The Night America Turned Its Back On Us

I can’t even remember what state the woman was from. She was perky and joyful, with a hard gleam in her eye that said she recognized that her message, whatever it was, had been sent and received. When asked why she, a woman, had cast a vote for Donald Trump, she bounced up and down with her “Trump/Pence” sign while parroting back various Trumpisms involving freedom, liberty, and making America great. By the time she finished speaking, it was clear she had no idea why she had voted as she did. The reporter accepted her incomprehensible explanation. And then it was over.

There have been a lot of low moments in the Trump campaign for women, people of color, those with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQIA community. Like the revelation of the numerous allegations of sexual assault against Trump. Or the fact that his running mate has advocated for conversion therapy for homosexuals. Or the time Trump mocked a disabled reporter. Or any of the numerous comments Trump has made about women, Mexicans, Muslims, or blacks. But nothing in this campaign hit me harder than that the woman from the state I can’t remember, pleased as punch about casting a vote she couldn’t explain.

American school children are sold a bill of goods from a young age. We’re taught that America is a country of immigrants, a melting pot of cultures, where anyone is welcome to come make a better life. Give me your tired, your poor, blah blah blah. Young girls are told they can be anything they want to be, that they are equal to their male counterparts in every way. During Black History Month, we study Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and talk about how horrible things were in America before the Civil Rights Movement. We’re taught that now, everyone has the same rights. That we’re all free.

What they never told us in school is that people change as they get older. Life has a way of beating them down, making them bitter and hard. They never told us that, when people are down on their luck, they look at their neighbors and envy what they have. Our teachers never said that some people become intent on keeping what’s theirs, no matter how little others may have. We never knew that so many people cared so little for the rest of us. During Black History Month, we didn’t learn how many Americans still hold hatred in their hearts. No one told us how many women still reap the rewards of aligning themselves with the powerful patriarchy.

That wasn’t the America they told us about in school.

If you’re a woman, a person of color, have a disability, or are a member of the LGBTQIA community, it’s hard not to see the millions of votes for Trump as votes against you as a person. Somewhere along the way, millions of our friends, neighbors, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, decided that we don’t matter. So many white women, marginalized in their own right, threw their lot in with the embodiment of the patriarchy and its oppressors. Women who have been victims of sexual assault and domestic violence themselves joined together with the alt-right men who mock victims mercilessly on social media sites like Twitter and Reddit. A majority of white Americans cast their vote for a man endorsed by the Klu Klux Klan, who cited their shared values with Trump.

I suspect, years from now, we’ll acknowledge that 2016 marked the turning point in American culture. It’s when we stopped pretending to care about each other as Americans. It’s the campaign in which nothing was off-limits, too offensive, or too insulting to garner votes. It’s when a majority of Americans looked at an openly racist, xenophobic, and misogynist candidate and said “okay by me.” This campaign has marked the death of civility, compassion, and kindness as expectations for our elected citizens. America has elected a literal Twitter troll to its highest office. A man who encouraged his supporters to intimidate the press and threatened to jail his political opponent simply for criticizing him. It’s hard to imagine a way back from this.

I don’t know what kind of president Donald Trump will turn out to be, but I do know that November 8, 2016, will mark the day many of us woke up from the matrix to realize what kind of country we live in: a deeply divided one in which we no longer vote in our nation’s best interests, but only in what we perceive to be our own. A country in which our friends, neighbors, and family members may harbor deep-seated bigotry of which we knew nothing. A country in which many no longer feel the responsibility of leaving America just a bit better off than we found it.

Perhaps America has the potential to be great one day. Maybe, someday, we’ll get it figured out. But today, for the first time, I know it won’t be in my lifetime. It takes generations for a nation to become so steeped in hatred and apathy for others, and it will take generations to unwind the damage, if ever, done by this election. The rise of Donald Trump, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia have gone mainstream, and it’s impossible to imagine shoving it back into the genie bottle any time soon.

Nearly 250 years ago, J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur asked the infamous question “What then is the American, this new man?” Yesterday, I thought I knew the answer. This morning, I’m confident that I don’t.

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