Discovering the Light in Darkness: Donald Trump and the Future of America

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By Tim Wise

One discovers the light in darkness. That is what darkness is for. But everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith … I know we often lose … and how often one feels that one cannot start again. And yet, on pain of death, one can never remain where one is. The light. The light. One will perish without the light…For nothing is fixed, forever, and forever, and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have … The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. And the moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.   — James Baldwin, “Nothing Personal,” 1964

So first, remember to breathe. In and of itself, it won’t change what has happened, but it will keep you alive—and this, as it turns out, is indisputably helpful for what must come next. For only the living can resist.

I wish there were some way to spin this, to soften the sharp edges of these blades slicing into the connective tissue of our nation, but there is not. There is only the scythe, ripping collective flesh and tendon, swung by a deranged reaper and those who saw fit to hand him the tools with which to do such damage.

I wish there were some way to blink really hard, like I used to do as a child when trapped in a nightmare, thereby finding release from the clutches of whatever monster was in hot pursuit. It worked every time in dreams. But sadly, this escape route began to fail me years ago, right around the time I discovered that some monsters are real, some dreams incapable of circumvention. Ever since I came to appreciate that some disasters must simply be faced.

I wish there were a refresh button like on the web browser, only this one situated atop the political system and its electoral process, which, when clicked, would load a different reality altogether. But there is no such button. There is no clearing the cache, so to speak.

There is no upside, no rosy scenario, no way to interpret what has happened but as a crushing defeat for the notion of multiracial and multicultural democracy, for religious pluralism, for sex and gender equity and for whatever advances were achieved over the past eight years — hell, in the past eighty years — in regard to these things. To suggest that everything will be okay is to traffic in empty platitudes the ultimate veracity of which we won’t know for some time, but whose accuracy at present should be considered quite a bit less promising than the projections of pollsters on election night. It will not be okay, and possibly for a long while.

Don’t get me wrong: The sun will rise and set, of course, and babies will still laugh, and people will still fall in love. And yes, in case you were wondering, there will still be music. Even comedy. Although, if it is true that comedy is tragedy plus time, we might need just a little more time. But as for the rest of it, well, that remains to be seen

So first, remember to breathe.

Because although this moment offers very little if anything positive upon which those committed to justice can hang their hats, there is, as Baldwin noted, a light in the darkness, somewhere. It is our job to find it. To seek it out as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.

As we look for it, let us acknowledge the obvious: This hurts. It hurts to see a nation elevate someone to the office of the president so utterly lacking in knowledge, so incurious about the world, so averse to criticism, so marinated in the politics of revenge, and so hostile to so much of humanity. And to elect such a man as would openly boast of sexually assaulting women, encourage his supporters to attack protesters and offer to pay their legal bills when they do, and shut the door to immigrants seeking a better life — just as his family once did upon coming to America — is more than painful. It is stomach-churning.

So first, remember to breathe.

Because you are needed. Mourning is fine for a moment. Take two if you need. Tears as well. But at some point, and it needs to be soon, in place of the tears and the pain we must substitute courage and fortitude.

It won’t be easy, but nothing worth having really is, and if democracy is worth having, well then, I suspect we’ll have to fight for it. After all, if we’re being brutally honest we didn’t have real and functioning democracy before Donald Trump; indeed we haven’t had it at any point in 240 years. And so the situation today is much like it was on Monday, and last week and last year. Yes, Trump represents a more extreme iteration of all the pathological and destructive tendencies so long embedded in the culture. But the fight itself, in terms of direction and focus is no different than it ever was. If anything, perhaps the need for it will be even clearer now, the veil having been pulled back revealing to millions — especially perhaps white liberals — what most people of color already knew.

Namely, that racial division, prejudice and suspicion, are the most potent fertilizers in American politics and always have been. In every generation, every step forward, every bit of progress for the black and brown has faced a resounding pushback, or what Van Jones called “whitelash” on election night. And so we ought not be surprised that as the United States moves towards an ever-more diverse and multiracial tomorrow, some would take that as their cue to revisit this peculiar pastime.

Read Carol Anderson’s brilliant book White Rage and you’ll see that Trump and Trumpism is but the latest manifestation of a generations-long phenomenon nearly as old as the republic itself. When enslavement ended and Reconstruction offered a modicum of hope to those who had been so recently owned as property, whitelash drove blacks back into virtual bondage with Black Codes and vagrancy laws and convict-lease arrangements and Jim Crow. And the rope, from which thousands swung…strange fruit.

But take note, black people survived, even as some black persons did not. And they are still here, unbowed, unbroken, unapologetic and unafraid. Donald Trump will not change what the mob could not.

When millions of African Americans moved north in the great migration, they were met again with a new assault: more lynching and race riots — pogroms truth be told, orgies of violence — in which their communities were burned and bombed, children were killed, all to intimidate and crush the spirit of those who demanded the right to be free and to pursue opportunity for their families.

But take note, black people survived, even as some black persons did not. And they are still here, unbowed, unbroken, unapologetic and unafraid. Donald Trump will not change what the mob could not.

Mexican Americans were run out of the country in the 1930s by the tens of thousands — even those who were citizens of the United States — so as to open up job opportunities for white men during the Great Depression, in a wave of xenophobia and bigotry much like the one we are facing now.

But take note, Mexican Americans survived. And they are still here, unbowed, unbroken, unapologetic and unafraid — after all, their ancestors were in all likelihood here on this land long before yours or mine. Donald Trump will not change what war and conquest could not. The spirit that yearns for freedom and opportunity is too great.

When segregation was struck down, whites responded with massive resistance, shutting down schools altogether to avoid integration, creating private white flight academies, hurling hateful words and even harder bricks and rocks and bottles at black families seeking an equal education for their kids. But again, black people survived. Donald Trump will not change that. He cannot break what Bull Connor could not, what Sheriff Jim Clark could not on the Edmund Pettus bridge, what George Wallace could not, what Deputy Cecil Price could not, what Byron de la Beckwith could not when he murdered Medgar Evers, what the killers of Malcolm and Martin could not. Trump is not nearly that strong and folks of color are most assuredly not that weak.

When the civil rights movement succeeded in breaking the back of formal apartheid in America, whites responded by moving increasingly to a reactionary politic of “law and order” and mass incarceration, even for minor offenses, and the rollback of affirmative action; and when Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president, whitelash took the form of birtherism — led by the man who now will lead the nation — and the Tea Party with their desire to “Take their country back,” and assaults on the Voting Rights Act. Every time, with every step forward, they have been greeted with anger and hostility and the howling rage, either violent or political, of the white masses, who have been led to believe that hegemony was our birthright, that America was ours, and that all others resided here only at our pleasure and for our purposes, subsisting on a guest pass that could be revoked on a whim. Thus the hostility to immigration, thus the whitelash to the thought that we might have to actually share space — not only physical space but even the very notion of what it means to be American — with those who look different, pray differently or speak a different language of origin.

But through all this, people of color have survived. And they aren’t going anywhere. Even the indigenous of this continent whom we tried so hard to eliminate remain, and they are standing tall at Standing Rock and elsewhere to remind us that we are not God and they are not gone.

And they want you to know, me to know, all of us to know, that they intend to fight as they have always had to fight. Because although the struggle against white supremacy — and the whitelash that is its signature move — might be new to some of us, for people of color, it’s called Monday, the beginning of a new work week.

So to all those white liberals or others appalled by the victory of Donald Trump — folks who are perhaps only now discovering your country, only now coming to see with clear eyes what your nation is really about (has always been about)  — welcome to the first day of your new job.

Now punch the clock. And get to work.

But first, remember to breathe.