How America’s Exceptionalism came to an End

Nida Nizam

The New Normal

On a day as cloudy as today, during a month as traditionally freezing as January, at the outset of a year as tenuous as any uncertain beginning before it, one is subject to a range of new and discomfiting sensations that most likely characterize the feelings of the American population as a whole. The East Coast’s traditionally dry cold and epic snowfall have been replaced by deep moisture that sinks into one’s bones and a steady, unrelenting fog. It is neither picturesque nor intolerable. It is neither dark nor light out. It is all very, very, gray.

It is a strange thing, undoubtedly, for a people so united in belief of our own singularity, to approach a day of events foretold in every format of fact, fiction, and rumination, as well as their endless combinations: philosophy, history, and literature. We have, in a sense, descended from self-titled exceptionalism to a perilous state of “normality.” While normality is prized by middle school socialites and a lack of it is consistently exploited and punished by middle school bullies, it is not something we have, in recent years, been taught to want for ourselves beyond the traditional notions of success in career and family. To dream the “American Dream,” so to speak, is normal; but to go about achieving it is inglorious and difficult. In a culture that prizes averages, celebrates mediocrity, discourages non-financially profitable experimentation, or values “just passing” over the investment required in mastery, I imagine an outcome such as today was inevitable.

We have worked against our own exceptionalism since the advent of the assembly line and division of labor, things which have brought us so much prosperity but irrevocably altered the American mind. We separated ourselves into categories that began with the nature of our economic or service contribution to the community, and then as the faces of Americans changed over time, we began separating ourselves due to the self-realization of more and more characteristics that were previously undermined, ignored, or punished, all in favor of the grand idea of the Union.

Certain groups did not have the option to separate themselves willfully; they were instead shipped over here in chains and enslaved and slaughtered en masse or resoundingly punished for the actions of their “home country” and put in “camps.” They were refused jobs and entry into regular every day establishments, schooled separately if at all, and geographically confined to where their labor was cheaply acquired. These people built most of the America we know today to be “falling apart.” These people were pushed, shoved, and squeezed for everything they had as fuel in pursuit of a vision of industrialization and brutalist uniformity, from architecture to bureaucracy. They were also pushed, shoved, and squeezed into what at the time was thought of as “normal”- unwaveringly patriotic while unflinchingly servile, with their tolerability built on their visible gratitude or at least, some silence.

I have been exposed to those experiences by primary documents, tales recounted by the elderly, and the study of American history. I am well aware of the suffering that was required for our structures to rise and meet the sky and our roads to snake throughout the land. I am sensitive to these narratives because of my own personal context, and a sense of community welfare imbued in me by parents who have taught me that citizenship is a set of responsibilities to be upheld, not a privilege to utilize on a whim, unconsciously or not. These are people who have earned their right to call themselves American, instead of simply being granted the title by those claiming the right to knight whom they please with that mantle of glory and special.

In stark contrast, what I have also lived and known for most of my life is the plight of a city labeled by the President-Elect as a “disaster.” A place where the drive from an impoverished inner city to one of the wealthiest suburbs and best school districts in the country is barely fifteen minutes. Where the agricultural community and academics both live and do not intersect, and where school quality is as variable as schools of fish around a coral reef. Where there is love and hate and dysfunction and rage and sadness and poorness and kindness and crime and dirt and bad weather and boring weekend options and we are all haunted by the ghosts of a glamorous past peeking out from the shattered windows of abandoned buildings. I have witnessed drug addiction literally ravage the white population and because of their privileged status, the ultimate demise of many through purposeful neglect by leaders, parents, and law enforcement. I have witnessed the morbid obesity impacting the impoverished since ultimately garbage is all that food stamps or minimum wage will end up buying you, and subsequent increases in juvenile diabetes. I have seen so many needles and so much powder and so many young kids clutching sodas and everyone vacillating in a binary of complaining or quiet suffering but overall, binge drinking then driving. This is misery.

(There are bright lights, of course. The community service that has developed over time is really a national model. Investment in technology and youth retention is growing. But it is hard, hard work.)

Misery seeks company and so the resentment and ire compounded nationally into a movement to not only improve the lives of the miserable, but restore the feeling of that same mantle of glory my parents earned to their shoulders. This movement to Make America Great Again was really one to make people happy again. To make them feel proud of their own achievements and to receive the trappings of American Dream without mortgage or reservation; for had they not paid what they thought was the price (not subject to inflation or increased competition as accessibility began creeping into the workplace).

They wanted to feel good and someone came along and offered them a discounted political hand job in exchange for the small fee of their vote. The offers made were so very, very tempting; I suppose the thought was just like any fourth grade classroom poster that says “if you shoot for the moon, you’ll always land among the stars.” Perhaps people thought the Man in the Moon would allow them to abandon the perceived physical and moral decay of their country and establish a neo-America on his own satellite, where the faithful would be rewarded for their zealotry. I do believe that is as familiar a story as I have ever heard.

