I’ve spent most of my life now studying my country’s history, and in particular the ways it has so consistently, so systemically, failed to live up to its ideals. Those are the ideals that justified its bloody founding, the ideals Americans say make their country exceptional. We are a beacon of liberty in a world of darkness, are we not?
For me, it always seemed like basic honesty to be willing to test those claims against the historical reality. No one likes a hypocrite, right?—especially when fundamental principles like freedom and equality are at stake. We wouldn’t want to be like those other places—the places we despise, the places we promise we can never become. The places that proclaim their principles only to traduce them when it’s convenient.
That’s why we study history. And if we have the strength to see, we learn that from its very inception ours has been a deeply flawed democracy. Our past is replete with genocide, slavery, racism, labor exploitation, misogyny, intolerance, mob rule, lynching, and state-sponsored violence of every sort. Every hero we honor—from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Susan B. Anthony, to Caesar Chavez—was spat on by mobs composed of our grandfathers and great grandmothers and great great aunts and uncles and distant kin we’ll never name. Those relatives collected the ashen bones of the prophets and made trophies of the flesh that remained.
Somehow, it’s always supposed to come right. Somehow, we tell ourselves, it’ll work out. This is America, after all. We’ve seen the movie. The bigots are always overcome and the path toward a fuller democracy is always set right.
The problem is, the bigots have always believed that they are just as American as everyone else. And why not? They’re right: as much as our history is a history of expanding freedom and liberty, it is also a history of their denial. It’s a funny thing: we never say we hate just for the sake of hate. When we do things like limit voting rights, tighten immigration laws, restrict women’s control over their own bodies, or sanction popular violence against religious minorities—we don’t do it in the name of intolerance, we do it in the name of freedom.
But for many, many Americans, this country has never been a land of liberty. For them, those born from them, those born like them—this country has always been some sort of police state: a national constitution that upheld slavery, the laws and militias that supported it at the local level, the black codes and chain gangs that criminalized poverty after the slaves were freed, the segregation that enshrined their second-class citizenship in law, the exploitation and neglect that led to the urban crisis, or the state-sponsored murders of people of color that plague our streets today.
I know this. I study it. I teach it. Maybe it’s made me cynical, but I prefer the term “clear-sighted.” I thought it meant that I would be a little harder to surprise.
But I am surprised. I’m surprised to find myself grieving so heavily for a national community whose past and present imperfections I document on a daily basis. I’m surprised to learn how much I love this country. I cannot believe that I harbored so much hope left for a place with such a terrible record. It turns out I did. Because I have shed buckets of tears over the last several days, and they just won’t stop.
Because this country is worth grieving for. American history is not just a history of our innumerable failings, it is also the history of people who have stood up to this, generation after generation. It is the story of how everyday folks learned to confront and survive the police state under which they lived. Ever watch your children sold away from you as property? Ever have your loved one hung from a tree and set on fire after a mob mutilates his living body? Ever lose a child to a militarized police force that broke through the wrong door? Ever been separated from your mother because she wasn’t deemed worthy of remaining on the soil of your birth?
Americans—our compatriots, our neighbors, our friends, our families—have not only witnessed that, they’ve withstood it, survived it, and worked to change it. To stand up to hatred and intolerance—and a state that thrives on those emotions—that is our history, too. That is the repository of the best of this nation. We are at our best when we are fighting bigots. We are most American when America is least American to us. We are most true to our values when our country is least dedicated to its own. Richard Wright once wrote, “What we endure is what America is.” But we do more than endure. We call upon the best of our nation and its heritage, so we can stand up to the bigots.
I am devastated. I’ve lived through 1968, and Vietnam, and Watergate, and Iran, and Reagan, and wars from Grenada to the Gulf. I wept when the country gave George Bush another four years to kill innocent Iraqis and spend the country into chaos. I’ve resisted the vile popular racism that greeted our first president of African descent. And nothing in my historical or personal experience tells me that what just happened is normal, or that we will somehow recover from it. Never before have the American people elected to the Presidency a person so utterly and completely contemptuous of our principles and our system.
It makes no sense to me. Trump voters: you’ve already kicked the people you’re kicking once again. It didn’t solve your problems in the past, and it won’t solve your problems now. You’ve been voting for the very party whose policies have led you to be angry. Now you’ve inflicted on all of us a billionaire populist, a carnival barker and confidence man who has played you like a rube, exploiting your fears to serve his own insatiable appetite for attention and power.
And for what?
Remember the real Americans. The ones who loved their country enough to fight it when it betrayed them. The ones who fought for the best in us when the country displayed its worst. The tradition of American freedom that we know and love is built on their struggle. They did not do what you have done.
To those who made the spiteful and foolish choice to vote for a sociopath who does not understand let alone value the rule of law, here is the one irreducible fact that you, your children, their children, and theirs will have to live with: you left the center. You defected from the compact. You flipped the game board and went home. You broke it for all of us–when those who had the most cause to do this did not. If you have cause for anger, how much cause have those with deep and longstanding grievances against this country? I’m sorry if that sound ungenerous, but what you have done is the essence of ungenerous.
Some make the best of things, others the worst. Americans raised for generations in the schoolhouse of intolerance steadily grew to become custodians of the country’s best self, and that is a tremendous triumph of the human spirit. Meanwhile, those spared have ceased to revere that best self, or even recognize who they really are. I’m afraid that now we are all about to receive a terrible lesson in matters the least of us have understood for generations.
I’m not yet ready to watch the news, or hear his name, or think about the position he is to occupy, and the incalculable damage that is to come. There is no solace here. I don’t know how we survive this. I don’t even know that we can. I envy and admire those who can so quickly pick themselves up, and begin to plan, forecast, and fight. I am not there yet. Not even close. I am still sitting shiva for the country I didn’t know I loved so much.
Patrick Rael is Professor of History at Bowdoin College. He is the author of numerous essays and books, including Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (North Carolina, 2002), and his most recent book, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865 (University of Georgia Press, 2015).