When I was in elementary school, “The Man Without a Country” was in every school library. It was a cautionary tale about a man who, having denounced the United States in the heat of a moment, was sentenced to sail the world without hearing its name or any news of it ever again. “Isn’t that sad?” teachers would say as they recommended it for book reports, striving to instill proper patriotic values. (This was the era of the cold war, the Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy assassination.)
Right now, it doesn’t sound so bad.
The hope that turned to devastation on Tuesday night has left New Yorkers speechless and the city feeling like a tomb. If it’s any consolation, Donald Trump’s home town rejected him soundly. (As a friend pointed out recently, Americans don’t know that to New Yorkers, Trump is a punchline.) Hillary Clinton won 86 percent of the vote in Manhattan and 75 percent in Trump’s native Queens. Unpopular Hillary did win the popular vote, just not the Electoral College, which is all that matters in our archaic system. Thousands have taken to the streets in protest.
I don’t remember ever having read Edward Everett Hale’s 1863 novella, but it seemed a good time to invest 99 cents in the Barnes & Noble e-book. The election has pushed me to the verge of becoming a woman without a country, and as much as I could use an extended sea voyage, I’m more likely to bounce between Poland, China and anywhere else I can peddle my professional wares. The country that has emerged this week is a frightening one: Washington is already being handed over to corporate lobbyists, climate-change deniers and failed Republican candidates; racist attacks are suddenly on the upswing; and, oh, it’s OK now to use an ethnic slur when talking about my landlords, right?
This is not a country I want to be part of. One of my first e-mails on Wednesday morning, to Poland, was headlined “Political refugee seeks housing.” Even being cut off by the Chinese Internet doesn’t sound so bad.
So Philip Nolan, that man without a country? (The agent of his downfall was none other than the man who is once again stirring up so much trouble in New York: Aaron Burr, Sir.) He took his punishment like a mensch, serving heroically in battle, becoming a mentor to young seamen and only once publicly betraying his sense of loss. When, on Nolan’s deathbed, the narrator enters the cabin no one had ever been allowed inside, he finds it is a shrine to the United States, whose expansion Nolan has accurately envisioned, state by state, on the map he has drawn from memory.
I read a lot, and it was my subway reading last week that finally made me understand Trump voters – and to feel real fear for the election. George Packer’s “Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt” in The New Yorker explained that polarization in America – a concept I’ve been teaching all semester – isn’t just a matter of liberal and conservative, or Democrat and Republican. It’s also a matter of education. The government and the media, Packer explained, are a sealed-off “educationalist elite” out of touch with the white working class. Well, yes, I thought, that was the whole point: to educate myself out of the working class and into that elite. It turns out the working class resents us.
Then, yesterday morning, came the gut punch. On the New York Times home page, I clicked on “The Women Who Helped Donald Trump to Victory.” It was datelined “NAZARETH, Pa.” – my home town – and it confirmed everything Packer wrote. Now I know exactly who the Trump voters are.
They’re the kids who rejected me except when they wanted to copy my Latin homework. (I won the Latin prize at junior high graduation, and the civics prize. That, along with my political science degree and my 35-year journalism career, qualified me to teach “Communicating About U.S. Business and Politics” this semester at Baruch College.) It’s often said that in America there is no life after high school; yesterday Trump dumped the fat boy who humiliated himself in desperation to be his friend. Hillary may be the eternal Tracy Flick in the movie “Election,” and maybe neither of us ever stopped being the girl whose only chance in life was to show, endlessly and perhaps tactlessly, how smart and hard-working she was.
Trump voters are the truck drivers who sat at the diner counter drinking coffee and laughing when my father, the former police chief, used to put his hand down the front of my polyester waitress uniform and cup my teenage breast to show who was boss. Yes, this is the “First Assault” I tweeted to #NotOkay. (To be fair, my father also used to say, “No one is going to do to my daughter what I did to somebody else’s.” No one did, but not because of his protection. He would have voted for Trump, too.)
Sadly, Trump voters also seem to be the nieces and great-nieces who plaster pictures of their precious baby daughters and granddaughters all over Facebook. They either don’t realize, or (as the women in the Times story indicated) don’t care, that they voted for a man who sees their little princesses as nothing but pussy – a man who referred to his own daughter as “a piece of ass.”
In short, these are the people I’ve been running away from all my life, thanks to education. (By the way, going to college football games is not the same as going to college, and going to Disney is not the same as traveling the world.) Now they have won, at least temporarily. They voted for change without thinking through what that change might turn out to be. But it won’t be long until they learn they fell for lies and showmanship. What follows won’t be pretty.
Speaking of lies, the second gut-punch of the day came when a Skype student in Poland – an intelligent, educated woman – casually mentioned that Obama is a Muslim. I gasped and fell back in my chair.
“You think he’s a Muslim?”
He eyes widened. “Isn’t he?”
First, I explained, there would be nothing wrong with it if he were, since we have the First Amendment, at least for the moment. Second, Obama the Muslim was just one of the many, many lies spread about him (including Trump’s birtherism – oh, wait, that was Hillary) by political enemies. My student was genuinely shocked. Because his middle name is Hussein, she explained, she assumed he was Muslim, and since he wasn’t her president, she had never bothered to check. My middle name is Marie, and I’m not Catholic; a friend’s middle name is Mary, and she’s Jewish. Obama has been president for eight years, and many Americans have never bothered to check. I just did a reality check with a university colleague in Poland; she, too, thought he was Muslim.
Lies spread far and fast, and they stick.
Don’t leave, say Hillary, Elizabeth Warren and even Bill Maher; stay and fight. But people serve in different ways. I’m exactly who can and should be leaving the country right now – not running away, but running toward an international audience hungry for information and reassurance about a country that has suddenly become very frightening to them, too. I’m the one who can teach – show that not all Americans support liars and charlatans, and tell what the United States is supposed to be.
I don’t see much of a market for that here.