A Nation’s Fears Realized

Last Monday, I wrote a Litterfall post about the election, noting my prediction of what would happen, my uncertainty about that prediction, my fear of potential fallout from the election, and my hope that whoever won might prove surprisingly effective at addressing the very real and legitimate grievances being expressed by voters on both sides. For personal reasons, I took it down within an hour or so of posting it. At the advice of a few people, I am now republishing a lightly edited version. It follows in italics, with some new comments after a week of reflection tacked on at the end.

It is one thing to write about, speak about, and theorize about the decline of one’s nation and society. It is another thing to viscerally feel as though it is happening. For the past several months, I have felt that here in America. As the 2016 presidential election has rumbled down its disquieting tracks and geopolitical events have appeared to push us ever closer to some very frightening potential breaking points, the collapse of the American empire has never, in my lifetime, felt closer at hand. And as our political system has suffered the convulsive impacts of a surprising and erratic populist uprising, the very real threat of an unbridgeable divide opening between segments of my country’s population has never felt closer at hand, either. As the people around me have reacted with disgust, vehemence, dismissal, anger, fear, and shock at our current state of affairs, my own mood has dipped at various times into foreboding, frustration, depression, and fear. I admit also to a certain fascination and anticipation, curious about how far down this unknown path we may go and what the consequences will be—but once the potential consequences are staring you in the face, they become as much or more unnerving as they are fascinating.

I have no idea what will happen tomorrow. Gun to my head, I would say that Trump will win. I think the wage class is going to come out in surprising numbers. However, I also have little confidence in that prediction. Clinton has a small but clear polling lead and I have lived through enough elections at this point to have heard Democrats and Republicans alike make elaborate arguments about why the polls are skewed, only to have those arguments largely discredited once the actual votes were counted. At this point, we would need a Brexit-sized polling error for Trump to win and while that’s possible—especially this year—I can’t reasonably say it’s more likely than not. There is also the very real likelihood that Hispanic voters are going to come out in force this election and strongly favor Clinton, and I would be surprised if Clinton did not do very well with women voters given the contours of this election. Still, it’s been such a strange election season with broader trends twisting the usual electoral assumptions in so many ways, I can’t help but lean toward expecting a surprise, anti-establishment outcome.

While I find all this compelling in a certain way, I can’t move myself past the feelings of pain, anger, and betrayal emanating from both sides of this divide. Making it all the harder, I feel stuck in this strange gray area in which I can both sympathize and empathize with those feelings, but I can’t replicate the full investment that a number of different groups have in this election. I don’t mean that I feel no investment in tomorrow’s outcome. No, what I mean is that the people who, it seems to me, personally have the most at stake all fall into various categorizations of which I’m not a part. My skin is most certainly in this game—everyone in this country and a good deal of people throughout the world, to my mind, have skin in this game—but it’s not at the same visceral, personal level as some broad groups in either candidate’s camp.

This boils down to a simple reality. I am white, male, currently working a managerial office position, living in an urban area, and doing relatively well financially, though my financial picture would cloud quickly should I lose my income and not be able to reestablish it with minimal delay. Without question, this election impacts me and the people around me. However, to my mind, I see two broad groups that this election seems most meaningful toward, and I don’t fall directly into either of those two categories of people.

The first group is the wage-earning class of people living in rural and economically depressed areas, many of whom once succeeded financially or come from families who once succeeded financially—largely through blue collar work—and whose lives have been devastated over the last several decades thanks in large part to bipartisan policies supported by a good number of establishment Democrats and Republicans. On top of that, these people are routinely mocked, demonized, and berated by far too many (but not, let me be clear, all) affluent liberals who often live in coastal urban areas and are completely disconnected from the harsh realities and tribulations that they have suffered as rural areas and broad swaths of America’s interior have been economically devastated and hollowed out.

