We’ve all heard stories from our friends and family members about their reactions to Donald Trump’s election. Election Night 2016 has already, in our imaginations, reached the status of a defining cultural event, a “where were you when such-and-such happened” question along the lines of “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” or “Where were you on 9/11?” or “Where were you when Obama was elected president?” These are the types of questions by which we measure our personal histories. I was in my dorm; after shelling out ten or so dollars to view Stephen Colbert’s broadcast on Showtime, I watched as the comedian failed to find anything witty to say as the results poured in. My own emotions before and after Trump’s declared victory were the same: frustration, distaste and a mild indifference towards the election. Some people cried, a few people in the suite next to me were rejoicing, but there was little else anyone could say or do.
Since then, Donald Trump has only exceeded our expectations as president. Already, he has a higher disapproval rating than the previous president. He has had more scandals than Obama had in his eight years, and each one of Trump’s nominations seems more dangerous than the next. It’s clear that Donald Trump has the potential to do great damage to the legitimacy of the American government and the rights it was designed to protect. Just in the last week, we’ve seen how Trump’s cabinet has already begun pushing the limits of executive power. Setting policy aside, there is a tangible fear among many college-educated liberals and people from urban areas that “our” America is under threat.
However, I would argue that the election of Trump may prove to be one of the better things that could happen to our generation. If the responses of Senator McCain and other leading Republicans are any indication, it is possible that Trump will not have the legitimacy within the G.O.P. to do irreparable damage to the country. Certainly, we should worry about the people he is surrounding himself with: a head of the EPA who doesn’t believe that fossil fuels cause climate change; an Education Secretary who recently embarrassed herself by failing to communicate the difference between proficiency and growth; and Steve Bannon, who watched Dick Cheney operate for eight years and thought, “Yeah you’re pretty cool, but I can do it better.” However, with a Congress that’s slow to accept Trump’s ideas and nominations and a public who already thinks the president is unfit to do his job, Trump may only be dangerous for a relatively short period of time. His cabinet has shown in the last week that they will try to circumvent Congress by expanding the powers of the executive branch; politically, his actions could have a lasting impact on the American government. But that still begs the question: what value will this period hold in the minds of the American people ten or twenty years down the line?
I believe that this moment will be our reminder of what can happen when we lose interest in the political system. This will be our generation’s politicizing moment; that moment which spurs us to action and reminds us, as a people, of what can happen when we are not vigilant towards our government. Every previous generation of Americans has experienced a singular defining event that mobilized them into political action. For the parents of many college students today, it was the Vietnam War that drove them to the streets, and the Watergate scandal that left them disenchanted with Washington. For our grandparents, World War Two ignited a wave of patriotism and political participation. Before that there was the populist movement, pushing for worker’s rights, and before that, the Civil War.
There’s little doubt in my mind that this election is that moment for our generation. Those of us who were too young to vote for Obama – but still heard that unifying message of “Yes We Can” – were somehow unable to sufficiently mobilize during this election cycle. Many of us were content to keep our opinions at home despite the apparent fervor of our online personas. In many states the difference between a win or loss between the two main parties was smaller than the number of votes Gary “Aleppo moment” Johnson received. In all, despite the tens of thousands of news articles that covered our Facebook walls, despite the endless conversations over the latest inflammatory remarks, there was little action. This energy, this overwhelming attention and hatred leveled towards both candidates, festered into a refusal to participate – a kind of passionate apathy.
However, Trump’s victory seems to have jolted the American public to action. On the day of his election, people took to the streets in mass protest, waving flags and shouting, “Not our president!” A day later, tens of thousands of people of all genders and ethnicities gathered for the Women’s March in Washington and numerous cities across the globe in response to Trump’s proposed policy agenda.
In his inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan claimed: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Now, in a vastly different sense, the government has become our problem. The American people are waking up from the apathy and distrust that has persisted since Watergate, and Donald Trump is the bucket of ice water we needed.
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