My sister-in-law, with whom I co-house, is a fundraiser for Democratic, pro-choice, women candidates. So naturally, elections in general are big deals in her house. And an election featuring the first-ever Democratic, pro-choice, woman presidential candidate? Well. She plastered an “I’m ready for Hillary!” sticker on the bumper of her electric vehicle days after Barak Obama was elected to a second term. If there were an “I was frickin’ born ready for Hillary!” sticker, that would have been on the bumper instead.
Out of love for her, the Bernie Sanders advocates in her house did not cover over it with a “Feel the Bern” sticker. And though dinner table conversation was lively during the run-up to the primaries, once Hillary was the party nominee, the whole family was all-in. My brother-in-law made it a point to connect with local campaign offices whenever his work took him out of state. And when he and their son went on a Northeastern college tour, they spent nearly as much time walking precincts as they did touring campuses.
For each of the presidential elections that have taken place during the near-dozen years we’ve co-housed together, her household has hosted a huge election-night watch party. In addition to tasty food and drink, the parties feature multiple screens in multiple rooms, each carrying a different news organizations’ live coverage. My brother-in-law (whom I have lovingly dubbed in these pages my Know-It-All-Brother-In-Law, and yes, the shoe fits) rigs up a custom spreadsheet á la David Wasserman’s epic 2016 National Popular Vote Tracker. This past November’s spreadsheet included results for the 2008 and 2012 elections, against which he plotted each state’s results as they came in.
A jovial mood prevailed early in the evening, the assembled buoyed by an electric sense of anticipation: we were about to witness something historic. Again. And then the night wore on. Too-close to call swing states began to be called, one by one, in Trump’s favor. The bright mood gradually began to dim, and not even a pause to watch Samantha Bee’s brilliant election eve herstory lesson, “Let Hillary Be Hillary,” would rouse us. Dispirited clumps of folks began to shuffle away, negotiating internally with various of the five Kübler-Ross stages of grief. Most of us had never taken a Hillary win for granted. But at the same time, a Trump win–given his toxic combination of buffoonish, uninformed bluster and calculated menace–was simply unimaginable. And yet there it was, the perfect storm Trump win, beginning to emerge out of a surreal haze.
Throughout the night, my beloved was at the theater in rehearsal. Back in 2008, she was away directing Fiddler on the Roof and, I kid you not, the news that Obama had clinched it came in as they were running through “Wonder of Wonder, Miracle of Miracles.” The pianist wept through the entirety of the number. For election night 2016, I had initially mused about a repeat, the final herstoric news coinciding with some similarly prophetic song from this year’s fall musical, Into the Woods. But the more the evening dragged on, the less I could pick suitable accompaniment to what was happening.
Barak Obama’s first election came when my kids were too young to apprehend much. To them, the glory of his election outshone the passage of California’s Proposition 8. This noble man’s becoming our leader was so much more comprehensible than passage of a law that would nullify the legal recognition of our family. I mean, how meaningful is legal recognition when a person is still forming a basic understanding of “legal”? Not much. But as deeply paradoxical as that election night was for us (I wrote about it here), when the kids awoke the next morning, we kept the dread to ourselves.
This time though, eight years later, they each are old enough to know a whole lot more. At nine and twelve, they took in not just broad-stroke caricatures of the candidates, but practical political positions (if they were articulated). They attended the fundraiser for Hillary that their aunt had organized, a large-scale watch party for the first televised debate that wound up busting through her fundraising target. Election night, their attention toggled between the incoming news reports, their device screens, on which they were carrying on text conversations about the election with their friends, and the faces of the grown-ups, reading each for a sense of what was unfolding.
Ironic though it may seem, that night and for the nine weeks since then, I’ve thanked the heavens I have these young souls watching me as I size up the political reality we’re facing. Inside, I have a very real fear that this is what it feels like, to be delivered into the maw of fascism. Absolutely nothing about Trump’s ascension tells me otherwise, and Andrew Sullivan’s piece in New York Magazine (“America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyrrany”) so chilling last May, seems nothing less than prescient now.
Inside, my fears compound: I was certain that Bush’s cheating his way past Gore perilously postponed critical climate change intervention. And now, says the voice of fear in me, Trump’s election has effectively doomed my children’s future, ensuring that in forty years, when they’re the age I am now, their world will be in an irreversible death spiral.
Am I really going to tell my kids that the chances their children will be able to survive life on this planet just got measurably dimmer? No, I am not. Not at nine and twelve I’m not. Maybe not ever.
Election night, as the reality of a Trump presidency was slowly coming into focus, so too was my obligation to my children. My fears that we’re wobbling at a precipice may be vivid, but my loyalty to my children’s spirits, to their fragile-ineffable dreams for their futures, is so much greater. For them, and as it turns out for myself as well, I must paint a vision founded on hope.
My effort to keep from knocking the wind out of them, it turns out, blows oxygen into my own lungs. And thus the precious gift of parenting: the world we are compelled against all odds to create for our children is one we inhabit as well.
So I tell them: yes, this is a challenge. I tell them: we have done this before, quite recently, and we know how to do this again (this: thorough, heart-and-mind, all-in social change work). I tell them: few people would choose trauma or loss as a means of growth, yet nothing else equals their power as catalysts for change. I tell them: it is an honor to be alive right now.
Here’s the Into the Woods song to accompany that night, and the one I’ll keep returning to when the magnetic pull of fear intensifies: “Children Will Listen.”
Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see