American goes dark after Election Day
“Who would have guessed that everything could end so suddenly on a pretty Tuesday morning?”
– Jonathan Franzen, Sep. 24, 2001
No one who showed up for the Brown Democrats victory party in Metcalf Auditorium on Tuesday night had ever seen anything like this. Under two enormous screens streaming CNN and CBS, many of us did our homework, ate birthday cake, made small talk. A few people drank. The last time I could remember so few empty seats in such a large theater was almost a year ago, among a similar surge of anticipation and sea of happy faces that greeted the return of Star Wars. In that movie, entire planets were blown up, and yet, we walked out just fine, maybe even saw it again the next day, or forgot about it. It didn’t really matter. Whatever kind of evil was on the screen stayed there.
Tuesday night, though, was a “waking nightmare,” someone said. The Times TV critic, James Poniewozik, wrote the next day: “It was as if an asteroid hit.” Staring up at a giant Wolf Blitzer and John King, I couldn’t help but think of Godzilla tearing up New York or perhaps of Independence Day. “Florida is lost,” my neighbor said. “But there is still hope in Ohio.” Flashback to four years ago and we were all laughing about Karl Rove and his made-up math on his whiteboard, mistakenly giving Ohio to Romney. Now, we looked for a miracle surge of Hispanic vote in Arizona, a Hail Mary in North Carolina, and hung on every number Nate Silver tweeted. None of it came true.
The leader of the Brown Dems muted the sound to tell us to call our loved ones. A few people left, but many others wanted to wait until the very end. Tears were shed but most of us were too shocked to cry. A tattered, half-completed Hillary banner lay at my feet, and a fading slogan (“Stronger Together”) erased itself on the whiteboard. Our life-sized cardboard-cut-out Hillary, the site of more than a few selfies the day before, seemed exhausted all of a sudden. Any photo you could have taken would have been captioned: “Looking for a friend at the end of the world.”
Back in my room, alone again, I turned on the TV. Van Jones was in the process of congratulating one of his co-panelists on CNN, the white supremacist Trump surrogate Jeffrey Lord and his face looked like a plea to just push him out of one of the windows onto the pavement. On Showtime, Stephen Colbert’s election special descended into the bargaining phase. “I’m so glad you guys are here. I wouldn’t want to be alone right now,” he said. By the time Trump walked out onto the stage to speak after 2:30 a.m. Wednesday morning and started congratulating his deplorable henchmen for being willing accessories to the killing of American democracy, I was having an out-of-body experience. I couldn’t stop thinking about how late it was for Baron, Trump’s 11-year old son, to be up on the stage. Didn’t he have school the next day? How did we just elect a man who names his son fucking Baron? If someone had touched me, I would have dissolved into molecules.
It took a few sleepless days and nights to get my senses back. Still, for a while, laughter felt like a different language. I thought of Brecht’s famous line, written on the eve of World War II: “He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible news.”
On Wednesday, one girl described it as if, “the entire campus was run over by a bus.” A couple cried on a bench, one of my TAs cried through almost the entire class, another student said their history professor broke down in class. A friend from another college called me on the phone, said her parents didn’t understand why she was so sad, and then she too started crying, until all she could get out was simply, “I miss you.” A group of incredibly strong people cut out little hearts, wrote messages like “We love you” and “Choose love” and put them on the walls of Faunce and the benches on the Main Green. My roommate skipped class and stayed off Facebook. I grabbed the morning papers, even the Providence Journal, which I’d never read, just because some part of me wanted a bit of history before the dining hall threw it out.
On Wednesday night, I went to see Moonlight down at the Cable Car Cinema, mostly because it was free, because the reviews were good, and because maybe, just maybe, I could forget a second what I’d seen on another screen. The story of two gay black men in Miami is about as far away from “Make America Great Again” as you can get. But it didn’t work. I know I’ll have to see the movie again; it deserves more from me than blank stares of distraction. I wondered who could think of love in the time of Trump.
On the way back from the theater, I caught up to the dying embers of the anti-Trump protest. I saw a girl I almost knew, and I joined in alongside her. We chanted, “Not My President!” but those words didn’t feel strong yet, still too raw. And they weren’t exactly right either. Trump is my president, I thought. Trump is our president.
On Friday night, I went to services at Hillel even though I’m hardly Jewish. I thought of the text I received earlier in the week from another acquaintance: “I don’t know what to say.” Sometimes it helps just move your mouth, let the words fill you up, the old Hebrew hymns do whatever they’ve been doing for centuries. Sometimes it helps to just let the white noise sing its caring song.
Already, we scanned the scene for signs of change. That that police officer stood outside on a freezing night instead of sipping tea inside. That the rabbi showed up for a student-run dinner. The box of tissues on the lobby table was one of how many? “It’s been a tough week,” a woman said. “I haven’t been able to sleep.”
At dinner, I sat next to a peer much more committed to Brown Democrats than I was. He spoke of a thousand hours, of his home swing state of Ohio. Was he talking to me? Or to someone else at the table? Of course I should have done more, I thought. But I had my own life to lead.
That night I turned on the TV again, not to the news but to Gilmore Girls on Netflix. I entered a world where Lorelai flirted behind the counter and tried to find the right colors to paint Luke’s diner and Rory dressed up as a 1950s housewife in order to impress her boyfriend, Dean. A world where anything seemed possible, but the ending had already been written. A world where Trump was still just on TV.
We have been talking about the election for days now, in every space, but there are too just many thoughts and not enough words and far too few ideas. I want to say, there will be time to talk about the filibuster and infrastructure packages and climate change, that there will be time to donate to Planned Parenthood and sign up for ACLU alerts and reach out to some of these unicorn members of the white working class. And maybe even that time is tomorrow, but for now, give us a chance to dream.
Trump captured the imagination of millions of Americans on Tuesday; many dreamed of an America without Muslim, black, or gay Americans. Others dreamed of steady paychecks and simple families and big, beautiful walls. But last Tuesday many of us, who cried on Wednesday, pretended we didn’t need dreams. We just assumed life would go on as it had before, just with a slightly different president, because if anyone owned reality, we did. Now, with our country entering a darkness, we stand waiting for some meaning to return to us, for the words, images, slogans to make sense. All the time we wonder: How do we grab hope while our new president talks of grabbing pussy?
Yet, time is already telling its own story of hope. Among the many things that have already breached the despair is a tweet sent out by the German Foreign Office last Wednesday that proclaims: “Today, we remember one of the happiest days in German history: The fall of the Berlin Wall.” The Foreign Office, with a perfect-sized spoonful of irony, signs off with the hashtag #NoMoreWalls, and already I’m reminded that history doesn’t run in one direction; it swings back and forth until you seize it with your hands. Only eight years ago, long before I could vote, I stood on the Manassas Fairgrounds in Virginia with my father and waited for a young charismatic Senator from Illinois to deliver his final campaign speech in front of 80,000 Americans. Even though on that night, Barack Obama was two hours late, we said the next day that we couldn’t wait for hope and change. It feels like a long time ago now, but it’s not ancient history.
And so in a few months, wherever the Trump Administration launches its first assault, whether against blacks, immigrants, Muslims or any other group in America and abroad, we will have to refuse and stand in opposition, a wall against his wall. This is not another reality show or movie you can walk out of. You can’t turn this TV off. Our memories may be short, but our vision is vast. We have less to lose only because we have everything to lose. And when the Trump administration tells us that this is the new normal and tries to erase their crimes and words, as they are already doing, we will refuse their reality, fall asleep thinking and wake up alive. I am already dreaming of the future.