When George W Bush was president, I lived in Germany and England. I never bothered pretending to be Canadian, so I spent much of my time fielding questions about “W”, about his policies and why he seemed so apparently clueless. I became an unwitting spokesperson for a president I did not support, simply by virtue of being the only American in the room. With the election of Donald Trump, solace is scant, but I find it here; I live in America now. Trump’s America. Like children of an alcoholic father, we Americans understand better than anyone what we’re going through and it’s a relief to not have to explain ourselves to outsiders. It’s a relief to accept our reality and move forward.
I live in Berkeley, California – as flawless a bubble as you can get in the United States. In Berkeley, Trump’s vote count came in third place, at 3.2 per cent to Clinton’s 90.4 per cent. But there are towns just over the hills where significant numbers did vote for Trump. There are towns all over this country with voting stats directly the inverse of Berkeley’s. So, my country boils down to the streets and people I see each day. There are 318 million Americans, 318 million Americas. Here’s what’s happening in mine.
In January 2017, these United States are united most strongly by social media. It’s on a Facebook screen that most of my friends live. We watch the President-elect’s nonsensical press conference together. We deep dive into his gaffes and we overlook the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, of cabinet appointees with KKK ties. And then we slap ourselves on the wrist. “Stop it,” we write to each other. “Take a look at what matters.”
The American landscape has changed since those first eerie days post-election, when so many of us were still reeling from what felt like a collective slashing of the wrist. We’ve stopped crying, we’ve put away our safety pins, we’ve stopped thinking about how different 2008 felt. January 2017 is as much about Obama’s departure as Trump’s arrival. In January 2017, we look fondly back at the Obama years, at online slideshows of Barack playing with babies and dancing with Michelle.
On the news, the dissonance of these times grows clearer. Announcers’ voices stay calm and reasonable. The voices have nothing to do with our punched guts, our ringing ears, our punctured hearts. Their commentary is detached, their analyses leak from their heads, through their mouths. And the things they say: that a climate-change denier has been appointed to head the Environmental Protection Agency; that American taxpayers will be paying for the Mexican border wall; that Planned Parenthood will be defunded. “Why aren’t they shouting?” I think. “Someone needs to be shouting.”
We’re stepping out of our comfort zones and into the public arenas, where we will call for change, where we will fight for those whose lives barely touch ours, but whose stories need our voices
Just days after the election, the narrative of the defeated changed. “Wake up,” we told each other. “Get off your asses. Don’t let them take your rights away, your birth control, your health care, your neighbours. Not this time. We won’t let it happen this time.” It was time to stop crying and start shouting.
The next day, after dropping my three-year-old off at preschool, I run into two other school mums. Normally, what we talk about during these run-ins are our children: who’s playing with whom, who’s starting gymnastics, who’s just been ill. It’s charming, comforting, mildly boring. But today’s talk starts with pussy hats. It moves on the Woman’s March in Oakland, one of 90+ protest marches planned for the day after Trump’s inauguration. We talk about crowd safety, anarchists and sexual assault. We speak with an urgency that would have been diluted by a Clinton victory.
For years, we have been primed for this national moment – by legends of the Civil Rights movement, by blotchy photographs of suffragettes and grandmothers in handcuffs, by films like Selma that transcend rosy nostalgia to reveal the violence and backroom bargaining that precede policy change. The writers are writing their hearts out. School mums are packing their bags and flying to DC. The already-busy people of this country are taking time every day to call their congressional representatives to chide or thank them.
If there’s a silver lining to Trump’s election, it’s the transformation of “soccer moms” into activists. We’re stepping out of our comfort zones and into the public arenas, where we will call for change, where we will fight for those who don’t live in our neighbourhoods, whose lives barely touch ours, but whose stories need our voices. Protest has been popularised.
With pop protest in the air, we face this task: to remain hawkishly vigilant. The best we can hope for, many Americans believe, is four to eight years of mediocrity. We know that things can get so much worse than that. We studied Weimar Germany. We know how easily bigotry can become policy. We’ve learnt what can happen when a populace grows sleepy and complacent. We know now that the bloodiest roads are paved by the nicest, the politest, the quietest people. We will not be those people. “Yes, we can” has morphed into “No, you won’t.”
It’s January 2017, the day of the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. Americans have witnessed almost two years of absurd and childish campaigning, of post-election hate crimes and a parade of unqualified cabinet appointees. Americans are exhausted. But we’re held erect by one unflappable truth: this isn’t Trump’s America. This country does not belong to one man, however honorable or Machiavellian he might be. America is greater than one president or one government. America is 318 million nations, all rolled into one. This is my neighbour’s America. This is my enemy’s America. This is my children’s America. This is my America.
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran is published by G.P. Putnam's Sons.