For Democrats Tuesday night, it seemed as if a fever had broken, or a spell.
As Democrat Ralph Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie by nearly 9 points — making way for a wave of Democratic victories on seemingly every out-of-reach seat on the ballot and a number of “firsts” — a segment of progressives, liberals, and other self-styled members of the resistance were processing the returns online, together.
It seemed like the virtual watch party that liberals had expected to have 52 weeks earlier, for Hillary Clinton, before their worlds fell apart. It looked like the Munchkins cheering the death of the Wicked Witch of the East, or spring returning to Narnia.
It was unabashedly emotional; it was deeply personal. Many of the same people celebrating online on Tuesday night were the same ones who’d participated in a meme earlier in the day: “Me on Election Day 2016/Me on Election Day 2017.” The point of the meme was that they had all aged impossibly, or had lived through nightmares no human being should suffer, or had become hardened resistance fighters. The point was that we had lived through a war.
For people who care about politics — particularly people who consider themselves on the other side, politically, from the Trump administration — the past year has seemed like a phantasmagoria. It’s easier to comprehend through analogies to scripted plots (“the writers for this season of America” is an ongoing trope for Twitter jokes) than it is as an everyday reality.
But if it’s understandable that the last year has blurred the line between caring about the future of America and participating in a rolling Walking Dead watch party, that doesn’t mean it’s a good habit to fall into.
Election Day 2017 offers a chance to recalibrate.
Some Americans get a chance to feel as if they’ve woken up from a year-long nightmare. They can choose to treat this victory as part of the epic grand narrative of “resistance,” and continue to see themselves as the protagonists in an ongoing dystopian fiction — too consumed with their own feelings to notice the people who may be suffering more. Or they can embrace the awakening, and shift their focus from feeling their own feelings about what’s going on to helping others.
The pressure to be equal to the tenor of the times
The “me on Election Day” meme was a self-aware joke, of course. It’s accepted, among blue-state elites, that to live in America in the Trump era is to be constantly wracked by personal angst over the fate of the world. Election night 2016 is being processed, slowly, as a collective trauma, and it’s normal — even expected — not to have fully healed, or be fully healable, from that. (The best example of this that I can find is a recent Broad City episode in which the Trump era has destroyed female sexual satisfaction; “Maybe I’m just broken,” one of the protagonists concludes. “Who isn’t?”)
It’s stress taken on as a form of civic engagement. With all the constant reminders that we are living through “interesting times” — as dramatized by this Slate visualization of all the New York Times push notifications over the past year — not caring and worrying about the fate of America seems like a derogation of duty. It seems like there’s an obligation to live up to the tenor of the times — to live in a way that will allow one to tell her children and grandchildren that, yes, she understood just how bad it all was as it was happening.
The problem is that the tenor of the times makes it seem that every story is important — every incremental development in the Russia scandal, every time the president expresses an impotent wish to muzzle the press. Even stories that are, objectively, interesting for reasons that have nothing to do with the fate of the country (like the mysterious assault on Sen. Rand Paul) acquire a sheen of higher purpose because these are significant times.
In November, progressive advocate Amy Siskind — citing an article to which she didn’t provide a link — said that scholars of authoritarian regimes recommended keeping a diary of subtle changes in everyday life, to keep a record of how reality is being shaped around you. The idea has become a resistance meme; Siskind has kept a literal list every week.
A year later, the lists (which can stretch to more than 100 items) are just exhaustive news recaps. They ignore the truth: Not every outrageous thing the president does shapes the reality of most American lives. And treating every week as a step on the road to authoritarianism elevates the diary keeper to a quiet resistance hero, the narrator of an apocalypse novel, simply for bearing witness and not turning away.
It’s an accurate reflection of just how exhausting it feels to keep up with the news all the time; but it makes caring seem like a sufficient condition for accomplishing change, and exhaustion seem like the proof that you’re doing something worthwhile.
Recording and observing are by their nature passive. They don’t make change.
The difference between “this is happening in my America” and “this could happen to me”
Many of the people who see and are upset by Trump-era horror stories are upset on behalf of others, or because what’s happening violates their values. They are genuinely moved — the right-wing meme that all calls for social justice are “cultural signaling” implies that progressives don’t actually have emotional connections to their values, which is false.
“Wokeness” makes an ideological imperative out of bearing witness: You have to expose yourself to the disturbing things that are happening to others, because turning away is morally unconscionable.
But there’s an important difference between “this is happening in my America” and “this is happening to me.”
The fact of the matter is that some people aren’t primarily interacting with the “Trump era” through consuming news about others. The “Trump era” is affecting them more directly. It is happening to them, or to their communities. (Of course, there’s an important overlap — many immigrants, for example, do in fact learn about immigration crackdowns through reporting.)
They may, or may not, be as publicly stressed or fearful as those who are less affected, but they are showing that stress in different ways; an American Psychological Association study showed that members of all races all rated their stress levels in 2017 similarly on a 1-10 scale (from 4.7 for whites to 5.2 for Hispanics), but that 40 percent more Hispanics reported losing sleep as a result of stress (25 percent of all Hispanics versus 15 percent of whites).
The politics of solidarity on the left put a premium on showing concern for all marginalized or potentially marginalized groups, without making distinctions among who is being more hurt (playing “oppression Olympics”). At the same time, though, the conviction that the Trump administration is a fundamentally undemocratic regime makes it extremely easy to treat “people who disagree with the administration” as a threatened and marginalized group that deserves as much vigilance as anyone who’s currently being targeted.
Not everyone who is affected, in the emotional sense, by the Trump era is actually being touched. The Trump administration as a federal government has done more to target some groups than might have been expected from his campaign (LGBTQ service members, for example), while other groups (journalists) are entirely safe. The climate depicted in newsfeed stories isn’t necessarily the climate you yourself encounter in your everyday life.
Without being clearheaded about the nature of the threats, the line between sympathy and empathy gets blurred.
If you don’t have to be stuffing yourself full of feelings, congratulations! You’ve been freed up for other things.
When the Trump administration announced in September that it was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Denver activist Monica Acosta told me, the high school students she works with — many of them DACA recipients, or the immediate relatives of DACA recipients — were bothered by the reaction of their mostly white teachers.
“‘We lost an entire day of learning because our teachers were just crying,’” she recalls them saying. “‘We’re the ones that are deeply affected — but life goes on. They just dwelled in it. We just wanted to move on, not be sad all day.’”
Acosta, who’s a DACA recipient herself, agrees: “When you’re personally affected, directly affected, you’re impacted, of course, but life does go on. You cannot afford to just” wallow.
People who aren’t as directly affected could help those who are. But if they’re too busy feeling feelings on behalf of those who are affected, they can end up being counterproductive.
At the moment, the day after the Democratic victories in Virginia and elsewhere, that muddled sympathy has been replaced with pride in an America that can elect people of all races, religions, and gender identities, and that sees diversity as a strength. But the celebration of Danica Roem winning her seat acknowledges the important truth that there really is a difference between being a transgender woman and caring about transgender people — that the burdens aren’t alike, and that caring isn’t empowerment.
That’s the great blessing of being liberated from the apocalyptic diary mindset. If, in fact, not everyone is in the same boat in the Trump era — if some people are safer and others are less safe — it means that those who are safer can do other things for those who are less safe, that they do not have to spend all their time feeling emotions on their own or others’ behalf.
It frees the “woke” to get involved in the work of politics if they so choose, or to return to their daily lives. It’s an unfamiliar feeling, maybe, to not be trapped in someone else’s nightmare. But it means you have choices, and the responsibility that comes with them.