written by Joseph Trey Meeks
“If you don’t like it, you can get out!” she said with a fierce passion that caught me off-guard.
She was a neighbor and our families had been friends for years. We were talking, hanging out, doing the normal things kids did before high speed internet, ubiquitous cell phones, and other distractions. It was sometime in 2003, and the United States had just invaded Iraq again. We were living in suburban North Carolina, where culture often leaned, sometimes quite heavily, towards the conservative side despite a reputation for progressivism (at least for the South).
“You are being unpatriotic. There are soldiers who have died for us. Freedom isn’t free! Love it or leave it!”
Somehow we had gotten to talking about current events and politics, and I voiced some concern about decisions the Bush administration was making. The unity and conviction we all felt after the 9/11 attacks had begun to fray, and many Americans had started to question how far we would go to feel safe again in this now uncertain world. We felt insecure for the first time in a long while – no longer the invincible victor of the Cold War, we felt lost and started seeing enemies in every corner. We were naming countries, perhaps rightly so, as an “Axis of Evil”. Our conservative government spent months trying to sell us on the imminent dangers of Iraq and Saddam Hussein. When the United Nations would not offer support, we went in with a hodge-podge of allies whose enthusiasm did not always mirror our own. An easy war became an uneasy stalemate. The promised callus belli, the existence of weapons of mass destruction, never materialized – and many Americans felt deceived.
However, not everyone felt like this, and unity gave way to deep division. Friendships went cold and dinner table conversations grew hot. This friend and I never really were on the same page again. People talked about two different Americas in shades of red and blue. It was a strange and disconcerting time to grow up in.
Towards the end of high school, I overheard a classmate talking animatedly with my civics teacher about a new figure in the Democratic Party who was young, smart, charismatic, and gave a powerful speech at the national convention. He talked about hope, change, and unity – things that many of us had not really felt for a while.
When Barack Obama started his run for the presidency, myself and others were skeptical. He was a relative unknown and came out with these grandiose statements of hope. Even at that age many of us had become suspicious of our political class and its aspirants, having seen what the Bush administration had said and done for years. Being from North Carolina, I was favorable to Dem. John Edwards – of course, that did not end well for him. I was, however, willing to give this newcomer a chance, and his message was certainly powerful. Some of us started to believe that we could indeed overcome years of alienation and see a real change.
I voted for Obama in 2008 – my first presidential vote. I believed in his vision and the things he stood for: a multicultural, progressive America that exercised smart foreign policy and invested in its people domestically. Not everything worked out as promised, and those first years were often very frustrating for opponents and supporters alike. However, overall, I liked the direction things were going in and believed he was the best choice for the job. I was proud of the America that he was trying to build. I voted for him again in 2012 – some at the DA might remember the Election Night party with red, white and blue shots and election coverage playing well into the early hours of the morning.
However, as is true in most democratic societies, eventually the reins of power must change hands and new faces will lead the government. It felt like the world had changed a lot in the past eight years, often for the better but also for the worse. On one hand, we had risen out of the Great Recession, had passed long-overdue healthcare reform, had legalized same-sex marriage, and had enacted other progressive policies. On the other hand, the Arab Spring had fallen short of its promise and brutality had scarred the region with civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen; we saw the rise of the Islamic State; there were renewed tensions with Russia and China; and feelings of state-supported inequality ran deep.
The Democratic Party offered two real successors: Hillary Clinton, former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State; and Bernie Sanders, former mayor and current Senator, as well as former Socialist and recent Democrat. The former was a figure of the establishment and status quo, with a great deal of experience. The latter was an agent for progressive change and disruption, and voiced the frustrations of much of the young electorate.
The contenders for the Republican Party were many, seventeen named candidates in all. They fell all over the conservative spectrum, from young rising stars to established figures to a son and brother of former presidents. Also among them were some political outsiders, including Donald Trump. His announcement of candidacy was the fuel of many jokes at the beginning, and his consistently rude, offensive, racist, misogynistic and xenophobic rhetoric was a constant source of ridicule for many – but he proved unassailably popular with a portion of the population throughout.
This election cycle was perhaps the hardest, most brutal and exhausting that most Americans can remember. Many felt that there was no good candidate and no good choice. Over half of eligible American voters decided to not vote at all – and at the very end, despite having lost the popular vote by a handful of percentage points, Donald Trump won the electoral vote and as such the Presidency of the United States.
I remember the George W. Bush years well. The feelings of frustration and paranoia; of feeling that the United States was going down the wrong path; that my priorities were completely off the administrations “to-do” list – these feelings still gall me. These feelings were probably the feelings that led many people, for one reason or another, to cast a vote for Donald Trump.
But what really worries me now is that those Bush-era feelings, which I have not felt for years and years, will not only return but will get worse. Trump’s administration presents a certain unknown: either he will not follow the rhetoric he espoused during the campaign, or he will – the former is remarkably unpredictable, and the latter is outright awful. His cabinet hopefuls, the reactions from his supporters, and his post-election rhetoric do not make me hopeful. The shock of this election upset is starting to wear off and other emotions are replacing it: fear, sadness, anger. I do not know what the future holds, but I know about the present, as well as the past.
Not even one day after the election I heard a familiar phrase.
“Trump won! You lost! If you don’t like it, you can get out!”