Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail

Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail

It is with a bit of embarrassment that I confess to being a fan of the West Wing. I watch it like some people watch reruns of I Love Lucy, or the growing trend in Texas where people long for the days of Mayberry. It is with even more reluctance that I confess to crying sometimes when I watch it. It is a deep, bodily weep that can sometimes well up from within my abdomen, and the natural urge to suppress tears is foiled by the strength of the wailing. I believe this happens to me for several reasons. One is simply the reaction to the idealism of the characters and their actions. I am moved by the nobility of those in public service (or as they are depicted in Sorkin’s teleplays), and I am reacting to their deep passion for the issues for which they fight. A small legislative triumph, or a poignant maneuver of one of the characters to risk breaking with the politics-as-usual expectations of their party allies will bring the well of tears forth for me. Another reason is that I am just sitting there watching it being depicted as fiction on television, so I feel completely lame, and thus I think I am crying for my own sense of sloth or failure or having missed an opportunity to have followed a more meaningful calling; the pain of the road not taken in life, the yearning for an identity in a cooperative environment where we are all bound together in the cause of equality and decency and advocacy and justice. I will cycle through the episodes repeatedly, and when the seventh season sees the new President entering the Capitol rotund on inauguration day, and the weary Jed Bartlet hands off this idealism to the next guy, I start over with the wide-eyed, mostly youthful cast as they enter the White House for the first term again. It is a safe place for me, to appreciate the skill of a writer like Aaron Sorkin, to admire the actors who portray the ethos of political idealism with a realism that clearly touches me. So I accept the occasional outburst of crying, actually welcoming the experience of these emotions, welcoming an opportunity to genuinely feel. I’ve done this for years now.

After Election Day, I was already somewhere in the fifth season, having pushed pause in favor of being sucked so deeply into the actual election cycle. Feeling disheartened, feeling shock and dismay, feeling confused and unsure, feeling like many people, I sought solace in the Bartlet administration, hoping it would deliver. At first it comforted me. But along with that comfort came the odd realization that perhaps the new administration, the one that will replace these actors in the actual White House, will lack the savvy and the knowledge and the skill and the decency that the players on this television show portray. The fact that the GOP will occupy the executive is a jarring reality to accept, but that alone would simply be the shifting balance of power, and de rigeur in the course of American politics. The agenda shifts, the opposition party adjusts to its new role, and governing continues more or less within the constraints of the conventional bi-partisan playing field. That isn’t to ignore the conventional agenda of the GOP, or to brand it as harmless. Ideally we would have bi-partisan cooperation and compromise in governing to achieve small measures of progress. But we seem to be entering an entirely different and unfamiliar landscape, and the conventional wisdom of cooperative governing is a distant memory. We face new trends and different challenges that have re-written the rules of the game. Instead of reversing course in terms of obstructionism in government and clashing ideology, the chasm widened, and it did so with a tectonic shift.

The election revealed a darkness in the soul of our country. The postmortem began to acknowledge some disheartening realities that have been apparent for a long time. The threads in the fabric of American politics and the election process, when unwound, reveal the issues that plague us. To parse these threads is to see what is perhaps driving the collective, and the issues that branch off from these roots show what is happening, and where our work lies. For a decade now, America has nursed at the teat of fear, and the national dialog is poisoned with it. Terrorism is a political weapon and a classic method of fear mongering in the political fray. People seeking office prey upon this fear as a means of getting elected, which appears to me so obvious a manipulation, but is one that has been effective in herding voters into polling places for the candidate that can garner enough of the people’s unease about national security. How often, in Trump’s off-the-cuff rallies did he simply start saying, “ISIS. ISIS. ISIS” without any context other than to exacerbate the fear already planted in the minds of his audience. I do not doubt that the fear invoked at the hands of terrorists is the root and branch and fruit of all the rest that has followed in the devolution of American politics, and is part of the reason a man like Trump could gain a stronghold. To say that in black and white terms, however, is to ignore the complexity of the phenomenon, but it is a catalyst for certain. It is the background under which fear mongering, and all that goes with it—the trampling of the Constitution, racism, economic insecurity, the monomaniacal fixation—is allowed to be nourished and perpetuated as it gives those in power a terrifying mandate to act with impunity.

But it isn’t solely the insecurity of the people under the potential dangers of terrorism that resulted in the Trump win. A more complicated manipulation occurred. The Trump campaign was a chaotic onslaught of button pushing and psychological predation intended to mobilize the worst instincts of people. It is with utter shock that I find myself unable to articulate the horror that has awakened. I marvel at the immensity of the shift that seems to have occurred. Remember, it was the GOP that was imploding as their candidate displayed the most vile traits and offered the most pathetically puerile policy proposals on the American political stage. There was a sense among rational people that we were watching the destruction of an entire political party, because by all appearances that was what was happening. The moral center of the America we thought we lived in was galvanizing against every ugly sentiment, so heinous that we assumed it was too much on the fringe to gain any momentum, let alone votes. Yet on election night the whole power structure flipped, leaving the reality that it was the Democratic Party that had imploded, leaving so many simply devastated and having to face the terrifying notion that decency took a knockout punch.

We woke up on November 9th to a new reality, and we looked for answers, plagued by the questions facing us. How could this happen? How could we have so massively miscalculated the basic rhythm and tone of the American anthem? The country seemed perilously divided among coastal elites book-ending the rest of the country, whose frustration and anger was overlooked, and they had found their man in the illusory gleam of his populism. Disturbingly, however, the shadow of that populist revolt reveals a darkness that scares people. The resistance to this new reality, and the administration to follow, I hope, will be massive and unyielding. The lessons liberals must take from this, and the actions required to move forward, must be tended to. The new regime will do some of the work for us, but we have to do more, and offer more. This election revealed much about where that work lies, and it is multi-faceted. I personally emerged from the experience with a sense of duty as much as I did with a nightmarish sense of dread and horror. I will cry less over my passive observance of others who are performing that duty, and I will look to perform mine. I am a West Wing fan.

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