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The Last Four Years

How the Trump presidency radicalized me.

At around 11 p.m. on November 8, 2016, I got in a cab on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and headed home to Brooklyn. I’d spent the night at a friend’s apartment, where we’d ordered Chinese food and made cocktails. We prepped for a celebration. Then hours went by, and Donald Trump continued to claim wins across the country, and the gathering went from hyped to subdued to panicked. Texts stopped coming in from friends and family elsewhere. We said bleary-eyed goodbyes. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you have a similar story. 

As my then-boyfriend and I crossed the Manhattan Bridge that night, our driver told us he was scared. When we pulled up to our apartment, a man outside the smoke shop next door said, “The world is gonna burn tonight.”

Once inside, I paced and cried and shouted, “We’ll have to leave. We can’t live here anymore. We can’t stay here.” (I know, I’m cringing too.) I didn’t sleep much that night or the night after that, and I’ve lost countless hours since. 

It’s now four years and a lifetime later, and we’re staring down the barrel of the November 2020 election. In the interim, a lot has changed: Now, at the end of every year, people say it was the worst one ever (it’s always true!) and joke constantly about how much they’ve aged in the last year, month, week, or day, which is also (spiritually) true. The Trump era hasn’t just aged me beyond measure, though. It’s made me a different person entirely. 

Four years ago, I bought Hillary merch. I bought #feminism merch. I believed I was a well-informed, civic-minded, compassionate leftie. I had what I felt were nuanced views of the 2016 election (Bernie would be better, but…a woman president!) and despite feeling terrified of Trump and his chances, I was confident that the American electorate would pull through. They did in one sense, I suppose, if you look at the popular vote. But the mess that is the electoral system is a different problem, for a different day, as is the suppressive state of the electoral process more broadly. With the system as it stands, the people chose Trump.

It’s strange for me to think about now, but as 2016 wound down and the initial shock faded into acceptance, I still couldn’t even bring myself to look at Trump or listen to him speak. It was literally my job and I couldn’t do it. Still, I started to make some earnest attempts to get my engaged citizen groove back. I marched, first in New York, then at the Women’s March in Washington D.C., and then again at subsequent demonstrations in NYC. I followed local politics with greater focus, paying specific attention to groups and causes that I felt would be most directly endangered by the new administration, like undocumented people and refugees. The feeling of crisis began long before Election Day and only got worse from there. At this point, it’s become nearly impossible to keep track of the administration’s targets. 

In the last four years we’ve witnessed accelerated attacks on immigrants, women, the LGBTQ+ community, Native communities, Black Americans, Americans with disabilities, poor Americans, and so many more. Meanwhile, there’s been an absolutely staggering number of stories written in earnest attempting to understand the men and women who support an openly racist, fascist, sexist, classist, almost-certainly criminal man. We’ve seen billionaires thrive while the climate is further decimated in the name of profit. We’ve seen white supremacists become newly empowered and murderous. We’ve seen people beg for their lives and drown in debt as elected officials protect for-profit insurance. And now we’re witnessing, in real time, the abject failure of our government to protect us—our healthcare workers, our school teachers, our minority populations, and everyone else—from a deadly pandemic. 

The onslaught has been absolutely relentless, but as I look back, I think my personal anguish hit its lowest point during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in September 2018. Due to both personal interest and professional obligation, I followed every single detail of Kavanaugh’s appointment. I can remember feeling startled even as it was happening at how traumatic it all felt. (The crumbling of the Supreme Court—from the denial of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the ascension of Neil Gorsuch and then Kavanaugh, paired with the constant anxiety over the health of Ruth Bader Ginsburg—is a subject I plan to be despondent about for many years to come.)

During the hearings, I watched Christine Blasey Ford answer question after excruciating question about her life and experience of sexual assault. (Despite the public hell she endured, she is still speaking out.) As I watched the unending hours of questioning of both Ford and Kavanaugh, I kept thinking about something my mom had said to me in 2008 when I voted for Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries instead of Hilary Clinton. I stand by that decision, though I’ll admit that at the time, I probably didn’t have a good reason for it other than the fact that I simply liked him better and found him inspiring. She pressed me on the point and I asked her why it was so important to her that I supported Clinton. “You haven’t been out in the world yet,” she said. “The world hates women. You’ll see.” 

That’s what echoed in my mind as I watched Brett Kavanaugh ascend to the highest court in the land. A 53-year-old former frat boy who’d been credibly accused of sexual assault and who wept like a petulant child on national television about how hard everything had been for him? He still got the job. For those months in 2018, from his appointment in July to his confirmation in October, and several hundred times since I’ve thought: the world hates women. And it hates a lot of other people too. 

You probably don’t remember, but in the midst of that news cycle, John McCain died. This itself isn’t a notable moment in the screaming abyss of the last four years, but it too marked a sort of turning point. The day after his death, I spoke to my parents about the news. “He was a good man,” one of them said. I assured them he wasn’t and my dad replied, “Geez, Caitlin, you’ve really been radicalized.” I hadn’t reflected much at that point about my shift in thinking toward politics and news, or sense of moral clarity, but there it was, staring plainly back at me. I had been radicalized, I told him. And I was happy about it. 

I’m deeply aware that it was a privilege to have been excluded from this type of active fear and anger for as long as I had. It’s exactly the kind of half-sincere/half willfully ignorant mental space that white Americans across the country have been grappling with in the months since George Floyd’s death. It’s embarrassing and shameful. And it’s part of the reason why I now stoke the fire that was lit and is now kept alive through story after story of blatant corruption and cruelty at the hands of the people and systems that should protect us. Systems that in many ways are actually designed to destroy us—certain ones of us, that is. Even as well-informed, compassionate, and “left” as I was, I kept myself exempt from the real struggle or work. It’s a failing that I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to correct. 

