NO, I’m not over it.
On Election Day I felt as though I had awakened in America and gone to sleep in Ecuador, or maybe Belgium. Or Thailand, or Zambia, or any other perfectly nice country that endures the usual ups and downs of history as the years pass, headed toward no particular destiny.
It’s different here, or at least it was. America was always supposed to be something, as much a vision as a physical reality, from the moment that John Winthrop, evoking Jerusalem, urged the Massachusetts Bay Colony to “be as a city upon a hill.” To be an American writer meant being able to share that sense of purpose, those expectations, and to flatter yourself that you were helping to shape it. Nobody expects anything out of Belgium.
More than any other country, I think, America has been a constant character in the work of its writers. Not only those writers who celebrate it ecstatically, like Walt Whitman, who made his life’s work one long ode to our young nation, or Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Toni Morrison, or E. L. Doctorow, who have picked more critically through its past. It applies as well to those who have scourged it, and exposed the worst of its contradictions and betrayals; a Richard Wright or a Ralph Ellison, or John Reed. It remained a vivid entity even in the work of those who have left it for one reason or another, Henry James or Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway, or John Dos Passos.
Their love for it, and their disappointments, all have the same roots, which are those expectations and those dreams. Even at our lowest, we believe with Langston Hughes’s wish to “let America be America again/The land that never yet has been, and yet must be”; with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s overworked but ever more necessary claim that the moral arc of the universe may be long but that here, at least, it bends toward justice. Even its sternest critics agreed: America was going places!
I know that it may sound naïve, even childish, to think that any nation has a special destiny. It’s the kind of thing that dictators and demagogues like to tell their people. I doubt if many of the other writers I know would admit they believe in such a big, vague concept as “American exceptionalism.” But we do, most of us. It’s inescapable, considering what we are: the first republic of the modern age, a nation of immigrants, haven to so many peoples from around the world. We have, like no other country, for better and for ill, dominated the modern world through both our hard power and our soft, our weapons but also our ideas.
I can tell you all of the worst things we have done. The annihilation of the peoples who lived here before we did, and how much of America was built on the backs of enslaved Africans. The things we have done to other nations weaker than ours, the death squads and the C.I.A. schemes, and all the squalid little wars we’ve waged to grab land or save face. The exploitation and the bigotry, and the withering greed, and how we let the vastness of this continent fool us into believing that no matter how big a mistake we make, we can always start over — that we can endlessly root up and tear down, and move unmindfully through the world.
I have written about many of these things, but that was in a greater cause, too. The absolute conviction, in the end, that I, too, was caught up in the great work; that I was helping us to get to some higher place and fulfill our promise.
Geoffrey Ward, the brilliant American historian and the writer of many of Ken Burns’s documentaries, told me with a sense of wonder, a few days after the election: “I just turned 76 and had naïvely assumed that issues I thought resolved when I was a young man — voting rights, abortion, the ongoing enrichment immigration provides our country — would remain resolved.”
Nothing is settled anymore in America, and it appears that so many of the gains we have fought so hard to win over the years are about to be rolled back by our new president and the party that has so cravenly backed him, even when it knows better. Obamacare, which millions of us — myself included — depend upon, is already under assault, and Medicare may not be far behind. Who knows what established rights the cadres of far-right justices who will now fill the federal benches for a generation may strike down?
Yet when I say that I have lost the America I knew, I’m not talking about policy, or even fundamental rights, disorienting as their loss would be. I mean a greater, almost spiritual faith that I had in my fellow citizens and their better instincts, something that served as my north star in all I wrote and all I did.
When I watched the debates and the conventions this year, my thoughts kept going back to my parents, neither of whom lived to see this election. They would have been staggered by the sheer, pounding vulgarity of it all. They were both political moderates, who voted Republican as well as Democratic, and who like most of us never paid all that much attention to politics outside the few weeks before an election. But the phenomenon of Donald J. Trump — a man who says he has never asked God for forgiveness, who refers to the Eucharist with characteristic humility (“I drink my little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and have my little cracker”), who mocks our military heroes, who lumbers about a stage proclaiming, “I alone can fix it!,” who dismissed a working man after the election with a tweet that read in part, “Spend more time working — less talking” — would have been incomprehensible to them. They would have thought themselves transported to some other time and country, maybe another dimension. As do I.
