My parents and grandparents never fully recovered from the strains of having lived in an authoritarian society. Daily compromise ground them down, even after they came to America. They left Russia, but Russia never left them. How do you read through a newspaper composed solely of lies? How do you walk into a store while being Jewish? How do you tell the truth to your children? How do you even know what the truth is? A few days ago, I visited a local public school. On a second-grade civics bulletin board I saw written in large letters: “Citizens have —things that you deserve; —things you are expected to do; —things you have to follow.” The message seemed to have come from a different era. What did those words have to do with America in 2016? I reflexively checked FiveThirtyEight on my phone. I thought, I grew up in a dystopia—will I have to die in one, too?
The economic crisis became obvious in September, 2008, when Lehman Brothers failed. Within days, it was evident that all the major American financial companies, and, by extension, all the major financial companies in the world, were faltering. To help avert the most devastating economic depression in history, the political system took a temporary break from its hyper-partisanship and paralysis. Barack Obama and John McCain interrupted their Presidential campaigns to fly to Washington for an emergency meeting with President George W. Bush. Congress authorized the government to spend as much as seven hundred billion dollars to stabilize the big banks. After Obama won the election, he made it clear that he would continue with this approach. Altogether, these fiscal interventions were more aggressive than any ever taken by the federal government, surpassing even those taken by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his Hundred Days.
This is a serious project. All immigrants to the United States know (and knew) that if they want to become real, authentic Americans they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate, in order to emphasize their whiteness. Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force. Here, for many people, the definition of “Americanness” is color.
And they do not know why; they are powerless pawns in a blind play of social forces." This passage epitomizes for Richard Wright, the most radical effects of criminal racial situation in America.
Under slave laws, the necessity for color rankings was obvious, but in America today, post-civil-rights legislation, white people’s conviction of their natural superiority is being lost. Rapidly lost. There are “people of color” everywhere, threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America. And what then? Another black President? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening.
Astonishingly, the main political beneficiary of all this energy was Donald Trump, a plutocrat with a long history of taking on too much debt, stiffing his business partners, and not paying taxes. But, while most of his primary opponents ran on more familiar limited-government themes, and Hillary Clinton was fending off the attack from Sanders, Trump figured out that a Republican could run against Wall Street. He made unsubstantiated, sweeping, and brutally effective attacks on Clinton for having “done nothing” for thirty years about the economic troubles of middle-class and poor Americans.
Douglass had his blind spots. Everyone does. Mine drive me crazy—just knowing they’re there does. Trump was elected because he got something right, about the suffering of Americans, and about the arrogance of politicians, of academics, and of the press. What he got wrong can be proved only by the forces of humility, of clarity, and of honesty.
Many Americans, having lost faith in a government that has failed to address widening inequality, and in the policymakers and academics and journalists who have barely noticed it, see Trump as their deliverer. They cast their votes with purpose. A lot of Trump voters I met during this election season compared Trump to Lincoln: an emancipator. What Trump can and cannot deliver, by way of policy, remains to be seen; my own doubts are grave. Meanwhile, though, he has added weight to the burden that we, each of us, carry on our backs, the burden of old hatreds. Frederick Douglass, a man of Lincoln’s time and, decidedly, not of our own, tried to lift those burdens with the strength of his ideals.
The rupture in the American republic, the division of the American people whose outcome is the election of Donald Trump, cannot be attributed to Donald Trump. Nor can it be attributed to James Comey and the F.B.I. or to the white men who voted in very high numbers for Trump or to the majority of white women who did, too, unexpectedly, or to the African-American and Latino voters who did not give Hillary Clinton the edge they gave Barack Obama. It can’t be attributed to the Republican Party’s unwillingness to disavow Trump or to the Democratic Party’s willingness to promote Clinton or to a media that has careened into a state of chaos. There are many reasons for our troubles. But the deepest reason is inequality: the forms of political, cultural, and economic polarization that have been widening, not narrowing, for decades. Inequality, like slavery, is a chain that binds at both ends.
The beginning of an end is hard to see: the moment when a marriage started to fall apart, the half-sentence of heartless scorn, an unmendable cut; the hour when the first symptoms of a fatal illness set in, dizziness, a subtle blurring of vision, a certain hoarseness; the season when a species of sparrow, trying to fly north, falls, weakened by the heat; and the day when the people of a nation began to lose faith in their form of government. The election of Donald Trump, like all elections, is an ending, the ending of one Presidency and the beginning of another. But, unlike most elections, Trump’s election is something different: it ends an era of American idealism, a high-mindedness of rhetoric, if not always of action, which has characterized most twentieth- and twenty-first-century American Presidencies, from F.D.R. to Eisenhower, from Reagan to Obama, from the New Deal order to the long era of civil rights.
In most of the chapters ofthe Essays, Montaigne now and then reverses his judgment:these sudden shifts of perspective are designed to escape adherence,and to tackle the matter from another point of view. The Essays mirror a discreet conduct of judgment, in keepingwith the formula iudicio alternante, which we still findengraved today on the beams of the Périgord castle'slibrary.
Today, I’m examining my values. As a Buddhist pal said to me on Election Night, “America has spoken.” Now it falls to us to listen with gracious and open hearts. This is not giving in or giving up. The hardest thing about democracy is the boring and irritating process of listening to people you don’t agree with, which is tolerable only when each side strives not to hurt the other’s feelings. To quote my colleague George Saunders, let today be National Attempt to Have an Affectionate / Tender Thought About Someone of the Opposing Political Persuasion Day. And (please, God) every day hereafter as well.