The second group is a mixture of women, people of color, immigrants, refugees, and other minority groups who have suffered very real and still-present discrimination, have to day in and day out run a gauntlet of institutional and societal prejudices, and are currently staring down the barrel of a presidential candidate who engages in rhetoric that has the potential to fuel misplaced violent responses to real socioeconomic injustice, who may attempt to implement policies that put at risk for certain immigrants the hard-fought lives they have pieced together here in America, and who is documented having made degrading and dehumanizing comments about women that too clearly reflect the many ways in which sexism and misogyny remain ingrained in American society and directly impact women across the country.

I should note, of course, that these broad categorizations are far more complex than the two paragraphs above, and a person who might fit into either or both of those groups may or may not vote as the collective wisdom assumes they will. That said, I do feel that there are a lot of wage-earning and working class citizens who support Trump and a good many women and minorities who distrust him and support Clinton, and many feel very strongly in their support of one or the other candidate, fueled by their own experience of the world around them. Meanwhile, I don’t belong to either of those groups. So while I remain invested in this election, I simply can’t grasp the intense emotional reaction and meaning inherent in this electoral choice for many of the people as described above. Much as I don’t know what it is like to be a woman in America dealing with all-too-common prejudices, assumptions and abuses; or a person of color suffering the multitude injustices of discrimination; or a rural wage-class worker who has watched his or her economic well-being go down the tubes and feels ignored and abused by the political establishment, I don’t know what it is like to have a presidential candidate either acknowledge my plight when so many others have not or to seemingly threaten my very well-being, livelihood, and safety either through behavior, policy proposals, or both. Granted, I have my own complicated opinions, reactions, and so forth—but I don’t necessarily have many of the visceral, intensely personal reactions that so many have been experiencing throughout this election. And at such an intense moment in our collective, national experience, that puts me in what I experience as a strange and in many ways disheartening gray area.

I’ve seen Trump’s rise be attributed to pure racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. I don’t believe that’s the case. Obviously, there are some people supporting him that are doing so primarily out of such disturbing motivations—there are plenty of cruel and hateful people in the world. I think more of his support, though, comes from people who have suffered under the current system, all while being told that the policies that have helped to destroy their livelihoods are actually good for them. Of all the articles I have read attempting to explain the support behind Donald Trump, as well as his resilience in the face of statements and scandals that would have sunk most any other candidate, I have found few that have explained it as well and succinctly as this missive from David Wong over at (the NSFW) Cracked. I would encourage anyone who cannot comprehend Donald Trump’s support to read and really try to comprehend and remain open-minded to that article.

Not being able to pay rent or put food on the table is a powerful motivation. That’s true for rural, wage-class men and women and it’s true for women and minorities abused by systemic violence and discrimination. Not feeling safe is also a powerful motivation, and it’s one being experienced by millions of women and minorities across the country who look with trepidation upon Donald Trump’s words and actions and wonder what kind of country he might make for them with the power of the presidency. Throughout the electorate, it feels as though fear and frustration has run rampant during this election season. I have a hard time seeing how this ends well, no matter the outcome of tomorrow’s vote.

I think what I have hated most about this election is that I feel both sides have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed and I don’t feel like either candidate is capable of addressing them—not fully. Most likely, I suspect whoever wins will make token efforts at addressing the grievances of their base, probably won’t do much, and will largely ignore the pain on the other side. If that does end up being the case, that strikes me as both a cruelty and a disaster. I think we are running out of time to address the very real concerns of large swaths of the American electorate. There is quite a lot to be angry and frustrated about; if there is not at least an attempt to make amends and to improve the lives of the many people who continue to suffer in this country—millions of people who hold widely varying political beliefs and cast widely varying votes—than this cannot end well. And at that point, I imagine I will find myself at long last in a very at-risk group.