A constant refrain in my brain during the last four years is this: Why didn’t you do more? Why didn’t you riot? Why did you continue to live your life? It’s one I’m still trying to answer. Another constant refrain is this: If there is a single “good” thing I would personally take from the Trump presidency, it’s that the veneer of the office of the president of the United States is entirely gone for me. I will never again consider its occupant to be someone standing on hallowed ground, even if that person is someone I respect. Because even the best politicians, even the ones who still make me pump my fist and feel hopeful—those people work for me. They work for you. We put them in power and we can take them out. We shouldn’t be surviving on community food drives and GoFundMe campaigns. It’s heartening that we all want to help each other, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t have to work this way. 

This is exactly why I also still foster the fire inside me that is capable of feeling inspired by the perfectly rotten political machine. I’ve spent much of these last four years, and in particular the last few months, trying to reconcile these parts of myself. There’s the part of me that was a weird nerd child who asked for the Peter Jennings’ book The Century: America’s Time for Christmas one year and saved copies of The New York Times when major elections happened (it doesn’t escape me that much of my reverence was centered on old white men, even if by necessity). And now there’s this other part of me, the part whose Google searches have gotten way more militant, and who dreams about violent things happening to [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] and [REDACTED]. At any moment I could spontaneously combust, or weep while reading the transcript of a stirring political speech. These sides coexist because they must. 

I could write a novel about the particular challenge of balancing all the things to feel fatalistic about from this year alone. COVID-19, the endless state of police violence, and the dismantling of the Postal Service were the first things to come to mind before I got too exhausted to continue the exercise. There’s also the state of the Democratic Party. It’s an incredible turnaround to think about how I pictured the Joe Biden of 2008—he and Barack are buddies! Look at his sunglasses!—versus the Joe Biden of 2020: a man of the establishment and for the establishment, with a dubious track record and even more dubious mental agility. When Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren faltered in the primaries, I felt broken down again by the race we’ve all been running. For a brief time, it felt like maybe, just maybe, the pendulum could swing in the direction of real reform, a basic sense of care for other human beings and the planet, and maybe even some sound, logical policies. But if the post-2016 world has taught us anything it’s that Western individualism and institutional power are forces that aren’t easily dismantled. 

And so we acknowledge Kamala Harris’ problems while recognizing the historic nature of her position as Democratic vice presidential nominee. We can be thrilled to have her and Biden in the White House instead of Trump if that happens, and know that it’s a depressingly low bar. We can hold them accountable and still vote for them.

The last four years have felt like a constant barrage, and much of that is by design. An incredible chunk of the news cycle and thus, our brains, has been devoted to reacting to Trump, and while it’s not entirely about him, his rise has seen a radical change in how so many of us experience politics. Now, crimes against humanity enacted by the government are both screaming and silent. For better or worse, ideological divisions that were once murky are now often terrifyingly clear. No one is pretending politics are nice anymore. Why bother? And as hard as I’ve tried here, it’s actually impossible to properly synthesize the hell we’ve been living in. It’s too wrenching, too ridiculous, too beyond imagination, and altogether just too much. So much has been lost. So many people have suffered senselessly. The problems often feel overwhelming and insurmountable and most days, it’s difficult to process in any meaningful way. We’re all so goddamn tired. 

And still, despite it all, almost bafflingly, progress has been made. We’ve seen a revived labor movement and renewed efforts around unions. Indigenous communities and environmental activists have worked relentlessly toward protecting land from corporate predators, and have scored major victories. A long and pervasive culture of sexual assault has, even with Kavanaugh, seen some meaningful retribution. Even the wildcat strikes in the sports world, as brief as they were, marked an undeniably powerful moment for activism, labor, the anti-police movement, Black Lives Matter, and a huge fuck you to an enterprise that cares about nothing but money. Since 2016, we’ve seen the ascension of The Squad—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar—who continue to provide reasons to feel some sense of optimism. Women of color have always been the agents of change in this country. It doesn’t feel foolish to see their work as a foundation on which we might build something better. 

And so, just over two months from the 2020 election, I find the Pollyanna and the cynic within to be existing in relative harmony. In a certain sense, my mind feels unchanged from August 2016. I am still scared and still unable to process the thought of a Trump victory. The difference now is that I am all too aware that it is possible, all too aware of just what it will look like, and all too aware of what it might cost. Another four years could happen (let us not forget the poll numbers at this point in 2016 or the wretched needle) and no matter what the results say, what comes after will be a mess. Even if Biden and Harris win, the conspiracy theories, misinformation, propaganda, and rabid Trump supporters will be a living nightmare. I’m wholeheartedly dreading every moment of it! And while this election is extremely important, the work we have to do goes so far beyond Donald Trump. People tend to treat elections like a destination, but they’re actually one rung on an endless ladder. All we can do, aside from tearing it all down, is to try and keep climbing. 

I realize now that it’s not enough to hurt or be furious—I also need the part of myself from before that believed we could actually create a government that was both great and good. This is what it means to be fully engaged and locked in. Caring means you’ll have your heart broken, but apparently it only takes 3.5 percent of the population to change the world? I don’t know man, we might be able to manage that.

On November 3, I’ll hold my nose and vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and think about the morning four years ago when I woke up early and eagerly voted for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine, completely unaware of how the world was about to change. I’ll stay up late watching the results in anguish, and I’ll probably cry either way. And on November 4, I’ll keep doing what I can to stay engaged, active, and (bitterly) hopeful. I’ll do my best to turn the all-consuming doubt, fear, sorrow, and disbelief into anger and action. I’ll keep fighting. What else is there to do? 

Image: Caitlin Schneider