Today, something feels different. This country has spent the last two decades in a defensive crouch. The 21st century has been freighted with so many unspeakably awful moments, and I believe enough people have grown weary enough of it, or angry enough about it, to actually fix it rather than hide from it entirely or use the worst parts against each other.
Consider this: The nation greeted the new millennium tensed beneath the inflicted fear that all the computers would stop working at once, causing airplanes to melt in the sky in a moment of perfect apocalypse. That didn’t happen, of course, but it was a rotten way to start the century. A year later, we bore witness to a gut-churning spectacle as our national election system collapsed into a polarizing Floridian fiasco that tattooed an asterisk next to George W. Bush’s name for all time.
Over the course of the next eight years, President Asterisk presided over the worst terrorist attack in US history. He lied the nation into two ongoing failed wars that killed, maimed or displaced millions of people while costing trillions of dollars. The deliberate use of torture in those conflicts remains a permanent stain, and the Guantánamo Bay prison still exists. He and his Republican allies constantly deployed the use of fear to control public opinion and win elections.
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Let us not forget the near-total collapse of the nation’s financial system, thanks to decades of right-wing, trickle-down economic theory that had a funny way of moving all the money up the food chain. This event thoroughly screwed millions of people to such a vicious degree that many are still trying to get back to zero. Notably, the wealthiest among us have recovered from that massive toilet flush quite nicely, thank you.
The next eight years were spent trying to repair the damage from the previous eight years while simultaneously pretending none of it actually happened. President Barack Obama rode into office on a wave of hope and change that crashed hard into the seawall of a Republican Congress bent on full-spectrum obstruction. The Iraq War spread out, the Afghanistan War rumbled on and the drone war became the “Big New Thing.”
It was a slightly calmer time in the main, but for the ceaseless bigoted bellowing of the president’s political foes: Obama is not a citizen; he’s from Kenya; he’s a Muslim, socialist, fascist, terrorist mole bent on national destruction. This was all day, every day, with no escape. In a final insult, the torturers, warmongers and looters from the Bush administration walked free without so much as a speck of lint on their tailored suits. Two long years later, the Obama years feel more like an elaborate holding pattern, the deep breath before the plunge.
The plunge came in the form of a shocking national upheaval that combined every element of all the things that have gone wrong since the computers didn’t stop working on January 1, 2000. A racist, sexist, lying, bullying, deliberately ignorant real estate hustler with a bad TV show took advantage of every fear, bias and grudge he could lay hands on and parlayed them into an improbable (and likely tainted) presidential run in 2016. Donald Trump won and has been taking it out on all of us ever since.
The two years since that grim election have been thoroughly exhausting, even for Trump supporters. Every day is a war, every day is a crisis, every day is about Trump, because his Brobdingnagian ego will have it no other way. Thanks to a national media that feeds it even as it disdains him, the Trump vortex is almost completely inescapable.
Threaded throughout these last 18 years were all the ugly problems that existed before 2000. The 21st century did not invent racism, sexism, homophobia, corruption, greed, climate change, media absurdity, rampant gun violence or war. It feels, however, like these dark arts have been somehow perfected in this passage, ubiquitous in their dreary, lethal repetition, a daily drumbeat of loss, defeat and shame that seems to have no end.
But a funny thing happened on the way to dissolution: The 2018 midterm elections. I have seen plenty of “big change” elections in my lifetime; pretty much all of them either came to nothing or made matters worse. This time, however, it feels different. There is a butcher’s bill to be paid, and a whole lot of people who never gave much of a damn before are suddenly parsing the strange geography of polling places and protests. There is a gritty reality to the moment that has finally pierced the moral stillness that has trapped our progress like an ant in amber.
There is a large element of enlightened self-interest in this manifest change, and I’m fine with that. People who didn’t want to entertain the idea that climate change is real are far more motivated now that the ocean is lapping at their heels and their houses are burning down, and that sense of self-preservation makes people look at politics through a new prism. It would not have come to this if I had my way, and if we had ham, we could have ham and eggs if we had eggs. It is what it is, and we work with what we have.
Racism is still here, sexism is still here, violence and homophobia and poverty and greed and pollution and ignorance and war are all still here, but at long last, it seems like enough heads are turning to look at it all with sufficiently stern disapproval to make an actual difference in the here and now, in extremis, at the precipice when it matters most.
And I am thankful for it.