A Letter to Myself, the Night Before the Election

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By Mandisa Tutt

 I’m not quite sure how to start this, but that statement itself probably tells you the news isn’t good. No one has ever started a relationship conversation that didn’t end in a break-up with “we need to talk,” and no one prefaces good news with an admission they don’t know how to give it.

By now, you’ve probably figured out where this is going.

You’re going to be in shock, at least at first. You will be in shock just reading this, I imagine, once you get past thinking it’s a cruel joke. You joked all throughout the campaign that this was going to be a “bourbon election,” but when the night actually comes, you will be drinking more to honor the occasion than to calm your anxiety enough to get through it. At first. You’ll think you’re soon to be toasting the first woman president of the United States – 240 years after the country’s inception, almost 100 years after its female citizens got the right to vote, decades after many other countries have reached the milestone enough times that it isn’t even remarkable anymore. American exceptionalism indeed. But now, you’ll think, we’re finally going to fix that.

You’ve been waiting for this day with excitement, I know, even suffering the anxiety of watching the sickening undulation of the polls. You’ll buy a (small, luckily, it turns out) bottle of bourbon on your way home, and then plant yourself in front of the TV, soaking up pre-festivity punditry. You’re going to flip back and forth between the election coverage on MSNBC, and a couple of late-night talk show live election specials. As the night progresses, and results start to trickle in, the slight buzz of “what if…” in the back of your head will grow to an insistent rattle and then a painful whine, and you’ll decide to take a break from news coverage and concentrate on the comedy.

By the time that you see the opening cartoon of Colbert’s show, depicting a possible motive for the rise of this … candidate … being rooted in his ribbing by the President at the Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011, you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. You’ve run the show back to watch it from the beginning, so when you return to the news channel that is actually still live and see that surreal banner scrolling along the bottom of the screen – calling the election, calling the unimaginable that might have actually been inevitable, calling the beginning of something truly awful, calling the end of the kind of America you know – it becomes an exercise in the macabre to flip back to a comedy special.

Colbert and his guests won’t know yet, at least not on your screen. You’ll end up watching the reality you already know slowly revealing itself to them vote tally by unexpected vote tally. It will feel like watching a murder at the beginning of a film that that spends the rest of its time telling the story of how things got to that body on the floor. It will be like watching a car crash in slow motion, knowing there is no way the car can stop in time and that the brick wall before it isn’t going to magically disappear at the last second. You’ll watch as they see the Blue Wall that’s already rubble in your reality crumble state by state.

You’ll watch the mood of Colbert and Trevor Noah and their guests and correspondents slowly and then suddenly fall off a cliff; the mood will go from levity to funereal in a matter of minutes, but there will be a particular moment where you see hope die. You’ll know that isn’t prop water in those booze bottles, but you’ll take small comfort in knowing you’re not drinking alone.

And while I’m on the subject, back to that bourbon. One slowly enjoyed Old Fashioned will turn into a second you’ll drink a little too fast to enjoy, and eventually to skipping the pretense of a glass entirely. As the night unfolds, part of you will wish there was more, but another part of you will be really glad you only bought a small bottle.

When you’ve finished watching the comedy shows, which have ended not in humor but impromptu therapy sessions or shell-shocked silence, you will flip back to the news networks. You’ll move from the stunned panel on your regular channel to others, and more still on the internet, as if somehow the words will be different coming from a different mouth, a different keyboard. They won’t.

And so.

You will weep. You will pull your knees to your chest like a child and bawl. You will sob, like you’re in pain, like someone has broken your heart, like someone you love has died. The next day and throughout the week, you’ll find you’re not the only one to react this way. Not even close. A pall will hang in the air everywhere you go. You will ask people and they will ask you, all out of the blue, how they/you are doing. Neither of you will need to explain why you are asking. You will smile less. You will cry more, sometimes out of nowhere, at inconvenient times, unexpectedly. You still won’t be the only one. You’ll have moments where it is suddenly hard to breathe, for no apparent reason. You’ll worry for the safety of your family, your friends, strangers – and yourself. You’ll nod encouragingly at those strangers in passing and hug your family more. You’ll also ask for pepper spray as a stocking stuffer, and start shopping for a knife.

