Four years ago, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, my neighbor slapped a bumper sticker on her car that read, “He’s not my president!” The dismissive, liberal sentiment has rankled me ever since. I was reminded of it two weeks ago, when white supremacists attacked the capitol at Trump’s urging, and the message “This is not who we are!” spread like wildfire among progressives. Yes, it is! I wanted to shout back. Trump was America’s president for four difficult years, and a racist society with a strong anti-democratic bent is exactly who we are. The events of January 6th wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
Of course I understand this impulse. Like most white people, I don’t want to own the myriad minuscule ways I unconsciously exercise my privilege. Like most of the middle class, I find it easier to assume everyone shares the same financial security than acknowledge the terrible hardships of poverty. Like most Americans, I prefer to believe the myth that we’ve earned our place rather than face the reality that our country’s successes stand on Indigenous, Black, and the so-called “developing” world’s backs.
It’s human to push away anything we find distasteful, to deny it, bury it, or simply distance ourselves, making it “other” than us. Not one of us is free from this instinct. It may be self-protective but it never—never—works for our best interest. Trump and those angry white men storming our capitol acted from this same base instinct.
I’m reminded of dreamwork, and how every image in a dream represents a part of us. In my nightmare about a violent intruder, I am my frightened self but also the dark house and the masked man and the gun he wields. If I can’t see that the intruder is both me and not me, I’ll never unpack the dream’s gifts. Or I think of writing fiction, how I generate characters, each of whom is a personality complete with strengths and weaknesses that collectively come into conflict. For the story to function—to grip readers, compel us through events and move us in inexplicable ways—it must contain real people, who are inevitably some mix of good and evil. And I must portray those characters with utmost respect, not only because each in some way is a part of me but because each is also a part of my readers. The story unfolding on the page is mirrored by an interior drama. The truer its elements, the deeper the inner movement.
We are collectively creating a national story. Not a single person or event is left out. This is who we are.
From this vantage, the hate, lies, and destruction of Trump’s tenure are critical elements of our plot. What’s most important at this juncture, other than owning fully America’s dark underbelly, is deciding who we want to become now that it’s exposed. What if the fear-mongering of the past four years was precisely the jolt our country needed to finally wake up to the needs of the poor, the disenfranchised, and our beleaguered earth? Will we bury this nightmare? Or will we explore its images, listen to its components, learn, grieve, and allow ourselves to be changed for the better?
Even nightmares can become blessings if we work with them. As a gesture of solidarity, I commit to welcoming mine in 2021.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew