The sense of disillusionment white American liberals woke up with on Nov. 9 was powerful enough to taint the entire year with a sense of doom. So many illusions were shattered by the election of Donald Trump: about the media, polling, the Democrats’ vaunted ground game, the fundamental character of our fellow citizens, the viability of the American experiment. Even if the first 10 months and eight days of 2016 had been an era of unbounded inspiration and hope, the impact of Donald Trump’s election would have outweighed them, reducing our optimism to a historical footnote.
Of course, the first 10 months and eight days of 2016 weren’t an era of unbounded inspiration and hope, even if the post-Nov. 8 world makes them look pretty good by comparison. Not even the most diehard, optimistic Hillary Clinton supporters could ignore the minor disillusionments that cropped up every few weeks—events that in hindsight seem like distant rumbles of thunder warning of the storm to come. Bernie Sanders supporters were disillusioned by the Democratic National Committee’s contempt for their chosen candidate. Moderate Republicans were disillusioned by Donald Trump’s unforeseen takeover of their party. Queer people who’d recently won the right to marry were disillusioned by the horrific massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Women who thought they’d seen overt misogyny disappear from polite society were disillusioned by the cavalier way Trump described grabbing women “by the pussy.”
To be disillusioned you have to have some faith—in institutions, in progress, in human decency—to begin with. There are plenty of Americans who never had such faith, or who lost it at an early age. Black people who have seen members of their community shot by police and imprisoned under flimsy pretenses, undocumented immigrants who faced more deportations under President Obama than under any prior president, trans people who feared using public restrooms long before North Carolina sought to criminalize them for doing so, Muslims who experienced fingerprinting and surveillance after Sept. 11, 2001—these are among the many groups who largely shrugged their shoulders at all the white liberal weeping and gnashing of teeth after the election and said, “Well, what did you expect?” This attitude doesn’t minimize the very real threats these and other marginalized groups have faced since the election and will face when Trump takes office. But it’s possible to be frightened and angry without being disillusioned. The only people who experienced disillusionment in 2016 were people who had distanced themselves from the ugliness in American society enough that they could convince themselves that we were making meaningful progress.
After Trump’s election, it is more or less impossible to believe that we are making meaningful progress. White liberals who woke up horrified on Nov. 9 weren’t horrified because the world had suddenly changed—we were horrified because the scales had finally fallen from our eyes, and we could at least see our unjust, racist, sexist country for what it is. The next president will not be a woman, the makeup of the Supreme Court will not shift toward progressivism, and we are not jolly passengers on a cruise ship sailing toward an era of tolerance, justice, and respect for the dignity and rights of all.
To look for an upside to all this would be ironic. And disillusionment in and of itself is not a virtue. (If anything, it’s a sign that someone has been estranged from reality for too long.) But if any good does come out of the political events of 2016, it will be when privileged liberals take their shattered sense of complacency and use it as fuel for all the work that needs to be done.