Estrangement, Shame, and Resolve: Grieving a Trump Victory

By Zack Boehm on November 15, 2016
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I did not want Donald Trump to win last Tuesday.

Abrupt and unexpected sadness garbles your capacity for lucid thought like a cyclone through a small village. The façade of reality that you so carefully construct each day begins to crack under the suffocating pressure of unpredicted and unbidden change. Perceptions erode, presuppositions falter, and soon all that remains is the roiling flotsam of the safe reality through which you so assuredly strode.

This was especially true on Tuesday evening, and especially true for me, as swing state after swing state emblazoned my TV screen in that unmistakable searing shade of Red. At some point, I think it was around the time that North Carolina began to look astonishingly out of reach, as everything that I had read and heard from every intelligent technocratic person that I respect was being proved manifestly and tragically misguided, as my expectations for the next four years of my precarious young adulthood were being shattered by the cold cudgel of history, language began to fail me. Whatever web of neurological circuitry that connects my brain to my lips was being disrupted by the EMP bomb of fear and desolation slowly detonating in my stomach. I couldn’t talk to my friends, I couldn’t speak to my brother, I couldn’t call my mother on the phone to commiserate. In fact, the swirling tempest of grief and confusion and anger hit so suddenly and so devastatingly that I couldn’t even talk to myself.

I couldn’t think.

And so before the Rust Belt confirmed what we’d all started to suspect, and long before Donald Trump was officially anointed President-elect, I stumbled stupefied up to my bedroom, shut the door, logged off of Twitter (for many, myself included, it can still be viscerally painful to scroll through), and looked for some quick-fix gratification to melt into. Instead of following an election night of literally unprecedented significance, I watched two episodes of Netflix’s new original series The Crown, about the coronation and early reign of Queen Elizabeth II. So heavy was the haze of my distress that, at the time, the morbid irony that I would try to escape this present reality by watching a show about the trivial lives of petty, power-starved patricians totally eluded me. I just needed a way out.

The “five stages of grief” trope is something that’s been bandied about pretty frequently in the wake of Trump’s victory. While I tend to reject the notion that something as intractable as grief can be reduced to five universal phases, I do think we all, in our own ways, take steps to mourn a thing lost and to negotiate new realities. For me, the first step was tuning out, and in the short time since last Tuesday, as formless feelings begin to crystallize into something intelligible and concrete, that instinctual urge for distraction has given way to other reckonings, new stages in my grieving for a country I thought I knew.

tvbythenumbers.com

Estrangement

The first rationalizable feeling to form out of my particular dread nebula wasn’t exactly anger or sadness or dejection, but an intense feeling of disconnection—a feeling of profound estrangement from a country that would elect Donald Trump to the most powerful political office on Earth after he spent well over a year plainly demonstrating his egregious temperamental unfitness, his unapologetic ignorance of and contempt for our democratic norms and systems, and his unguarded, cynical willingness to foment bigoted nativist fervor for political gain

I suddenly felt like a time traveler who’d gotten off in the wrong decade, a stranger in a time before the values of pluralism, diversity, and compassion were not only enshrined in our founding documents, but were the cherished constitutional pillars of a culture who rightly saw itself as exceptional in the grand scope of history. The only place I had ever known, the place that created me in its own image, now felt alien.

A lot of this is my own fault. The certitude and comfort with which I approached election night is a stinging personal humiliation that will (and should) needle me for the rest of my life. It would be easy to attribute my confidence to the leftward ideological bent of my informational bubble, but the fact is that nearly every reputable nonpartisan poll throughout the entire campaign had Hillary Clinton winning with relative ease. In the days leading up to November 8th, the result felt like a foregone conclusion and election day itself felt more like ritual formality, like a day where all of us who’d been repelled by Trump’s behavior would celebrate his long awaited demise. I don’t believe I was alone in these feelings. Everything we knew about the methodological analysis of campaigns told us to expect a Clinton victory. None of us were emotionally or intellectually prepared for the alternative.

So when our most outlandish stress dream began to creep out of the ether and onto real time county-by-county election touch screens, it all felt surreal. I remember waking up the next morning bleary eyed, after a restless three or four hours of sleep, not quite being able to make sense of what had happened. I walked around that next day, like so many others, in a kind of emotionally aimless shock. It felt like I was trudging straight through the ravine of an uncanny valley: everything looked familiar, but there was a strong and pervasive sense that things were altogether different. The country that I thought I knew so well was not really that country at all.

