A Country of Contradictions

A sign hanging in the back left corner of my local Hillary Clinton campaign office. Photo by me, taken November 10, 2016.

It’s taken me more than a month to stop screaming on the inside.

Not too long ago, everything looked okay. Donald Trump was down in the polls. Hillary Clinton, after a hellacious year and a half, was on track to humiliate him from California to Maine. I was working for her campaign in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. I was a Fall Fellow. This means I worked for the organizers. This also means that I did not get paid. I was alright with that.

I grew up walking distance from Tim Kaine’s house. The man is my uncle in all but name. Since before I was born, the Clintons have also been an important part of my little subsection of this world. As I’ve written previously, Bill saved my life and my mother’s while I was still in her womb. Hillary was a critical part of why some of my friends growing up had healthcare. If I was gonna work on behalf of anybody and not get paid, then let it be these folks.

Most of what I did as a campaign fellow consisted of recruiting and helping to train volunteers. I made a ridiculous number of phone calls. I might have called you. If I did, you probably didn’t pick up. Most people didn’t.

Anyway. In the lead-up to the election, everything looked okay. What about WikiLeaks? She was still up in the polls. What about Comey? She was still solidly projected to win. Hey, what about Arizona? Yeah, even that might be in play. In stray moments, I thought maybe we’d really catch a miracle. Maybe the stars would align and Hillary would win Texas.

Then the election happened.

I am an aspiring screenwriter. I am an avid lover of movies and books and stories in all formats. I tend to go for ones that feature heroes and happy endings, tales in which the righteous win when they go up against the wretched, epics in which everybody except the villains lives happily ever after. The notion of a Trump win never seemed quite real to me. In some ways, it still doesn’t.

We won Virginia. Richmond had better turnout for Hillary than when we reelected Obama. I’m proud that I helped make that happen. I just wish that it had been enough.

The campaign is over now. Today, as I get ready for the holidays, and I look around and see the trappings of hope and cheer everywhere, I’m thinking of a sign that was out of reach, the sign in the fuzzy picture atop this post.

I’m sorry that the photograph is fuzzy. I took it with my phone, two days after the election, when everybody who used to work in the campaign office showed up to take it all apart. Nobody did anything the previous day. We took that one to grieve. And when I took the photo, I wasn’t focused on image clarity. I was too busy searching, clawing for mental clarity.

Denial was a river that overflowed in my mind. This can’t happen. Donald Trump can’t win. Hillary had her weaknesses as a candidate, but no politician is perfect, and how could anyone lose to such a hateful human being? Marco Rubio put it bluntly back in March: Trump is a man “who in rallies has told his supporters to basically beat up the people who are in the crowd and he’ll pay their legal fees.”

And if only that was the worst thing Trump had done. His wrongs in word and deed are too numerous to list. In a daze after the night that so many things went wrong, I refused to accept it. I couldn’t begin to process it. The home of the brave could not elect a candidate of fear and hate. The man who took the lowest road in modern American politics couldn’t win the highest office in the land, especially not when he was up against an absurdly qualified woman who helped some of my childhood friends get healthcare. No. Just no.

I’m sorry. I’m getting away from the sign. I took the photo above on November 10, 2016. It’s a bad photo, not just because it’s fuzzy. It’s bad because it doesn’t show you that the sign was on the left wall, in the back corner. Not too long before that day, that wall had held other signs, plus a poster for England with a declaration printed on the bottom in red: “Moving isn’t an option.” But that was before things fell apart. That was before Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin didn’t hold, before the “blue firewall” blew all to pieces.

Forty-eight hours after good fought evil and good lost, the other signs were gone. The poster was too. The other walls had been stripped. Everything that could be taken down had been. The glossy photos were gone, fallen to the floor with other remnants of the campaign. But this one sign remained. Nobody knew how it got up that high. Nobody knew how to get it down.

It said “Disarm Hate.” I had to leave early to run family errands. When I drove away for the last time, the sign was still hanging high.

