A BRIEF ESSAY ON BEING YOUNG AND AMERICAN IN THE TIME OF TRUMP BY STEVEN TIMBERMAN
|THE SHIT GOT REAL|
As the early results curdle, I text my father three words - This Is Bad. Like thousands of others, I’ve spent the last year volunteering and working to elect Hillary Clinton. The long fight. The good fight. The first fight I’ve truly thrown myself into, again and again. Election Night finds me in southern Virginia, a ramshackle campaign office held together by duct tape, off-white cracked paint, and five other community organizers. Growing up, the evening news was my family’s sacred time. Six years old, I watch a Palestinian child dive behind wreckage as gunfire crackles. Peter Jennings’ lullaby voice informs us that the child is unaccounted for. My father responds to my text with two words - I know.
Hour ago a packed office, trusty volunteers using an auto-dialer to rapid fire call as many inconsistent voters as we can. After polls close in Virginia, volunteers shuffle out. Well-wishes. Hugs. These aren’t my volunteers. My volunteer team is two hours to the east, forty plus strong. Knocking on doors, making calls, driving mini-sedans down dirt roads and into ditches. I love them, unconditionally. Contact and register voters, recruit more volunteers so they can contact and register yet more voters. That’s the job.
Before 2016 I had never knocked a door, registered a voter, or cold-called registered democrats. The vast majority of my volunteer team could say the same. On Election Night they text me, celebrating our work and urging me to get some rest. We are a support system. In twenty four hours our network of activists becomes a network of grievers. “This fucking table,” a co-worker says. To his left sits a card table covered in call sheets, pamphlets, spreadsheets. Florida is called. He paces to the back room. Three minutes later he strolls to the table, slamming it end over end. Paper flies like confetti. He bends down, calmly propping up the table and returns each item to its proper place one by one.
We absorb the news differently. For a few hours we have the luxury of making calls to the west coast states, absentmindedly dialling numbers as we crack jokes and reminisce. Then we wait. Two co-workers cuddle on the couch, long past the point of caring about subtlety. When the numbers start to tilt CNN reports that the youth vote is disastrous. “Well,” I say. “They fucked us. Like they always do.” A co-worker not even twenty screams back “This is not on us! Fuck you!” We embrace in the backroom, wordlessly apologizing. Her eyes well. “I don’t want to be crazy again. I can’t. My healthcare.” I hold her best I can, my arms feeling entirely inadequate. “Me too.”
2010 was a big year for me. I graduated college. I moved abroad. I accidentally overdosed twice. Severe depression, self-harm, a titch of anorexia thrown in for good measure. Any serious depressive learns how to paper over their cracks. Inventing convoluted cover stories to hide that they can’t or won’t stand up and say “I am wounded, this hole cannot heal, I am tapped out.” When I mustered up the courage to seek treatment I called up every health provider in California. Some pitied me. Some laughed at me. Every single one rejected me. Pre-existing condition, they said. I fell backwards. Years later, I steel up the courage to dial a number to seek treatment. Now that the Affordable Care Act has kicked in, the first provider sets me up with an affordable plan within ten minutes. A month later I am properly diagnosed as Type 2 Bipolar, mood stabilizers granting me normalcy again.
I was always a liberal. President Obama made me a Democrat.
The morning after Election Night I wake up, roll over in bed and immediately post a picture of my medication on social media. “Pry These from My Cold Dead Hands,” I write. We imagine political campaigns as a viper’s nests of careerists, striving to accrue power with political voodoo. And while there are strivers and movers and fake smiles, each and every campaign staffer has a story like mine. A Muslim best friend bullied. A 9/11 Firefighter’s lungs slowly torn to ash. A girl unaware she’s undocumented until she applies for college financial aid. I entered the Hillary Clinton campaign office a cynic. I leave it an optimist.
I spent Election Night quietly pacing, mumbling a single word over and over again. Brexit. Brexit. Fuckin’ Brexit. I spent two years in England. I was not a fan. But in June, my father finds me in front of the TV, watching Britain’s results roll in city by city. I sob. This is it, I remember thinking. Trump’s blueprint. Resentment over reality. The Culture Wars are done and buried. This is different. This is intoxicating. The mythical unicorn of The White Working Class striking again. Never doubt the capacity of people to fall in line. A shame they did not fall in our line.
