Open the paper on any given day and you will find a new perspective on what this anomalous presidency will mean for the future of the U.S., perhaps the world. Everyone is asking, is this part of a well-established ebb and flow? Or, is it more worthy of note? What comes next?
I find my mind these days wanders readily from politics to science. For over a hundred years, geologists argued over two competing theories about how the Earth is shaped and formed over time. The first theory was called uniformitarianism, sometimes gradualism. Proponents of this theory averred that changes to the shape of the Earth’s surface resulted from the action of continuous and uniform processes – stream erosion, glaciation, earthquakes. The other camp argued that, no, the condition of the Earth changed over time as the result of sudden, violent events with widespread impacts – asteroid impacts and massive volcanic eruptions like Krakatoa. They called their theory catastrophism.
After much debate, modern geologists have settled on a sort of compromise between these two theories, a compromise that they often call by the same name as a similar theory in evolutionary biology: punctuated equilibrium. In other words, most of the time change on Earth is incremental, but every once in a while, there’s a major event – an exclamation mark in the record of Earth’s history.
It may seem strange in this political moment to talk of geological disputes, of deep time, but I have always retreated to geologic time in moments of grief, to this realm where human troubles are diminished to a point of meaninglessness in the expanse of everything that has come before us and everything that has yet to come. Therein lies my refuge: a place that humankind cannot control. Over four billion years as a planet, at least three and a half billion with life. Four hundred and fifty million years of land plants, two hundred million of mammals. Just two hundred thousand years of Homo sapiens sapiens. What’s four? Less than one ten millionth of one percent. Nothing.
And yet, there are no words sufficient to this moment, none capable of containing my grief, my outrage, my fear, my bottomless disappointment.
Immediately after the election, it became popular, commonplace among the liberal elite in the United States to say to one another that “we were living in a bubble.” That we should have been paying attention to what was happening in rural America, in poor white America, in conservative America. But I was. I was not ignoring those corners of my country as others say they were. I have spent too much time in them to feign ignorance of their political leanings, their economic strife, and their social concerns. I have seen the consequences of the collapse of the coal industry in Appalachia. I have spoken with those who fear immigrants. I have met those whose only question for any candidate was their stance on abortion. I knew those places and those people, but I could not conceive that this enormity could occur, that this irredeemable man could become president. He supports coal, but with his record on labor, there’s no evidence he will support miners. He wants to build a wall and deport immigrants – never mind that he’s married to one, that he comes from a family of immigrants – but he also wants to take away your healthcare and undermine social services. He opposes abortion, but he has no regard for women; indeed there’s evidence he molests them. How could anyone lay these disparities aside in a colleague, friend, or family member, let alone the leader of a nation?
Yes, some Americans live in bubbles, but they are the ones who voted for Trump. For what is it to live in a bubble if not to be out of touch with the wider world, resistant to the inevitability of change and progress, oblivious to the arc of history? But people in bubbles can win, Pyrrhic though their victory may be.
In 2015, most Americans saw Trump as a joke. He remained such for most of 2016. And now in 2017 he’s a humiliating nightmare. Here we are, America, naked on the gallows. We woke up to the threat too late. We started to organize too late. And even on election day, we thought we were safe. We wore our pantsuits, our I’m-with-her gear. We posted our voting photos on social media, marking the historic moment with grins, witticisms, paeans to the suffragettes, imagining these digital victory cries would mark a day when for the first time in American history, daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, half the country could finally say, someone like me will be president.
A celebratory crowd had assembled in my brother- and sister-in-law’s living room, and found themselves unexpectedly at a wake. It was a shock, but I absorbed it – quick, like a blow. The TV commentators tried to maintain some sense of normalcy, but the shine of their foreheads, the cotton of their voices belied their words. Besides an occasional expletive, the room beyond the television was silent. It was like nothing so much as 9/11. Even that clustering around the screen, as if by putting the full energy of our goodwill and good wishes into the act of watching the aftermath, we could undo a done disaster.
A little after nine, I walked down the hall into a darkened bedroom and curled onto the floor, my thighs against my stomach, my arms against my ears, my hands covering the back of my neck. Earthquake position. I pressed my face in the carpet to bury my keening.
I still do not understand how Americans could be so cruel and so stupid. Votes of hate and fear and greed and ignorance.
But the majority of Americans voted against Trump. This election shook us into wakefulness. If there is any good that can come from this unfolding tragedy it is this new awareness, readiness. But this awakening will take time to effect change and gain in influence. And I fear our energy will wane in the months ahead, that we will acclimate to this degradation. I believe in many ways we already have.
For some outside the U.S. and some no doubt within it, this upheaval serves a grim comeuppance. We Americans have been awfully smug about the virtues of our democracy, our government, our free and fair elections, our checks and balances, our peaceful transfers of power. Yet, a foreign power that has long sought our demise influenced our elections to a yet unknown degree. Our checks and balances failed. The Electoral College was designed specifically to prevent people like Trump from assuming the presidency. But, because it has never been used, perhaps never been needed, to play that role, it served instead as it has in so many of our elections, to suppress the will of the people by putting into office a man who received fewer votes than his opponent, nearly three million fewer. Trump won’t even acknowledge this defeat.
