Several times a week, I spend an hour or so on Skype with someone from a Spanish-speaking country, trying to maintain what little domination I have over the language. I talk to Venezuelan refugees in Madrid, Cuzco and Bogota; to a Chilean who lives in Ecuador; to an evangelical Mexican who works in Honduras; to a middle-class Mexican woman in Veracruz; and to two young Mexican guys, one in Puebla and another in Oaxaca.
We talk about everything — books, government, corruption, food, journalism, marriage — but the most popular topic is Donald Trump, and the most asked question is: Why? Even the young Mexican guys, who are fans of the country’s leftist president and therefore not smitten with all things American, want to know: What happened to the United States?
As my fellow Americans know, there is no simple answer. The least complicated I’ve developed in a year of trying to find an explanation — in Spanish — is that Trump ignited the volcanic mix of racism, authoritarianism and fascism that has been part of the national chemistry since the country’s founding, but in recent decades has retreated more or less into dormancy. He didn’t cause the hate and the fear and the stupidity, but he encouraged and enabled and manipulated them. He didn’t create the right-wing media or invent the wacko web of conspiracies theories they propagate, but he found brotherhood with them, like a pair of symbiotic parasites.
For most of my international chat pals, the sight of large groups of men carrying high-powered weapons through the streets of America, the blatant reemergence of white supremacists, the tragic and persistent “legal” assassination of Black men and women by police, and the seditious plotting by a quarter of the Congress to overturn the election are inconsistent with their view of the United States as a destination of hope and reminiscent of the revolutions, political persecutions and outright acts of corruption in their own countries. Many times my Spanish-speaking friends — especially those from Venezuela — have compared Trump to the authoritarian thugs they’ve seen come to power.
Now, Trump is done. Even before last week, before the shameful desecration of one of our most iconic democratic symbols, he was on his way to irrelevancy. Now there is an increasing number of GOP pols queuing up to grab a shovel and bury the orange-headed despot they spent four years supporting. The questions now are: What remains? Where do we go from here? How can we rescue our principles while repairing the damage Trump has done?
Is there healing needed? Yes. But, there is also punishment to be meted out. The carrot is more effective with the stick, and some transgressions cannot be forgiven.
With Trump gone, the temperature will drop, but the underlying magma of hate, resentment and fear will continue to run strong, awaiting to further erupt with the emergence of the next politician whose ambitions outstrip his morals. The line is already long.
For now, the fragile web of checks and balances of the American democracy held. It caught the nation as it was falling. I am angry, of course, like you are, at the ease at which white police officers allowed white rioters to rampage through the Capitol. We know what would have happened had those charging the steps of the domed building been Black or brown. But I want the anger to result in something, some sort of change. I remain hopeful, in part because I think it’s the better choice, and in part I feel I need to be that way for my own mental well-being. I’ve tried long-term anger and resentment. It goes nowhere.
There is a new president. Not a perfect man but a good man, a beacon of decency to help guide us out of the storm of vulgarity that has engulfed us. There is a new vice president — a woman, a daughter of Black and brown immigrants, a symbol of a future we can embrace as an antidote to the toxic yearnings of so many of our countrymen for the repressive past. There are two new senators, Black and Jewish and Democrat, from a state that once bled for the right to enslave people. They are evidence of what is possible and omens of what more can be done.
To preserve this precious and, despite its terrible flaws, still unique experiment not just in democracy but in cultural diversity that is the United States, we must embrace hope — not a dreamy-eyed wishing for a better future, rather a hard-nosed, vigilant reaching that recognizes the social and structural obstacles of change and dismantles them one by one. That is the work Stacey Abrams and others did in Georgia. That is what is possible. Hope is not the goal. Hope is the tool.