The Morning After — David Remnick of The New Yorker rode along with President Obama during the last days of the campaign. Here’s a portion of the article.
My longest recent conversation with Obama came the day after he first met with President-elect Donald Trump, in the Oval Office. I arrived at the West Wing waiting area at around nine-thirty. There was a copy of USA Today on the table. The headline was “RISE IN RACIST ACTS FOLLOWS ELECTION.” It was accompanied by a photograph of a softball-field dugout in Wellsville, New York, spray-painted with a swastika and the words “Make America White Again.” The paper reported other such acts in Maple Grove, Minnesota, at the University of Vermont Hillel Organization, and at Texas State University, in San Marcos, where police were trying to determine who had distributed flyers reading “Now that our man Trump is elected and Republicans own both the Senate and the House—time to organize tar & feather VIGILANTE SQUADS and go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all this diversity garbage.”
Below that story was an account of Obama’s encounter with Trump. Obama had steeled himself for the meeting, determined to act with high courtesy and without condescension. His task was to impress upon Trump the gravity of the office. He seemed to take pains not to offend the always-offendable Trump, lest he lose what influence he might still have on the political future of the country and the new Administration. Obama was also trying to engage the world in a willing suspension of disbelief, attempting to calm markets and minds, to reassure foreign leaders and, perhaps most of all, millions of Americans that Trump’s election did not necessarily spell the end of democracy, or the rise of an era of chaos and racial enmity, or the suspension of the Constitution. This is not the apocalypse.
And yet even in the West Wing few could put up the same front. That much was clear when, the morning after the election, Obama and Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, had met with groups of staffers. (The two acted “almost like grief counsellors,” one source said.) Obama told his staff not to lose their spirit, to keep their eyes on “the long game.” Soon after the election had been called for Trump, Obama told them, Ben Rhodes had e-mailed to say that sometimes history zigzags. Obama seized on that.
“A lot of you are young and this is your first rodeo,” Obama told the staffers in the Oval Office, a source recalled. “For some of you, all you’ve ever known is winning. But the older people here, we have known loss. And this stings. This hurts.” It’s easy to be hopeful when things are going well, he went on, but when you need to be hopeful is when things are at their worst. That line reminded one senior aide of Obama’s last speech to the U.N. General Assembly, a defense of the liberal order that was willfully optimistic at a moment when illiberal currents were coursing all over the world. Now, in his own home, Obama sought to buck his people up and get them into a professional frame of mind. He praised the Bush Administration, which he had criticized so sharply throughout the 2008 campaign, for the generosity and efficiency with which its people had assisted in the transition, and he told his people to do the same, to be “gracious hosts” of the most well-known address in the United States. He asked them to make sure that even their body language radiated a sense of pride and coöperation.
But there was little that could soften the blow, either inside the White House or in the great world beyond. Trump’s victory did not merely endanger Obama’s legacy of progressive legislation or international agreements. It unnerved countless women, African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and L.G.B.T. people, as well as professionals in national security, the press, and many other institutions. (And this was before Trump appointed Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, as his senior counsellor.)
The outcome of the election was also a blow to those who anticipated major advances for the Democratic Party: it wrested over-all control of just one additional state legislature, and remains a minority in both houses of Congress, having gained only a handful of new seats in the House of Representatives, and only two in the Senate. Democrats saw a net loss of two governorships, leaving fewer than a third of the states with Democratic governors. The party of F.D.R. and Robert Kennedy was at its weakest point in decades and had been cast as heedless of the concerns of white working people.
Nor was there any secret why Vladimir Putin and the Russian political élite were so tickled by Trump’s ascent. Yes, Trump represents, to them, a “useful idiot,” a weak, discombobulated, history-less leader who will likely be content to leave Russia to its own devices, from Ukraine to the Baltic states. But Putin may also think of himself as the chief ideologist of the illiberal world, a counter to what he sees as the hypocritical and blundering West. He has always shown support for nativist leaders such as Marine Le Pen, in France; now he had a potential ally in the White House. Suddenly, Germany, led by Angela Merkel, was the lonely bulwark of Europe and Atlanticism. And even she faced a strong nativist challenge, for the sin of admitting thousands of Syrian refugees into the country.
The White House was, as one staffer told me, “like a funeral home.” You could see it all around: aides walking through the lobby, hunched, hushed, vacant-eyed. In a retrospective mood, staffers said that, as Obama told me, Clinton would have been an “excellent” President, but they also voiced some dismay with her campaign: dismay that she had seemed to stump so listlessly, if at all, in the Rust Belt; dismay that the Clinton family’s undeniable taste for money could not be erased by good works; dismay that she was such a middling retail politician. There was inevitable talk about Joe Biden, who might have done better precisely where Clinton came up short: in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio. And there was the fury at James Comey, who had clearly stalled Clinton’s late momentum, and at the evidence that Russia had altered the course of an American election through a cyber-espionage mission that was conducted in conjunction with Julian Assange and warmly received by the Republican candidate.
