It was one of many times that week when I thought the networks might call the 2020 election for Biden-Harris any minute, and I didn’t want to miss a thing.
I’d carried the girls’ little blonde-wood table and chairs into my work room, computer in the background tuned to election coverage as we sat down to dinner. We don’t have a TV. For most of their lives, Coco and Anaïs had never seen us watching cable news on a computer. Oct. 20 had been the first exception.
Coco, six, came in at one point during the first Biden-Trump debate and sat on the sofa next to my computer. She gave the screen a few minutes of blank-faced scrutiny, more confused the longer she watched, then her face collapsed into a scowl. “I don’t like this!” she wailed. “Why are they so mad?”
I lay in bed with her that night for an hour before she had fully calmed down and could sleep. Now, two days after the election, the girls and I were discussing food preference. Or were we?
“I hate parsnip!” Coco, never halfway on anything, insisted.
Our conversation took a few twists and turns from there. Soon she was asking, “What is ‘hate,’ Daddy?”
It was a rhetorical question. Or a philosophical one. Coco knew what the word meant. She wanted to hear me expand on the idea, which I did, giving her a somewhat sanitized answer about hate meaning really not liking something a lot. A light went on in her eyes.
“Do you hate Trump?” she asked me suddenly.
I stared back at her. Did I hate Donald Trump? I had to give my daughter an honest answer.
“No, Coco,” I said. “I don’t hate Trump.”
At times, yes, I wondered. I hated, really hated, so much of what he said and did since he came down that escalator at Trump Tower. I once stood near Donald Trump on a short elevator ride at old Yankee Stadium in the late 1990s and saw him then, as I see him now, as a shell of bluster and bluff with sharp enough edges to try to prevent you from looking within to the hollow, pain-filled center. I don’t hate the man. But I hate that his con, running for president as a publicity stunt, led to four of the worst years in the history of our country. I hate what his utter cynicism and naked racism did to bring out the worst in so many. I hate how his manipulation, shamelessness and craven bad faith challenged us to be better and do better, and so often, these terrible four years, we collectively came up short. As John Lewis once told me, removing Trump from office will be a “down payment” on our future, not more. Will Rayman, a 23-year-old who regrets not having voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, writes from Estonia, where he’s a professional basketball player:
“The Biden-Harris victory is a step in the right direction, but in no way is it the end-all-be-all.”
I think each of us has to look within and challenge ourselves to do better, be better, if we are truly going to move forward and find ways to connect with other Americans who might disagree on much but can agree on our common humanity. I hope the perspectives that follow can help kick-start that reckoning, a reckoning not only with the depths of depravity and corruption the Trump years unleashed and exposed, but also a reckoning with ourselves.
On the Friday morning after the election, Coco stirred early and came into my work room, where I’d been in the chair since 5am. I had a lot of work to do, reaching out to people about this collection, but I welcomed her into my lap. She was happy, there in the chair with Dad. A few moments later came the news: Biden had moved into a lead against Trump in Pennsylvania. Our long, national nightmare was almost over. I smiled, and Coco smiled with me. It was a moment I’ll never forget, and one I’ll never stop working to honor, hoping that with imagination and courage and care, we can learn from the many mistakes of recent years and play our part, with Joe, in being a bridge to the future.
Now What?: Essays on Life After Trump started as an idea of my wife, Sarah Ringler, co-director of the small writers retreat center we run in Northern California. She suggested we put out a collection of essays through our Wellstone Books imprint on life in the pandemic, personal essays capturing what one typical day was like. Great idea. I wish we could have done it.
Instead, we’re publishing this quick-turnaround attempt to capture this unforgettable juncture, the week the American people voted out Donald Trump. Our working title going in was The Morning After, echoing a song some of you will remember from long ago, and many of the essays explore that feeling of arriving, finally, at the morning after, even if it was clear even then that the transition through to January was going to be weird and dangerous.
The essays convey how so many of us felt as the end of the Trump presidency neared, what we thought, what we saw and what we did.
The hope is that in putting out these glimpses so quickly, giving them an immediacy unusual in book publishing, we can help in the mourning for all that has been lost, help in the healing (of ourselves and of our country), and help in the pained effort, like moving limbs that have gone numb from inactivity, to give new life to our democracy. We stared into the abyss, tottered on the edge, and a record-setting surge of voting and activism delivered us from the very real threat of plunging into autocracy. We have to celebrate that deliverance and remember it, like Luke blowing up the Death Star. We also have to keep searching for answers.
Excerpted from the introduction to the new collection ‘Now What?: Essays on Life After Trump.’ Reprinted with permission. Bookshop Santa Cruz will present the virtual event ‘An Evening with the Editor and Contributors of ‘Now What?: Essays on Life After Trump’ on Monday, Jan. 11, at 6pm. Guests will include Stephen Mack Jones, Mark Ulriksen, Angela Wright Shannon, and Steve Kettmann. The event is free. Visit bookshopsantacruz.com to register.