The day after the election about 60 million people woke up disappointed, and emotional. There were feelings of anger and betrayal by the losing candidate they had voted for. Incredulity, that so many fellow Americans had voted for the distasteful opposition. Fear at the direction of our country. Worry about the future. Marches, protests, and speeches of taking back “our government” erupted across the United States.
This of course was the general sentiment of half of American voters on November 5, 2008 – the day after Barack Obama won the general election.
Polarization is the current buzzword for describing our country, and as liberals and Democrats take to the streets running through the same gamut of emotions that conservatives did in 2008, the inevitable question is: how did we get to this bitterly divided place? How do we understand an invisible division that shows itself in media and voting results, but rarely seems to reveal itself in every day life? As one distraught Clinton supporter Tuesday night put it, how do we reconcile the confusion that comes from feeling as if we understand the campaign issues well, yet at the same time utterly failing to understand half of our country?
On election Tuesday, after work there was lightness in the air in downtown San Francisco. The late-day sun warmed the usual mix of government workers and groups of tourists walking past the homeless scattered around Civic Center. On the BART train people sported their “I voted” stickers on jackets and shirts, and several Clinton supporters wore pantsuits and “nasty woman” buttons. On the way to watch the election returns my friends and I checked in to see how each of us voted on California’s confusing array of propositions, and good-naturedly debated which of the two Democrat candidates for the Senate was better. The only questions in our minds regarding the general election was how long it would take for Clinton to reach 270 electoral votes, and whether Trump would actually concede or not.
As we left the train, a woman ran up to my friend’s wife and thanked her for wearing white, in order to honor women’s suffrage. The two women were strangers, and at least 20 years apart in age, yet they shared an optimism and sense of purpose. It would be the last hopeful moment of the day.
The train ride home that night was sullen, and quiet. The usual motley assemblage of late-night BART riders stared down at their phones, or out the murky windows. During the walk home the dark Oakland streets around me seemed tense, foreboding, as if the city itself – which has seen its share of hard times – was preparing itself. Around one in the morning a car drove around my neighborhood, loudly playing on repeat the YG & Nipsey Hussle rap song “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)”; whose full song title is repeated over and over again in the refrain. After one last pass I heard what sounded like gunshots and then silence. That night people in Oakland burned trashcans in the streets and temporarily blocked highway 24, managing to get a 20 year old girl seriously injured after she was hit by a car. “Welcome to Donald’s America”, I thought to myself, darkly.
The next day I woke up and, along with 60 million other Americans wondered with dread what the next four years would bring. It was a beautiful, sunny and clear day in the Bay Area with only a few wisps of clouds overhead – an irony, considering the bitter, ashy taste of defeat that liberals and Democrats alike felt. However big the disappointment of Clinton supporters, liberals had cause to feel even more cheated: having swallowed their pride to support Clinton, they now find themselves bereft of both their conscious and their country.
During the morning commute people on the BART train were quieter than usual, more retreated into their headphones and smartphones than ever before. In San Francisco, many people purposefully wore black as a statement of mourning for the direction of our country. At my state government office, a coworker brought in “disappointing Wednesday donuts”, as she called them, which we munched and pondered what went wrong. Another coworker dispensed with office decorum and rules and turned on her radio to listen to the latest political commentary and Clinton’s concession speech.
While we struggled to understand what had happened and what it meant, many others didn’t have the luxury. A friend who works at a school texted me that kids were asking worriedly if World War III was going to happen, amongst other crazy questions. Another friend who teaches predominantly Latino children had her kids ask if Trump’s victory meant their families would get deported, and if people were going to show up at their door and ask for immigration documents. All she could say, she told me, was “I don’t know”.
In the absence of knowing what will happen, it’s easy to fall back on imagining the worst. The danger of politicians – and especially Trump – is that in their seduction of as many voting blocs as possible they become in essence a blank slate. One onto which supporters can project whatever values they want, and one in which detractors can project their worst fears. Like many, I entered protracted text and phone conversations with friends scattered across the United States. “What happened?” we asked each other with dismay. “What do we do now?”
The sentiment of many was the desire to retreat back into our isolated bubbles of friends and social circles where everyone thinks the same and agrees with you. Ironically this strategy is not too far from what Trump proposes to do with America – build a wall, self-isolate, and above all pursue self-interest. I think there’s real danger in this approach – because it is precisely this insulation that blinded all of us to the undeniable truth: that a significant, close to majority (and majority politically) portion of our population thinks much differently than we do. Comforting ourselves by saying “thank god I live in liberal California (or New York, or wherever)” and reassuring ourselves to our friends that we’re not crazy, it’s everyone else that’s nuts – this is what caused us to be blindsided in the first place. And this is what will continue divisiveness and lead to another fractured America and charged election four years from now.
Instead the alternative is to not retreat into our homogeneous ideological sanctuaries. Indeed, our civic and political institutions need our active participation more than ever. It is now up to all of us to ensure that minorities are not persecuted, that racist and sexist behavior is not allowed to creep into our society, and make sure that our system of checks and balances will shield us after being wielded against Obama for the past eight years.
Lunch at the San Francisco Civic Center farmer’s market on Wednesday was the normal scene – shoppers clutching their reusable bags chatted while browsing stands bursting with fall produce like leafy greens, persimmons, and the last gasp of summer fruit. A shaggy, bearded man sat next to an amp and plucked a guitar near tables arrayed with people enjoying fare from food trucks such as Waffle Mania! and All-Star Tamale.
