Given that the Clinton campaign was defined throughout this interminable election by its inability to get potential supporters anywhere near as fired up as they had been for candidates like Obama or Bernie Sanders, the torrent of emotions that came pouring out of Clinton voters last Tuesday and Wednesday is, in a vacuum, surprising. I saw adults literally weep. Is it possible that anyone could be that broken up over missing out on four to eight years of centrist, lukewarm New Democrat "I've got it! Civil unions!" horseshit? Are there people in the world at this moment who are legitimately crushed that America will miss out on the Hillary Clinton presidency?
Of course there aren't. OK, maybe a handful. The narrative has said that the sadness that overwhelmed so many people in the wake of this election had nothing at all to do with Hillary Clinton and everything to do with fear of a Trump presidency. Clinton eerily paralleled the Kerry / Edwards campaign in the end, making a persuasive case for why the Republican opponent is terrible but offering nothing to recommend themselves beyond "We're really experienced! I've been in Washington forever!" and essentially expecting voters to motivate themselves out of sheer terror. Indeed, many people (particularly people who don't happen to be white, male, or white and male) did so.
Even the Fear of a Trump Planet narrative doesn't explain the powerful emotions that the election brought out of so many people. I'm as bad at reading minds as the next person, but what I hear when friends, strangers, students, random internet commenters, and media figures talk about this election is a shattering sense of disappointment. Not in Hillary Clinton, who was little more than a cipher, but in the people around us. In the people who voted for That Man. It is not too extreme to say that for a lot of voters, particularly younger ones, the outcome on Tuesday seriously shook their faith in…well, mankind.
Many people subscribe to a school of thought called "optimism," or so I'm told, and they like to believe that their fellow man is fundamentally good. They believe that when presented with a racist demagogue who does not even go through the motions of pretending like he has a plan or knows what he is doing, they will not fall for it. Being people of character and decency, they will say "This charlatan is offensive in every way and we should be embarrassed even to be considering him." People would like to believe that the American public could not elevate to the White House a candidate who is openly racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic, because that would imply that millions of the people we share this society with are those three things or at least possessing sufficient moral cowardice to overlook those qualities in a candidate.
On Tuesday, all of us alike learned that, yes, America is – pick one – worse than we hoped or as bad as we suspected. We learned that 61,000,000 American adults eligible to vote, essentially half of the electorate, signed off on a man with zero experience (governing or otherwise), a child's temper, the attention span of a fly, and without any substance to his rhetoric that would not be familiar to someone who has studied the speeches of Mussolini or Franco. Yes, we know our institutions are strong. Yes, we know there are checks and balances. But even if a Trump presidency is nowhere near as bad as many expect or predict, nothing will ever change the fact that the man our fellow citizens voted for was the racist demagogue. As I said weeks ago, this election has done lasting damage. It doesn't matter at this point if Trump moves to the center and becomes the wisest, most enlightened statesman in history – we all saw how they cheered when banged the xenophobic drums, we all saw the crowds wink and cheer when he talked about "certain areas" and "certain people," we saw them act like a colorized film of an old fascist rally when he barked about "Law and Order", we all saw the "Lock the bitch up" shirts, we all saw them worked into a frenzy when he talked about killing and torturing, we all heard them chanting, we all saw them make excuses for every horrendous thing he has said and done. Nothing can undo that.
That's why people cried on Wednesday and on Election night. Nobody gives a shit about Hillary Clinton, and the fact that we are in the current predicament casts that fact in high relief. But we wanted to believe that our neighbors, our families, our fellow citizens were better than this, and now we can't. We know now going forward that we can never give the people we share this country with the benefit of doubt or tell ourselves that they are kind, decent people who could Never Do Such Things. We have seen them do it. We know better now. It is not a pretty thing to see when hope dies and is replaced by hard, cold mental armor.