I don’t know what awaits us tomorrow. But I do know that, whoever wins, a continued absence of redress in this nation is guaranteed to lead to dark places. I don’t want to see that, and so I hope that whoever comes out of this election with the crown upon his or her head looks clear-eyed over this pain-riddled American landscape and surprises me over the next four years by beginning in earnest the hard work of making right the ills and abuses that have been brought to bear against so many here in America, and helps spare us all the traumatic outcomes we appear to be barreling toward. I do not want to see this country devolve into domestic insurgency and civil war, nor do I want to have to live through that. So I hope that tomorrow we have a peaceful election, a clear outcome, a grudging acceptance of it by the losing side, a leader who rises to the occasion, and a populace willing to step back from their fear and anger long enough to make an honest appraisal of the challenges facing us and to then work toward tackling those challenges, including in all the ways that demand personal sacrifice for the greater good. Hard as it promises to be, it will be far easier than suffering continued anger and betrayal to this nation’s breaking point, and then suffering the consequences that lie on the other side.

I’ve spent the past week speaking and thinking about this election, having wide-ranging conversations with friends, family, and my partner, and wondering what the long term impacts of this result will be. In many ways, having the election over is a relief. That’s not because Trump won, mind you; it’s a relief because now we have an actual reality to face rather than an imagined one. That’s the funny thing about the build up to a presidential election: it often feels like the most consequential thing in the world, and imagined victory and defeat both seem total and absolute. In defeat, it feels almost certain that your opponent will do every awful thing that he or she has promised to do. In victory, it feels almost certain that your team will succeed in every glorious promise, revolutionize the world and single-handedly lift all of us into a bright future. And yet, with each passing year it seems as though the political establishment of this country is less and less able to function, more crippled by the grinding crises of our time and less able to break through the grip of entrenched interest groups. It may turn out that Donald Trump is truly transformative, but I’m highly skeptical. Then again, I say that as someone who has not been in Trump’s rhetorical crosshairs. As noted above, I simply do not and cannot understand what Trump’s win means to a whole host of people who have.

Thinking on past elections in my lifetime, I was devastated in 2004 when Bush was reelected and elated in 2008 when Obama was elected. In both cases, the politicians in question made indelible impacts on the nation, but their effects were more limited than I feared and hoped. To my mind these days, there are much bigger forces driving the fate of this country. While I believe presidents and politicians can have large impacts, they still are dwarfed by natural processes and limits, by the surprisingly similar lifecycles of civilizations, and by the sheer power of collective human decision-making and the hard reality that one figure, no matter how powerful, has a hard time corralling, coercing, and cowing 350 million other people. I wrote not that long ago, in the Editor’s Introduction for the second issue of Into the Ruins, that the future will be far less determined by humans than we tend to think, and far more determined by the processes and vagaries of the natural world of which we are a part. I think that’s as true today as it was then. Similarly, the future of America will be, to my mind, far less determined by the person who won our presidential election last Tuesday and far more determined by our collective decision-making—political and otherwise—on a whole host of critical issues.

With that thought in mind, the silver lining from this dispiriting election cycle is that nothing is inevitable and the future is open to us, to our hard work, and to what we are willing to fight for. Clinton was inevitable until she wasn’t, just as a black man couldn’t be elected President until he was, just as in 2004 gay marriage looked like a pipe dream many decades in the future until the opposition fell faster than ever expected. Time and again in my life, the world has felt locked into a certain course until, suddenly, it wasn’t. As we continue to suffer depletion and decline, hit up against natural limits, and suffer the consequences of our shortsighted actions, I suspect that dramatic course changes will become ever more common. That’s scary in its way, because there are plenty of very bad paths we can go down—and that feels as true to me now as it ever has before. But it’s exciting, as well, because it means that for those of us who believe we are on a bad and shortsighted path, other and better paths are real and surprisingly available to us.

I don’t believe the future is guaranteed to be better. I’ve made it clear that I think there are ways it is going to inevitably become worse. Yet I don’t believe for a moment that there isn’t room for hope or for efforts toward a better future—whether or not you win or lose in the end. I will always believe that the reason I’m here is to do my best to make the world a tiny bit better, and to enjoy the beauty that is being alive on this incredible planet. Thing is, I fail at both of those. A lot. But I think I succeed at them time and again, too, and I will strive to be better at them as long as I live. I don’t see much point in doing anything else. And so, if anything, last Tuesday just makes me more determined to get to work. If this election taught me anything, it’s that there are more viable paths forward than I thought, both bad and good. My impact may be tiny, but I’m determined to steer us toward the good ones, and that feels oddly more possible today than it did a week ago. There’s a hope in that, however dark the election just past proved to be.

