The morning after Donald Trump got elected in 2016, I faced an 8 am college seminar class. Roughly half the class was giddy with the fact that their crazy candidate had somehow gotten himself elected. The other half of the students were saying, “What the hell just happened?”
I suspect they all knew how I felt, but what I said that morning was more or less this. “It doesn’t matter which side you come down on. What matters, going forward, is that you pay attention. That’s your responsibility as a citizen.”
I have no idea how many of those college kids followed my advice. But there is no doubt that I took it to heart. I have spent these past four years obsessively following the news. I didn’t know how bad it would get. I began by just selecting a news outlet and checking in several times a day. Before long, though, as events kept piling up and appalling bits of news emerged, I added talk shows, podcasts, and a medley of news outlets that I’d click through many times a day to see what was happening. The demoralizing thing, and the thing that kept me going, was that I was sadly gratified by my efforts because more and more unbelievable things kept happening almost daily. It was like watching a slow moving train wreck, absolute morbid fascination and horror.
The Trump presidency, and the descent of the country into a tribal, angry, fractious dissolution, has been a terrible, and also addicting, ride. By turns demoralizing, unbelievable, shocking, sickening and unfathomable. How can this be who we are? I found myself asking.
In 2020, when the election was finally called for Joe Biden, the national sense of relief was palpable. That a candidate who spoke complete sentences, had a plan beyond self-interest, cared about other people, spoke about unity and understanding as opposed to division and discord, and who operated within the bounds of norms we have come to expect, was like spring arriving after a brutal winter.
To hear an acceptance speech that was coherent, upbeat, predictable, understandable, even a bit mundane, was a dose of sunshine and laughter. What will come is daunting. It will be contentious. The forces Trump has unleashed are real and threatening. But maybe, at long last, I can let go of the daily need to dive into the ugly vortex of our country going down the drain. It will be a challenge, especially during the transition, but maybe I can return to the days before politics became a reality horror show.