Near the highest moment of conflict in my novel The Risk of Us, a family of three hears, over the radio, that Donald Trump has won the election. The little girl goes to bed wondering why her parents have fallen silent. After she sleeps, the parents say to each other, “We’ve lost our country.”
I do not think there is anything particularly imaginative about this scene. I am confident millions of families across the United States lived it. So I was surprised in 2018 when an editor asked if I would consider removing it, saying it would make the novel “dated.” I knew it would not make the novel dated, that this scene would come to faithfully and without melodrama represent a horrifying moment in history. Of course, another reason for removing the scene was to avoid offending book buyers who supported the president. But I knew history would prove the sad error of their support, too. The scene was inextricable from the story and I did not cut it.
I do not typically announce that I “know” things. I am far more likely to admit that I do not know. I try to live every day in the humility of not-knowing. I think most of the people who knew Donald Trump’s presidency would come to this would have been happy to not-know. But the signs were all so clear. I agree with historian Timothy Snyder: “When Donald Trump stood before his followers on Jan. 6 and urged them to march on the United States Capitol, he was doing what he had always done.” I also think it is important to acknowledge, as Snyder does, that racism has always been at the center of this.
Plenty of those people who would have preferred never in their lives to write a word about Donald Trump have done so over these last four years. I am just one of them. Here is what I have written:
“Love and Kierkegaard in the Age of Trump”: Los Angeles Review of Books, August 2018.
I LIVE IN SEMI-RURAL Nevada County, California, and a year ago, in my gym, I overheard a tall, pale, buzz-cut, older-but-still-muscled man — a man I had once witnessed huffing in the direction of the TVs above the treadmills, “I don’t care what color you are, when an officer pulls you over you do whatever he says!” — I heard this man complaining to a friend at the bench press. “Liberal media,” he said, snorting at one of the TVs. “They twist everyone’s words. They make me sick.”
This was the week after neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, the week after Donald Trump picked up the narrative the right-wing media had prepared — the narrative the neo-Nazis had baited — by blaming counter-protestors for violence “on both sides.” I suspected I should stick to my StairMaster, but my skin twitched. For months I had watched the gym’s bank of TVs broadcast competing news stations side by side, the cross-captioning of each talking head suggesting parallel black holes, and I could hold the tension no longer. I crossed the gym floor, and stood at this man’s shoulder. I said, “I’m equally troubled by Fox News, if you want to know.” He drew his spike-haired head back in shock. And then this man and I stared, mutually baffled, as the whole gym watched.
That standoff now seems innocent. In the year since a white nationalist killed an innocent woman in Charlottesville, more Americans have moved their turf wars off Facebook and into the streets. In my grocery store parking lot, confederate flags are now popping up alongside the Make America Great Again bumper stickers. A few weeks ago, at the local “Families Belong Together” march protesting the separation of children at the border, “Motorists at the intersection responded by honking their horns, popping wheelies on their motorcycles, flipping the bird, or screaming ‘build the wall’” — so reported the front page of our little local paper.
Can anyone still speak earnestly of “bridging the divide”?
“In Nevada City, Politics and Protest Stoke a Brewing Civil War”: San Francisco Chronicle, October 2019
And so this area is a front line of the current civil war. Some showdowns, as in the town’s hub, the SPD grocery store, involve anti-maskers who deliberately cough on those who choose to cover their nose and mouth. Others involve shop owners who place “Recall Newsom” petitions at their cash registers or restaurateurs who defy COVID-19 measures, with their supporters harassing the county director of environmental health.
It is not an ideologically tidy civil war here, three hours northeast of San Francisco: Some anti-maskers are also pro-Black Lives Matter, and given the fire season, there’s plenty of complicated (and unnecessary) fissures over forest management and climate change. The general line of liberal versus conservative obscures the deeper point of difference that asserts itself daily in the Ford F-150s plastered with NRA and “Don’t Tread on Me” tags versus Subarus bearing “Coexist” bumper stickers. It’s a difference between pride in separatist self-sufficiency, which the other side sees as militant, and belief in inclusive cooperation, which the other side sees as immoral and naïve.
Since President Donald Trump’s election — and, truthfully, long before it — this soft civil war has played out on the opinion pages of the Union, our local newspaper, and on Facebook groups for locals, where neighbors insult each other in mile-long threads. Because of this, there has been a temptation to imagine our local conflict as merely virtual. But I wonder, as we hurtle toward the election, and as the rocks thrown through windows become shatteringly real, if that perception is a serious mistake.
“The Division”: Berfrois, November 18, 2020
Some people, you already knew. My grandfather’s wife, for instance. Weeks before the 2016 election, she’d posted a photo of my grandfather in a red hat, his blonde-grey hair combed over his forehead: Benny jumped on the Trump Train!
I wrote to her after the inauguration. I appealed to her as a fellow Christian, though I knew she believed her Catholicism to be the one true faith and mine to be heresy. She had voted to save the unborn babies. What could you say in the face of that? I wrote to her that I was praying for our country. That I was concerned to see an avowed white supremacist named chief White House advisor. That I worried about non-Christian, non-white people being harassed and vilified. That I worried about my daughter’s future as a person of Mexican-American descent.
My grandfather’s wife wrote to me more about innocent unborn babies.
I am taking no happiness in being right this week. I am talking to family members near and far as best I can, endeavoring to keep them in one fact-based reality. I am praying for our country.