But as I stood in line for food, faint yelling and cheers intruded on the calm scene. At first it was barely distinguishable from the usual spectrum of odd noises associated with downtown San Francisco, however as the noise grew louder people stopped and turned to see what the commotion was about.
About fifty or so high school students burst onto the scene, chanting angrily in unison “Not our president! Not our president!” They waved a variety of signs – most denigrating Trump, some stating in true San Francisco tradition “Love not hate”, “Latinos against Trump”, and a potpourri of other messages. This was not your typical apathetic “instructive for youth” San Francisco protest for extra credit – these students yelled fiercely and passionately, eyes narrowed in anger. One student, flanked by one of the nearly dozen adult chaperones had written “Fuck Trump” in bold black marker on her upper chest above her white halter top. Bystanders stood aside to let them through, and applauded and cheered in between taking pictures and videos on their phones. I thought to myself of how the media characterized Trump’s rallies, and what his supporters would think of this scene. Rather than making America great again, Mr. Trump by fanning the flames of America’s divisions and fueling partisanship had instead succeeded in making America hate again.
Later that afternoon multiple notices circulated on social media regarding planned protests. Occupy Oakland announced a gathering at 5 pm at “Oscar Grant Plaza” – the unofficial name of Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland, dubbed so by the movement after the local unarmed, restrained black man who was shot in the back by police. Another unattributed announcement, simple titled “Fuck Donald Trump: anticapitalist march” circulated via Twitter inviting people to protest at 7 pm a few blocks away from the other protest.
East Bay Area demonstrations in particular often target transportation – either major freeways, or BART – which is ones of the areas where the perpetually congested region is most vulnerable. Therefore we received instruction in my office to leave an hour early, in order to try and avoid the protests. Most of my co-workers didn’t hesitate; gratefully straggling out the door soon after the announcement was made. I had other plans, however.
Walking around downtown Oakland at 7:30 that night, it took me little while to find the protest as it was already on the move when I arrived. Following the pairs and small groups of people purposefully walking toward Broadway Street, my brother and I finally caught up to the tail end of the march. We took a shortcut, and then turned the corner to the sight of hundreds of marching protestors flanked by dozens of police with plastic handcuffs swinging from their belts. One officer surrounded by his brethren carried a video camera swathed in protective plastic.
“In case they get attacked by protesters,” said the man next to us, when I wondered aloud at the camera’s purpose. “They can get it all on film and then be justified for beating [the attackers’] asses.” He laughed. “Yet when the police kill an innocent black man that video never sees the light of day!”
Reports later estimated 6,000 protestors, and the ones we saw mostly peacefully marched down Broadway under the watchful eye of the police. It appeared a loose coalition of diverse interests, which supposedly had undermined the Occupy movement in 2011 – I saw signs against Trump, for love and peace, against rape culture, for freeing some person I had never heard of, in support of the black lives matter movement, and one puzzling 15 foot banner on the side proclaiming “Trump is not the problem – let’s talk”.
After the marched passed by, the group holding the banner promptly rolled it up neatly, and headed out past us. “What does it mean?” we asked them, puzzled – were they Trump supporters?
“Donald Trump is the not the problem,” shouted one of them without breaking stride. “The whole system is fucked up and broken, long before Trump arrived.” I looked at my brother and shrugged – it was hard to argue with that. A few hours later a couple hundred of protestors spilled onto the 580 freeway – one of the major transportation arteries of the Bay Area – and shut it down in both directions. It was the beginning of increased confrontation with police, who resorted to tear gas and flash grenades, while a small faction of protestors threw rocks and vandalized several businesses, including an Audi dealership.
Over the next few days, people tried their hardest to find silver linings, rays of optimism no matter how faint that could console us that it won’t be so bad. We consoled ourselves that perhaps we had all been woken up, and that Trump’s victory would spur a concerted backlash of civic participation. A nearly all-blue electoral map showing the vote of citizens ages 18-25 circulated on social media. We refused to believe that half of America voted for the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that Trump presented during the elections. What we could believe – possibly the one thing uniting all of America – is the belief that the system is broken.
We tried to reassure ourselves there was no way Trump could actually achieve most of the things he claimed – that his outlandish statements were just election promises. Besides, we said, looking at each other hopefully – he’ll likely get impeached in the first year … right?
But we were really just grasping at straws, and our feeble attempts at optimism were tempered by the out-of-body experience watching Obama welcome Trump to the White House, and the sickening news like noted climate change denier Myron Ebell was tapped by Trump to lead the Environmental Protection Agency transition team. At a meeting of conservation managers two days after the election, participants made feeble jokes about the results, the Trump transition team, and the future. But then a federal agency manager reported in deadly earnest that funding for next year was uncertain for obvious reasons, and the room fell silent.
As the week dragged on, the mundane routine of everyday life began to numb the sting of Tuesday’s results. In Oakland and around the Bay Area protests continued. But during the day, people went to work, made dinner, and went about their daily rituals – life went on. On a bike ride through UC Berkeley’s campus, I saw a group of laughing students playing jugger with foam medieval weapons, and stopped to watch. As they romped on the open lawn next to Frisbee throwers and lounging readers, I hoped fervently that the Trump presidency would fail to harm this next generation.
On Sunday, just five days after the elections, the so-called “super moon” will rise over the United States; and due to the proximity of the two celestial bodies the moon will appear larger and brighter than it has in almost 70 years. Meanwhile, down on earth, the divisions in America have never appeared further apart.