on by this notion (picked up from older family members) that, with President Reagan leaving office, an important era was ending and it was our duty to shepherd the country into equally capable hands. I was 10.
There have been seven presidential elections since then. During that time, my political views have shifted, so I’ve felt the joys/agonies of victory/defeat as a young Republican, a rudderless centrist, and these days a mostly-lefty-mostly-just-leave-me-alone. Point is, I’ve seen lots of elections and lots of inaugurations before today and have become familiar with feeling chagrin, disappointment, and anger that my candidate didn’t win. I’ve felt that way from both sides of the aisle.
Today, though? Today was different. This wasn’t that. I don’t think we’ve yet seen a today in any of our lifetimes. It was a harbinger of something, a shift in the barometer. Old sailors will tell you that they can feel a storm coming, even one a few days out, by the way the wind changes direction. I worry that I am starting to taste the salt spray on my lips.
This is not just because a republican won and I am a registered democrat, although both are true. There are lots of Republicans who are qualified to be president who, for me, wouldn’t have raised any red flags. Would I have agreed with their policies? On some stuff yes, on many other things no. Heck, I feel the same way about this election’s two major democratic candidates.
Traditionally, the inauguration speech is supposed to be one of vision, inclusion, and motivation. It’s supposed to lay out the policy themes for the next four years, bring all Americans back to the table, and send us off with a bit of a pep rally. To me, the most important piece in there is any talk of unity, of shared purpose. “With malice toward none, with charity for all”, “ask what you can do for your country”, etc. etc.
Trump’s speech didn’t hit those chords. If anything it sounded more defensive and divisive. He spoke a lot about how we would return to greatness by setting our selves apart and above our enemies (my words, not his): career politicians, neighboring countries, world markets, radical Islam. Lots of talk of conquering (again, my words). He had to know what ugly moment in history he was invoking when he yelled repeatedly “America First! America First! America First!” And the assertion that patriotism doesn’t leave room for prejudice ignores, among other things, 1930’s Germany and apartheid South Africa.
Trump is a dangerous man, not just for his proposed policies, his counselors, and his rhetoric, but for the tacit permission he gives the worst of us to come out of the shadows. Look at the post-election violence against people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and others that was accompanied by cries of “Trump!” or “MAGA” graffiti. It’s no wonder people are scared. It feels very likely that those are just the starting point. That some americans now feel empowered to throw off the shackles of kindness, compassion, and common decency. That because Trump acts like the ugliest of ugly alpha males that it’s ok for them to do so too. The next few days, weeks, and however long will see massive protests. And I get it. I am not by nature a protestor; I’m too self conscious. But I get why people will want too. They are angry that we, collectively, have allowed things to get to the point where someone like Donald Trump could rise to the highest office in the land and they are scared that because of the rhetoric, because of the policies, because of the Trump Administration’s leaders, their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness all of a sudden looks a lot more hazy.
One part of the inaugural address that stood out to me was all the talk of you the people taking the country back. This was a calculated move. You the people are acting through Trump to make america great again. Therefore any attack on the President is, by the transitive nature of jingoism, an attack on all of you. It’s a statement meant to foment division among Trump supporters and critics, against threats to his ego or status, both foreign and domestic.
If you get enough beers in to me (2), I will eventually bore and/or make you think I’m off my rocker by telling you that you’re naive if you think the US has fought its last civil war. I’ve done a lot of reading about the 1800’s and there is nothing that happened then that couldn’t happen now. Slavery, sure, but slavery alone wouldn’t have led to war had it not been the catalyst between two groups who viewed each other in black and white, who wouldn’t compromise, and who ultimately decided to stop communicating. Those are all ingredients that exist today in one form or another. What freaks me out is that, before the last year, I would talk about my civil-war-could-come-again ideas as something far down the road and out of sight. Maybe 100 or 200 or 500 years, I’d say. But certainly not any time soon.
But today we live in a world of angry rhetoric, a revival of “America First”, of foxes guarding the hen house, of policy rollbacks that will adversely effect millions of americans. People are angry. Others are angry at the angry for being angry. And still, we don’t compromise and we often don’t talk.
This morning was a headlong rush in to an uncertain future. On inauguration days past I have felt joy and hope, and I have felt disappointment and anger.
Today was the first time I felt fear.