Shame

Not long after I began to finally get my sea legs, and after some serious critical introspection, my reflexive feelings of estrangement were swallowed up by a gut-wrenching sense of shame.

How grotesquely privileged was I that the first time I had ever experienced any identifiable feeling of dislocation in my home country was at the age of 21, after an undesirable election outcome that, in reality, would likely have very little effect on my position in American society? How must my own unease for the future pale in comparison to the anxieties of the millions of Black, Latino, Muslim, immigrant, disabled, and LGBTQ people who had been denigrated and demonized by the Trump campaign without consequence? How could I be so self-indulgent as to feel “disconnected” to American life when whatever small incremental progresses that had been achieved for scores of people who had actually and systematically been marginalized for centuries had just been swiftly repudiated by a political movement founded, at least in part, on white grievance?

So I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed because my black friends who are more like brothers will now have a president that has a clear and indefensible history of directly perpetuating racist red-lining housing policies. I felt ashamed because my Syrian friend, who has always had to countenance jokes about his heritage with a polite laugh, now lives under the specter of a President who seems genuine in his belief that the birthplace of his mother is pretext enough to question his allegiance to American values, despite his being born and raised in this country, despite his being a prodigiously brilliant computer programmer and an unfailingly good friend, and despite the fact that his favorite song right now is a spacey Jayden Smith track. I felt ashamed because my little sister will spend her formative years with a President who has demonstrated so frequently that there’s no longer room for doubt that he thinks of women as disposable objects for his own crass abuse and entertainment. I felt ashamed because, while I feel the pangs of gloom and disaffection, I can’t possibly understand how this moment must weigh on those groups who have always been forced to the margins, and who have now been made doubly vulnerable by an unthinking demagogue who premised his political persona on the habit of stoking the treacherous time bomb of white resentment.

I felt estranged because I’ve had the racial and economic privilege of understanding what it feels like to belong, a privilege never afforded to the folks who our society has historically seen as other or peripheral. This was an important realization.

Resolve

When Donald Trump announced the appointment of Steve Bannon, the anti-Semitic, accused domestic abuser, former executive of Breitbart News who helped architect the white nationalist far-right ideological scourge euphemistically called the “alt-right”, and whose record of saying arrantly bigoted, misogynistic, and racist things in public rivals that of his new boss, as Chief White House Strategist, I did something I’d never done before. I picked up my phone and called the offices of my two senators, where I talked to two nice men who quietly listened to my carefully rehearsed screed about Bannon’s appointment, before calling the office of Senator Paul Ryan and enjoining him to do the right and reasonable thing and prevent Bannon from influencing national policy.

Steve Bannon: white supremacist
theatlantic.com

I’m under no illusion that this is a particularly meaningful act. In fact, I think calling your senators on the walk to your bus stop constitutes the least you can possibly do while still being able to qualifiedly say you’re being politically engaged. After I hung up the phone, I didn’t feel like I’d moved mountains, or that I’d effected real change. But I did feel like I did something. And that felt like a small step in the right direction.

I think part of the problem with American politics is that we conceive of it as something that only happens in the remote neoclassical buildings that litter the vast lawns of Washington D.C. If that were true, a populist uprising to elect Donald Trump would have failed miserably. The responsibility of political action does not rest solely on the shoulders of the few hundred men and women with offices in the Capitol building. If you have strong convictions about the way our country should be governed, about the way our commander and chief should conduct him or herself, about how our society should treat its most vulnerable members, then you are obligated to act. This is something that I’d always acknowledged as true, but that has become now become an overwhelming directive.

Calling my senators was not especially consequential, but if every concerned citizen takes this small step, our voice will be deafening. I’m hoping that my berating one of Paul Ryan’s poor phone-jockeys will be the beginning of a more focused and motivated life of personal political engagement. I’m resolved never to become complacent. I’m resolved never to forget the things that Trump said and did in a gutless play for power. I’m resolved not to fatigue when things seem hopeless or grim. I’m resolved to fight back.

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Zack Boehm is an English Literature student from Florida State University. He is a gluttonous consumer of culture.

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