15 thoughts on “A Nation’s Fears Realized

  1. A quick note: I’ve set it so that all comments on this post must be approved before appearing, even if you have commented here before. As always, please keep it civil and thoughtful. Also, I have no interest in re-litigating the election that just happened; I’ve spent enough of my life thinking and worrying about it, to be honest. If you want to talk about what I wrote, or about what you would like to see moving forward, go for it. But I see a lot of very strong emotions and reactions right now and I am working to speak with a light touch at this moment, and I prefer the same from my readers here on this post.

    Still, don’t be afraid to speak or comment. If I don’t put a comment of yours through, I’ll get in touch, let you know why, and offer the chance to rework it if you care to.

    Thanks, all!


  2. “And so, if anything, last Tuesday just makes me more determined to get to work. If this election taught me anything, it’s that there are more viable paths forward than I thought, both bad and good. My impact may be tiny, but I’m determined to steer us toward the good ones, and that feels oddly more possible today than it did a week ago.”

    Thanks for this, Joel. Part of the dispiriting outcome was the encouragement to “keep up the fight.” Really? Hasn’t there been enough fighting? It’s hard enough to continually scan for the issues requiring a fight let alone engage in the fight. Now keeping up the “work,” whatever it might be that I feel called to do…….I can sign on for that.


    1. Thanks, Amy. Yes, I like to frame it as work more, anyway. I’ve written about the dispiriting aspects of political conflict back at Of The Hands, and it just doesn’t work much for me. Granted, it does for others, and more power to them if that’s what they feel they need to do. But conflict and competition has never been much my thing, so I tend to prioritize efforts that I feel like work as a cooperation with the community around me, and that feel renewing for me. Otherwise, it just grinds me down.

      Thanks also for your encouraging email last week. I don’t know that this would have gone up otherwise. Apologies I didn’t respond, but I really did appreciate what you had to say.


  3. I second Amy’s response above. I live near Olympia Washington in a semi-rural area and hope to remain there until I’m composted (I’m 81 and hope to survive until I’m 91 like my grandparents).I am local but think globally, I hope. I garden, have two rather large donkeys who are mainly pasture pets. I have neighbors who actually farm (making cheese, raising hogs, sheep and birds of various sorts)
    I see some hope here that people are doing local stuff that can help the neighbors. And there is the local Food Co-op in Olympia WA which is quite a prize!
    Good luck and fortune to all of us here in the PNW


    1. Thanks, James. I see some hope here in the NW, too, even if also see what seems like too much indulgence at times (guilty of that myself sometimes). An interesting aspect to this election has been the fact that so many people in my social circle suddenly feel as if there are some real dangers to the future—I can’t say it’s seemed that way before, and I’ve felt like an outlier as a result. It will be interesting to see what all this leads to.


  4. Methinks we-all have made the gross error that what has just occurred – as well as much before it – was and is just political. But it may be more metaphysical in its nature; wearing a political disguise that has been laid over a dark, malevolent and malignant thing, an energy, that entered our world some time ago and which lurks just below the surface awaiting the opportunity to rise again – which now seems to occur with greater frequency. What to do about it? If only I really knew…..


    1. Hi Martin,

      The entire lead up to the election felt like a very dark energy to me, and now the post-election response feels like a different kind of dark energy. I think this election has revealed some divides that were otherwise being glossed over by a good chunk of the population. That could be good; it could be bad. It’ll depend on all of our decisions. On the other hand, there are a host of other realities that continue to simmer below the surface. With luck, those too will be revealed in time and useful collective responses will be applied. Not sure if we’ll be that lucky, but I can hope and do my bit to work toward that.