This is what it is to be normal. We are officially just like everybody else.

We have seen the rise of wholly unpopular leaders time and time again, all over the world. For anyone with an interest in global history and politics, Presidents ascending to power through electoral hijinks or foreign intervention or a host of other reasons are among the least novel characters of our time.

The unique factor today is that for Americans, the backlash against our own rising President prior to his assumption of office has never been so visceral during our lifetimes. It is not a malignancy in the same way as his team’s intersection of conflicts of interest, inexperience, and incompetence represent a malignancy plaguing the upper echelons of both the private and public administrative spheres.

This response is a growing rage against the abandonment of even a facade of elegance in the glorified office of the President. Against that which is yet undone, and so far only implied in an accumulation of official statements, unofficial statements, a half-baked website, nonstop public engagement through unofficial channels, and widely, conjecture. It is the conjecture for which many Americans new to politics were and are unprepared for. Everyone knows that estimates are the best guesses based on what information you have. If you have less information, your estimates will be less accurate.

A semi-appropriate quote is one from Alfred Pennyworth’s in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight:

“You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”

While this quote is referring to Gotham’s criminal society, in truth, it can refer to anyone who has felt displaced or disenfranchised by not only Barack Obama (and his very frequent public appearances touting policies that may have affected them adversely) but also entire establishments of the Democratic and Republican parties, and, perhaps most importantly, by actors in their own state or local governments. Those that have been taken advantage by their city council, their mayor, their comptrollers, their local representative, all feel the results of this betrayal, but aren’t necessarily aware that some of the blame for their circumstances is shared by quite a few people. It’s hard to be aware of that when in small towns, the comptroller is your sister-in-law or the county judge is your dad or the mayor is someone you went to high school with. It’s easier to be angry at higher up people shouting or glibly and sardonically delivering big ideas from your TV screen.

These thoughts are exactly as the title of this post indicates: musings and meditations while our President-Elect prepares to be sworn in. There is so much anger and disappointment at what has been said, what will likely be done, and what has been done by a whole hoard of those seeking to rule rather than serve, as though it is as simple a binary as that.

Tomorrow a march will descend upon cities all over the country. It has been labeled many things, from noninclusive to needlessly controversial to pointless to historic. All the labels aside, it represents the contemporary reality of sending messages to the powers that be. The message is that it will not be as easy for the administration to subject the people to its whims as it was for unqualified and dangerous individuals to sail through their confirmation hearings despite rampant criticism. That many groups of people are equally angry, and it is not just the specifically disenfranchised voters responsible for the election of Donald J. Trump. Their anger and resentment is credited for his victory; will the anger and resentment of possibly millions of people demonstrated simultaneously also not carry some weight? Much more so than collective phone calls to representatives able to ignore them?

The President-elect’s supporters were introduced to the “other America” through footage of rallies and mockery of their lifestyles, beliefs, and appearance. Those rallies were loud, disruptive, sometimes violent, and were meant to promote solidarity and send a message. I would assume that tomorrow’s marches are intended to do the same thing. To falsely condemn one and glorify the other is to forget that our system is one that relies upon people showing their support in as many visible ways as possible. On people disrupting the every day habits of those contributing to their oppression or delegitimization by actually performing their every day acts, all in the hope that the connection will click or change will be forced – because organic and internal change is too slow and has clearly been rejected by all present parties.

Today, an extremely unpopular leader will assume office. Tomorrow, many people will voice their disapproval with their organized presence. Welcome to what the rest of the world has been experiencing and doing for decades and we haven’t experienced in any close parallel since mass protest against our involvement in Vietnam or since the Civil Rights movement. Welcome to an America that has many more people galvanized to remove the coming President than were ever a part of the ridiculed Birther movement – a leader of which is now that very coming President despite that claim and movement being thoroughly invalidated.

Welcome to contradictions, hypocrisy, blatantly unfulfilled promises, betrayal, and mockery. Welcome to an abandonment of protocol, a realization of external stereotyping, a rejection of tradition and historical precedent, and an age of vindication. Welcome to the Presidency of a man who will take the time to personally insult any citizen using Twitter, which at least says something about accessibility to our elected officials. Welcome to the return of an era that actually matches the decor of the White House though its bedrooms will sit unused. Welcome to the coming disappointment of the masses that mobilized for this man who will be let down so quickly that the crash will be heard around the world. Welcome to the Age of Disenlightenment and the denial of the validity of the scientific method. Welcome to the post-digital era led by a guy whose top computing advisers are a senile conspiracy theorist and his own 10 year-old son. Welcome to the post-truth era when anything you don’t like is fake news. Welcome to a combination of some of the worst characteristics of famous despots and dictators whose only constraints are the size and bureaucracy of our great nation thanks to our legislators. Welcome to the rest of the world.

PS: I wrote this and then didn’t read or edit it in the spirit of our new administration’s fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants methodology. I can see why they like it so much.