Politics

The Show Is Over

The horror is still here.

An ominous-looking White House.
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A few years ago, in the midst of the early Trump era and a few weeks after the Charlottesville Nazi rally, my friend and former Slate colleague Jennifer Mendelsohn gifted me a silver disc on a black cord that said merely “Resist.” It’s been on my wrist ever since. I paid it forward, sending one to my friend Jennifer Taub with the same inscription. This past Sunday, Mendelsohn tweeted that the person who sent her hers had surprised her with a new bracelet—“heal.” And she wrote to ask me what my new word would be.

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Mine isn’t heal. Four weeks after an election that has become a joke or a nightmare, depending on how you look at it, I don’t feel healed. Really, I don’t feel much of anything. “Stasis,” I wrote back. Then “stuckness.” Eventually, in an attempt to find something that could maybe pass as a feeling, I landed on “becalmed.”

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Becalmed is the word that’s been twisting through me in the four weeks since the election. I don’t feel “calm” so much as stuck out in the middle of a glassy sea, unmoving for a lack of wind. Drifting around, waiting for the next thing. To be sure, becalmed is vastly preferable to being upended by crashing waves and squalling tempests. But it is not motion and it is not volitional. The thing that is meant to be over won’t leave, and so instead of moving forward, we are forced to stay here. Open calls for martial law? Sure. Plans to disrupt the electoral count are floated. Deranged speech about throwing out votes? Why not? Out of the corners of my eyes I can see the White House superspreader Christmas events and clock the ranting and huffing of the almost-former commander in chief as he spreads chaos and doubt on his way out of office. It’s just another moneymaking venture, but holy hell, the cost to a functional future democracy is high.

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I can’t start thinking about healing because we are still at the mercy of this guy who just won’t leave. It doesn’t matter if it’s meant to be a joke, or lavish slow-release trolling—it feels frightening to sit in this calm after the storm and imagine what the next storm will be. Maybe it’s what Trump will do with his followers after he leaves office, or maybe it’s what “sane” Republicans will do even after Trump is gone. We don’t know yet; all that we currently can see is that if this decisive election couldn’t bring relief, what can?

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Becalmed is better than waking up at 3 o’clock every morning with your jaw locked and your fists balled up, which is how I have lived the past four years. Becalmed is better than besieged or betrayed or beleaguered, but certainly it is not active, energized, vindicated or purposeful. It is not as good as waking up every morning with the certainty that you are the change you seek in the world. And yet, already, having witnessed no healing, no remorse, and no adverse consequences to those who committed atrocity, we are being scolded that it is now time to heal and move forward, that it is time to comfort the comfortable and put aside inflammatory words, even though they fairly accurately describe what has taken place.

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In a few weeks’ time, when the last penny and political concession are squeezed out of the last true Trump enthusiasts, and several thousands more have died silently and pointlessly from a pandemic that we never addressed, Republican leadership will largely admit what it knew months earlier: that Joe Biden in fact won the election. Until then, we wait. There are, one gathers, still-lingering lawsuits. Trump has clawed back a transition in favor of a bonus period in which to loot and destroy. There appears to be no mechanism, legal or political, to stop him.

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It feels pointless to fight and organize and resist that which is already defeated. But part of the problem is we are recognizing, as we sit here, stalled, that we are mired in the sinkhole of distortion and disarray that will outlive him, and we haven’t yet mustered a resistance to that. There is a fresh sadness to the way Trump’s actions since the election have solidified the reality that there is no normal to which to revert, no path back toward compromise, because the problem was never just Trump, even a Trump who declines to leave. The problem was a party and a country that backed him, and we still have one each of those, even when he is out the door. In the meantime, we sit on the still waters and wait to see if something worse is on the horizon, and perhaps even enjoy the relative peace of this momentary motionlessness, while elections officials are threatened with nooses. We are waiting for the next thing, even if the most we can call the next thing is Not This.

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Becalmed is that sense that you are going to end up somewhere, but without any sense of where you are headed. It is perhaps a fitting state of being during holidays, in lockdown, waiting for vaccines, and with profound gratitude that, for all the division and strife, nobody is in fact out on the streets murdering one another. Everyone appears to be in agreement that whatever this strange floaty period is, it’s still eminently preferable to civil war.

I’m going to cut off my “Resist” bracelet. Whatever this movement or moment or campaign is, it’s not at all clear that resistance is what’s warranted. What is demanded is either not yet known, or not yet invented.

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