Writing can be cathartic for me and never more so than now, following the American election results of this last week.
I have more than a glancing relationship with the United States, which could, in part, explain my visceral reaction to this election. My parents moved our family from Victoria to Southern California in 1958 to seek new and better opportunities. In 1961, we settled in Northern Nevada where my parents lived and worked until their return to Victoria in 1973 when they retired. Mum and Dad formed lifelong friendships with Americans that endured well beyond their retirement. So did I because I spent my most formative years there, my teen years, and still keep in touch with old high school friends.
Fond memories of our early lives in the United States remain. Americans welcomed us, my family was happy and we prospered. We also lived through American turmoil and tragedy — the anti-war and civil rights’ movements and the three brutal, life-changing assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, President John F. Kennedy and Presidential Democratic candidate Bobby Kennedy. I vividly remember my Mum and I sitting up late one night in front of the TV at home to watch Bobby Kennedy’s victory speech, delivered from a California hotel. Mum and I suffered shock moments later when, after concluding his speech and making his way through the hotel kitchen, he was shot. Combined with the tragedy of 9/11, I am now convinced that these events have left such deep scars on the American psyche as not to fully heal.
Fast forward to the 2016 Presidential campaign and it has been almost impossible to square the current political climate with my memories of our lives in the United States. As a woman, a daughter, a feminist, a mother, a grandmother and a sister, the evolution of Donald Trump, culminating in President-elect of the United States, is a stunning and disturbing indictment of the American political system. One article described the reaction of many American women this way — “Women feel gutted.” What a powerful metaphor to describe overwhelming fear, not just for women but for minorities, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, African-Americans and anyone who is considered “other.”
Not that we weren’t warned about such an unthinkable outcome. Some friends suggested that Trump could win if public opinion significantly turned on Hillary and voter turn-out was low, creating a “perfect storm” for his victory. Near the end of the campaign, I tried not to watch and listen to TV, stopped reading media reports, tried to ignore Facebook news feeds and avoided conversations about the course of the election. I focused instead on an America with Hillary Clinton as President.
I believed that it was high time for a woman and for the well qualified Clinton in particular — what a perfect scenario as the first woman President to follow Obama, the first African-American President. Hillary’s victory would not only represent a resounding triumph for women and minorities, but also for continuity and certainty, a validation of President Obama’s goals of inclusion, equality and peace. But instead of a shattered glass ceiling, we witnessed a shattered American dream when Trump took the stage to deliver his victory speech.
For me and for many of our like-minded friends, especially women friends, what followed were expressions of disbelief and hopelessness. The election party we planned ended early as a Trump victory loomed. We were numb. I crawled into bed that night to hide under the duvet, vowing never to come out. I developed a pounding headache, an upset stomach and couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned until the sun rose and found it a challenge to finally pull myself out of bed on November 9 to face a harsh new reality about our neighbours to the south.
Later that morning, the phone rang and when I heard my friend’s voice on the other end, I burst into tears. She was silent as I tried to collect myself and sniffle my way through our conversation. When she finally shared her feelings about Trump’s victory, I learned that they were as dark as mine. As I continued to struggle to find words that expressed my sadness and sense of foreboding, I realized that the pain and anguish I was feeling about this election were similar to the feelings of loss I had about my parents’ deaths years earlier; this election outcome is for me like “a death in the family.”
Perhaps my grief is borne of my life experiences and lessons growing up during a period of significant social and anti-establishment rebellion that launched the feminist, peace and civil rights’ movements of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. I lived in the United States at that time, an epicenter of social and political upheaval. Everything we thought we knew we didn’t and everything we thought we had was up for grabs. It was both an exciting and an unsettling time for my generation, Hillary Clinton’s generation. But by the end of the 1970’s, it seemed that young North American women, buoyed by the promise of change, were forging their own lives, making their own choices and believing that all things were possible.
Everything I remember and thought I understood about “my American experience” and U.S. politics seemed to vanish, however, on the night of November 8, 2016. Trump harnessed the dark “inside voice” of middle America and exposed it. No longer are racism, hatred and misogyny lurking in the shadows. They are out and about, strolling many of the streets of America with impunity. Like a wounded mad circus elephant that just broke away from its leg chain, with this election result, the United States seems to be breaking away from political tradition, lurching and crashing through liberal barriers while stomping on progressive beliefs and values.
If you believe that anger and confrontation defined the “Trump movement,” then much of his Presidency will likely be so defined. As President-elect, he is now poised to swiftly re-write the American narrative. The American dream has been crushed and transformed into an American nightmare for at least half of American voters and millions of others. Admittedly, Trump’s rise is the result of a complex dynamic mix of sociology, psychology and economic disparity that took years to incubate. But now that the lid is off the petrie dish and a seismic shift in the American political landscape has occurred, I predict that this will be an uncertain, unsettled Presidency propelled by deep divisions, the reflection of a movement that has chosen a demagogue to lead it.
Never before have I felt such pride and re-assurance that I am Canadian; and, never before have I felt stronger that we must continue to work harder together to protect and preserve our Canadian identity, against the backdrop of the American election results last week. In what is quickly becoming a fragile world where authoritarianism is on the march, we must continue to embrace and advance, for everyone in Canada and beyond, the cherished and prevailing goals of balance, moderation, social justice, equity and equality, compassion, dignity, diversity, empowerment, acceptance, respect, civil discourse, economic prosperity, belonging and inclusion. This American election and Trump’s “new American vision” are stark reminders that we, as Canada and as Canadians, are also vulnerable. In a free society where the stakes are high, we must secure the future of our precious rights, freedoms and liberty. We must “up our game” through a collective social and political commitment to vigilance and action.