When I Voted, I Issued the Country an Ultimatum: It's Them or Me

Voters are being asked what America is: what this country should be and what we want it to be.
Avatar:
s.e. smith
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
124
Voters are being asked what America is: what this country should be and what we want it to be.

Tomorrow, we will be participating in what will likely become the most important election in U.S. history, not because we may elect the first woman president, but because this election is a fundamental referendum on who we are, and what we want our country to be. Those who have turned out in droves during early voting — like record numbers of Latinx voters in Florida — and those who will be waiting out long times and fighting voter suppression to cast their votes tomorrow are not just being asked who they think should be president. 

They are being asked what America is: what this country should be and what we want it to be. This is a vote on American values — what we mean as a collective culture. 

It is not that the president is the titular head of the country and the person who sets the tone of America and represents us to the international community. It is that one candidate has run a campaign so laced with lies, hatred, and fury that it is impossible to come back from it — this is a turning point in the shape of the United States and in how it will interact with the world. 

To elect Donald Trump, a growing number of Americans understand, would be a catastrophe. To allow Republicans to retain control of Congress would be to surrender to an indefinite hostage situation — Republicans are already promising to withhold confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court vacancy as long as a Democrat occupies the White House. This puts their history of obstructionism and willful defiance in a pretty stark perspective; the rallying cry of Trump's team is to "make America great again," and Republicans quite clearly believe that to do so involves tearing America apart at the seams. 

This election has been characterized as divisive, leaving rubble that will require months and likely years to heal — yet we are supposed to believe that America will come together on November 9, ready to engage in a hesitant rapprochement. That's a grave disservice to this election, which hasn't just been one of Republican versus Democrat, but of fundamental party realignment and an ideological shift. This is about asking people to reconcile with a camp that has aggressively, openly allowed the flag of its hatred to fly, emboldened by the rise of a candidate enabled by America, by the media, by a culture in which a fight for equality is viewed as a capital threat. 

Electing Donald Trump is, bluntly, a vote for fascism. It is a vote for an America in which people are aggressively persecuted for who they are, in which we harass and penalize and deport people for coming from the wrong place, having the wrong faith, having the wrong skin color. It is a vote for a highly isolationist nation that refuses to engage with the world while still expecting to be able to suck resources from it. It is a vote for a nation with no civil rights protections, no environmental protections, many steps backward on almost every axis of progress from technological innovation to the acceptance of human beings who do not look like us. But I shouldn't need to tell you these things. 

This has been an election of hyperbole and overblown comparisons on all sides, and the connection of Donald Trump to Hitler has come up repeatedly. When a major party candidate is causing a Godwin's Law situation, you have, in a sense, almost already lost. Whether the two are directly comparable or not, the fact that the issue can be seriously debated and discussed in publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post tells you that America has reached an awkward turning point. A bigoted demagogue should never have risen to the this point in America, right?

Right?

People spelling out AMERICA with sparklers.

(Michael Dougherty/Creative Commons)

That depends on how you define America and how you define our values, though. This country's values have never been simple, and this year their complexity is pushing at the boundaries of cultural understanding. Liberals cannot comprehend how Donald Trump rose to power, not recognizing their own complicity or the petulant rage that fuels his followers, who are furious in the face of change, who have convinced themselves that wealthy white people are an oppressed minority in need of protection from the ravening hordes. 

The 21st century has seen the rise of things that conservatives fear because they represent a sea change in the way we live and think. Trans visibility has skyrocketed. Black Lives Matter is influencing the outcome of political races. The Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. The Fight for $15 is sweeping the nation. Water protectors at Standing Rock are making international headlines — not least because of the brutal measures being deployed against them. The nation elected a biracial president. Twice. 

Conservatives are frightened and unsettled by the wave of social justice movements attempting to reshape American society in a more fair image. Their response has been a corresponding slew of regressive legislation on the state and federal level, from "religious freedom" bills to attempts at outlawing abortion. They're tapping into a deep zeitgeist of anxiety that feeds extremism, and Donald Trump stepped into the vacuum at precisely the right moment. 

Earlier this year, during the Brexit vote, many people compared the U.S. election to Brexit, and I found it tiresome — these were two different political issues, and smug Americans pronouncing that it could never happen here and smug Britons mocking Americans for thinking it couldn't happen here were becoming rather boring. But it turns out that those comparisons were apt, because both votes represented a very basic question: What kind of country do you want to live in?

I have a deeply conflicted and often frustrated and furious relationship with my country, but I am at heart a patriot. My marriage with America may have been arranged, but we're making it work. Sometimes that means vicious, sniping arguments over the dining room table and the silent treatment for a few days, but at other times, we're hiking in the forest and we come along a perfect fairy ring, and the moment is so spectacular that for a minute, we can forget it all and be there together, marveling at how weird and wonderful nature can be. 

I have been painfully proud of my country at moments like the sit-in over gun control in Congress, and deeply, horribly embarrassed and horrified at others, like exoneration after exoneration of murderous police officers. But it's still my country, and, as such, a place I should work to reform, rather than turning my back on it. 

Hatred and bigotry have always existed in the U.S., and these are not new or surprising sentiments, not even in association with political campaigns. They have always been transparent. A system of checks and balances may have kept them under varying degrees of control, but in recent years, it felt like we were finally starting to move the needle — I told America that its racist relatives weren't welcome at our house for dinner anymore. This election has shown that to be largely a sham, and has perhaps been a wake-up call for many people. 

I've already voted, and when I did, I issued an ultimatum: It's them or me, America, because you let this festering pustule, this gangrenous growth on the heart of our country, go untreated for far too long. When I wake up on Wednesday, I want it to be to a chastened, humbled nation that's ready not to "heal" and pretend as though the systemic issues highlighted by Donald Trump are limited to him and thus are dispensed with, but to keep cutting, deeper and deeper, until Donald Trump and his ilk are thoroughly excised from our national psyche. 

If I wake to a president-elect Trump, that's going to tell me something very old and very sad about this country — a place that I have consciously chosen to make my home despite available alternatives — and it's going to mark a turning point in American history. People joke about the apocalypse and the downfall of America, but the fact is that every democracy, and every nation, falls eventually; the question is not if, but what will happen in the process of getting up. I fear that we may be about to learn the answer to that question, possibly at tremendous cost.