In November 2016, my mother travelled to New York where I had been living since 2008, to visit me and to bear witness to the election of the first female president of the United States. It was a long, anxious night — my jetlagged Mum falling asleep long before the results were called.
At around 3 am, I woke her up in tears; barely managing to croak “he’s won” before retreating to bed for a night of fitful sleep.
In the morning, I noticed a friend of 20 years celebrating the news on Facebook. I unfriended her immediately. An action that, upon reflection, was vaguely hysterical and clearly reactionary.
The day after the election was gloomy and overcast — not only in stark contrast with the day before, but that of Barack Obama’s win in 2008. On that day, eight years prior, I had rejoiced as my quiet Upper East Side neighbourhood erupted into all night cheers of “Yes We Can!” and walked around the following day feeling hopeful and inspired. I never allowed the possibility that I wouldn’t feel the same elation after the 2016 election to cement in my mind.
For over a year, my friends and I had all laughed at the idea that a reality TV star who had run his platform on the fumes of divisiveness and the alienation of entire communities, and who had been revealed on tape to be nothing short of a sexual predator, could possibly be chosen for one of the world’s most powerful positions.
And yet, as quietly (and inaccurately) confident as I was that this person would never run the country I called home, I would be lying if I said I didn’t worry.
I worried that no matter what happened with the election, a generation of young, white boys had seen a very powerful white man behave in a way that was repugnant and spout a narrative that was not only false but deeply damaging. Worse than that, those same young boys saw this man be cheered for, encouraged and agreed with. I worried how a year, let alone four to eight of them, of his uneducated and derogatory comments, might live on — serving as a reminder that if you are white and rich enough you can get away with anything.
In January 2017, I travelled with my best friend to Washington DC and took part — along with millions of women around the world — in the Women’s March. It remains one of the best days of my life. The defiance hung thick in the cold, winter air – more warming than any North Face jacket could ever be — and the crowd could not have been more respectful, supporting each other’s causes and chanting each other’s catchphrases.
It was a beautiful snapshot of how things could be and how most of us wished they were. As we marched past the White House we chanted, “welcome to your first day, we will not go away!” – a war cry uttered by 470,000 women, men and children committed to the cause of keeping tolerance, democracy and, maybe most importantly, hope alive.
Never in my most twisted, horrific imagination could I conceive that seven months after participating in such a peaceful and uplifting march, I would be reporting on a march executed by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia and the death of Heather Hayer, a 32-year-old woman who lost her life while peacefully protesting the terrifying ideals of a bunch of extremists.
This was exactly what I had worried about during the lead up to the election.
Groups of people who had been lying somewhat dormant with their racist beliefs and violent tendencies were now feeling emboldened to unite in hatred, under a national leader who as good as supported them through his refusal to condemn them.
I don’t need to remind you of all of the atrocities that have occurred under that same leader’s watch. You know all too well that over 400,000 Americans are dead from COVID-19, that the parents of over 500 children separated at the US border are yet to be found and that the country is more at odds than ever under the crushing weight of social injustice and racial inequality.
You know all of this and so perhaps, like me, you found yourself unsurprised by the attempted right-wing insurrection that took place on Capitol Hill on January 6. Perhaps, like me, you found yourself thinking “what took them so long?”, and felt sadness in your resignation that a crescendo such as this was almost inevitable after the relentless antagonism of the soon-to-be-former administration. Or maybe you shrugged your shoulders, turned off your television and thought about how lucky you are to live in Australia and can therefore afford to be unconcerned by the unrest in another land.
It’s been excruciating, terrifying, heartbreaking and infuriating, to experience the turmoil of the past four years. To see the people I love suffer and the country I love crumble. It has been equally infuriating, in the months since I returned to Sydney, the number of people who have questioned my passion for the politics of a nation in which I no longer reside. “Why do you care?”, they ask. “You don’t live there any longer, so what does it matter?”.
Let me tell you, it matters. It f–king matters. It matters that far too many people have witnessed the behaviour of a misogynist man-child and have considered it a permission slip to follow suit.
It matters that 74 million of his loyal followers voted for the aforementioned man-child and will carry on his hateful legacy – tragically unaware that they care so deeply about a person who has spent four years demonstrating how little he cares about them.
It matters that all of this has happened in the age of social media and 24-hour access to information so narratives that benefit few and harm many will never be erased.
It matters that countless groups of conspiracy theorists, extremists, racists and bigots have found each other through their shared love of him and hatred of everyone else and it matters, as I mentioned before, that the message is now embedded in the psyche of millions that if you are white enough and (allegedly) rich enough, you can get away with anything.
No matter where you live, this stuff matters. And if the events of the past year haven’t taught you that, then I certainly won’t be able to.
Today, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris step into the White House, marking the exit of the most controversial president in US history and bringing with them the promise of a (hopefully) more peaceful country than the one to which we have become accustomed.
As I reflect on what has transpired since the day my mother travelled so far to witness history be made, I find myself living in the memory of the day we marched on Washington.
I think of the tireless work of the men and women who have fought since then to counteract the incessant enmity wrought upon the world. They have fought in ways big and small, in public and in private. They have galvanised young people to vote, have campaigned for the rights of others and done everything in their power to make the world a little easier to live in. They have embodied the spirit of democracy and inspired others to do the same while reminding us that our individual voices may be small, but together they are deafening. These are the things I turn my mind to whenever those troubling thoughts about one person’s legacy of hate seep into my consciousness.
I remind myself that on that January day in Washington, we told a property developer turned president that we wouldn’t go away and that now it is his time to do just that.