This is what we know.
We know Donald Trump is a liar, a thief, a racist, a misogynist, a predator, a bully, a despot, a fraud, a cheat, and a narcissist. We know this because, directly and without shame, he has told us.
We know Donald Trump is the best link between this country’s darkest fantasists and the power to act on their fantasies. We know this because the KKK has told us.
We know that Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States.
We know who voted for him. It wasn’t just the gun-show commandos and Scotts Turf Builder revolutionaries who waved signs at his rallies. His victory also depended on millions and millions of people, white moms and dads and white sons and daughters and white grandparents who wanted no part of supporting him publicly, but who somehow felt so lost and afraid in their own country that in the privacy of the polling booth, they cast their ballot for him, like a secret wish released into the universe.
We know this because, possibly without having expected it themselves, their wishes have come true.
We know therefore that millions of white people found it easier to deny the humanity of their neighbors than to expand their sense of the American promise to include them.
We know many exit polls said economic anxiety, not immigration or racism, was Trump voters’ top concern, and we know that, from the perspective of inclusiveness, it doesn’t matter. After the campaign Trump ran, no one has the luxury of construing a vote for him as anything other than a vote for patriarchal white nationalism. Anyone who chose to ignore the racist and sexist dimension of Trump’s appeal in the interest of sticking it to elites or upending a corrupt process — any white person who exhibited that degree of indifference to the actual terror and risk Trump poses to people who don’t look like them — exhibited a racism of evasion almost as chilling as the racism of action Trump’s louder supporters profess.
We know that the stakes of the democratic process tend to rise as faith in the democratic process collapses.
We know that when enough people cease to believe in the machinery of conversation and compromise, they may decide they want their most paranoid fever dreams to rule over them.
We know that we have spent a decade and a half watching Republicans — Democrats, too, but reactively and to a lesser extent — smash the machinery and gut the democratic process. Bills are filibustered, court vacancies unfilled, districts gerrymandered, voters suppressed. Partisan ends have trampled democratic means. We know that this helped set the stage for Trump; the irony is that it was white people, who have benefited massively and for centuries from the structural unfairness of the process, who decided the process was rigged against them, and who chose to vote for the massive outward projection of a nihilism they created themselves.
Look at this irony from the perspective of any immigrant or person of color who remains invested in the American idea and it becomes absolutely heartbreaking.
We know that just a few years ago, the idea of Congress threatening to default on America’s debts, or refusing to fill an open Supreme Court seat, would have seemed impossible, outrageous. Now? It simply seems normal.
That word, “normal” — that’s what this was all about, wasn’t it? Whose norms counted for more? Democrats spent the election screaming about all the ways in which Trump violated the procedural norms of democracy. He refused to say whether he’d concede if he lost; he boasted about assaulting women; he urged his followers to attack his critics; he encouraged a climate of violence toward the press; he fantasized about jailing his opponent and seeing her assassinated; he said outright that if he lost, the election must be rigged. None of this, we said, was normal — because we thought “normal” referred to a framework of conventions meant to hold a pluralistic society together and ensure everyone’s fair participation in the process.
Republicans, by contrast, spent the election insisting on the primacy of their vision of cultural normalcy. “Make America Great Again” was shorthand for a nostalgic configuration of everyday life, one in which white people felt sure of seeing mostly white faces, of hearing mostly English, of entering a workforce in which the establishment was implicitly on their side, of sending their children to schools in which the narratives of heroic European settlement and westward expansion were taught as fact. One in which white men felt sure of their right to control women’s bodies. They thought “normal” referred to a status quo; we thought it referred to the forms of deliberation by which a changing status quo might be worked out.
We do not know what the new normal will look like.
But we know that historically, democracy is fragile and rare. Peaceful self-government by a diverse population with competing interests is so fragile and so rare that even the countries most thrillingly devoted to the idea have tended to fall short of it in horrifying ways. America is founded on the ideal of freedom and on the labor of slaves. One of the reasons Trump’s win feels so cruel is that centuries of hard work have been necessary simply to reach a point where everyone (or almost everyone) has the seat at the table they should have been promised at the beginning. Since the civil rights era, we have come closer to that than at any time in our history — only to fall into another white fever dream. Another one, again.
We know in this sense, though it hurts to say it, that Trump is normal. Not Trump’s bogus vision of big-white-Cadillac nostalgia-nationalism — the fear and greed and brutality that Trump really represents. There is no shortage of any of these forces, in our history or in history.
What we have to fight for, then, is something that is not normal, because it has never been given the chance to be.
What we have to fight for is something precious.
What we have to fight for is the American promise: a country in which everyone has a stake, in which the vulnerable are protected, in which freedom is not a code word for privilege, in which democracy works for the common good of people who respect each other’s differences. In our lifetimes, that country has never felt so far away.
We know it is worth fighting for. We know because to fight for it means to stand up for the things that have always been worth fighting for: justice, compassion, tolerance, kindness, curiosity, knowledge, love.
Now it is time to organize, protest, strengthen our ties, salvage our institutions, write, think, build a movement for a better future, and find our way out of the nightmare. It won’t be easy — it never has been — but it is possible, and nothing is more worth doing.
We know who Donald Trump is. We know because he has shown us. Now it is time to show him, and ourselves, who we are.
We know what we have to do.