Reconciling the 2016 Presidential Election in Three Pieces

By Daniel Napsha

It happens when you are buying groceries, catching up with friends, or sitting in a meeting. It happens all the time, always ephemeral. You get so engrossed in the moment that you forget. And then you remember: he is the president.

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By Daniel Napsha

OUR LIVES NOW

It happens when you are buying groceries, catching up with friends, or sitting in a meeting. It happens all the time, always ephemeral. You get so engrossed in the moment that you forget. And then you remember: he is the president.

You lose focus, you shift in your seat, you start to perspire. You try to compartmentalize, to suppress the thought, to allow yourself just one more moment. Ugh, you think to yourself. And then it’s gone. You refocus. You’re back in the conversation. You’re good… until you’re not. Did anyone notice that? Does that only happen to me? Am I going crazy? That is how we live now.

Moments like that happened more frequently a year ago, when non-Trump supporters, including myself, were still processing the coming Trump presidency. Then, there was still hope. He won’t be that bad. Ivanka will keep him in line. It’s too early to judge. There’s no point in worrying about it. And then, in rapid succession, it began: the incompetent cabinet picks, the Inauguration crowd size controversy, the Women’s March, Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts, the travel ban – all in the first week.

The rest of the year was no less shocking, filled with firings, tweets, and riots both literal and metaphorical. It still does not feel normal, precisely because this era is abnormal. We exist in a constant state of reaction to the actions of our state. The actions of our president, which are completely inconsistent and spontaneous, carry more influence over what we think and how we live than any other period in history. It is as if we have been stripped of our liberty to go about our lives, unbothered. Everywhere we look, everywhere we go, every conversation we have, he is there, the undertone of our lives. This is his world; we’re just living in it.

A GUIDE FOR LIVING NOW

The simplest guide for living in Trump’s America is this: expect the unexpected. Americans are learning this slowly. Trump’s actions are more expected and less surprising with each coming day. He still manages to disturb, and he always will, but we know his habits., In this way, we are desensitized and normalized to Trump the person. But his type is not normal and it never will be. The American conscious carries an image of an appropriate President – how he should behave, how he should lead. President Trump does not fit that image, and so he will never feel totally normal. What is more, from the beginning, Trump labeled himself as the “outsider,” a identifier that indelibly affecting how Americans see him. We understand he is not a normal president; he does not act as a president should act.

However, there is a danger in thinking about Trump and his movement as an abnormal piece of American history. Trump is not a normal acting president because he is not rational, but he and his supporters clearly fit into the story of America. “This is not who we are,” the anti-Trump Americans say. Such thinking ignores the fact that America produced Trump, and millions support him to this day. It eludes the harsh truth that Trump was an exceptionally American reaction to the first Black president. His presidency  reads like the next chapter in the story of the hard truths of American history, including the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, the suppression of women’s power, and nativism.

The American people sinned when they elected Donald Trump. It is a sin so horrific that we will be wrestling with it forever. Like the legacy of slavery, it is such a gross blemish on the history of America, so hurtful to the idea of American exceptionalism, that we are inclined to ignore it as much as possible. Facing the problem requires reckoning with an inhumanity within ourselves; to really look at it is to face the truth and finally accept it.

Trump and his movement is a conundrum for historians and teachers, who hold an awesome power over the way people think about history. Historians tend to imagine powerful men, like Napoleon, Stalin and Hitler, as makers of history. In their eyes, history tends not to make the man. To consider Trump an anomaly allows historians to think  “that happened, and now it’s over.” We will never learn from this presidency unless we reckon with what truly caused it. Donald Trump is not merely a vessel for the anger of the white working class, but also a racist reaction to the first Black president. He is another effect of our original sin.

We can talk about the problem, the man, all we want, but if we do not grasp the complexities of the cause of Trump and why he became president, we will have made no progress and history will repeat itself. This time in history cannot be shrugged off as laughable. Though levity is important in times of struggle, simply laughing this off and thinking “Oh, the Trump years aren’t that bad” does not do us any good. What will we think when this is all over? Will we remember the resistance or why we were resisting? Human intelligence can handle both, and we must.

GROWING PAINS: FROM THEN TO NOW

The first weeks were the hardest, as we were still grappling with our new reality, trying to make sense of it all. A stunning sense of urgency filled the air. People took to the streets in New York and Los Angeles, filled town halls from Wichita to Anchorage, and wrote letters to the editors of the newspapers of America. Finally, our generation, and our fellow Americans felt like they were part of something bigger than themselves. Finally, Americans found meaning in their role as citizens.

We had been seeking meaning in our lives for a while before Trump was elected. Despite championing individualism, the Obama era hardly represented authentic individuality or uniqueness. Instead, the culture of the Obama era was dominated by a nostalgia for the Sixties. The advent of the hipster, television shows like Mad Men and Girls, the music and style of Lana del Ray, American Apparel, and the like, all testify to this. It was a culture derivative of the Sixties, a fetishizing of the glamor of that decade and all it stood for – the Kennedys, the rallying cries, and the rest.

We tried to recreate the social movements of the Sixties, as seen with Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, a new wave of feminism, and the fight for same-sex marriage. From one view, legitimate social justice warriors succeeded in their work to mimic the way the Sixties empowered marginalized groups. But in the end, the Obama era could never fully deliver because the liberal worldview had already prevailed. Millions of fellow liberal-minded people had seen the inauguration of the first Black president, who shared their worldview, as enough.

The first hundred days of Donald Trump’s presidency radicalized a nation, the whole Left included, in a way Barack Obama never could. Trump’s election forced the left to coalesce and set aside their differences for a moment. There remains residue from the 2016 Democratic primary, of course – we see evidence of it with  every new development. But for the cold days and nights of winter 2017, anti-Trump America came together in a way we had never seen in our lives.

When the Women’s March happened, many people, including marchers themselves, wondered, What’s next? Will the organizers and the protesters be able to harness the energy of this movement? The answer was yes. People took to the streets the next weekend, when the travel ban was announced. Public pressure after the Charlottesville riot helped force the departure of Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, who promulgated the alt-right. After Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey broke the story about Harvey Weinstein in the New York Times, many women, inspired to take action after the election, came forward about their own experiences with sexual violence.

Living now on a college campus makes it easy for us to analyze the world from an inauthentic idea of reality. We live removed from the majority of society on a hill in rural Ohio, receiving a liberal arts education. The vast majority of Kenyon students are white and affluent and will not be directly affected by President Trump’s actions. For Kenyon students who are LGBTQ, Muslim, or students of color, I hope this campus is a safe place for you during the Trump presidency. Our fortunate and protected life here gives us the opportunity to apply our fresh, dynamic education and observe the real world. In an attempt to take control over our own lives, we try to make reforms in our community. We pressure our home administration to meet our needs, to better serve the student body, and to create a more inclusive and representative campus.

We follow the path of the students of the Sixties. At her college graduation in 1969, Hillary Clinton touched on this idea: “Every protest, every dissent… is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age.” Like Clinton and her peers, we exist in a world we have yet to experience. And it is a world we did not expect to live in before November 8, 2016. The election of Donald Trump was shocking. It was earth-shattering. It changed the way we saw the world and how we interacted with each other and every plan we had. But we were a generation in waiting, and when the time came, we were ready.

What will we think about our time when this is all over? “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven,” described Williams Wordsworth in his reflection on the French Revolution. It is easy to romanticize this era already, especially when focusing on the Resistance. Every day, though, the right to that resistance is threatened, in the president’s attacks on the press and marginalized people and in his undermining of democracy. The vigilance of the Resistance ensures that Trump’s politics will not be normalized.

The writer and public intellectual Susan Sontag wrote about the Sixties, “Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of [the Sixties] was that there was so little nostalgia. In that sense, it was indeed a utopian moment.” Perhaps this is our unique moment. It is easy to imagine our grandchildren feeling nostalgic for it. Like we ask the elders in our lives about the Sixties, they will ask us about the Trump era, too.

And what will we tell them? Will you be able to say you were on the frontlines of democracy? How many Instagram photos does one have to post until they can consider themselves an activist? Is that not what the whole “protesting is the new brunch” thing is all about? Our time demands more than radical chic. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine declared in The Crises. Now is the revolution of our lives: join now, or forever regret that you did not.

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