Three days after Trump’s victory, Obama was scheduled to go to Arlington National Cemetery and deliver the annual Veterans Day address to thousands of vets and their families. The President’s limousine, the Beast, and a long line of black vans and security vehicles were lined up and waiting on the south drive of the White House. It was hard not to see it, considering the mood of the previous few days, and the destination, as a kind of cortège.
The official line at the White House was that the hour-and-a-half meeting with Trump went well and that Trump was solicitous. Later, when I asked Obama how things had really gone, he smiled thinly and said, “I think I can’t characterize it without . . . ” Then he stopped himself and said that he would tell me, “at some point over a beer—off the record.”
I wasn’t counting on that beer anytime soon. But after the sitdown with Trump, Obama told staff members that he had talked Trump through the rudiments of forming a cabinet and policies, including the Iran nuclear deal, counter-terrorism policy, health care—and that the President-elect’s grasp of such matters was, as the debates had made plain, modest at best. Trump, despite his habitual bluster, seemed awed by what he was being told and about to encounter.
Denis McDonough strolled by with some friends and family. The day before, the person Trump sent to debrief him about how to staff and run a White House was his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. They had taken a walk on the South Lawn.
I asked McDonough how it was going, and he gave me a death-skull grin. “Everything’s great!” he said. He clenched his teeth and grinned harder in self-mockery. McDonough is the picture of rectitude: the ramrod posture, the trimmed white hair, the ashen mien of a bishop who has missed two meals in a row. “I guess if you keep repeating it, it’s like a mantra, and it will be O.K. ‘Everything will be O.K., everything will be O.K.’ ”
What Will You Sacrifice? — Zaineb Mohammed, a Muslim woman, asks her white Christian friends if they will stand up for her.
I keep reading these Facebook posts apologizing to Muslims, to queer people, to immigrants, to people of color for the election of Donald Trump. I know these posts are meant in solidarity, but right now they just make me feel like I am already being mourned: The worst has happened, the world is ending, and I will not save you—I will just lament the loss of your existence.
In two weeks, three months, a year, when these white allies who are outraged and appalled and disgusted realize that a Trump presidency will not significantly impact their day-to-day lives, are they going to abandon us?
When these white allies who are outraged and appalled and disgusted realize that a Trump presidency will not significantly impact their day-to-day lives, are they going to abandon us?
Will they put their bodies between us and the deportations, the bans, the databases, the imprisonment, the torture, the threats to our existence? Or will they post an apology for what has happened, and what is yet to come?
I am so worried about the normalization and inevitable complacency that will set in. Already, it is happening. And yet, even as I worry about it, I understand.
I am an anxious person, and all I want in this moment is to be reassured. My desire for comfort has never been this intense. So when I read the headlines saying that Trump is reconsidering repealing Obamacare, and that it will be much harder for him to implement all of his campaign promises than he thinks, I feel a momentary sense of relief.
It is hard to worry about all of the things there are to worry about, to maintain a feeling of horror, and I look for signs that my life is not going to change. I have a job; I have financial security; I am Muslim but am not easily identifiable as a Muslim; I live in the Bay Area—I will be okay.
This is how it happens.
Comfort is an indulgence we can’t seek out now. Because, for so many people, there is no comfort. For many, there never has been.
A friend posted an article in which Trump said he would absolutely require Muslims to register and a couple of people responded clarifying that the article was actually from 2015. I felt reassured for a moment. But what has become of the world when we can be comforted that the president-elect’s demand for a religious group to register came a year ago and not yesterday?
A Facebook friend suggested that if Trump actually calls for Muslims to register, everyone in the United States should do so as well to overwhelm the authorities. This is a beautiful sentiment. Would you do it?
Normalization is happening. Complacency is happening.
Another Facebook friend who posted that same article suggested that if Trump actually calls for Muslims to register, everyone in the United States should do so as well to overwhelm the authorities. This is a beautiful sentiment. Would you do it?
Too often, we let ourselves off the hook. How will we purposefully make ourselves uncomfortable when comfort is within reach?
I’m reminded of a self-defense class I took back in the summer, when a white woman mentioned feeling guilty about crossing the street when a black man is walking toward her. The instructor said racism is systemic, not something an individual can solve, and she shouldn’t feel bad for valuing her personal safety.
Racism is systemic. Racism is individual. We have to stop letting ourselves off the hook.
When your life is not on the line, and when what’s required is sacrificing so many of the comforts you are accustomed to, what will you give up for the rest of us? I am asking myself this too. If I am being honest, the answer so far is very little, if anything at all.
Protesting is important and donations are important and volunteering is important. But when you know that you can leave the protest whenever you want to return to a safe home and a warm bed and a hot shower, that is privilege, not sacrifice.
What will you sacrifice? What will you give up?
I hope the answer is a lot. Because we will need it.
Doonesbury — A hairy situation.