You will wonder what happened, at the same time that the reason quietly and painfully metastasizes into some bleak and ugly web of tumorous truth in your head. You will often feel like a broken Roomba, running into the same wall over and over again but unable to figure out how to get around it. Political satire and intelligent commentary will start to feel like a lifeline. As the days and weeks go by, your grief will turn into anger, and you’ll try to channel that anger into something productive – activism, counseling the other walking wounded, art. You’ll sign petitions, spread the word, call out fake news, join resistance groups, place your hope – however desperate – in the basic decency of humanity and that it will manifest in the Electoral College vote. It doesn’t.

At some point a sort of ridiculous hysteria will set in, and you’ll laugh uncontrollably but mirthlessly at things that aren’t that funny. You’ll write, and try to find a silver lining in the fact that so much good protest art – others’, maybe your own – will come from this looming brave new world. You’ll try not to think about how the impetus for that art will be a lot of suffering. Even in that last month of the year, already so tragic as to seem absurd, there will be more – a mass shooting at home, acts of terror abroad, the devastating fall of Aleppo; the bad guys won. And you’ll have to deal with all of this in the wake of a few more particularly crushing celebrity deaths, as if even the very goodness of the world is fleeing the mess we’ve – well, some of us – have created.

The holidays will come, and you will manage to go through the motions enough that you actually forget for a while what happened. You’ll know, of course, that it did actually happen though, because you haven’t had a restful night’s sleep since November 8th. You will find a purse-sized can of pepper spray in your stocking, and a collapsible knife under the tree. You’ll join in the chorus of “2016 sucked!” end-of-year laments, trying to put out of mind that 2017 may very well be far, far worse.

The new year will dawn, and with it a weariness and new round of sadness will begin to set in as the last bastion of joy between the Now and the oh-so-terrifyingly-near Inevitable comes to an end. You will fight to stay hopeful. You will be frustrated and frankly, pissed off, that you’ll have to worry like your parents did as schoolchildren, uselessly ducking and covering under their desks as practice for when the sirens someday came.

You’ll get weary thinking about the long fights ahead that have been fought before, by other people in other decades, but which apparently haven’t stuck. You’ll get tired of explaining – to naïve conservatives and liberals alike – what White privilege is, and what it has to do with voting third party. You’ll get tired of having to be nice about it, too. You’ll get really tired of being told to “get over it”, and “it’s time to come together and heal” – the injured party gets to set the timeline of the recovery, not the one who threw them off the building, especially when the thrower can’t seem to even acknowledge the extent of the damage they have done.

You’ll gnaw on how a population of poor, rural White people can complain about the same kind of circumstances that have plagued minority communities for generations and be heard and responded to so quickly, when their darker counterparts have had to fight for every step forward while being ignored, and are fighting those battles still. You’ll come to embrace the term “Whitelash”, and wish Larry Wilmore was still on late night TV.

You’ll grow frustrated trying to explain the insidiousness of sexism and prevalence of misogyny to even the most well-intentioned of men across the racial and political spectrum, and think back to the “no shit” feeling when the White community finally caught up and realized that yes, the first Black president was getting treated so poorly because he was Black. You’ll hope it doesn’t take as long for people to come to that same conclusion about sexism and the results of this election.

You’ll try to explain to the gloaters that you’re not whining because you’re upset your candidate lost, but that you’re trying to reckon with the fact that almost 63 million people voted for someone who brags about being a sexual predator; you’ll try to explain why this election has given so many women – including you – uneasy and sometimes terrifying flashbacks to abusive past relationships. You’re angry an antiquated, misused system allowed the person who got the most votes to somehow lose, you’ll explain, but your sorrow comes from the understanding it wasn’t just her but you, and all women and girls, who were rejected. You’ll explain the deep, bruising punch to the gut of being told people like you don’t actually matter that much. You’ll explain that your very soul hurts. They won’t understand.

