Last night, as I sat with friends and watched the final poll results come in from Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, I sent a text to my mother. It said, “Mom, I can’t believe this. I’m brought to tears.” A few seconds later, my phone buzzed with her response. “I cried all the way home from Seattle,” she wrote. “I feel like my generation has failed yours. I’m so sorry.”
As I transcribe her words onto the page today, I’m torn apart by the same hopelessness, fear, and utter sadness I felt when I first read them. Much of my generation is feeling this way. In our lives as eligible voters, this is the first time we, as a nation, have truly lost. And what is gone is more than just a presidency. This outcome has shaken our optimism, robbed us of inspiration, and made us question our belief in the decency of human beings. It feels like the future has been taken from us, and perhaps more than anything, we are left wondering how we can possibly move forward.
Maybe it was naïve, but I believed our society was going in a positive direction. We had made progress on marriage equality and women’s rights. For the first time in our nation’s history, we had elected an African American president, symbolizing incredible strides in racial equality. We had ratified the Paris Agreement, which signaled to the world that we were serious about combating climate change. We had provided healthcare to millions of Americans who had been previously uninsured. Of course, I was not naïve enough to believe our society was even close to perfect. The problems we faced at home and around the world were, and still are, deeply disturbing and frightening. But nevertheless, I believed that we were generally learning and growing, spurred on by a shared sense of hope for the future and the knowledge that, if we worked together, we could eventually overcome these challenges. In fact, I was so confident in these beliefs that, like many political pundits, I hadn’t seriously considered the idea of a Trump presidency. Last night, these beliefs were crushed, and in their place came a profound pain that I will not easily forget.
With the Legislative and Executive branches of government in the hands of conservatives, and the Judicial branch likely to be skewed to the right for the foreseeable future, it’s difficult not to worry that our society will take a major step backward. If we view Donald Trump’s campaign as an indication of what is to come, we can expect four years of cynicism, fear mongering, misogyny, and racism. Our public lands, sacred to many of us, may, in the name of economic progress, be opened to resource extraction. The divides between genders, economic classes, races, and cultures will probably be broadened and deepened. Some of these changes could be irreversible, or at least require decades to heal.
To say that so many people in our nation voted for Donald Trump because they were fed up with establishment politics is to ignore the deeper, scarier reasons for his ascendancy, such as the subtle sexism and racism that continue to permeate our culture. It’s easy to cast blame onto many groups—uneducated white men, the wealthy elite, the Democratic party, or apathetic millennials—but ultimately, we must admit that all people have the capacity to be horrible when they feel desperate, forgotten, and threatened, as so many Americans felt when they went to the polls last night. My brother, a doctoral candidate in the field of archaeology, reminded me in a text message that many societies have done just as bad—or far worse—than we have. This truth did little to alleviate the feeling that something had been broken. “All we can do is keep persuading and fighting,” my brother wrote.
Intellectually, I understand we must move on and look for a silver lining, but emotionally, I find myself questioning the value of what I am doing with my life. Today, work projects seem vacuous and self-serving. Half of me wants to disappear into the mountains and the other half of me wants to run for office. My partner, Freya, and I burst into tears at random moments. It’s all very overwrought, but if climbing mountains has taught me anything, it’s that the worst failures and tragedies give rise to the greatest motivation. So, for a while, we can let ourselves feel how we need to feel about what happened last night, but soon, we must find in our hearts a shred of optimism, love, and inspiration. Find it, and however we can, make it grow.