MOURNING TRUMP AND THE AMERICA WE COULD HAVE BEEN by By Meghan O’Rourke , ( Republished with permission of the Author and the New Yorker in which the article first appeared)
After I voted on Tuesday morning, walking in the crisp autumn sunlight, I felt a kind of joy I hadn’t anticipated. The polls strongly suggested that Hillary Clinton would win. I had brought my infant son, and I took a selfie so that one day I could show him that he’d been present for this historic occasion. Crowds of people flocked to Susan B. Anthony’s grave and placed flowers on it. My childhood best friend and I spoke and celebrated the more equal world we were about to live in. Clinton’s campaign was
stationed at the Javits Center, with its high glass ceiling, and I imagined that I felt its shards at my feet as I walked. And then, suddenly, it was Wednesday morning, and I was gathering with friends for coffee because none of us wanted to be alone. “We need to sit shiva,” one said. Another e-mailed, “Losing this election feels like a death of sorts—the loss of a future.”
We are experiencing not just the pain of political defeat but the grief of mourning something that feels irrevocably lost. There are two losses here, complementing and intensifying each other. First, the shocking defeat of Clinton, and the evaporation of a future in which a woman was the leader of the free world. Her defeat was a visceral reminder that misogyny and unconscious bias remain powerful forces. As psychologists note, after a death we mourn not only the deceased but also the version of ourselves we got to be with that person. What makes Clinton’s defeat unique, I think, is that we’re grieving for the nation we could have been, a nation some of us feel we are: a nation that elected a female President and rejected the rhetoric of nativism and fear that Donald Trump so casually embraced.
The second loss is the surreal election of a bigot like Trump. It brings with it a version of what psychologists call anticipatory grief—the emotion we feel while taking care of someone with a terminal illness and waiting for the worst to come. What faces America may not be a death, but it’s not an overstatement to say that people on both the left and the right fear that Trump is capable of destroying our democracy. Trump’s erratic vitriol, his capriciousness, his ignorance and lack of curiosity about foreign affairs have made him seem uniquely dangerous. On the eve of the election, Trump’s aides reportedly took away his Twitter account, leading President Obama to mockingly—but seriously!—proclaim, “Now, if somebody can’t handle a Twitter account, they can’t handle the nuclear codes.”
Certainly, Trump is capable of derailing or rescinding many achievements that Obama and others fought and hoped for: universal health care, the Paris accord, a liberal-leaning Supreme Court. What’s even scarier, though, is that he is an unknown quantity. As the conservative columnist Ross Douthat put it on the night of Trump’s election, “I fear the risks of a Trump presidency as I have feared nothing in our politics before.” After all, Douthat noted, this is “a man more likely to fail catastrophically than other presidents.” And so we wait, in the state of anxiety and dread that anticipatory mourning brings with it: unsure of what is to come, fearing the worst.
What lies before us is a kind of coming to terms with reality that resembles the work of mourning. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” Emily Dickinson wrote, describing the numb shock and dissociation experienced after a death. On Election Night, I felt a kind of heavy sorrow and dread I hadn’t felt since the day I found out my mother had metastatic cancer. Mourning happens slowly and incompletely, as we try to come to terms with a sudden absence. In this election, because the division between the candidates was so stark, many of the liberal élite are asking themselves what they missed, how this could be. It feels tragic that we as a nation could have arrived at such different conclusions—not just different but irreconcilable. In addition to the alt-right and the fringe racists shouting “Sieg heil!” at Trump’s rallies, there are Americans in need of political change who genuinely felt that Trump represented their best chance. And how do you speak across the bridge to them when Trump seems, to so many of us, not just undesirable but actually unimaginable?
As acute as the grief over Clinton’s loss now is, it is the long mourning of Trump’s Presidency that may be worse. Uncertainty and volatility are difficult to deal with. Even the think pieces perversely noting that Trump’s supporters are about to reap what they sowed, potentially driving some of them back to the Democrats, are no consolation. All we can do is grapple with the new reality, one foot still in the ghost world that might have been. We should remember, though, one meaningful difference between grief over a death and grief over an election loss: this week, we are mourning a ghost world that can be conjured back to life.
Meghan O’Rourke, a former editor at the magazine, is the author of the poetry collections “Halflife” and “Once,” and the memoir “The Long Goodbye.”
|Susan B. Anthony|
Portrait of Susan B. Anthony that was used in the History of Woman Suffrage
|Born||Susan Brownell Anthony|
February 15, 1820
Adams, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Died||March 13, 1906 (aged 86)|
Rochester, New York, U.S.
|Resting place||Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester|
|Known for||Women's suffrage|