In the days leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration as President of the United States, one of my friends commented that she had been spending a lot of time reflecting on the things that we individually and as a country had lost over four years of a Trump presidency.
We are only a couple weeks into the new administration and there are still a lot of unknowns. While I believe that our leadership can only be better than what we had starting in January of 2017, “better” seems like a weak metric for what we as a country need. Still, I would desperately love to regain many of the things that I personally lost during the Trump presidency. Those losses weren’t material, but they were enough to leave me seriously depleted in the last days leading up to the transition to new leadership.
If I were to narrow down all that I felt I lost, what would be at the top of the list?
I lost my naivete.
It seems strange for a grown woman to say that she lost her naivete during a presidential term, especially someone who has spent much of her adult life speaking out against injustice in both my classroom and online, but as 2016 turned to 2017, I began to realize just how many things I was still willfully ignorant about.
I knew economic inequality was a serious issue in the United States, but I never considered how it could both change the political landscape in such a short time while also deepening the problem in both rural and urban areas. A global pandemic exacerbated by lack of leadership made that problem even more pronounced, as we saw people who were making at or just above minimum wage holding the country together in their various “essential” roles. I had argued for a higher minimum wage for years, but the whole situation finally opened my eyes to the realities of what that lack of wages was doing to the whole country, not just those being crushed under the weight of poverty.
I also knew that we were far from racial equality. I had seen it for years and the more I read and studied and learned, the more I realized that we Americans still have a long way to go. But the moves of the Trump administration and the constant excuses and enabling of those supporting those moves showed me just how much racism was still infused into our very DNA as Americans. People who had spent years telling me that babies in the womb were worth protecting said little to nothing to protect babies being torn from their mother’s arms at the southern border or children being physically and mentally traumatized in detention centers. Detractors claimed that if their parents really cared, they wouldn’t have brought them here in the first place, all while ignoring pain and suffering and refusing to call for it to stop. And time in isolation gave Americans of all ages, races, and backgrounds time to look at devastating videos of black men murdered by those sworn to protect them. For the first time in my life, it appeared that our nation was finally ready to have a real discussion about the history that continues to plague all of us.
I lost my ability to trust.
It is in my nature to want to trust people and to expect the best of those around me. My natural belief in doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do carries into the way that I relate to others. (Have I mentioned that I’m an Enneagram One?) I just want to believe that others will operate the same way and for the same reasons.
Unfortunately, that is not reality, and while I was disappointed by the number of loved ones who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, I wanted to believe that they truly believed they were doing it for the right reasons and perhaps they saw something that I didn’t. I wanted to believe that they believed they were acting in the best interest of the entire country.
Then we were hit by a global pandemic. Suddenly, asking people to stay isolated and wear masks to protect themselves and others became an inexplicable political issue. As Americans we couldn’t even agree on basic facts and that included friends, family, and neighbors.
People I would have normally trusted with my family’s well-being suddenly became suspect. I didn’t know who was being cautious and who wasn’t. I didn’t know who was spreading conspiracy theories and who wasn’t. I didn’t know who was ignoring basic facts and who was doing everything they could to stop the spread of disease. I had never been a particularly anxious person, but suddenly crowds and gatherings of any kind sent my normally low blood pressure soaring. I was being asked to trust the parents of my kids’ friends, my students’ families, my colleagues, and everyone near me to do their very best to keep all of us healthy and it felt like people were failing us left and right.
And I don’t know how to get that trust back.
I lost my ability to be “fair and balanced.”
I’m a proud centrist. I’ve been politically homeless for a long time, and while that used to be a lonely position, I have discovered that I’m actually in increasingly good company. I’m also a nine-wing on the Enneagram, which means I tend towards peacemaking when it’s possible. So as a default peacemaking centrist, I’ve always tried to be “fair and balanced” with my approach to discussions with those I disagree with. I did everything possible to maintain that approach as a teacher in my classroom as I encouraged my students to do their own research and develop their own ideas. I’ve tried to maintain that approach in teaching my own children how to navigate their world. And I’ve tried to maintain that approach as a friend and neighbor.
The last four years have been a serious challenge to that approach.
Because when basic facts become opinions and fringe beliefs become facts, it becomes difficult to be “fair and balanced” when trying to find where the center is in a given discussion. Sometimes, there just isn’t a center. Sometimes a thing is just wrong and indefensible.
And this loss has challenged me in every sector of my life. I don’t know that I will ever find that “center” again, but I’m hoping that we can get back to a place where discussions are rooted in the same basic facts, even if our understanding of those facts and how they relate to our world isn’t the same.
I lost my faith in institutions.
I’ve never put my faith in politics because I’ve always seen our leaders as flawed. Even when “my guy” won an election, I was still critical of the things he (and occasionally she) were doing because I felt there might be a better way. But I always believed in the promise of American government. I believed that most of our leaders were acting in the best interest of the country and their constituents and that when it mattered most, they would do the right thing.
Then an entire political party got hijacked by a political hack who cared more about his personal brand than he did the country. Even leaders for whom I had maintained slivers of respect quickly lost any admiration I had left.
Even more painful than my loss of faith in our democratic ideals was the loss of faith in Christian institutions. Individuals and people of influence throughout my childhood and young adulthood have been sucked into the Trump cyclone. This affected everything from my ability to trust fellow believers to my ability to find the truth in dogmas I had believed my entire life.
But unlike the many I saw leaving the Christian faith, it never shook my faith. On the contrary, it strengthened it. Because I continued to put my faith in a God who was bigger than political leaders and institutions. I knew that He was ultimately in control and it is something that I continue to see daily even as my life might feel like it is spinning out of control. I was consistently reminded that people will fail us, but God never will.
And yet, as difficult as the last four years have been, they have also refined me. It has been painful and uncomfortable and full of loss, but I am a better person than I was four years ago.
I believe that we can be a better and stronger country despite what the last four years have thrown at a lot of us. As a country we were able to ignore and deny many of the problems that have plagued us since our birth, but now we are forced to face those problems head on.
We can choose to embrace what we’ve lost and fight to “build back better.” That isn’t just a campaign slogan. It is who we are as people and what we were created to do.