After the US election, in between champagne and pepper spray, there is hope and a need for “a more beautiful everything.”
by Tim Leberecht
Just a few weeks after I, a privileged German immigrant, became an American citizen in September 2008, I cast my vote in California for Barack Obama to become the first African-American president of the United States. I remember watching his acceptance speech with friends in San Francisco’s Noe Valley district, and took part in the eruption of joy on the streets all over the city. It didn’t just feel like the ending of an era, it felt like a liberation from a time of suffocation, and the future looked bright.
Even more astonishing, Obama, even though he inherited a messy economy, won a second term four years later. But the cracks in the American society opened up, too, and the fault lines that had always been there widened. The United States became an even more divided country, and it was — in hindsight — not all that surprising that a demagogue like Donald Trump was able to take advantage. He personified the dark side of the American Dream: a propensity for entertainment, a penchant for stagecraft over truth, and an obsession with winning, all of which were further fueled by the commercial agendas and algorithms of an increasingly radicalized market society that still denies its citizens such basic human rights as universal health care.
Four years later, in 2016, I was in Sao Paulo and speaking at a conference the morning after Trump won the election. Backstage, before my talk, I met a middle-age woman with a German-sounding family name, and we talked about Trump’s win and what it meant for the world, and I will never forget the sadness on her face. She told me that her parents had fled from Nazi-Germany 80 years ago to settle in Brazil.
I called my wife in San Francisco who had wanted to wake up our then 6-year old daughter to congratulate her on the first female president, and then burst into tears when the news broke that it had all turned out so terribly wrong. That evening, I flew home to a different country, cruising at 35,000 feet over thousands of acres of “fly-over country,” as the coastal elites call Middle America. I sat in an airport lounge in Atlanta during my layover, looking at the business people around me, and I realized: fascism is not an enemy confronting you on the battlefield, it is an almost invisible virus, within us at all times and only to be defended by an agile and ever-alert immune system. Any country as sacred and profane, as grandiose and trivial as America would be its perfect host — and always will be.
These days, the banality of evil, to borrow from Hannah Arendt, resides in the pretenses of “success” that the bureaucracies of business have afforded us, in a bottom line that fails miserably to rise to the level of the human spirit, instead aiming to flatten us, as Safiya U. Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression, calls it. The cynicism of a society where everything has its price, the conformity of bottom-line thinking, the digital surveillance economy with its weaponization of data, the notion of “operating systems” as our new bodies and souls, or the confidence men who know how to play and “win” the game — dehumanization is not a sudden frontal assault, it is a slow erosion of our humanity that can only be stopped with a landslide as slow and steady as Biden’s eventual win over Trump. Every vote counts, and it requires grassroots action from all of us every day. Character matters, as the weeping CNN pundit Van Jones said live on TV shortly after the network had called the election, especially when no one watches.
Character is formed in defeat, but it is questionable whether Donald Trump will vindicate himself. He is the epitome of the sore loser, or rather, the epitome of the fake winner who doesn’t know that winning is only the rare exception from losing as the basis of our existence. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin reminded us of the graceful concession speeches in past elections. “The conceder is the star of the night,” she said.
Not this time. What should make us hopeful, though, is that president-elect Biden will start this new era with the grace of a winner who knows what it means to lose. He is the exact opposite of the “winner-at-all-costs” Trump, and much of it has to do with his biography, as David Remnick points out in The New Yorker: “To Biden, loss, and the recovery from loss, is the very condition of life.” At a younger age, Biden lost a daughter and his first wife in a car crash; more recently, his elder son, Beau, died of brain cancer. Biden’s empathy is not just rhetoric, it is lived experience.
And yet today feels like Groundhog Day somehow, and despite the relief and celebrations, I couldn’t shake off the sobering feeling of deja-vu when I saw the pictures of jubilant dancing crowds in US cities. This is how it was in 2008, too. Then, eight years later, a dark, dehumanizing regime brought America’s demons into broad daylight but no longer the option to simply fly over them.
As a German, I grew up with “never again” being the defining motto of my coming-of-age, and seeing the United States fall for a fascist like Trump was a stark reminder that the veil of civilization is thin.
Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, the young generation, the many people who worked tirelessly on the ground to swing the election in Biden’s favor — there are many reasons to celebrate and be optimistic about the future. As a friend of mine said: “With this small piece of the global puzzle solved, we are one foot closer to a more beautiful everything.”
But let’s not forget that history tends to repeat itself, and that the unholy alliance of othering and racism, amoral tech, the tyranny of winning, and entertainment we saw on full display with Trump, is not defeated. On the morning after, Arun Chaudhary, Barack Obama’s first videographer in the White House, sounded a note of caution:
“This has to be the beginning of something more or we are lost.”
This article first appeared on the Journal of Beautiful Business.