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What Fresh Hell Awaits Us Now?

the US capitol shot from low near the ground and decorated with american flags
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

I made a mistake and got optimistic on New Year's Eve. I blow-dried my hair, and put on mascara, and got a bottle of bubbly wine that was much nicer than the kind I usually buy and not nice enough to be called champagne. I put on a silly pink jumpsuit and played a video game until it was time to count down and I felt, watching that ball drop, relief. Good riddance. Goodbye. Hasta la vista. Never Again.

2020 was a terrible year. It was traumatic in ways I'm not sure we've fully processed yet. But years are made up little chunks of time we've drawn around how fast the world is spinning and when the sun sets. I woke up on Jan. 1, 2021 feeling good, and here we are again: barely three weeks in and everything is somehow even more terrible than it was on Dec. 31.

The president, we all know, is leaving today. He's already gotten onto the helicopter and flown away from the White House, and if I never see his face again in my whole life it will be too soon.

All week, as D.C. became more and more militarized, I thought about the conversations I had in the fall of 2016: these thousands of conversations with everyone I bumped into in this city, about how in the hell we were going to survive. The one I remember the most vividly, though, was with a friend of mine who had worked in the Obama White House. The president, she told me, doesn't have that much power alone. There are three branches of government for a reason. The president isn't the only person who makes decisions. At the time, it was meant to be a comfort—there are all these other reasonable adults who can check this angry baby if and when it comes to that—and it worked. I repeated it to all sorts of people. It made me feel better. There was only so much he could ruin.

That thought doesn't comfort so much anymore. Trump has ruined so much, but he hasn't done it alone. Four-hundred thousand people don't die because of one bad president, and that's just the first entry on the long list of hurt that's taken place over the last four years. It takes a large cast, from ghouls like Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz to limp resisters like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, to author pain on this scale. It takes all three branches of government pulling in the same awful direction to get us here.

Democracy has always been fragile, but I feel like I just watched it fall from a high table, bounce three times on the floor in slow motion, my hands flying to my mouth, shrieking, only for it to roll in a moon shape to a stop. We can pick it up and put it back where it fell from, but I can't shake the feeling it will shatter next time. That fear isn't going to leave.

The new president will try to make it go away. Here is his parade of celebrities to sing songs and promise us that we will be fine. Here is his speech probably about unifying a country, which we now have to admit is divided between people who want healthcare and people that would like to kill the rest of us.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in an article for The Atlantic yesterday:

“When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide,” Tuchman writes, “the system breaks down.” One hopes that this moment for America has arrived, that it can at last see that the sight of cops and a Confederate flag among the mob on January 6, the mockery of George Floyd and the politesse on display among some of the Capitol Police, are not a matter of chance.More, that Trumpism did not begin with Trump; that the same Republican Party some now recall in wistful and nostalgic tones planted seeds of insurrection with specious claims of voter fraud; that the decision to storm the Capitol follows directly, and logically, from respectable Republicans who claim that Democrats steal elections and defraud this country’s citizens out of their right to self-government."

I get stuck on that phrase, "one hopes." It just plays there in a little loop behind my eyes inside my skull. One hopes. One hopes. One hopes. And I remember the posters we hung when we canvassed that said HOPE in those giant letters under an image of Barack Obama's face. I remember feeling in my gut that things were changing; that we were on the precipice of some great, good thing; that the future was dangling there, shining in front of us and all we had to do was reach out and take it.

I remember that feeling the same way I remember cramps or getting my ears pierced, which is to say that I can acknowledge that there was a feeling, and maybe even describe it, but the physical pain itself is gone from me now. I can't really remember it.

When you've been in therapy for long enough, your therapist will let you be a little wild. "What if," you might say, "the cynical view of the world I have in a depressive episode is the right one to have? What if that is the truth and myself who is not depressed is just a naive dummy who can't be trusted?" And your very good therapist will say sure that could be true, but then why are you here? You're there because that version of yourself is untenable, it won't survive, and some part of you still wants to.

I'm trying to be optimistic today. I watched Trump walk the red carpet at the South Portico this morning. Watched him do his little wave, drop his wife's hand. My group texts exploded. "Bye!!" We yelled to one another. But there he was turning toward the reporters, saying, "Hopefully it’s not a long term goodbye. We will see each other again."

I want to have that hope, that belief that things are going to get better at least before they get worse again. But my city is in lockdown. The country is still being torn apart by a pandemic. The people who imbued Trump with the destructive power he wielded over the last four years remain free and empowered. A peaceful transfer of power is the bare minimum of my expectation for any functioning democracy. It's all I can really hope for today.

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