Opinion

Grieving America

How I've been coping with President Trump

Here's a good game to play with yourself: Try to figure out whether or not you can make it through Donald Trump's presidency unharmed.

What are your liabilities? What has Trump already said about your sexuality, about your culture, about your family, about you? How many promises has he made on the campaign trail, and how many of those promises have been not promises, but threats, and how many of them have been about hurting you? Really think about it.

It's hard for me to avoid trying to convince myself that the pain I feel, in the aftermath of this election, isn't really real. I'm a little too good at talking myself out of pain in general. Last year, I went to the ER after cutting my hand badly (sharp knife, stubborn pumpkin), and spent about an hour and a half sitting in the exam room applying pressure to the wound and waiting for someone to see me. The upshot was that I didn't have my friends or anything else to distract me, and so I did my best to turn the gash on my finger into something I could use to pass the time, since what else was there?

What's pain? I thought, and amused myself for a while by convincing myself that it didn't feel bad, not necessarily — just a steady throbbing, a heartbeat making itself known in an unexpected place. And when the doctor finally arrived and anesthetized my hand and started sewing me up, I made myself look at the cut and think, This doesn't have to be scary, as long as I can tell myself that it isn't really me.

So back to Trump. As far as my liabilities go, I'm on the bubble. I'm a woman, which is a problem. But also I'm white, middle-class, cisgender, and grab-worthy, which promises me at least a certain kind of safety. I'm one of the very lucky ones. There is a fair chance that I will make it through a Trump presidency without being disastrously affected by Trump's specific policies, or being targeted by the hate and discrimination that have been at the heart of his campaign from the very beginning. I'm as safe as I can get without actually being male.

And yet this time, my coping mechanism is not enough. I still feel visceral anxiety at the thought of him assuming office. The realization I came to again and again throughout his campaign — that I knew Americans hated women but not this much, that I've always known a female body was a dangerous place to live but never quite realized it was this dangerous, that it was this loathed, that it was this feared — has been confirmed by this election's results.

In the gray, early hours after the election was called, at a time I told myself was not quite the morning after, not yet, the mantra I used to tell myself I wasn't really in pain was This is not your tragedy. And it isn't, and it is. I have the privilege of being able to envision a Trump presidency in which I will not be harmed. But I already feel hated.

I tell myself sternly — what's pain? — that this is what democracy is: American voters have chosen their president, and they have chosen Donald Trump. Regardless of the questions surrounding voter suppression, regardless of whether or not we might somehow find that Trump's victory is in question, an enormous swath of Americans still voted for him. They wanted him. They're getting him.

This, I know, is another face of democracy: not just effect, but cause. We can see these results as a sign not just of what America will be, but what it already was. The will of the people has prevailed and it is not my will. There is value in the insight this revelation provides.

I might want to grieve today for a country where hatred wasn't a prevailing value, but I am also wary of grieving something that was never really mine. We can't mourn the loss of a country that unilaterally valued racial equality or women's rights, a country that provided living wages and affordable health care to its citizens, a country capable of electing a female president, because we've never really had one — not yet.

What some of us have lost — what I have lost — is a way of seeing America, and, by extension, a way of seeing ourselves. We want to believe that America, as a country, is basically good, basically just, basically principled, and basically capable of protecting the freedoms that are not just our joys, but our rights.

America can be all these things. America can do all these things — except it can't, exactly, because America itself does nothing. Whatever fundamental goodness we can claim will come not from our national history, or from some bedrock sense of ethics and decency that our country was built upon, and thus must stand on forever. There are no guarantees. A country can only be as good as its people. Specifically, it can only be as good as the individual choices its people make, hour by hour and day by day.

This week we watched as a decisive battle was waged and won and lost, but our national character is not determined by a battle decided once every four years. Our president, no matter who they are, does not determine the kind of country America is. We all do.

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