I do not blame those that voted for Trump. I do not even blame those that enthusiastically cheered him on, their own wrecking ball through the establishment. They did exactly what I expected them to. My mistake was expecting that our voters would show up. That in the face of such raw hatred they would rally. They did not. We did not. I talked to disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters, who grew up without the fires of the George W Bush administration. For me, Obama’s presidency was life changing. For them, they wondered why their life had not changed enough. They did not reach out to us, and we did not know how to reach out to them.
It is too easy for me to be brought low by bitterness. We spent a year telling America that the building was on fire. Liberals bickered about the color of the fire truck or the size of the hose. And now that the fires burn bright, those same folks stand up and have the courage to say that they are against fire?
The toughest day since Election Night was last Saturday. Privately, former campaign staffers were debating whether to attend the Women’s March. Some argued that there was no time for dissent or despair, that we needed to welcome each and every new voice. Others argued that those same voices abandoned us in November, when the chips were down. That wound too raw, too congealed to even begin triage. I thought about all those democrats who railed on facebook about the tyranny of a possible Trump presidency but could not be bothered to volunteer. “I help in my own way.” “I have a dinner party.” “This is all the free time I have.” but then I thought about all of those who stepped up and stood with me. The volunteer who texted me that he had to miss a phone bank shift because his wife was in labor. Who came in the Saturday before the election clad in sweatpants and a smile. His new-born daughter was six days old.
So I marched. I drove to North Hollywood and parked over a mile away from the metro station, a sea of pink hats and protest signs already in formation. I wear my Clinton-Kaine shirt because I am stubborn and grieving (and it’s also a comfy shirt). A middle aged woman with a “Pussys have power” button hugs me on the train. She tells me that she’s so happy to see young people involved, that her daughter is also “super” involved. When I ask how, she tells me that her daughter attended four marches since the election! I ball my fists, nails digging deep.
I stood in a crowd hundreds of thousands strong. The cavalry had arrived. Standing against hate and bigotry. Failing to stand for the first female president. Because emails. Because Benghazi. Because Bernie. Because they didn’t know why but they just couldn’t trust her (Hint: she lacks a penis). Despite that, I am swept up in the pageantry. My organizer mind wonders where the clipboards are. The rest of my mind is humbled by the display of solidarity. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be okay. The crowd roars THE FUTURE IS FEMALE. I roar back. A friend next to me takes off his sunglasses to wipe off tears. We hug. We embrace. We stand together.
And then the crowd breaks out into a chant of WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS. My legs shake. Hillary’s message, the literal phrase she championed, echoed by so many of those that slagged her name for the past year. Nationwide, the same voters that let her down. That sat on the side-lines. That refused to volunteer when asked. That had Better Things to Do. Her words on their lips. This feels like a violation. Walking back to my car, I pop into a Walgreens and find a bathroom. I sob, deep heavy chest wracking sobs. Someone asks me how they can help. I tell them to get a goddamn time machine.
Eight years ago we had the gall to elect a black president. Now we would pay the price.
And then, the cavalry really did arrive. My Dad, not one generally given to sentiment, watches the news and tells me we will be okay. I ask why. “Because when I grew up they were sending my friends home in body bags and shooting our leaders. We will be okay.” A politically dormant friend mentions she’s making five calls a day to congressional leaders. Her husband looks up dates and times of town hall meetings for the republican congressman who represents his hometown. Another friend attends a community event held at a mosque and meets her local congresswoman. Someone asks me how they can help. I tell them how.
Election Night. The results are official. Donald Trump will be our President. My President. My 21 year old college intern sends me the electoral map of Virginia. He’s circled in yellow our county, a blue blip in the southern Virginia sea of red. He’s pledged to be an organizer in the governor’s race, fighting for progressive causes. I know he’ll be better at this than I ever was. After a late night call, we lock up the office and a few of us stay together. We drink cheap beer in a cheap motel.
A co-worker leans back in his chair, the stress of tonight laced in his face. He laughs until his sides hurt. “On the plus side,” he says. “In a messed up way, I now know what I want to do with my life.” We clink half-drank PBR cans.
Let’s go to work.
STEVEN TIMBERMAN is a graduate of KINGSTON UNIVERSITY, UK, and a writer based in America.