The Day Donald Trump Became President
For the last three years, I have been writing short stories, and I'm very close to having a complete collection, roughly twenty stories of varying lengths. I had planned to spend most of today polishing up one final story, about a young man whose fiancee has left him, setting his life adrift. He is searching for meaning in the lives of his married friends and the families that they have built, an opportunity he squandered. Still, he isn't quite certain if a nuclear family is truly his choice, or if he wants a nuclear family because society has taught him so. The main character is, of course, based on me, but what he ultimately does when faced with the prospect of having an affair with a married mother of two is not something I have been faced with or done.
It is fiction. Not fact.
But I woke up this morning and decided I should live in the world we now live in, write about the fact of the matter, at least for a few hours. Truth be told, I had planned to write something uplifting, something that I thought might make you smile, or perhaps even cry out of pure, unadulterated joy.
After I voted yesterday, I turned on my Uber app for a little while. I picked up two men at the Hilton in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. They had been at a trade show and were flying back to Philadelphia in time to cast their ballots. I dropped them off and decided to park in the designated airport lot for Uber, where I would wait for a passenger flying in. Instead, I wound up receiving a request eight minutes away, which was unusual because when you're parked in the lot, Uber tends to only send airport rides your way. So I was curious, seeing as how I'm driving more for the roulette wheel of people than for the money.
I arrived at an industrial complex and assumed I'd be picking up a suit who was headed to catch a flight, in and out for business. But I pulled up to the sidewalk to find Tom, a gray-headed, gray-bearded white man wearing glasses and a flannel Oxford tucked into jeans. Next to Tom was his son, Jacob, a thirty-something man with Down Syndrome. Tom told me that Jacob had gotten off work early because of the election, but that Tom couldn't leave just yet to take his son home. A close friend of mine has an uncle with Down Syndrome, an uncle who was around us often as kids, so I'm familiar with the disorder. I know that Jacob's job is probably assembly-line-type work that the government has set him up with, a routine, repetitive task that lends itself to his mental capacity.
I welcomed Jacob to climb on in, and he did, his backpack and his grease-soaked sack of Chick-fil-A in tow. He was wearing a flannel Oxford tucked into jeans, like Dad, but his pants were hiked up above his pot belly. He had on glasses and wore a Superman watch.
"So what kind of work do you do?" I asked.
"Not much," Jacob said, quickly and forcefully, his voice gruff. He shrugged his shoulders and raised and lowered his eyebrows, his eyes magnified by the thick glasses.
"Big day," I said. "New president."
"Yeah," he said.
"Is Superman your favorite superhero?" I asked.
"Yeah," Jacob said.
"Clark Kent," I said.
"Yeah," Jacob said.
"Gonna go home and take a nap?" I said.
"Yeah," Jacob said.
"After all that Chick-fil-A?"
So I drove, realizing that that was about as far as we'd get. But I hadn't even thought to turn on any music, which tends to be my forte, figuring out the perfect playlist for my clientele. Jacob broke the silence: "Any tunes?"
"What kind do you like?" I asked.
"Anything," he said. "All of it."
I have been in an odd mood of late, one that has me, when no one's in the car, listening to Amy Winehouse's last album before her overdose, Back To Black. Perhaps today, it seems fitting. I cued up "He Can Only Hold Her," and Jacob began to shimmy and to shake in his seat. He bobbed his head and his shoulders. He was breaking it down, right there next to me, unfiltered, just f---ing happy.
Between the upbeat tempo, my loneliness, Jacob doing what amounted to the Harlem Shake—my eyes filled with water. It took all I had to keep it in my ducts, to not let it roll down my cheeks, this guy doing this on a day when I needed it, maybe we all needed it.
The drive was twenty minutes, and we were only half-way through. Jacob danced—to Kendrick Lamar, to Lil' Wayne. We had us a good ol' time, Jacob and I. I even made a video, and I considered including it for you, but then I thought that moment should stay between us, Jacob and I. I decided that I've started to let my happiness only exist inside a phone or on a computer screen, and that is sad.
