4 Things I'm Still Learning From Trump's Election

06/12/2017 08:01 am ET

1. That feeling I’m feeling is shame.

The past several months have felt like several years for the same reason that everything seems to slow down during a car crash—trauma, and the grief that comes after, warps and extends time.

Grief is definitely what I felt on election night. I stayed up the whole time—until three in the morning—sitting against the wall, watching the results, but the clearest thing in my memory is a tweet.

It was about what was going on at the Javits Center, where Clinton was supposed to make her victory speech. A reporter tweeted that Lady Gaga and Katy Perry were crying together behind the curtain. That image of those two women decked out in over-the-top costumes and sobbing is going to be my image of political grief for a long time.

But grief isn’t the right word for my mood, or the country’s mood, since November 8. In the past few months, I’ve been feeling grief, yes, but also a manic, nauseous energy, a sense of failure and regret, and, most of all, the vertigo-inducing certainty that the world is worse now than it was this time last year. What I’ve been feeling is shame.

That shame comes from needing to face, constantly and at random times, the fact that, through a combination of ambivalence, overconfidence, fierce, protective love curdled by fear, and plain malice, we as a country chose a leader who is unequivocally smaller than us. The persistence of it is a central part of the shame I feel. But so is the need to react.

2. That other feeling I’m feeling is pride.

Shame can be a great motivator. It’s brought me out to protest multiple times since November 8, and I doubt I’m alone in that.

In fact, I’m the opposite of alone—shame animates democracy. Having had the opportunity to do something better and failing to take that opportunity both defines shame and drives people to the ballot box. It’s the twin of hope, and so the other feeling I’ve had these past months is pride—pride that so many people are acting to bring about a better world.

There is not a single person protesting or learning about politics for the first time who doesn’t see a better alternative, even if that alternative comes into focus only in the context of what’s been lost. That motivation is a lot uglier than capital-H Hope but it’s just as honest, just as powerful, and just as urgent.

3. Being a citizen is the hardest job in the entire goddamn republic, and I will never take a day off again.

And a lack of urgency does feel like the core problem. People treat politics, if not as an actual sport, then at least as a discrete set of events separate from daily life; either you’re participating in politics—voting, protesting, or arguing online—or you’re onto other things. But when you turn away, you’re abandoning the field to those who are still there.

That’s not to say that everyone should be talking about politics every waking moment. But it’s why it’s important to approach citizenship not as a title but as a job. Titles let you show up just for the fun parts; the title of “president” gets you state dinners and in-house bowling alleys. But a job is something you show up for even during the boring, difficult parts—it goes even deeper than protest. It’s an every-single-day thing that involves chores like emailing your county executive and researching chained CPI.

Being a citizen is a boring, difficult, full-time job that does not give vacation days. The only way forward is to accept that, embrace it, and put it at the center of the contract we make with each other. People will rise to the occasion.

4. We’re going to win.

As horrible as the past few months have been, the explosion of resistance organizations—from Flippable to Swing Left to the Indivisible Guide (and my own project, It Starts Today)—have tapped into an energy that is awesome in every sense of the word. They are giving people a way back into the process. This is a task that is too large to wait for the next election season, and it is the first, most necessary step toward rebuilding.

But by win, I don’t mean politically, and by we, I don’t mean the Democratic Party. What this election revealed is that people will make rash, desperate decisions if they believe that is the only way to improve the lives of those they care about. That need to protect the people close to you, even if your actions are based on misinformation and preexisting biases, is the ugly cousin of love.

That is the final, unbreakable bridge between Trump’s bitterest opponents and his bitterest supporters: We are motivated by the same feelings of hope and shame, and we have the same animating vision that there are better worlds, though those imagined worlds may be irreconcilably different. It’s not simply that everyone needs to sit down and talk it out. But it’s worth the recognition (or at least the delusion) that almost everyone in this fight is trying to do right by the people they care about.

Where does that get us? Not very far. But it’s the sturdiest base for a world where time moves at the proper pace again, and it’s what rebuilding looks like: an approach to democracy resting on the expectation that even our opponents are building from a foundation of love and good intentions—sometimes foolish, always worth it—as the first, most necessary step.

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