You’ll morbidly joke to friends that the only thing America hates more than Black people is women. In your heart, you’ll feel that it is true.

You’ll stop tolerating, yourself and anyone else, saying “well, she wasn’t a perfect candidate…” because no one is, and you’re tired of people ignoring she was held to an entirely different standard than her opponent. You will resist the urge to smack Millennials (and some people old enough to know better) who spew what they’ve heard online, or read, or been told to think by the TV, about the history of her as a public figure long before they were even born.

You will lose respect for friends and relatives; some you will avoid, some you will lose entirely.

As the new Congress comes into session, your smoldering fears will be stoked to raging flame. You will try to use that as fuel for the Resistance. You will start making contingency plans for when/if you lose your health insurance, knowing you can’t pay for the drugs that keep you functioning without it, but that the conditions you need the drugs for will prevent you from getting any new coverage without Obamacare’s protections. You will carefully count your pills, and set your calendar to remind you the exact day you can refill them so not a single moment of access goes unutilized. You’ll wonder if you should get a new IUD before the one you have expires later in the year, because you might not be able to get a new one before long.

You’ll wonder what happens if you need another $60,000 emergency surgery. You start thinking about the logistics of running secret networks of women and sympathetic doctors to get women and girls to places where they can get safe abortions. You think about hiding immigrants in your attic. You think about chaining yourself to machinery and trees, camping by proposed pipeline routes, making signs and marching in the streets. You think about the joy of the day, so aptly situated at the beginning of Pride Weekend, when “Love Won”, and the White House lit up like a rainbow to prove it, and wonder if that joy will be snatched away. You find yourself watching the ravages of climate change no longer with hope that we are on the right track to deal with them, but with the cold dread that we may be about to actually make things worse.

You’ll read books about fascism, narcissism, the nuclear triad, the formation of NATO, the Cold War, the history of modern Russia, rural Appalachia, vote suppression, community organizing, resistance movements, populism, and a hell of a lot about the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. You’ll learn the proper etiquette for visiting a mosque when you’re not Muslim. You’ll bemoan ever having wondered what it was like to live in “interesting times.” You’ll wonder what kind of world this will be when your niece is old enough to understand it. You’ll have the upsetting thought that a part of you is glad she’s so fair, because she might be able to “pass” if she ever needs to. You’ll wonder how you’ll explain to her who this person is gesticulating ridiculously behind a podium emblazoned with a seal he doesn’t deserve, spewing forth venomous, bald-faced falsehoods in half-formed sentences; you’d normally tell her she should respect a person with the title that seal represents, but you know that this time you cannot, and should not.

And be prepared: you will be lied to. You’ll find yourself explaining to people what “gaslighting” is, what “narcissistic rage” means, and that you’re less disturbed by ignorance than you are by people refusing to learn their way out of it and instead wearing it like a badge of honor. You’ll start to dislike Twitter even more than you already do. You will involuntarily look down when a particular bloated, orange, hate-twisted face shows up on the TV screen; you will reflexively mute the sound when it starts to speak. You will find yourself repressing the urge to retch when someone says “in x number of days, our new president will be …” Not only is it gross, it’s not true.

A president is supposed to be a leader, a uniter, and for god’s sake, smarter than you. They are also supposed to have the support of the majority of the population they are charged to represent. None of these things will be the case. You’ll look on in horror as the Pretender to the Throne (as you will start to think of and call him – and make no mistake, he will act like he’s been granted a kingship) appoints pick after awful pick to his cabinet. The best appointees are incompetent; the worst, monsters. You cringe and wince and grow ever more fearful as you watch him slowly realize just how much power he really has, and that he really can get away with almost anything.

