In the hours and days after the second presidential debate (10/9/16) I had a hard time describing what exactly about it got me feeling so sad and rudderless and empty. I had few words to share with people. I read a couple articles that I found to be smart and shrewd in naming Donald Trump’s treachery and Hillary Clinton’s poise and Hillary Clinton’s woeful insufficiency and the cowardice of the Republican party and the shameful complacency of the Democratic party and the abysmal, vapid nature of the spectacle itself. But these did not make me feel much better. The second debate made me feel powerless, more powerless even than the first debate in which perhaps the most transparently misanthropic, vile and fact-averse presidential candidate in American history was legitimated, antics and all, by national television and by its 83 million viewers. I felt powerless because in a way I was seeing it all again this second time around. Nothing had changed, except this time it was okay for the Republican candidate to threaten the Democratic candidate, and it was okay for him to prowl behind her on the stage, physically implying a reassertion of his history of sexual violence verbalized and (no doubt in my mind) enacted.
Other than these new displays of atrociousness this was business as usual at an American political debate in 2016. The questions posed were designed to prompt games of association or were outright distractions in an arena in which candidates will say whatever they want. It was an episode of Celebrity Jeopardy in which the contestants respond to carefully tailored insipid questions with any random words that might make them look good/powerful. The moderators flexed and there was a sense of justice in their rejoinders but also a sense of futility in the outcomes and mostly a sense that this was not real life, or, more chillingly, that it was real life in that something consequential was missing from a discursive space in which two people lectured with total righteousness and shouted with great conviction about nothing good. Their conversation perpetuated racial stereotypes. It promoted ignorant dominant whiteness. It promoted a phony, shitty version of civic participation in the form of dumbass questions and a false sense of choice for voters. It failed to engage structural inequality on any level except offhanded, misguided, offensive allusions. It left unquestioned American imperialism. And in a massive feat of irony, it promoted American exceptionalism.
I’ve heard several people I respect tell me that this is the shittiest election of their lives. It sure is the shittiest of mine. It could be the shittiest election in American history. I am not trying to say that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be worse than Bush’s coup in November 2000 or eight years of Ronald Reagan or, oh I don’t know, the Jackson, Polk, Johnson or Harding administrations. Assuming Hillary Clinton wins, things will probably not be so god-awful. I am talking about the election itself and the way it makes me feel. There is so much fear, and the pressure to mobilize in the face of that fear, and the pressure to be nonchalant about the fear for fear of actualizing Trump’s rise through a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is the pressure to play it conservative (i.e., rally around Clinton) because of that fear, and there is the compulsion to demand that others do the same, and then there is the anger that comes with not wanting to settle but knowing you have to do it anyway. There is the dawning realization that your vote “doesn’t count.” There is the desire to disengage from it all but the irresistible need to stay attentive and vocal and enraged in light of the new absurdities and hideousness that emerges from the history of Trump every day.
I told my students that for an optional assignment they could write a gender-lens analysis of the second debate instead of their normal reading response. Very few of them decided to do it, and it is not because they are apolitical. I don’t blame them. Every once in a while Donald Trump comes up in class and it pleases me that they all groan, We don’t want to talk about Trump! I smile and tell them that I don’t want to talk about Trump either. Nobody seems to want to talk about Trump. And yet he is all over my facebook page. He is all over the news. No one wants to talk about him and everyone must talk about him. He is like a ghost that haunts our consciousnesses, the worst idea everyone has ever thought of that no one can discard for fear that not everyone else has responsibly discarded him, too. We all imagine that since he is still definitely stuck in someone’s mind he is likely a threat to all of us. So we vomit his name against our wills and hate ourselves for it. For all who care, this election is an exercise in self-loathing. There is no escape until the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. It’s like a sequel to Groundhog Day. It’s Groundhog Day II: Election Day. Starring every last one of us. Fuck.
Here’s a theory. Part of what is killing us as bystanders, onlookers, pundits, activists, organizers and/or political workers this election cycle, is the reality that the United States is a smarter and more beautiful place than it has ever been. Since in 2016 Americans have earned the viscosity to inch a bit further on the arc toward justice, we see the rise of a terrible human candidate and his uninspiring Democratic counterpart as a more objectionable turn of events than any political occurrence in prior years. What destroys our morale and darkens our souls is the realization of all the work we still have to do—a huge, formidable notion—which, paradoxically, comes as a direct result of how far we have actually come. So when a Donald Trump pops up in 2015 we scream and protest and condemn in a way Americans could never do with such synchronicity, as, say, in 1964 when George Wallace first ran for president, or when Richard Nixon got the nomination on platform pandering to white racist fear. We couldn’t do it because we weren’t self-reflective and compassionate and courageous enough, and we couldn’t do it because we didn’t have social media that better enables us to expose villainy and give our truths a voice. Maybe. I don’t know about how progress can be measured and I’m not convinced that this story of gradual American betterment is not a sanctimonious lie. I do, however, feel strongly that part of the discouragement I am feeling these days is a byproduct of knowing more about what must be done and how to go about doing it. It’s seeing the endless, impossible route ahead, and knowing you’re resolved to go trudge it anyway because you feel strongly about it. I think this kind of discouragement is born out of knowledge and growth. The fact that I am so cynical and feel such doom about the state of things means I have actually made progress in coming to understand how hard it is to make change. The fact that I understand means that some change has actually occurred. And that is some kind of victory, something to allow yourself to feel good about.