In the Twilight Zone episode “The Masks”—written by Rod Serling and directed by Ida Lupino—a wealthy old man gets revenge on his heirs, who are simply waiting for him to die to inherit his fortune, by forcing them to wear grotesque masks through the night or forfeit their inheritance. These masks are supposed to be the opposite of the wearer’s true personality, but upon the man’s death, they find the masks have formed their outward appearance to be exactly like their inner personalities—ugly and grotesque. This presidential election resulted in a similar outcome: we are now forced to wear the face of our own ugliness.
America’s stated values have always been at odds with it’s actions. We state that we are created equal, but did not extend that to women or any person of color. We say we are a melting pot, yet have a virulent anti-immigrant strain running throughout our history. We are about to celebrate a holiday marking the coming together of wayward colonists and Native Americans who helped them survive at the same time Indigenous People’s sacred sites are threatened by construction and security forces. We tell ourselves and anyone who will listen that America is all about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, while we do so on the graves of nearly 100 million Native Americans whose land we stole, the backs of nearly five million African slaves until the end of southern slavery (not counting Jim Crow eras), and the vast patriarchy that has always kept women down. While some will argue that’s all in the past, the struggles of the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors, the Black Lives Matter movement, and against rape culture, show it is very much a part of our present. But we’ve always had the mask of our values to cover up the face of our misdeeds. That mask of civility is now gone and we are forced to show the world the face we’ve tried to hide.
The 2016 presidential election gave us the government we deserve, not the government we need. We now have a leader that reflects the worst aspects of this country’s values—arrogance, isolationist, nationalist/nativist leanings (cleverly disguised as patriotism), moral superiority in absence of humility, and almost every “ist” word you can come up with. As much as people will say these are not American values,” history tells us otherwise. This tension between our stated values and the need for power is a constant pull on how America is and will be viewed and understood. From the Salem witch trials to the Whiskey Rebellion; from the Indian Wars to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry; from Juneteenth to the West Virginia Coal wars, this inner war has defined us though we often refuse to admit it. When what is promised to the people by our leaders fails to materialize, people revolt. In days past, that meant violence and armed resistance. Today that can be done through laws and elections, but violence (or the threat of violence) also wins out. In this case, the voters rebelled. Given the choice between a man who fomented bile, hatred, and division, but promised change to our current economic policies and a woman who lives up to what we see as our best values, but embraced the current policies with both arms, voters went for change. Oddly it is a familiar change: a nostalgia for stability even if stable meant racist, sexist, xenophobic, and violence toward the other. “Better the other than me,” one might say.
It might also be that lower class white voters were tired of being considered the other because they know what treating the other is like. President Lyndon Johnson said “if you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him someone to look down on and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Trump gave white working class voters several populations (and a current president) to look down on and they put him in power. The politics of divisiveness works well because as much as loving your neighbor is a core American value, so is “White makes right.”
Are we doomed to this fate? Like the heirs in the Twilight Zone, is the face of our worst aspects forever the one we show the world? For now, yes. While the extremist right of the political spectrum is in charge here much like it spreading from Europe (Brexit) to Asia (the Philippines), this version of fascism is a symptom of a truly American disease: willful ignorance and cherry picked intelligence for egotistical needs. Ultimately we must deal with this ourselves. How we deal with it is key.
The first thing is we need to own up to the ugliness of our history. We can’t pretend to stand up for a moral good and ignore where we have failed to do that ourselves consistently. All the historical events mentioned earlier, and more that we’d rather not talk about, now have to come out honestly and frankly. These cruel tendencies of ours are a part of us that we need to admit publicly before we can ever hope to change them. The good thing about having the president we have is that not only are they will be on display in in the current government, but in his followers as well, and cannot be ignored. In a good way we will have no choice but to deal with our transgressive past. Next, we have to stop trying to erase the past. Our ability to not learn from the problems of our own past is compounded by our ability to reinvent our image rather than learn from it. Any Alcoholics Anonymous member will tell you that you can’t skip a step and expect to fully recover. This nation and people love to skip over thorny problems and say everything is fine, and are shocked when the same issues crop up again and again. The need to own up to our mistakes is necessary so that we can learn not to make them again. South Africa had to go through an entire truth and reconciliation process before things could start getting better; America has yet to scratch the surface of such a process. Old wounds fester because we won’t let them heal and we won’t let them heal because we act as if nothing’s wrong, thus reinjuring ourselves . The only way we come out stronger under a Trump presidency is if we make the effort to better ourselves during it. Finally we will have to hold up and reaffirm our own virtues and demand that our government live up to it. This can be done in spite of our past as well. Part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s power was that he tried to hold America to the values that it espoused but denied to half its population. He never ignored what America did, but demanded that it do better for its people. In a radical way he didn’t want equality; he wanted America to stand by its promise to all Americans whatever color, gender, or orientation. He wanted justice. We should demand no less.
In Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again,” the voices ring from both the privileged and the underprivileged. Each in turn gets to praise and decry this great country in both its glory and ugliness. At the second to last stanza, we hear:
I say it plain
America was never America to me
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!”
It is a pledge to redeem America even from itself. It’s a pledge to work hard and fight for a land that was bountiful for a few to be bountiful for all. As Americans—loyalists and activists alike—we need to work more focused and more diligent than ever. This is also part of our past. It is the ability of the people to demand things of our government that is a great virtue and we will exercise it. We will annoy people by asking them to sign petitions, we will enrage people stuck in traffic thanks to protesters, we will deal with hate for taking a knee during the national anthem, because doing such work improves our society. Yes, we deserve the president we got, but not for long. We can come out of this stronger only if we can work aggressively to recognize the wrongs we’ve made in the past, and keep from regressing and getting worse in the future. We do this by heeding our better angels, adhering to our best virtues, and drag our government—kicking and screaming—to do the same.