I have listened to all the blame foisted on the Clinton campaign for doing this or that wrong, or the media for not exposing Mr. Trump, or for giving him too much airtime. I don’t buy it. Hillary Clinton’s campaign wasn’t that bad, and Mr. Trump was exposed enough for any thinking adult to see exactly what he is.
From assorted commentators I have heard that it is unfair or condescending to say that all Trump voters were racists, or sexists, or that they hated foreigners. All right. But if they were not, they were willing to accept an awful lot of racism and sexism and xenophobia in the deal they made with their champion, and demanded precious few particulars in return. Lately Mr. Trump has endorsed the comparison of his personal populist movement with Andrew Jackson’s, and it is true that there was much that was racist and ignorant at the heart of Jacksonian democracy. For their love, the followers of Old Hickory demanded the destruction of Native American civilization in the South, and the furthering of slavery westward. This cruel bargain won Jackson voters land, and thus the vote. What have those who embraced “Mr. I Alone Can Fix It” obtained, save for the vague, grandiose promise, renewed in his inaugural, that they will soon “start winning again, winning like never before”? Or — worse — Mr. Trump’s vow to end “political correctness” and make this, at least rhetorically, the same white man’s America it was in Jackson’s time?
I know that Mr. Trump was elected, in part, because too many people were still hurting in this economy, from the terrible disruptions of their lives and their communities over the last 25 years. I have been poor and desperate myself, and I know what that feels like. In their giddy rush to globalization and the paper economy, too many liberal — and conservative — leaders have made the same mistake that they made in Vietnam, when they tried to palm that misbegotten conflict off on the poor and the working class. They have forgotten — again — that this great nation will endure and will prosper only if we all prosper together.
Yet that is no excuse for what we did last November.
Throughout our history, Americans have encountered economic shocks much worse than anything we know today, and with many fewer resources at their disposal. American working people have agency, they are plenty educated, and in past crises they rejected the extremism that other nations turned to. Even in the Great Depression they did not succumb to the ideologies of Fascism and Communism sweeping the world. When the system seemed broken in the past, when the elites and the major parties seemed irretrievably corrupt and deaf to their appeals, their response was to build true democratic movements from the ground up, and to push them on to victory even if that took decades.
The populists after the Civil War, faced with the collapse into peonage of American farmers — then about half the population — built nationwide lecture and correspondence networks, and eventually won the reforms they needed, even though it took them more than 60 years. The first wave of feminists fought for more than 70 years to win their biggest demand; Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were dead by the time women got the vote. African-Americans battled ceaselessly, in every way they could, against their enslavement and Jim Crow, training their own lawyers to take their cases to the Supreme Court. The struggles for labor rights, gay rights, Hispanic rights, civil liberties, religious toleration, women’s control over their own bodies — all these battles and more took decades to win. They are the glory of our civilization.
Today’s passive, unhappy Americans sat on their couches and chose a strutting TV clown to save us.
What they have done is a desecration, a foolish and vindictive act of vandalism, by which they betrayed all the best and most valiant labors of our ancestors. We don’t want to accept this, because we cannot accept that the people, at least in the long run of things, can be wrong in our American democracy. But they can be wrong, just like any people, anywhere. And until we do accept this abject failure of both our system and ourselves, there is no hope for our redemption.
A couple of days after the election I watched on CNN as red-faced Russian apparatchiks in Moscow toasted one another on their great success. “Hurrah!” I thought. “No more American exceptionalism! We have joined up with the drunken idiot of history!” Once Russians, too, and especially Russian writers, were certain that there was a special destiny for the Russian soul. But a century of disastrous choices and their consequences seems to have disillusioned them. They have so much to teach us.