Piqua, Ohio, U.S.A. – I celebrated my 18th birthday this week. A pivotal point in a young person’s life, this birthday – more than any before it – signifies you have crossed the threshold from child to young adult.
My frenetic teenage years are coming to a close, taking their place alongside my childhood as wistful memories to look back upon with embarrassment, frustration, and eminently misplaced nostalgia.
It was only after I blew out the candles on my blue-icing-decorated vanilla cake, and looked up at the smiling, tear-tinged eyes of my parents, my brothers’ already-frosting-covered hands clapping from their seats near me at the kitchen table that I realized how surreal this all was.
The scene was one repeated in millions of homes across the country and the world. It’s a touching moment of familial bonding, etched into almost every person’s remembrance of their youth.
Yet just two days earlier, I watched from the sidewalk as another father in my neighborhood hurriedly put his family’s belongings in the back of a van while his daughter wailed on the front porch. Their home was in foreclosure and they were leaving.
Two days earlier I had stopped, mid-jog, and watched as a truck flying a “blue lives matter” flag sped by me and memories of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing in Georgia flashed in my mind.
On my birthday – if only for a moment – all the fear, anxiety, and depression caused by the current political lexicon ceased.
But the moment would not last, and the world must go on. Peace comes most often in fragments, ones which are quickly cast to the wayside by the overpowering currents of horrible reality.
This all accumulated in a revelation I had as my father cut the first slice of cake: I was finally eligible to vote.
There was no doubt in my mind that I would be voting come November 3rd.
I decided long ago – before the virus, protests, or crackdowns – that no matter what happened, I would be marking a ballot on election night.
I’ve been enamored with politics since I was a child. I can still remember standing on my parents’ bed, mimicking President Barack Obama’s gestures and speech pattern as he spoke on the campaign trail.
When my first-grade social studies teacher asked who wanted to participate in a “mock election” to establish what the 2008 election outcome might be in Ohio, my hand was the first to shoot up.
To me, Obama embodied a new type of politics – built on hope, compassion, and “change” rather than division and vitriol. He inspired me, and to my dying day I will remember the election night of ‘08.
As teardrops poured down my cheeks, Obama strode onto the stage, triumphant. It seemed as if the world was finally going to be better. A man who looked like me and understood the concerns of the suffering and downtrodden, was in the White House.
I wanted to vote for him to show my peers that I believed a better world was possible and could be created.
Now, a looming sense of dread, not rose-tinted optimism, fuels my drive to vote. Happiness is not permanent, and the world’s current churns on, indifferent to your pleas for calm.
I watched as the assurance of “hope and change” became mere platitude, a bitter reminder of a broken promise. The recession – which had once only existed on television and in the muffled conversations of my mother and father over our landline – finally came home.
The tranquil suburbia of my first six years became a fading dream, as the neighbors whose faces and personalities formed the entirety of my world abandoned me, no longer able to afford their homes. My family – only myself and my parents then – fled before the vultures could bear down on us.
Like my distraught neighbors, we were compelled to shove our lives into the back of a van and drive far away from our once sacrosanct cul-de-sac, leaving behind prizes, possessions, our sense of comfort, and my innocence.
Obama, the man I once admired, whom I hoped to be like when I became an adult, bailed out the banks that caused this suffering. He gave them billions, and words like “too big to fail” entered my vocabulary, sticking firmly in my craw, whence it has never been dislodged. I felt betrayed, and I tuned out of electoral politics throughout the early 2010s, regarding Barack and Republican Mitt Romney as two sides of the same blood-stained coin.
It was only in 2016 that my once-empty well of political enthusiasm was again rejuvenated. I was in my early teens and began to pay attention to the inner workings of government, considering it too important to continue ignoring.
I was now a resident of Piqua, a working-class manufacturing town of many contradictions. My junior high school peers were the children of nurses and department store employees, people who had lived their lives on the rough edges of our economic system, the coarse, unsightly corners our political class tries to smooth out or ignore.
Though they were meant to be the arbiters of the political system, these men and women were disconnected. To them, Washington DC was a self-contained city-state, filled with careerists and liars, more interested in self advancement than helping their constituents.
As I began to read about our system of government and its systemic iniquities, I began to understand this type of thinking, and even agree with it. I felt as though U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders – the liberal gadfly – was our only hope for creating a country that fulfilled the dream of creating a “more perfect union.”
His calls for a political revolution exhilarated me, and his policies, considered radical by some, were to me exactly what the nation needed.
But the political circus got a new ringleader. A rough beast, his hour came ‘round at last as he slouched down a golden elevator to be born.
Trump was everything I despised. His blatant racism, sexism, xenophobia, corruption, and brutish authoritarian tendencies all chilled me to my core.
I watched from my bed as he would rile up his crowds, spouting attacks against reporters and detractors, egging on his writhing crowd to rough them up.
He seemed to me the incarnation of every malicious demagogue conjured in fiction. He was Greg Stillson, Brezilius Windrip, Willie Stark, the American version of all the cynical tyrants who clawed their way into the halls of power that littered my history textbooks.
To me, he was the sort of man in whose hands republics wither and die. Still, he had a charisma and flair not matched by his opponent Hillary Clinton, and a canny ability to harness the hopelessness and rage of the working man.
