I live in the southeastern part of North Carolina, in a county that went for Trump. I’m one of those people who shouldn’t have been surprised but was. I had to leave town the morning after the election and did not want to go. The night before, lying in bed, my wife had been crying. We had the TV on, and she burst into tears when it became clear what was happening. When I left the house the next morning, my eleven-year-old daughter—for whom Hillary Clinton’s candidacy had been one of the more exciting and life-enlarging things she’d experienced—was crying her eyes out. I’ve noticed that the crying thing has already become a meme (“Pictures of people crying about Trump!”), and then a discredited meme (“Quit crying, liberals!”), by which talk we somehow moved in twenty-four hours past the reality that a good percentage of the country was openly weeping at the result of the election. Because, you know, that couldn’t mean anything.
When the taxi pulled up, the woman driving was black. I saw her face and thought, Oh, thank God. There were assumptions at play. I was guilty of some form of reverse crypto-profiling. But whatever, it was a human reflex. I was confident that if the driver had been a Trump person, and if that driver had started talking about the election, I would have undone my seatbelt and opened the door of the car and allowed my body to roll out onto the pavement at high speed. Instead she asked, “How do you feel about the election?” When she heard my answer, she expressed her own relief. “Oh, okay,” she said. “See, I can’t be sure where people are coming from.” She told me that earlier in the morning, when she’d been leaving home for her shift, her husband had asked her not to wake their thirteen-year-old son. “Let him sleep late today,” the man said. They were concerned about how the boy was going to react. The night before, he’d been scared. She said he’d asked, “What’ll happen to us?” By which I assume he meant his family, or black people, but which question applies just as well to, well, us. Americans.
I’m old enough now to have paid attention to eight or nine presidential elections. To deny that this one was categorically different you’d have to deny the evidence of your senses. The mood in the airport was bizarre and upsetting. It’s a tiny airport. There were maybe forty people in the waiting area. I recognized ten of them and knew two or three. Some looked pale and crushed, like I figured I did. Most looked like they couldn’t give a crap. One guy was talking loudly on his cellphone—by the way, Americans, while I have a soapbox, please stop doing that, please stop talking loudly, which to say very audibly, on your cellphones in public places, and please especially stop making eye contact with others while you do so, it is just exceptionally annoying, also vaguely sociopathic in a way I can’t put my finger on but know is real, so help me—and this man was telling his friend, “Well, in retrospect, she just had a lot of problems as a candidate, more than we knew about, too many problems,” et cetera. I wanted to say that these problems seemed to me more ours than hers and had consisted mainly of the has-vagina variety, but I didn’t want to interrupt his cellphone conversation.
Most interesting in the gate area was to watch folks watching one another. It was clear from people’s expressions and from something in the furtiveness of their glances that a lot of us were thinking, “Are you one of them? Did you do this to us?” And the Trump people, or the ones I profiled as Trump’s, were maybe thinking, “Are you giving me a look because you think I voted for him? Up yours! This is America. You can’t guilt me for voting my conscience.” I can’t prove that they were thinking those things, but I wasn’t wrong. I found myself looking at two men in particular. They had on camouflage baseball caps, one’s arms were covered in aged tattoos, and they were whispering to each other, making each other laugh. They were the kind of guys I typically look at fondly, when I see them in public, with thoughts along the lines of, “Ha … if my New York friends were here, they’d be looking at these guys and thinking they’re such rednecks and stupid and whatnot, but I’ve known people like that all my life, and they have a magical way of turning into funny, weird, compassionate individuals when you talk with them.” It’s one of my most strongly held beliefs and has been for my whole adult life, that we don’t really see each other when we observe from a distance, that you have to get close to know anything at all and even then often don’t know. This morning I looked at them with hatred. I can’t believe I’ve written the word, but there’s no other for the feeling. That was the only moment my vision went swimmy. I have no desire to be that person, who lets politics affect him so deeply he forgets the higher truths. We’re all confused and error-prone. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t need politics. We have to fight fiercely to respect one another. If we don’t, it’s not even that we’re lost, it’s that there was never a point to any of it.
For reasons I’ve never isolated successfully and that a competent therapist could probably help me escape from, I love this country. Not a little but with a bone-and-mother love. That line we used to say when we were kids around the flagpole, pledging allegiance to the republic? I still feel it. I still mean it. “But don’t you,” I ask myself, “despise nationalism?” Yes. If we were rational creatures, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. If I had to make an apology for the contradiction, I’d say it’s not the nation I love. It’s the experiment. The one that started more than two and a half centuries ago. As the flag stands for the nation, the nation stands for the experiment. The experiment was designed to prove something specific: that a people could build a country not on blood ties but on a shared vision, on the values cherished by the highest traditions of the Enlightenment: personal freedom, social equality, religious and ethnic tolerance, and the rule of law. Anyone wanting to help with the experiment was and is welcome to join. The experiment has not yet proved abortive. But it is going astray, sharply and quickly. I don’t know a sane individual who doubts that. We absolutely cannot let it end.
What should we do? The answer seems clear. We should wake up. Let this election of Donald Trump call forth a great awakening. Specifically, I call on people like me—soft white liberal upper-middle-class college types—to get off their asses, our asses, and fight. That’s what this is, a fight. If you doubt it, if you’re telling yourself (perhaps for reasons of emotional survival that are forgivable) that this is just another election, that the Republicans and the Democrats pass power back and forth in a kind of game and that only fools get overexcited, you are telling yourself a story. I will mention a single issue and let it stand for a dozen others. Climate change. We have just elected a man who professes not to believe in the existence of it. Yet it is real. Why even write this? Isn’t it virtually guaranteed that anyone who has read to this point in the piece already knows as much or more than I do about the climate? I mention it for the sake of starkness. It is occurring, it is dangerous in a way we can hardly fathom yet, dangerous in a way that few problems faced by humanity were ever really dangerous. How can I, a layman, sound so confident? For one reason: I have spent a lot of time around scientists in my life. I like to write about them. A thing I have noticed about them, across the board, is that they love to prove one another wrong. I mean, they love it like we love sex and chocolate. If you’re a scientist, and all of the other scientists believe something, and you figure out that they’re all wrong about it? Your career is made, comrade. You are famous. You are important. So, when we hear that 97 percent of climate scientists believe that the planet is warming and that we are in grievous trouble, and that the majority of the other 3 percent are either crackpots or in the pocket of the petroleum industry, that means something. It’s not like hearing that 97 percent of preachers believe in the Bible. The preachers want and need to agree with one another, or their system would collapse. The scientists, on the other hand, are not only programmed to disagree with one another but rewarded for it. And they agree about climate change, and they are scared, and many of them are depressed (clinically), and the witness of our eyes and data is telling us every year that their warning can be dismissed only at our peril. But the man we’ve elected, who knows, I’m pretty sure, even less about the climate than I do, is willing to tell us—you, the people who voted for him, and me, a person he’s now sworn to protect—that this awful and species-threatening event is not happening. He is at this moment surrounding himself with people who believe the same, or have at least found it advantageous to claim so, and who will behave accordingly. Why would they deny reality? Reality is not of primary importance to them. Power, wealth, ego: these are. These things are more real to them than the survival of this species. That is not an opinion of mine and barely even an analysis. It is just now. I beg you, lone Trump supporter still reading, to set this truth on the table, put it there and just consider it nakedly. Forget politics, forget grabbing people by their pussies, and think of your children, or other people’s children. Hell, think of mine. This election risks having been a suicidal gesture. The suicide not of a man but of a civilization. The ice is melting, the seas are rising, the temperature is climbing. The man we elected is standing next to Mitch McConnell and smiling proudly.
He’s my president, I know. He’s the leader of the country I was just claiming to love. Am I supposed to respect him? What would that mean? It’s a corruption of the word respect. What I can do is serve him, however. I can do that best by serving the country he now represents. And I can do that best by attempting whatever’s in my power to help make sure his presidency lasts only four years.
Who is to blame for this state of affairs? We are, if anyone. The left. I am. Let’s confess it in all transparency. We were stupid. We forgot about a huge part of this country. We forgot about “regular folks.” We forgot about middle-class and working-class white people who don’t like the same things we do. It began a long time ago, this forgetting. They weren’t sexy. And anyway, enough of them were usually on our side that it didn’t matter. That was not just stupid but criminally negligent. We were also repeating a mistake that is older than our nation and that may doom us: the inability to understand who it is with whom we truly have common cause. It goes back to Bacon’s Rebellion. For the colonial elites to win, they first have to convince the “regular folks” not to side with the blacks and Indians. Best yet is if you can get both groups not to trust each other. Don’t fall prey to it. Greater polarization serves the other side. We just learned that. We have to reach out to the Trump voters. We have to present them with a vision of liberalism inspiring and coherent enough that those among them who can be swayed will be swayed. The margins are razor thin and can be moved.
As for those fifty-three percent of white women who voted for him, all one can say is, crabs in a barrel.
This election must lead to a liberal awakening, an era of new cooperation and activism on our side, or there simply may not be another opportunity. Get up and get out. Stop fixating on the mote of our differences and look at the beam of our shared plight. Get to the pipeline and stand with the Native Americans from whom we violently stole the very land we walk on. Get to the southwest and stand with the immigrants who are terrified of being sent home. Get to the capital and let them know you’ll lay your body in front of the tanks if necessary. Let the rest of the world know that what they’re seeing on TV is not the real America, or doesn’t have to be. Speak truth to your neighbors with dignity and without violence, and listen to them with an awareness of the vast range of opinions that a democracy both allows and depends on. Let’s find and cultivate a candidate who can not only win in 2020 but lead us afterward, too. This is what I will try to do, to be part of doing. I’ve been too self-involved, and too boutique-y in choosing my causes. I think I forgot about the experiment. I wasn’t a good steward of it. That is changing. My eleven-year-old will hold me to it. She doesn’t know what cynicism is. I’m with her.
John Jeremiah Sullivan is the Southern editor of The Paris Review.