In Our Relationships, the Post-Trump Reckoning Won't Be Easy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because reconciliation after the Trump era will be no easy task.
By Ekow N. Yankah
Ekow N. Yankah is a professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York.
The past few years have popularized the delightful phrase: “I kept the receipts.” The catchphrase means you have proof of someone’s past poor behavior despite their denials. It is a mix of accountability, comical “told you so” and swaggering gotcha. Most famously, Kim Kardashian had the receipts when she posted proof on Instagram that her man, Kanye West, did not steal unauthorized verses from Taylor Swift. More painfully, it exposes the lying spouse. And most sobering, an entire nation is about to find out whether life together is manageable when everyone has the receipts.
If the polls are to be believed (this time), Joe Biden will be elected president. For the exhausted across the political spectrum, there is the promise of a reduction in the political temperature, a world in which politics does not dominate every moment and the president’s name is not always on one’s lips. For the furious liberal swath of the country, today’s Election Day represents a chance at national redemption. A defeated Donald Trump means the country can begin governing its way out of multiple crises and restoring its soul.
But for so many of us who have watched our neighbors and colleagues ignore this administration’s racism and sexism, forgiveness and forgetting will be harder to come by. Even if Biden is elected, it will always remain true that Trump was the president. Disfavored immigrants will live knowing a presidential campaign can be announced by calling them rapists and murderers, that cries of building a wall energized millions. Millions of pink-hatted women will know that neither credible accusations of sexual assault nor an admission in his own voice were enough to sink Trump. Muslims now know that nearly half the country either wanted to or would tolerate banning them from our shores. And I, like millions of Black Americans, will remember that the denying our legitimacy in places of power was the birth of a political career.
Healthy politics requires letting go of certain grievances. But the choice is rending.
It would be bad enough if it was “merely” Trump’s election that still pained after all these years — a singular injury in our civic relationship. But each passing month inflicted cut after cut. The receipts kept piling up. Trump’s very first flex of his presidential pardon power was on behalf of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, notorious for targeting anyone whose color indicated they might be Mexican. Infamously, Trump could barely bring himself to woodenly mouth a condemnation of neo-Nazis before he burst out with his impassioned “very fine people on both sides.”
Framing it all was his visceral contempt for Black demands of respect. He railed against dark-skinned immigrants as coming from “shithole countries.” He reflexively defends symbols of the American Confederacy and its blood oath to defend Black subjugation. While the entire country, from the “woke” NBA to red-state NASCAR, recognized a racial reckoning, Trump gleefully mocked protesting Black athletes. Most recently, he’s taken to spreading baseless claims that Biden is intent on letting “those people” take over suburban neighborhoods, hoping the specter of dark-skinned marauders is sufficient to scare white suburbanites into the fold. And, of course, he casually returned to a classic move from his racist playbook, floating the idea that Kamala Harris may not be American enough to be the vice president. And those are just the ones that cut me the deepest.
Now, a small majority of the country appears to see light at the end of the tunnel. The Biden redemption story is seductive to well-meaning liberals for whom Trump was a national outrage, “Never Trump”-ers and especially Trump supporters who insist that their politics should be separated from any personal relationship. But for some of us, Trump’s attacks echoed in a very personal register. When Trump denied Barack Obama’s legitimacy as president, I winced at the memory of every classmate who believed I did not truly belong at the same university, every colleague’s insinuation about why I “really” got a job and students who couldn’t quite believe that I should be their professor. Watching Trump dismiss police discrimination even when faced with videos of grotesque murders was to be reminded of every friend who dismissed my own stories of being unfairly treated, who insisted that I must have done something for a cop to have treated me like that. Every Facebook post excusing Trump’s behavior is now evidence of a kind of personal betrayal, a reenactment on the national stage of more personal slights.
And Trump serves only as the avatar of persistent grudges. Alongside every presidential tweet is a Facebook post from an in-law willfully misinterpreting a Black Lives Matter protest, perhaps joking about running over a few protesters themselves. The antipathy or viciousness of uncles, in-laws and nearly forgotten high school classmates now feels permanently etched in our shared memories.
This has always been the challenge of settling things through politics. Whether ancient Athenians, freed slaves or anti-Vietnam protesters, societies have had to forge peace after ordinary ruptures and deep cruelty. Trump’s defeat will not solve the legitimate grievances of the electorate that did not see themselves represented by either political party. Nor would a Biden win erase years of watching fellow citizens eagerly consume, excuse, or ignore the rank misogyny, xenophobia and racism emanating from the White House.
But the peculiarly modern incarnation — a presidency and world saturated in social media — has dragged everyone into the arena. There is no homefront when the battlefield is everywhere, every day on every screen. David Frum, between wistful and warning, may have been right to caution, “When this is over, nobody will ever admit to having supported it.” But the social media trail means the rest of us will be able to recall every inflammatory comment at the swipe of our fingers. Beyond shouting matches or skipped Thanksgivings, five years of Facebook, emails and — God help us — tweets will remain to accuse and inflame us. In a world in which everyone has the receipts, forgetting becomes a conscious act of will.
Rather than a magical national redemption, a Biden win would starkly highlight what we should always have known. Living together as citizens has always been a choice. Healthy politics requires letting go of certain grievances. But the choice is rending. Ignoring the racial spite evidenced over the last few years is to indulge the American fault of false innocence. Holding the evidence too close to hand and heart ensures we cannot move on. This time, after all that has happened, there are things many of us cannot and will not let go, no matter who becomes president — and we all have the receipts.
- Ekow N. Yankah, OZY AuthorContact Ekow N. Yankah