Hillary Clinton was the establishment made flesh, the ultimate beltway technocrat that spoke only in buzzwords and vacuous slogans. Sanders, her populist counterpart, was dismissed as, at best a well-meaning old fool and worst, the Fidel Castro of our time.
I can still remember my lunch table arguments with friends, debates with teachers, and half-baked electioneering. I tried to convince myself that Trump could never become president, that his style of poisonous rhetoric would be identified for the fraud that it was.
As we all now know, that was not the case, and I can still remember the feeling of my heart sinking as I watched CNN and saw state after state turning red, the whole country seemingly jumping into the cackling abyss that was the prospect of a Trump presidency.
Upon reflection, the reason for this is simple. Beyond the obvious sexist and racist under – and indeed over – tones of the 2016 election, to vote for Clinton would have been reaffirming the system. That was the same system which, in the eyes of millions of poor, sick, hungry, and angry people across this country, had left them to rot.
Trump was an explosive, and that’s what they wanted. He was someone who would destroy the system that nearly destroyed them. I had not voted then, neither having the age or inclination to do so, but promised myself that come hell or high water, I would in 2020.
It is now four years later, and it seems the hell and high water finally arrived.
We have 207,000 Americans dead of the coronavirus. Millions are unemployed. Civil unrest grips our cities and the president inches closer towards authoritarianism with each passing day.
Sanders was once again bested in the Democratic primary, leaving Joe Biden, the gormless face of lackluster centrism, to take up Obama’s mantle as leader of the Democratic Party.
Protests for racial injustice have been put down with rubber bullets and tear gas, while armed vigilantes kill people in the street, only to be lionized. The language of revolution and civil war is used frequently, with people buying guns in bulk to protect from the violent hordes they believe will come barging down their street at any time.
Our president delegitimizes the election and makes clear he will not accept any results that don’t reflect his preferred outcome.
All the while the climate catastrophe lingers in the background, skeletal hand outstretched, waiting to ensnare us all.
These existential threats barely register in the minds of my town’s citizenry. I live in the heart of “Trump country,” that rural, provincial mishmash of towns stretching as far east as upstate New York and as far west as Utah and Montana. Here, American flags adorn every street, Trump signs colonize every other yard, and the coronavirus is at best an exaggerated threat.
It’s the home of neighborhoods like Indian Ridge, an insular suburb of upper middle-class suburbanites. Their community may not be gated, but outsiders are treated with suspicion and disdain all the same. I believe they –not the soot-stained denizens of Appalachia – are Trump’s true base.
These neigborhoods are monoliths of complacency, and people like the gun-wielding St. Louis couple Mark and Patricia McCloskey are avatars and defenders. The election for them is not about the virus, or racial justice or even the restoration of American principles.
They want only to keep what they have, to fish and barbecue while protesters are beaten with batons and smoke from wildfires engulfs and chokes the sky. They drape themselves in the flag, insist that people “stand for our anthem,” and revel in all the aesthetics of Americana, ignoring our values while pretending to be defenders of them.
The world begins and ends at their crisply cut lawns. Everything beyond is strange and foreign, something to fear or distrust.
The Biden supporters are no better. Although I see Biden/Harris signs scattered across town they are often few and far between. Largely they are of the same socioeconomic status at the Trumpites – upper middle class, white and entering their twilight years.
The only distinguishing difference between the two parties is that Biden supporters have the decency to feel guilty about their privilege. They watch Saturday Night Live and retweet the punchy anti-Trump zingers they see from blue check comedians on Twitter.
Their alliance with social justice movements is purely self-centered, just another point added on their liberal scoreboard. Most of all, more than equality or justice, they yearn for “normalcy,” that vague, undefinable feeling in one’s gut that everything will be fine.
This class is made up of the “white moderates” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about, those who prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Words like “civility” and “decorum” are valued highly by them, as they prefer a broken system with a veneer of propriety to one fully exposed as the barbaric slaughterhouse it is.
Criticism of the president’s racism abounds among this crowd, but when you mention the corrosive effects of redlining and unequal federal funding in Ohio, or worse yet, Miami County, Ohio, their defenses are hastily put back up.
It’s easy for them to pick the low hanging fruits of prejudice, yet when you suggest cutting down the tree of institutional racism, they flee back to the comfort of ignorance and whataboutism.
It is under these conditions that I will be casting my first vote for president of the United States. I know Trump is the amalgamation of America’s worst impulses, but I look at Biden’s toothy, vacant grin, watch him as he shifts positions (agreeing that systemic racism exists, but subscribing to the “bad apples” theory) and neither he nor his vice presidential pick give me comfort.
It feels as though we missed the boat, passed the offramp labeled salvation and have begun speeding headlong into destruction. The flames that have risen over the past nine months will not be put out on election night, and most likely will only spread further.
Some believe this era is an aberration, something to be shaken off like a bad dream once we collectively wake up. I believe it was inevitable that we would reach this point. It is the outcome that could only have been created from 30 years of Neoliberal decay. Now we must face the consequences of our leaders’ actions. We are not living in an anomaly, but the last gasps of a dying empire.
I will vote for Joe Biden on November 3, but I wish things could have been different.
I have been trying to recreate the giddy hope I felt 12 years ago, but two elections later, I’m all out of silver linings.
The future is an abyss, the present unsustainable, and the past flawed.
Zurie Pope is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.