I was going to write about this encounter, maybe title the post, "Why Don't You Dance?," as an homage to one of my favorite Raymond Carver short stories. But then Donald Trump won the election, and I'm not sure today is a day for dancing.
I wanted to tell you to be like Jacob, to not filter your happiness, and to not let it be dictated by its existence on social media, to let happiness exist in the moment in which you're experiencing it. I wanted to tell you we should all be more like Jacob, no matter who our next President might be.
That doesn't feel right, though, not now, not today. Because even though Jacob probably can't tell you who won the election, it affects him just as much as it does me and you, probably more.
I am not surprised by the outcome of the 2016 election. I am disappointed, but not surprised. I spent seven years in the Northeast—three in New York City and four in Hartford, Connecticut—and I am sure those folks up yonder are gawking at the red-and-blue map of our country. But I grew up in Kingston, Tennessee, spent four years of college in Knoxville, and I have been back here for nearly eight months, driving folks around for Uber in my Honda Civic.
A piece of trivia: There are only two states in the U.S. that are bordered by eight other states—Tennessee and Missouri. (Gary Belsky, if you're reading this right now, I'll never forget.) And of all those states that border Missouri and Tennessee, only two went to Hillary Clinton: Illinois and Virginia. So, you see, I'm not surprised because I was on the ground where you could see this coming—if you were paying attention. I voted for the first time yesterday, at thirty-one years old. It is not a fact I am proud of, but it is a fact. It is also a fact that, if we're being honest, of the last three elections I did not vote in but could've, my vote ultimately would not have "counted" in Tennessee. And, if we're being honest, my vote did not "count" yesterday in a state where Donald Trump received 61.1% of the vote.
I woke up this morning on my couch, and I rolled over and texted my friend in Nashville, a friend who has worked in and around politics for nine years, ever since we graduated college. "They said they'd take their country back," he wrote. "And they did."
I am not sure who "they" even are anymore, just like I'm not sure who has a bomb in his or her suitcase when I walk through the airport. I think you think you know who "they" are, but you don't, not really. We can credit white men and white women without degrees for Donald Trump, but I'm surrounded by friends and family members who are very well educated and have very white skin and who voted for Donald Trump. Truth be told, not every vote cast for Donald Trump was cast by a white person, with or without a degree. (I did not vote for Donald Trump, in case you still hadn't surmised that.)
That's the scary part. Not Donald Trump. The scary part is that for a thing like this to happen, for a reality TV star who has never held public office—to say nothing of all the rest we could say about Donald Trump—to be elected President of the United States of America, for that to happen means we have lost complete and utter touch with each other. Perhaps even with the reality of our country.
I believe the scary part is that we've forgotten each and every one of us is a person. Those people reporting the news on TV are people. Real ones, with real faults and real bias. Those people sitting in the Capitol Building are people. Real ones, with real faults and real bias. Those people who protest for Black Lives Matter are people. Real ones, with real faults and real bias. Those people who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and who are living in this country, legally or not, are people. Real ones, with real faults and real bias. And those people who live down here with me, in Tennessee and in the eight states that surround it, those are people. Real ones, with real faults and real bias.
But I'm not sure any of those people want to give any ground, do not want to concede that they believe they are better than others, or that they believe their voices are more important than others. For a thing like Donald Trump to happen means that people became so fearful of other people that they retreated, closed ranks in their own country. This is no Civil War, but if someone told me it had the makings of one, I wouldn't scoff, not today. And that fear has manifested itself in ways that we can see and we can hear, in the form of racism and sexism and xenophobia and intolerance of other religions. But that fear has also manifested itself in ways that only the person feeling the fear can know, in ways that only he or she can see in the mirror. That is the kind of fear that the media can't see or even begin to understand, although I'd argue that the media ain't trying as hard as they could. It is that kind of fear that doesn't work into Nate Silver's algorithms. It is that kind of fear that those folks in the Capitol Building often prey on and take advantage of, lest they lose their comfortable seat and have to come back home and live with the rest of us.
Last night, I met up with a couple of friends from college who I hadn't conversed with in any meaningful way in quite some time. We met at a bar in a part of Knoxville called the Old City. We met, I believe, to cheers to a win for Hillary Clinton. But when that appeared less and less likely, one friend left early, and the two of us who remained relocated to a different bar for a stiffer drink. Eventually, the outcome was evident, and my friend said she needed to go cry. So I called an Uber and wound up getting picked up by an older white man named Frank who was driving a Ford Fusion.
It was about a twelve-minute trip back to my house, and Frank had the election results on the radio. He asked if I minded them being on, and of course, I did not. As we were riding, the radio broadcaster announced that Trump had won Wisconsin, to which Frank replied, "Wow. I didn't see that coming."
"No one seemed to see this coming," I said.
Come to find out, Frank had voted for Trump but didn't particularly think he would win, only that Trump was the "lesser of two evils," which will probably read funny to my friends up yonder, where that phrase had quite a different definition. "I just kept being told that I was the problem," Frank said to me, meaning, I believe, that white men are the problem. "And you get tired of hearing that. And so you vote for the guy who is on your side."
I hope you understand that I am writing this in real time, the day after my first vote was in an election that Donald Trump won. I hope you understand that I can't begin to add the nuance necessary to even begin to address what Frank just said, or to peel back the layers of fear that would cause an able-bodied white man who can afford a Ford Fusion to feel marginalized in a country where he is the majority. I don't want to just let the scene between Frank and I remain frozen, without giving you some context in which to consider it. But I don't have that, not today. But I do believe you should see the scene and hear it. I believe that an exchange between two people of the same color is going to be as important as the scenes I have written before, scenes with Paris and with Kumar's mother and with the man from Iran.
My Nashville friend and I continued to text, considering what the first visible signs of Trump's reign will be, and I texted about The Wall. "You can't build a wall," my friend responded, and I could sense his irritation in the words, even if I couldn't hear it in his voice.
"I mean, I didn't think Donald Trump could be president," I wrote back. "I'm just asking how much law and order goes out the window."
"Good point," my friend responded. "I've gone to school for seven years [not counting K-12] and worked in politics for nine, and I just don't know anymore."
A few minutes later, my friend texted a screen shot of a Trump tweet from 2012: "The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy." Trump tweeted that the year Barack Obama was voted in for a second term—which was four long, long years ago.
I tend to keep my politicking to myself, mostly because I'd never voted until this election, but also because I've never agreed with the tact of talking at people, which is what I believe those white men like Frank grew tired of. They grew tired of hearing folks who've never met them say that they're uneducated, that they're the problem, that the fact that they chose a trade over college, or the fact that they couldn't afford college, that the very color of their skin makes them the problem. As for their wives, well, I tend to believe that those women grew tired of hearing that their husbands are the problem, the men who they've grown up believing they should stand by are the problem. Or perhaps an outspoken, career-driven, highly-educated woman is intimidating to more than just men, although I can't say for certain, being who I am. Again, I do not have the luxury of distance or the luxury of nuance, not today, only the fact of being.
But I will tell you now that I believe this system is broken. I will tell you now that, as my friend texted, "only in America could you get the most votes and lose." I will tell you now that I have been the problem, but that so many people in this country don't feel like their vote counts for that very reason. I will tell you now that a two-party system has only bred an inherent divide that we are born into, a chasm that has grown wider than we could've ever portended. I will tell you now that I don't have any solutions, only the fact of the problem before us. I will tell you now that I am not leaving my country, nor am I going to stop driving folks around and meeting them and hearing their stories.
I am going to continue to be inspired by Jacob, to try and remember to dance. I am going to be kind to the people in my car. I am going to try and be kinder and more understanding to those friends and family members who don't believe the way I believe. I am going to continue to volunteer for the Boys & Girls Club, to help kids who did not ask for what the adults have given them. I am going to continue to travel these United States and this world, and to try and understand why people are the way they are, why I am the way I am, and why Frank voted out of fear of losing his country.