The last time I felt optimistic about America, this self-imagined “beacon on a hill,” was, to be precise, the evening of Tuesday, November 4, 2008.
That date might ring a bell for you. It was the night Barack Obama was declared the winner in that year’s United States presidential election.
That night I bought into the pronouncements by so many wits and wags that this nation had at last advanced beyond its racist past, that we were hurtling headlong into what some had already dubbed a “post-racial America.”
Now I realize I was as self-deluded as all those state lottery jackpot winners who told themselves their problems are over, that they’ll be on easy street for the rest of their lives.
You know, all those folks who pissed away their prize money and now they have nothing left but empty bank accounts, insuperable debts, alienated friends and family, and even thoughts of suicide. Or at least the wish that, their god willing, they’ll go to sleep tonight and never wake up tomorrow morning.
We — I — pissed away something, too. Something different, even more dear than dough. We pissed away every ounce of goodwill and hope that we imagined Obama’s election would endow us with. We Americans value precious little, being smug participants in a throw-away, consumer culture. We figure even if we smash, lose, mar, stash, or forget about every goddamned thing we ever bought, owned, inherited, or found under the cushions, we can always get another one. Hell, get me over to Walmart or link me to Amazon, it’s no big deal, I’ll just buy a replacement. Whatever it is.
Problem is, there will never be another First Black Man Elected President of the United States of America, as symbolic an event as ever occurred here. There’ll never — ever — be that sublime moment, that opportunity, for us to atone and move past one of our nation’s cardinal sins, the creation of an empire so hugely dependent on the stolen labor of a kidnapped people and the subsequent institutional marginalization of their daughters and sons.
We were thisclose to absolving ourselves of that sin.
Or so we though at the time. So I thought.
We were deluded. I was deluded. As deluded as a certain other ex-Commander-in-Chief about the outcome of the 2020 election.
At least my — our — delusion was positive. Optimistic. Actually, Pollyannish. And, like all Pollyanna’s dreams, it was impossible.
We thought the racists, the haters, the twisted supremacists and the nativists and the proto- and crypto- and Neo-fascists, the militia members, the Hitler idolators, the Confederate flag wavers, the survivalists, the paranoiacs arming themselves against the hordes of Mexicans and Muslims and other brown-skinned people as well as the feminists and homosexuals who are right around the corner for Christ’s sake, the droolers chomping at the bit for the coming civil war, all those people, in short, whom we perceived to be such a laughable, tiny minority back in 2008, would henceforth scuttle back under their rocks and never again show their faces in polite society.
Only our society has turned out to be not quite so polite.
The starter’s pistol shot came the moment Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell declared the entire aim of his party was to make the Barack Obama presidency a failure. But the dash actually had begun years — decades — before that. The bullet had been supplied by Newt Gingrich 15 years before when he laid out his nefarious plan, the infamous GOPAC Memo, roadmapping the GOP’s plan to turn Democrats, Liberals, Progressives, and anyone not four-square in line with his new order into enemies of right and good. Enemies of the state.
And even before Gingrich, there were the Birchers and other obsessives who actually believed figures as apple pie-ish as Dwight Eisenhower were radical dangers to the nation. To mix my metaphors, they were the ones who planted the seeds that sprouted, eventually, into the America we live in today.
Seeds. Bullets. Take your pick. It doesn’t matter one whit.
For years — decades — we thought that hateful, paranoiac gang, all of them, were outliers, so few in numbers and so isolated from each other that they couldn’t get anyone elected dogcatcher. Republican strategists, though, recognized them as a reliable, rock-solid bloc that’d provide the party with a foundation in every election from the local to the national.
We’d underestimated their numbers and then the internet served to connect them all, instantaneously. And certain 24-hour news peddlers went to work on the psyches of tens of millions of people who otherwise would have been repelled by them. Suddenly, Mom and Pop America found themselves sharing fears and grievances with heretofore whackos.
Add clever gerrymandering, the Electoral College, and strategic judicial appointees at every court level, and voila, Republicans now control most state governorships, most statehouses, and, most important, the United States Supreme Court. This despite the fact that a slim majority of Americans support the Democratic Party over the Republican.
While the coalition that came together to put a black man in the White House in 2008 and then reelect him in 2012 was drifting off to sleep, believing with all our hearts our problems were over and we’d be on easy street for the rest of our lives, the Republican Party worked harder and more passionately than ever to take over and manipulate every niche and nook of our country, from dogcatcher to school board member to county commissioner to governor and, at last, to president. Even though the Democratic nominee for president has won the popular vote in seven of the last eight national elections, the Republican have captured the White House on three separate occasions in that time. Those Republicans have named five of the current justices serving on the United States Supreme Court. The court that this past session has remade America. And that promises to further remodel it in coming terms.
The Republicans achieved their gains though brilliant planning, both long-term and short, and hard work.
The Democrats, the Liberals, the Progressives, and even the silent middle that often leans slightly left, snoozed. I snoozed as much as anybody. The alarm is ringing. It’s morning in Trump’s America.