This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
I spent last weekend talking with other people of color about Biden’s election. Everyone had the same vibe. It wasn’t joy nor dread. The mood was of cautious encouragement.
Someone compared America’s hate problem to a terrible addiction. This country fell off the wagon, went on a four-year bender, almost died, killed others in the rampage, and then staggered back into AA still bleeding and smelling of booze. You’re not going to be “yeah, you’re saved” happy. You’re more likely thinking, “okay, I’m glad you didn’t die … that was close. You’re back. This is day one. You’re still messed up. You still need to do a lot of work. I’m here for you, but I’ve also seen you fall off the wagon 400 other times so how do I balance motivating you to fight your illness without becoming a toxic pessimist? How do I separate positive but slightly detached encouragement from the delusional joy of immediate salvation?”
I feel that is the balance people of color are always trying to maintain in this country. We are aware of subtext, even in uplifting moments. Behind every mindless celebration, I have a fear of America’s impending national amnesia and a return to liberal thoughtlessness. Behind every expression of a weight lifted off our shoulders, I worry about the general consensus of “a job done.”
In 2008 I witnessed the most joyous election celebrations I have ever seen in my life. There was a sense of “well that about wraps up the racist/misogynistic/hateful part of America’s history. Welcome to Post-racial America.”
The next day, I was driving to the airport and tuned into right-wing talk radio. There was no joy. There wasn’t even an acknowledgment of fault. The emotional switch was flipped to fear and blame. The talk show host was hypnotically repeating the phrase that the current recession was now the fault of then-President-elect Obama. He wanted his audience to get this mantra into their heads: the current economic collapse was now the fault of the guy who just won office 12 hours ago. He was responsible for all their woes and pains. And most white people gladly accepted the brainwash because 80 days later the first Tea Party rallies started.
It was massive and happened immediately after Obama’s inauguration. Funded by the Koch Bros and marketed by Fox News, millions of enraged white people gathered around the country to commemorate the first black man being sworn in as president … by blaming him for the economy, taxes being too high, the end of the Second Amendment and all the problems of the world.
And it worked. It galvanized them, stymied full progress, gave them a sense of identity. Democrats melted like warm butter, oozing out apologies and long-winded explanations that didn’t matter against a screaming mob saying “We. Hate. You.”
In the midterm elections, Democrats got wiped out. Devastated. They lost seats in every state and on every level. Obama had two years of cautiously moving the ball forward followed by six years of fighting off a collective madness — triggered the moment he won. I worry that Biden might not even get two years to fix these problems. Wall Street is betting on a stalemate government.
In 2016, our reactions were radically different. At the time, I worked in Los Angeles as a writer on the NBC drama “This is Us.” Election Day coincided with the first day of shooting my episode. I drove to work with a nervous tension as NPR reported that Michigan Democrats were furious with the Clinton campaign for neglecting their requests for help. A sinking feeling came over me, but that was broken when I got to the set. The assistant director was joking with the crew about Hillary’s inevitable victory. In between takes, he would launch into his stand-up routine by announcing “Breaking News” or “This Just In” that would send us into peals of laughter. While setting up one shot the AD announced “Breaking News: Mexico will pay for the wall … when Hillary wins.” We all laughed, except for two crew members who were walking around with MAGA hats. They quietly went about their jobs, betraying neither humor nor rage. I remember looking at them and thinking, “those guys are lurking ominously in the shadows … but they’re not going to win.” We felt safe. We were in Hollywood, making TV, in a liberal state. And Hillary Clinton was going to win so we could crack our jokes.
We finished shooting our scenes early and the director dismissed us for the day. When I got back in my car my election anxiety returned. I walked into my apartment to discover … an AA meeting in progress. My subletter thought I wouldn’t be home early and decided to use the living room to host an Election Day 12-step meeting. He profusely apologized, but I told him this just offered me a perfect opportunity to go to the gym. At the gym, I found that I couldn’t out-exercise this nervous energy. I certainly didn’t want to sit at home and watch the results with this feeling. I decided to spend election night hanging out with Ron, a college friend who happens to be Black. We went to the Geffen Playhouse to distract ourselves. The play that evening was appropriately titled “Icebergs.” The plot centered on a group of 20-something white people in Silver Lake who felt impending disasters approaching, like icebergs waiting in their path.
We went into the preview performance of “Icebergs” a little after 8:00 p.m (PST) thinking Hillary Clinton was probably going to be our next president. About 30 minutes into the play, the actors’ mood shifted. They seemed to get quieter and more morose. The jokes dragged, some of the lines appeared to be fumbled. But there was also a darkening intensity and sadness to their performances. I remember turning to Ron and whispering, “these actors are really giving it. Wow, they are getting dark.”