The checks and balances now that Trump is in office are also mightily diminished both by everyone’s low expectations for his behavior and by the fact that, however narrowly, the Republicans dominate the Congress, and our system defaults to winner take all. The Republicans, many of whom vocally denounced Trump prior to the election, have shown they care more about maintaining their power than their morals.
I do believe the arc of history bends towards justice. I still believe in the American experiment. I know my country is better than this, though I no longer think it as good as I did on November 8. Before the election, as sexist and racist and consumptive as I know Americans are, I believed we knew what was right even if we didn’t always do what was right. That we were ashamed of our small-mindedness. That we were great because we were good. Knowing I was wrong hurts quite as much as all the destruction consequent to that misguided trust.
The loss is public and political, but also deeply personal, not simply because Trump and his supporters are attacking principles, people, and places I care about, but because fighting this bigotry is a waste of brilliant minds. It’s taking time and energy and money away from progress and beauty. Instead of planting the palace’s gardens, we’re defending its moat.
Focusing on any one thing this administration is aiming to destroy feels rather like obsessing over a broken window in a burning building. Yet, the general hysteria, the thousands of articles and calls to action on dozens of issues that have bombarded the American people since the election threaten to obscure the very real peril of this presidency. Overwhelmed, we risk becoming paralyzed by the sheer quantity of abhorrent acts to which we might respond. Many people thought that Trump’s campaign promises were hyperbole, but already he has put forward executive orders, broken previously negotiated agreements, and championed legislation to advance each of his stated goals. So, where will you turn to quell the flames? Do you want to stop a wall from being built on our southern border? Do you want to continue welcoming refugees to our shores? Do you want to retain the right to make choices about your own body? Do you want to retain your right to vote? To marry? To afford a doctor’s visit? To drink clean water? To breathe clean air? To anticipate the seasons?
We risk burning with the building if we cannot decide what to salvage. We must, of course, focus on what we each deem most important, but we must also work together to save as much as possible. We lost because we were fractured rather than federated. It’s time for a unified theory of how to shape our country. And if we want to succeed, we’re all going to have to give some things up so we can bring others along. We dreamers must become the shrewdest strategists. What matters to you? What are you going to do about it? Whether climate is your cause, or immigrants’ rights, or Black Lives Matter, or equality for women, we must recognize that they are not separate causes. They are not even just American causes, they are human causes. And they provide the springboards to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We must work together or we will lose apart. And we need the world’s help to overcome this debasement.
For every willful act we take to reclaim the country – for the Women’s March, for the airport protests against the Muslim Ban, for the Climate Mobilization March, for the hundreds of lawsuits our civil society has filed and will file in the years ahead – for every act of hope and defiance, we are buffeted by the pain of new assaults. America is grieving.
You must be able to pick up and put down grief, to let it consume you and to set it aside. You must give in so you can let go. So you can stand up and fight again. So you can take the risk of caring again. So you can march, and protest, and call, and organize, and sleep. We must keep perspective, because the fight is long. And it is not a fight of conservative versus liberal, of left versus right, of Democrat versus Republican. It is a fight of right versus wrong. We are awakened and now we must rise to remake the country. Not the one we thought we knew, but the one we believed in.
In retrospect, the punctuated equilibrium theory seems obvious. Of course the history of the Earth conforms to the same principles that all things do—neither black nor white, everything is mixed. We live in the gray, with periods dull and plodding and those all too exciting.
And there is also no question that this moment in time is a punctuation mark, an exclamation point, a high magnitude earthquake, in the United States’ history. But there’s a chance we can keep it to that, a line and dot at the end of one sentence. Minutes of shaking, crumbling, a new crack. We have an opportunity to hold this within the oscillations of gradualism. But if amid this ocean of possible catastrophes, this uncertain calamity, we should lose our multiplicity, our confederacy of focus, if we should slip and tumble below the post-earthquake tsunami of threats, if all our attention and clarity and drive should be washed away by this hate and destruction, it could become an exclamation point not just in my country’s history, but in global history. If it is the catalyst that many fear, sparking nuclear war, sparking not just a halt to climate action but a regression to uncurbed drilling and pollution, it will take little to become an exclamation point not just in human history, but in the history of life on Earth.
Our challenge is to keep this contained in four short years, one sentence, one extraordinary terminal punctuation. One ten millionth of one percent. There’s a glimmer of possibility it could be less, what with Russia, what with Republican ineptitude. But don’t take solace in the possibility. Remember Paris. This marked moment could readily slip from modern history to human history, could crash yet further through that sacred barrier into deep time, into that last refuge of human hope: the hope that the world is greater than us, that life goes on no matter our choices, that there are forces larger than us, a power neither good nor bad, but simply great, one that can contain and diminish to a point of meaninglessness all our wrong turnings, all our hateful, foolish human mistakes.