Letter from Denver: Mea Culpa

Occasionally, it takes us a while to accept something that is hard to understand, does not jibe with our script of the world, or plainly, just doesn’t make any damn sense. And I am here to say now, finally, over a month into this springtime of our discontent, that I was categorically, completely, and blindsidedly wrong about the American election. That I was not alone in my error is no comfort.

Donald Trump being sworn in as 45th president of the United States. (Photo by White House photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Donald Trump being sworn in as 45th president of the United States. (Photo by White House photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

And while I have chewed the facts — Hillary Clinton received 3 million more votes; voter turnout was horrendous (especially among the young); Russia tampered with the elections; and, most importantly, Saturday Night Live (SNL) is suddenly relevant again —  I find no solace. I did take some comfort in my own big blue square’s performance in November: Colorado had the highest voter turnout in the country (nearly 70%, pathetic, no?), went firmly for Clinton, passed a death with dignity assisted suicide law, and made it a bit more difficult for anti-abortion/pro-life groups to use Colorado’s constitution as a testing grounds for new laws. But an island does not an archipelago make.

I threw an election night party that looked and sounded almost exactly like the SNL skit with Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock – we had a ‘break room,’ healing candles, “Pussy grabs back” cat t-shirts and champagne. That champagne was never opened, and I was deeply grateful for having taken the next day off work. It is tough being on the other side of the satire. I felt like a parody of myself. I have never heard Denver as quiet as it was that night, as if it had been abandoned.

To be completely forthright: I still have not come to terms with this; however, it has stirred some deep and strange things within me. Turns out that, despite having bounced around the world, found much to criticize and feel ashamed about in American history, voted and been active civilly against American crimes committed during my lifetime, somewhere, in some cavernous depth of thought and emotion, I did indeed believe in the USA project. That the founders really were on to something, and while the steps may be jagged and littered with the shattered lives and refuse of missteps, the general direction remained forward.

I am not so sure anymore, and this election has put me to the existential test. I simply did not believe that the America I knew, deep down in my purple-mountain-majesty blood, could do this. But, I now realize, this is not a lonely existential test; I share it with America itself.

Women's March, Denver, January 2017. (Photo by Ed Ogle, Democracy in Action, CC BY 2.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Women’s March, Denver, January 2017. (Photo by Ed Ogle, Democracy in Action, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

C’est la vie…forward we go; break out the pin makers and the sign markers! It is time to march, and march we have — 200,000 women, men, and children in Denver alone. Nationally, it was the largest ever single day of protest, and it brought some comfort. But it also felt somewhat like a reactionary catharsis, I do not say this to suggest the Women’s March was a bad thing or to diminish its power but one massive rally does not a power-gaining movement make.

And a movement is needed. From the first week, there was a blizzard of hastily worded, poorly thought-out executive orders that have washed up against the battered shores of American checks and balances. The travel ban from seven countries, none of which had served as the source of a US terrorist attack, met its end with the judicial branch thankfully performing its duty, and while that was a good day, there is reason to worry. Since the George W. Bush years, there has been an unprecedented politicization of the judiciary, many of whom are, archaically, lifetime appointments. It was not purely luck that the case came from the Ninth Circuit Court in the Northwest, after which there were immediate calls to break-up this particular circuit for “matters of geography.”

Yet, to go through each and every one of the verisimilitudes of the current administration’s first month would not only make you, as a reader, sick to your soul stomach, it would likely kill me. Better to twist the telescope back.

With the portentous, leering, omnipresent figure of Steve Bannon lurking behind the twisted, bloated body of the executive in chief, it is tempting to try to discern some

Steven Bannon (Photo by Michael Vadon, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Steven Bannon (Photo by Michael Vadon, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

method in this madness. As though the manic pace of these opening days has been set purposefully and thoughtfully and calculatedly to exhaust and consume the opposition. To set so much insanity before the populace as to desensitize that larger segment of it that believes this to be wrong and unjust. Living near the state capital of Denver — where there has been, without hyperbole, more than a march a week in 2017 — I can’t keep up, and I try and care.

Given the bumbling nature of the administration so far, this seems to be a bit of a stretch; however, the fact that Bannon was given a seat at the table of the National Security Council – an organization that its virulently non-political in nature — may set a very dangerous precedent. There are reasons for worry and vigilance. And while the Trump team struggles to populate his Cabinet, many of those positions have been filled by people either as appalling or as woefully unqualified as the figurehead himself.

All the while, the Democrats are blithering, blathering and blazing like a blue matchstick amidst hellfire. While Elizabeth Warren is sturdy, her somewhat tattle-tale-ish demeanor is not very popular; Bernie Sanders seems exhausted, which he damn sure has a right to be; and there is only one Democrat on this planet who is happy that Barack Obama is no longer president — Barack Obama. The Dems seem leaderless, rudderless, guileless and spineless. despite the fact that literal millions are marching to what should be their drum. There is no leader.

And while it is fun to prognosticate on the possibility of a two-year run for this farce, it is also still a mystical reach to see the Democrats getting their collective shit together to actually capitalize on this unprecedented assault on norms. Democrats sputter and spit saying, “That ignores precedent!” at every turn, as though expecting this reality show host to somehow, suddenly begin to act predictably and/or presidentially. For all their intellectual capital, their moral high ground, their “standing with the people,” the Democrats are still as at a loss as I was on November 9th. We don’t have time for that. How long until Kristallnacht? Who is next? Is fascism a violent act or a slow and tawdry slide?

Pandora’s box. (Engraving based on painting by F.S. Church, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

At this juncture, there are lessons to be learned, but they are both hard and, in some cases, revolting. Did millions of Americans not see what a racist, misogynist, nationalist, nit-wit stood before them or are we facing an even darker truth — they saw it and they liked it? Or were they simply entertained, and could give two bits for any of the moral, political, or historic dimensions to it? Why not wallow in the sty if it’s fun? The strangest part of all of it being that many of the Americans who will be most harshly affected by these ostensible policies are those who most virulently support Trump.

Despite all this, let us conclude with the image that brought Barack Obama to the fore in 2008; the last thing to creep and crawl from Pandora’s box after all the ills and fates of the world had come moaning out. While the opposition to the current administration is voluminous and loud it is, as yet, leaderless. This represents something long associated with America: opportunity. Historically, America has evinced an uncanny capacity to produce just the right leader at just the right moment. And while it is painful to watch the country that twice elected the calm, optimistic, singular Obama anoint something so polar, so hateful, so incomprehensible on every level, the majority of Americans see this fallacy for what it is. And maybe, like a dog whose nose is being put in its own mess, this is the type of lesson some need to learn. While from the outside it may look like a bunch of neighbors fighting in stained, sodden, tee-shirts, there is still the hope, the optimism, that these divides can begin to heal, truths can be remembered, and progress be regained. Perhaps this is magical thinking, but with my marching shoes already feeling worn, what’s left?




Born in Walden, North Park, Colorado, Shay V. Carlstrom is an educator and writer living in Denver.



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