At the time I thought we were witnessing some finely layered method acting. In retrospect I realize the actors were probably getting election results backstage while the audience’s phones were turned off. They were having to deal — in real time — with the dawning realization of a Trump presidency and then rush out on stage in their roles while we sat blissfully in the dark.
By the time we left the play 100 minutes later, grown men and women were crying in the streets. My friend and I decided to go to a nearby wine bar that was filled with fairly liberal UCLA people to feel what the future was going to be like in Trump’s America. The mood was horrendous. I turned to Ron and smirked. Then he smiled and we both started … giggling. And all our anxiety dissolved into the breezy Westwood evening. I couldn’t figure out why we were laughing until I talked to a sleepless friend a few hours later who happens to be white. He was recounting all the crying that was happening at his hotel job after it became clear that Trump was going to be president. He said it felt like a funeral and I started laughing again. It was the second time that evening that I found myself breaking out into grim giggles. I guess it wasn’t a funeral for me because the America my white friends thought died never existed.
That America has never existed for Blacks, yet white liberals insisted on this fiction which they now have to bury. This imaginary America was a backdoor entrance for mainstream media’s intrinsic mistrust of the Black experience. It allowed for the subtle, pervasive disbelief when Black people shared their trauma. In some ways this imaginary friend was a vodka chaser to our nation’s hate addiction. It offered justification for America’s consistent systemic and statistically provable racism and allowed white people to relax because — deep down inside — there was still some part of them that felt Blacks just needed to try harder to live in their imaginary America. What Black Americans lacked wasn’t agency or rights or a decent standard in this imaginary America. What we lacked was magical faith.
On that November night I was shocked that I was not more shocked. I was sad that I was not more sad. I laughed. I watched my white colleagues mourn and bury an imaginary friend which was used against me. This imaginary America was used to accuse me of not being positive enough to see it and smart enough to acknowledge its presence in my life. This imaginary America was employed to convince me that I was crazy, lazy, unpatriotic or — best of all — that I was the one who was a reverse racist. For years black friends had been saying to their college-educated white allies that they were living in a fantasy. The 2016 election was our chance to bury this imaginary America. I was laughing over this non-existent thing’s grave. Not in joy but in relief that now others could see that I was never the angry or crazy one. Don’t get me wrong: I anticipated horror over the next four years. I expected suffering and lies of unprecedented proportions. But not blindness. Not fantasies of an imaginary America.
This weekend I saw people celebrating and I wondered if we’re going to go back to feckless obsequiousness toward white supremacy, right-wing rage, disinformation and outright lies. Is this just a brief pause in our slide toward ruin?
Can enough good people stop a hate addict? The answer is absolutely not. An addict will find a way: penthouse or jailhouse, with a loving family or living on the street. You can’t hide the bottle or dump the drugs in the toilet. The drug is streaming through every screen. The drug is intrinsically linked to their identity. The drug is linked to their birth, the foundation of their culture. At the same time, enough good people can keep the door open and offer support when (and if) someone wants to change.
I want you to change, America. But I’ve seen you relapse so many times that I am wary of celebrating. I can’t fix white Fox News viewers who continually buy into outrageous lies without even doing a basic Google search for facts. I can’t fix people who dogmatically held the view that Obama was responsible for 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or was a part of an international conspiracy to drain the blood of little children. There is no compromise between racist lunacy and facts. But I worry that the DNC will try to find the middle ground and lose everything. Again.
But for now there is dancing in the streets. Last Saturday, spontaneous celebrations erupted in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I now live. At 11:38 a.m. the horns started and didn’t stop. People screamed out the window and libertine curse words filled the air. I wanted to scream with them, but I stopped myself. I wanted to make it clear that I am not cheering the resurrection of white America’s imaginary nation. I was cheering the first step in vanquishing their addiction. Now is not the time to relax. Now is the time to drink, toast and recharge our battery. My Black, Latino and Asian friends all know that Trump and Trumpism is here for a while. The roots of its addiction lie in something a lot deeper than the man. This is one battle won in a long sustained war.
Aurin Squire is an award-winning playwright, reporter, and multimedia artist. He is a two-time recipient of the Lecomte du Nouy Prize from Lincoln Center and has received residencies at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Ars Nova, Lincoln Center Lab, National Black Theatre, the Dramatists Guild of America, and Brooklyn Arts Exchange.