      1. My hope is that what has just occurred forms a genuine wake-up call to all and sundry that deep and continued vigilance (toward what really matters) truly is the price of freedom – I believe we-all have become totally complacent and lax with respect to that over the past half-century-plus and thus, here we are….


  5. Yo, Joel – Thanks for the very thoughtful piece. I was surprised, but not very, by the outcome of the election. Tip of the hat to Mr. Greer, our beloved Arch Druid (Ret.), for exploring the possibility of this outcome, way back in January.

    I made my usual Wednesday morning stop by our local 12 Step Club to have the usual cuppa with the other three liberals here in Lewis County :-). Everyone was pretty glum, but no one was slashing their wrists or packing for Canada. I pointed out that even though the “big issue” didn’t go our way, 7 states legalized marijuana (to a greater or lesser extent), Colorado passed a right to die bill and we still lived in a mostly Democratic controlled state. Wait and see. Early days.

    Of course, I can’t part without a book recommendation :-). Am currently reading “A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression” (Ziegelman & Coe, 2016). Worth a look. And, it has recipes! Lew

    PS: A big shout out to my “neighbor” James Morgan. I’m 67. Live on a piece of rental land, outside of Chehalis. Unfortunately, I’ll be “moving into town” to The Home, probably in the spring. I’d hoped to die here, too, but it just didn’t work out that way. Onto the next adventure!


    1. Hi Lew,

      Sounds like we were more or less equally surprised by the result. I predicted he would win, as seen above, but I was still somewhat shocked when he actually did, considering how aligned the establishment was against him. The world never ceases to surprise. Greer did indeed call it, though even he admitted to some doubt at different times in the campaign.

      I will note that there are a variety of reasons I appreciate living in Oregon right now.

      Thanks for the book recommendation; I believe I heard about that on one of the morning news shows on OPB a month or two back. I’ll have to give it a gander. Maybe. I’ve been a little overboard at the library of late.

      Sorry (I guess?) to hear about the move. I hope it does prove an adventure, and a decent one at that. Be sure to get me the updated address whenever it happens, should you still be subscribing to Into the Ruins at that point. Your third issue, by the way, should be arriving shortly.


    2. Lew –
      One of the meals I remember from my early childhood (late 1930’s – early to mid 40’s) is chicken-feet and celery-tops soup. Yum!


  6. Joel,

    Thank you so much for the well thought out and presented paper. Personally, I doubt that anything good will be coming out of Washington, D.C., just because a new group of suits has taken over. But I do believe that we the people of this wonderful land are realizing it will be up to us to make things better. That old saying about thinking globally but acting locally comes to mind.

    The funny thing about the responses above are that several are from my home state of Washington. I live in Spokane, am 67, retired, and also garden. I share my veggies and fruits with the neighbors and have begun building a solid foundation of mutual respect and support with them. Its amazing how friendly people become after receiving some tomatoes and garlic or a jar of raspberry jam! I recommend this method of knowing your neighbors to everyone. Instead of extending a shaking fist we are all learning how to reach out with a helping hand. It just feels good.


    1. Hi Dale,

      Fine advice! I do indeed enjoy sharing my home-canned jam with others. I always go overboard on making it, anyway, so it works well and people often appreciate it. I think it’s still a bit of novelty to a lot of folks, at least those living in cities.

      I’m skeptical of much good coming out of this administration, either. But if Trump wants to keep us from going to war with Russia, back us out of Syria, and rework some trade policy, I won’t complain. Granted, I don’t know if he’ll have much success on any of those fronts, but I may as well cross my fingers that he pulls that off and keep them crossed that he falls flat on his face with some of his other stated intentions, such as overturning Roe vs. Wade or deporting 11 million immigrants. Of course, he’s doubled down on the former and backed away from the latter, so who knows what he will or won’t do—or, for that matter, how he’ll work with a Republican Congress whose ideology in many ways does not align with his stated intentions. Should be an interesting four years regardless.

      Keep up the good community-building work!