You’ll learn all sorts of names for types of governments – kleptocracy, plutocracy, autocracy, oligarchy, kakistocracy; you’ll learn about what makes a demagogue, an authoritarian, a dictator. You’ll learn that “republic” and “democracy” are not synonymous, that democracy can be modified by the word “totalitarian” as well as the word “liberal”, and that the rules for functioning in each are different. You’ll learn that, if you’re being truthful with yourself, continuing to call your country a democratic republic is no longer accurate. You’ll realize you can’t feel comfortable calling the new government your new government, because whatever it is called, it is no longer looking out for your best interests.

And then, you will be here. It is 10 days to the inauguration as I write this letter, and it feels like the march to the beginning of the end of the world. I want to mock my own hyperbolism, but someone he keeps tweeting about what sounds very much like the start of Cold War II. The President – my President – gave his farewell speech tonight, and I cried through the entire thing – but for more reasons now than just I will miss one of the greatest leaders this country has ever been lucky enough to have. I’m deciding how to spend January 20th, because I will not be turning on the TV, reading the news, nor listening to the radio.

I’m planning my trip the next day to the closest Women’s March, sister to dozens of other marches like it in cities across the country and, incredibly, the world. My words are my best weapon, and I am determining how best to use them in a new world where an honest and tenacious press is about to become more important than it has ever been, and where art’s most crucial job will be as counter to idiocy and indifference both. I’m making a list of organizations to donate to and volunteer for, because the protection and care of this country and its people has fallen, with a resounding and nearly crushing thud, into the laps of its citizens. We have a new kind of government by and for the people, but in the worst kind of way: when the nominal government becomes the enemy, actual people – me, my neighbors near and far, strangers who were born here or not, but all of us Americans – will have to be the ones looking out for ourselves and for each other. No matter who we each voted for, we’re all about to get a brutal crash course in the most important duty of citizenship – active participation, whether we like it or not.

I try to find some beauty and hope in the fact that during times of emergency, cooperation and support can come from unexpected places; groups and people whose circles don’t normally intersect can become allies, and sometimes even friends. People of compassion but little action become warriors for the common good. We come to appreciate, perhaps too late, the things that already made this country great. Let’s enjoy them while they are still here to enjoy. They now have an expiration date.

I’m so sorry. I wanted to let you know if Madame President adopted another four-legged friend to add to her pack of First Dogs, and what we finally decided to call her husband. I wanted you to be able to look at her in that iconic hug with the current President – a man of honor and dignity and integrity and true empathy, so very, very far away from what comes next – at that last rally on the night before the election and have that picture make your eyes well with joy, not the sorrow and loss it engenders in my heart now. I wanted you to see her in the Rose Garden, throwing her head back in that awesome, crazy laugh, and to know that when the next tragedy strikes, there would be the comfort of a steady voice and open heart to help us through it. I wanted Kate McKinnon in her role as the winner of the popular vote (and don’t you ever, ever forget that is the truth), singing the recently departed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to open SNL‘s first post-election episode, to be a moment of celebration, or at least just a touching footnote – not the song and image that have been stuck in my head since that Saturday and can still bring me to tears if I linger on it too long. But – and I’m sorry again to be the bearer of bad news – that is not the case.

However.

When you get here, you will need to stop crying, you will need to be strong, you will need to be brave, and you will need to be a leader and motivator so that others can be the same. This is not a time for apathy, or cowardice, or complacence. A number of great thinkers have said some variation on it, and it needs to be your driving mantra now: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Activism is no longer a choice – it is a necessity.

You will have to find the best parts of yourself, and draw the same out of everyone else you can. Our rights are not a privilege, but if they are to be treated as such by those who claim to represent us when they really only represent themselves – and seem, in fact, to have an actual contempt for most of us – then we must secure our rights by our own action. And we do have that power – they may have the titles, but we have the numbers, and it is our job to remind them that they work for us.

It won’t be easy, but it has to be done. Dry your tears, my more innocent and hopeful self, strap on your boots, sharpen your pencils, and let’s get to work.