We are a generous and compassionate country. We are also the country in which Emmett Till and Matthew Shepard were brutally murdered. We are the country that made Martin Luther King, Jr. We are also the country that crafted Bull Connor, a country that remained divided even when Connor attacked the innocent with dogs and fire hoses. When we helped save the world more than seventy years ago, we championed freedom abroad without fully extending it to all citizens here at home.

We are a country of contradictions. The founders, for all their faults, knew this much from the moment we were formed. America has never been truly great. The preamble to the Constitution makes clear the goal of forming “a more perfect Union.” It says “more perfect,” not “totally perfect.” From the very beginning, we’ve had work to do, and we always will. The American experiment is not supposed to be about going back, but moving forward, further along that arc that is supposed to bend towards justice.

I can’t even begin to count how many phone calls I made during the campaign, but some of the few that connected are going to stay with me. My grandfather is 92. One day, the next name on my list was a woman even older than he is. I almost didn’t call her, out of courtesy. Her generation fought its fight. Leave it to mine to make things right. But I called her anyway, because she deserved to have a voice. Her voice turned out to be full of enthusiasm, overflowing with energy. “I would like to serve,” she told me. She came in and made calls every Wednesday, every week.

Another call comes to mind, this one with a woman not much older than my mother. Let’s call her Mrs. Smith. I gave the standard volunteer recruitment pitch, and Mrs. Jones said yes. Then she started talking, and she wouldn’t stop. She had so much on her mind, and this election was so important to her. She started talking about Hillary, and she sounded like she was about to cry. “We need her.” Mrs. Smith said that. I’ll never forget her words.

In the lead up to Election Day, I was appointed a staging location director. This means I spent my weekends helping coordinate door-to-door volunteers. I helped make sure they knew where to go and had what they needed. I was one of many people who helped make sure that we knocked on every door in Richmond. There were so many people who shouldered another shift. One guy about my dad’s age never worked fewer than two a day.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that the people who worked for this campaign weren’t enthusiastic. America chose Hillary Clinton by a wide margin of the popular vote. She has, quite literally, received more votes for president than any white man in history. Barring a miracle growth of conscience, that antiquated body known as the Electoral College is going to choose Donald Trump when they vote on December 19th. We will have to accept that.

We’ll have to accept his occupancy of the Oval Office. But we don’t have to accept as normal a man whose record of bigotry and frequent falsehood has been so well established. We don’t have to accept the frequent hate crimes that occur in his name, to which he has offered denunciations so halfhearted that they might as well be winks. We don’t have to accept a man who appears dead-set on governing by division, despite his lip service to being a president for all Americans. We don’t have to believe that this is the best we can do.

I think we can do better. In these tumultuous times, we’re right to feel fear for a wide variety of reasons. But we shouldn’t cower. We need courage. We need to look out for each other, not just ourselves. We need to do all we can to make sure that an aspirational and inclusive vision of America does not get completely overwhelmed, that hope doesn’t get hurled out the window as we careen down this highway.

We are the country in which Jack and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, but we are also the country that twice elected Barack Obama. In his first inaugural address, Bill Clinton declared, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” He was right when he said that, and we shouldn’t forget it. We are astonishingly far from perfect, but no other country on Earth has our sense of promise. We can do better, but we won’t without you. So volunteer. Protest. Stand up for your ideals; send forth a ripple of hope. And every year, we need to vote. We need to turn our screaming into a societal shift, and we can do it.

For City Council and Congress, we need to vote. For School Board and the state Senate, we need to vote. At every opportunity available, we need to make our voices heard. The calendar moves forward even when the country moves backwards. We’re closing in on 2017. Eventually, the page will turn to 2020. When that year comes, we’ll win back the White House, with Cory Booker or Elizabeth Warren or whoever.

In 2020, we’ll take that sign down. We won’t disarm hate, but we will take a solid step towards that destination.

One day, we just might arrive.