Fight or Flight: Or, A Dilemma of American Privilege

Donald Trump is the President-Elect of the United States.

There. I said it.

I couldn’t say it yesterday. I needed the day after the election to begin to wrap my head around what had just happened. The 2016 presidential campaign felt like a satire–often, a farce–from the very beginning, and it’s been tough to recognize that this is now my reality. We all know the facts: endorsed by the KKK, with a platform that articulates bigotry and misogyny, beyond anti-intellectual and into anti-conscious thought, this creature of America’s basest instincts was legitimately elected into power by more than 59 million of my fellow citizens.

The disastrous results of this election put the alt-right in the Executive branch of our government, to be checked by the hard right in the Legislative and the soon-t0-be-determined level of fucking crazy in the Judicial. Even if Trump manages to last four years without doing something incredibly illegal and getting impeached, or just quitting when he finds out it’s actually a really hard job, this particular conformation of government is going to screw the vast majority of people in this country for a long time to come. I expect we’ll get a flipped Senate, at least, in two years, but that’s cold comfort.

Before the election, my husband and I discussed what we do in the event of a Trump presidency. Of course these conversations had a flippant tone–such a thing wasn’t going to happen, after all–but we decided we couldn’t live in such a dystopian version of our country. We’d go to New Zealand: gorgeous, no language barrier, as far away as possible from nuclear strike zones. We recognize our socioeconomic privilege in having the choice at all. We haven’t had the heart to bring the topic up seriously now that the dystopia is here, but the talk is coming. My first instinct is certainly to flee this place. Why would I want to live in a country that chose white supremacy? Why stay in a place that is growing farther and farther away from my own ideals?

But Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 200,000. Other than rubbing salt in the wound, that means that nearly 60 million of my fellow citizens are on the right side of history, on the side of civil rights and of basic human decency. If I left, I’d also be leaving them. I’m not sure what the Venn Diagram looks like of those voters and the most vulnerable to Trumper policies, but I’m sure there’s a lot of overlap there.

That’s where privilege comes up again: I’m not at great risk to Trump’s would-be policies, though as a woman some absolutely affect me in deeply personal ways, and I’m sure that I could use my position of relative safety to fight for the most vulnerable. I could use my privilege as a white person, as someone with financial security, as someone in a (relatively) safe state, to advantage by staying and fighting for the America that should be.

Staying and fighting also requires an acknowledgement that I have let my country down so far. Of all the emotions I’ve been facing over the last couple of days, one keeps rising to the top like an oil slick on water: guilt.

Democracy doesn’t magically come into being every four years and then go away. A government by and for the people demands the people’s involvement for real success. I have voted in every election since I turned 18, but that is not enough.

I am not an activist. I am not a politician. I throw a bit of money at likely candidates every few years, I sign petitions, I write to my Senators and Representatives if something big comes up. I understand that this is more involved that many Americans, but what a disgustingly low bar. How easy to step over it into real engagement with our political process.

At least, it should be. I don’t know there to go from here. What constitutes a step towards being a truly good citizen? Volunteering with some local org? Running for local office? Finding a job with the Elizabeth Warren office, hallowed be her name? What does fighting look like?

The loudest demographic of this election was a plurality of voters across America hungry for change–even change at the expense of human decency and the ideals of the American experiment, apparently. The establishment parties have seen that hunger and they’re scared. That’s why Republicans stuck by Trump, through all the unfathomably awful things he’s said and done; they were afraid to let go of this “change agent” and be left by the wayside. But they’re going to get back to business as usual to the extent their constituency lets them.

By the same token, the Democrats yielded to progressive pressure early on, incorporating much of the “Bernie revolution” message into the party platform. Will the party keep fighting for those ideals? It seems they have to–we must swing wildly left to counter the fast-sinking right. Change is hard, though, and it is our duty to make sure the DNC knows we’re watching. Or better yet, participating. Perhaps that’s continuing to put pressure on the party to change. Perhaps that’s committing to nationwide election reform so that we can make third parties viable parts of our process instead of wisps of St. Elmo’s fire that lead otherwise good people off into the wastelands when they’re needed most.

Flight sounds easy but of course it isn’t. I don’t want to leave behind those I love. Fight sounds hard, but maybe it’s not as hard as I think. The wounds of this election–the hatred and the bigotry, seeing progress shoved so forcibly back–will turn into scars no matter where I live the next four years. Over the coming days what I need to figure out is: do I still believe in America? Can this go from being my country by an accident of birth to a country I help build? The one thing I know is that I cannot stay here and remain a bystander.

I want to hear how you see us saving the dream of America. Or, toss out some good business ideas for New Zealand and let’s look at real estate. I’m open.

This is New Zealand. I mean, can you blame me?
This is New Zealand. I mean, can you blame me?

1 thought on “Fight or Flight: Or, A Dilemma of American Privilege”

  1. Reading your post gave me substantial comfort; thank you.

    I have been fretting mostly that all of you in the up-and-coming generations will suffer most from the stupidity, fear, and denial of reality expressed in this political catastrophe. And that’s largely the fault of my generation and the nearby ones. But perhaps this shock will help generate action from those who have been on the sidelines up to now. If so, you all will have a real chance to bring this country back to its highest founding ideals.

    I don’t have any concrete suggestions for you, unless you really would consider running for local/state office. (BTW, you would be a great elected official) That’s asking a whole lot of anyone; but it could be part of a larger movement that collectively could swing the tide back to humaneness, economic and ecological sustainability, and justice. Just sayin’.

    Just read your piece to Carl over the phone (we have limited access to internet here in MD, I’m at a neighbor’s house using their wifi). He thinks you should send it to the NY Times; I agree. The country needs to hear more from people like you, and from you especially.

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