From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.

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Not Him But Us
by Steve Erickson

The action to which we must finally commit ourselves can’t simply be about a man or president, or a political party or perhaps even a country, but about the nature of freedom and maybe nothing less than the nature of truth.

Whereas over the course of history we’ve had presidents who, good or bad, nonetheless saw themselves in the context of their country, now we have a president who sees the country in the context of himself. The question isn’t whether he’s unfit for office, which he himself has established beyond anything that anyone else can say, but whether the rest of us are fit to be Americans. This president didn’t happen to America; we happened to America. In the last election, we decided to believe everything terrible we had heard about his opponent and to disregard everything terrible we knew about him, and having made such a choice says something terrible about us.

There’s nothing we know about him now that we didn’t know before. Whether or not we voted for him for explicitly racist or sexist reasons, at the least we chose to set aside the racism and sexism in which he traffics as sufficient reasons for voting against him. In a country where, 150 years after the fact, millions won’t admit that the Civil War was about slavery — the American version of Holocaust denial — we chose to set aside his baseless accusation that the first African-American president wasn’t a real American and wasn’t a real president, an overtly racist contention that no one has ever made about a white president. We set aside innumerable toxic comments about people of other ethnicities, cultures, religions, genders; we set aside open mockery and mimicry of the physically challenged; we set aside a four-decade personal history of exploiting the poor and dispossessed; we ignored his clear authoritarian impulses and his expressed disdain for the things that constitute democracy; we shrugged off the enthusiastic endorsement of him by the Ku Klux Klan as though it meant nothing; we overlooked the cracked moral compass that can’t or won’t distinguish between white supremacists in Charlottesville and the woman they ran over with a car. On the world stage America is now the fat, rich old man who pushes little countries out of the way to get to the front of the photo op, straightening his tie as he does.

I was raised a Republican all those many years ago when I woke as a boy to the singing of pterodactyls outside my window, and I’ve been a registered independent all my voting life. Over time I’ve come to a prevailing suspicion of ideology both right and left that presupposes conclusions before reasoning has taken place. Beyond such matters of right and left, this president didn’t beget his political party in its current incarnation; his political party, cofounded a century and a half ago by the greatest American and now the most morally bankrupt political movement of our lifetime, begat him. Beyond policies that target society’s most forsaken, something is rotten—I use the word in its most classic and exquisite sense — in this political party and in its national embodiment, who was born to a wealth and privilege few of us will know in our lives and who views the powerless as “losers” while whining about how unfair the world is to him. This president didn’t dishonor us with his election; we dishonored ourselves. For the sake of the country we love, we need to redeem our honor while there’s still time.

If the action to which we must ultimately commit ourselves can’t simply be about a president, if what’s gone wrong with the country won’t suddenly be made right with his exit, if our new cold civil war won’t be resolved by an ideology but by a vision that was supposed to resolve the last civil war, nonetheless we must begin with the prosaic. Neither investigations nor calls for impeachment will matter without wresting our government’s legislative branch this November from the controlling party that cowers before its reigning despot. This will be done not by casting utopian votes for unblemished protest candidates that allow us to congratulate ourselves on our political purity; it will be done only by voting for every Democrat in sight, however much we grouse about how compromised the Democratic Party may be or about how dastardly it has been to cranky senators from Vermont.

I’ve lived through twelve presidents before this one and have vivid memories of ten. Sooner or later each did something to anger or frustrate or embarrass me in a manner passing (dallying with interns) or profound (laying wreaths at the graves of SS soldiers). None, however, made me ashamed of my country for having elected him — until now. We’re left to resolve not who he is; we know who he is. We’re left to resolve who we are, and whether we still see ourselves in the context of our country, or see the country only in the context of our worst selves, wherein no America exists at all.

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Commit to vote in November.

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Steve Erickson’s tenth novel, Shadowbahn, is now in paperback. Erickson is a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Riverside.