  7. Thank you for your post, Joel. I had to think about it for a bit before I replied. I’m one of the group who is “in the crosshairs” almost immediately, as I hear the Republicans are moving forward quickly to dismantle Medicare. I also know others who are in the crosshairs simply for being who they are, and the stories I’m getting from my counselor friends about the terrified and depressed children really is heartbreaking.

    I hear what you’re saying about how our environment may affect our pathway more than people will, and I agree somewhat. But individuals are affected by public policy, and just because we ourselves don’t get slammed isn’t any reason to stand back and be complacent, IMO. I also realize that our society was ripe for dissolution, for falling apart under the weight of its own complexity and the differing dreams of the citizens. I know many right-wing voters since I live in the country, and many of them are good people on some level. But if you vote for Mussolini simply to get the trains to run on time, you are no less culpable for the results. I understand they wanted help with their economic struggles. But they voted for the “simple answer” – and there isn’t one. They want this “fixed”… and it can’t be. So they voted for a con man and we’re all going to get ripped off. And from what I’ve heard already this could be much worse than the worst Republican president we’ve had so far.

    Or not – this time it’s really hard to tell… will the establishment be able to slow or stop the desired dismantling of America’s place in the world, moving (as you mentioned) with its usual inertia? This could be the Black Swan, or it could be yet another Republican administration. The image I got, however, was the French Revolution, where the desperate peasants took down the rich and the ones in power – but had no ability to put anything in its place, and ended up with an Emperor (after an awful lot of blood). Will those who get screwed by the broken promises cause a physical revolt, or will they just not vote next time?

    I am sincerely hoping that this is just another Bush-type administration (bad enough) and not the total meltdown that it seems to be from the initial steps they’ve taken. But even if we get by with only that, many people will be hurt, and by the time it gets to white men, it will be too late to respond with anger and resistance. I’m starting now, to reach out to the vulnerable and to speak out against a man who proved what a snake he was long before he won (his voters are going to have cause to remember that story he liked to read them). I hope others will realize we’re being called now to stand up and be counted one way or the other.


    1. Hi Cathy,

      Thank you for your reply. I’ll be honest—I have no idea what’s going to happen. Trump is a major political figure, like it or not, and there is now a LOT riding on his presidency, in a variety of ways for different groups of people throughout the country. Personally, I hope that his election will prove a long-term positive, as unlikely as that is. I’m hoping that he will point a better way forward for the Democratic party, that the populist anger in this country will ultimately be channeled into more effective outlets without demonization of the other, and that some of the anger and betrayal spread across the country will now flow its way through our political system. That may sound like an odd optimism, since any such flow of anger through our political system could wreak quite a bit of havoc and destruction. But I still think it has the potential to act as a better channel than if it was instead poured into a domestic insurgency, and I think we’ve been getting to the point where that’s far from unlikely.

      I may, of course, be wrong about all that. Foolishly wrong. Regardless, we now have the situation we have, whether we like it or not.

      I imagine much of how the next four years plays out will be determined by how Trump interacts with Congress. The traditional Republican ideology of recent years is showing in the plans for Medicare and entitlements that you mention, in McCain’s angry denunciations of any relationship reset with Russia, and so on. Yet, those aren’t the stated intentions of Trump. Granted, that doesn’t mean he won’t betray those intentions—the possibility of that is obviously quite high—but I haven’t seen anything yet to make me feel certain one way or another of whether or not he’s going to attempt to follow through on his promises and which of his promises he’s most likely to focus on and which he’ll throw overboard.

      For whatever it’s worth, I don’t intend to be complacent. But I also don’t think we can be effective in countering the more dangerous aspects of Trump and a Republican Congress if we don’t actually pay attention to what Trump is doing and saying. I really believe there are myriad pressure points between what Trump wants to do and what Republican Representatives and Senators are going to want to do; understanding where those pressure points are and exploiting them seems to me one of the key ways in which to both mitigate damage over the next two or four years and to potentially push Trump toward some good policy positions.

      Of course, it remains largely speculation at this point. We’ll start getting to the nuts and bolts before too long, though.


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