Sarah Kendzior is the author of The View From Flyover Country and the co-host of the podcast Gaslit Nation.
On Monday, former president Barack Obama tweeted: “Tomorrow’s elections might be the most important in our lifetimes…The character of the country is on the ballot.”
Mr. Obama was responding not only to the rapidly consolidating autocratic nature of the Trump administration, which has eaten away at checks and balances since his inauguration, but also to the surge in hate crimes and violence over the past two years. Conspiracy or clarity, corruption or compassion, integrity or impunity – these were the choices voters were asked to make in Tuesday’s midterm elections. The character of the country was on the ballot, and we emerged a Cubist portrait of contradictions and embarrassments.
We did not repudiate racism and hate en masse. We did not restore dignity and decency to the electoral process by ensuring the integrity of the vote. These should be non-partisan objectives, and Democrats attempted to make them non-partisan objectives by fortifying voter rights, negating the corrosive influence of dark money, and seeking to uphold American propositions so long-standing they are somewhat cliché: America as a land of immigrants, a beacon of freedom and opportunity. Some Republicans, in response, labelled basic constitutional rights and fundamental precepts of American identity as radical and dangerous, and smeared those who seek to uphold them.
I’m not stating this to insult Republicans, but as a simple declaration of fact. The ghoulish funhouse mirror held up by President Trump and GOP propaganda outlets like Fox News – whose anchors now accompany him to rallies, shredding the final pretense of fair and balanced journalism – reflect fear back as rage. The unending tension of American life – perhaps the one thing now uniting the country – is given a specific direction; the crowd becomes a mob; the leader selects the target; the target loses his or her humanity in the mob’s gaze.
And then we vote, disoriented and panicked, enraged and determined – on both sides, but for different reasons.
Our national character is bifurcated anguish. Our national character feels like it’s possessed by every hellish ghost of American history: white supremacist patriarchs, gilded age swindlers, paranoid McCarthyists, Know-Nothings and Klansmen and con artists and terrorists. These dark impulses were always there, as American as the impulse to form a more perfect union and to fear nothing but fear itself. Nowadays, maybe we fear ourselves the most.
The midterms had hovered over Donald Trump’s win from the moment he and the GOP claimed all branches of Congress and then slowly began eating away at the independence of the judiciary. Tuesday’s election was seen as a chance to realign the balance of power, and the Democrats succeeded in doing that, reclaiming control of the House.
This is a small but significant victory – not enough to stave off autocracy, but perhaps enough to slow it, and certainly enough to lay the groundwork for future change. Democratic control of the House allows for new bills, new orientation of the intelligence committee investigating the President, and new representatives to shape the body politic – including many historical firsts in terms of female, homosexual, Muslim and non-white candidates taking office.
This diversity in representation matters not only because vulnerable communities will be more likely to have their concerns heard, but because of the possibilities it represents. Marginalized Americans, who want to serve their country but are implicitly (and at times, explicitly) told that this country is not theirs to serve, will be more empowered to do so. Their victories are a slap in the face of the Trump administration’s xenophobia, and a signal to America’s youth – the most diverse generation in history – that even in this brutal environment, this land is their land, too.
The midterms were always a battle, not an end game, and winning the battle allows time to prepare for the war (which I hope will not be literal). A mass rejection of corruption, hatred and bigotry should not be so hard to achieve, but historically it always has been and will remain so now. That does not mean we shouldn’t try.
It is hard, however, to rejoice at the Democrats’ gain of the House when the worst impulses of humanity are routinely stoked by the man who holds the highest power, and echoed by his GOP lackeys. Mr. Trump was already accelerating his vortex of lies and abuses, including increasingly extreme actions like trying to use the military as a prop to terrorize migrants. Law, if we are lucky, will restrain unconstitutional actions, but it cannot shape a nation’s character, our standards of what is right and fair. That burden, and that chance at redemption, is on all of us.