For the first time, Trump will face real opposition. When fear is rational — rooted in real threats — it motivates us to protect ourselves. Call it common sense. Call it wisdom.
When I was 17 years old, I stood in front of my former elementary school in Greensboro, N.C., on Election Day and urged people heading inside to cast their ballot for Gov. Jim Hunt, the Democrat running in 1984 for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Jesse Helms.
Six years later, I left my new home in Washington, D.C., to head back to Greensboro, this time to canvass for Harvey Gantt, yet another Democrat trying to defeat Helms.
Watching Helms win — twice — stunned me.
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Helms was vile, a racist bully who traded in fear. He called Democrats communists, African Americans inferior, gays perverts, the disabled a drain — and he was rewarded for it. He served for 30 years, retiring in 2003 having never lost an election. He died in 2008, a few months before Barack Obama was elected president.
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Helms’ success taught me a hard lesson about politics: keep your eyes on the prize — and on your back.
Several years after Gantt lost, I became a journalist. I covered elections from wherever I was based at the time — Florida, New England, the Pacific Northwest. I was not a policy expert or an investigative reporter. I tried to capture how people’s political views were shaped by culture, by how and where they lived. With each election, I thought I understood candidates and the country a little better.
You know where this is going. President Donald Trump upended everything I thought I knew — myself and many millions of others, that is. There is no new way to express the shock. But should it really have been so surprising, even after the eight years of audacious hope that preceded it? Trump’s playbook, implemented 140 characters at a time on Twitter, was and remains a dusted-off, digitized and amplified edition of the four-letter strategy Helms perfected: fear.
The midterms gave voters a chance to reject this approach, and many of them did, awarding Democrats control of the House even as they gave Republicans a majority in the Senate. For the first time, Trump will face real opposition.
Yet regardless of the immediate balance of power, my hope is that the breadth of voters’ response — of their rejection of the status quo — means fear is coming full circle. After all, when fear is rational — rooted in real threats — it motivates us to protect ourselves. Call it common sense. Call it wisdom.
Nearly 250 years ago, a few dozen people gathered in Philadelphia to draft the founding principles of a new nation. The injustice of tyranny was seared into their memories. They wanted to make sure it could never happen again. Thank fear for the Constitution.
No matter what happens in the next two years, in the 2020 presidential election and beyond, I hope none of us forgets that what once seemed implausible — the election of a president who thrives on division and bigotry, who bullies and lies, who undermines our nation at home and abroad — may be less an aberration than evidence of cracks in the foundation many of us ignored.
I am no longer a daily journalist, but I hope I will never again fool myself into thinking I know the story. I hope I will never again dismiss the depth — and, often, legitimacy — of anger and alienation felt by people whose views I don’t share. I hope I will never forget that even our most powerful leaders may not be guided by a basic moral code, that some serve only themselves. I hope I will never again presume there is a “normal” where truth and decency always prevail.
Sound like gloom and doom? Paranoia? Sounds like common sense to me — rooted in experience. Yes, we can be the change we want to see in the world. We should all be idealists. But I think we should also, always, be scared as hell, knowing that terrible things can happen if we don’t act — if we don’t vote — to protect ourselves. I know I don’t want to be stunned — twice — again.