- The world cheered the news of Biden-Harris win and America’s allies across the world let out a sigh of relief. Church bells tolled in Paris and Berlin. Fireworks lit up the skies.
The memory of Donald Trump’s inauguration day is etched on my mind with painful clarity. Like a nightmare that refuses to fade, the memory has stalked me for the last four years. On 20 January 2017, I was at Taos, New Mexico. I woke up to slate grey skies. Dark clouds hovered over my casita in the morning light. There was no TV around, but the administrator of the writing residency had left us writers a radio each. When I got out of bed and tuned in, NPR duly informed me it was inauguration day.
Trump’s campaign – demonizing immigrants, denigrating women, mocking the disabled, sending out covert and overt signals to white nationalists, sowing division, fanning the flames of resentment, widening faultlines – had filled me with dread. Like millions of people around the world, I struggled to come to terms with the fact that this rhetoric of Islamophobia, hatred and xenophobia, this lethal mix of enthnonationalism and populism had won him the presidency. Denial was not a viable option on inauguration day though. The newscaster on NPR described the arrangements for the ceremony in detail. There was no way I could pretend the whole thing was a bad dream and wish it away.
That feeling of dread ballooned into a sickening sense of doom over the next four years. Every time the President used his undeniably powerful platform to amplify hatred or incite violence, every time Trump and his cronies praised autocrats and posted selfies with them, every time democratic norms received a gut punch and were left bleeding and bruised, I told myself: wait for November 2020 to come around, wait for the people’s verdict.
When asylum seekers fleeing violence and starvation in their home countries were denied due process. When children were torn from their parents’ arms. When families were separated and locked up in cages. When black people were held in chokeholds and murdered in cold blood. When women’s fundamental rights came under attack. When minorities were harassed in broad daylight – for walking, shopping, jogging, bird watching, breathing, being.
When Neo Nazis marched with their tikki torches, mouthing slogans of hate on the streets of Charlottesville. When news of lynchings and police brutality poured in. When the President refused to condemn white supremacists in public (and in private as well). When the administration denied the looming climate emergency and unleashed a war on science, reason, and objective facts. When the media was demonized and made out to be the enemy of the people. When this demonization saddled journalists with vicious online abuse, death threats and mail bombs. Wait for November 2020, I told myself. Wait for the people’s verdict.
The cheapening of political discourse. The race baiting and name calling. The toxic misogyny. The legitimization of “alternative facts.” Twisted truths doing the rounds. An endless stream of financial irregularities and scandals. Violations of the Hatch Act and the emoluments clause, pornstar payoffs, political interference in Ukraine, blackmail of public officials sanctioned by the President. On and on it went, four chaotic years playing out as tragedy and farce and horror, and all through it I kept telling myself: wait for November 2020, wait for the people’s verdict.
November took its time to get here. At some points during these last four years, it did seem like the march of far right populism in the United States was unstoppable. The rise of populist leaders and “strongmen” across the world – in India, the Philippines, Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, Russia, Europe – only added to my fears. The global “club of authoritarians” is growing and thriving. And Trump took great pleasure in hanging out with his fellow club members, praising everyone from Putin to Duterte to Kim Jong-un, marveling at their authoritarian impulses, dropping very public hints about following their lead and shoving democracy aside to declare himself president for life.
People who have borne the brunt of authoritarian regimes sounded the warning loud and clear. Scholars who have studied the fall of democracies and the rise of authoritarian republics waved history under our noses and warned us that it is bound to repeat itself. As the landscape grew bleaker and darker, I told myself: wait for November to come around, wait for the verdict of the people.
And November finally got here. After all the waiting and the dreading, the panic and the terror and trepidation, democracy swung into action. Despite voter suppression and gerrymandering, despite the raging pandemic, long lines, closed precincts, and hours of waiting, voters exercised their right in record numbers. The turnout is a testament to democracy and a repudiation of authoritarians everywhere. The Democrats may not have triggered a blue wave, but the mandate of the electorate is clear.
The currents that propelled Trump to power – racism, resentment of a section of besieged white voters, greed, hostility towards immigrants – have not slunk away. There is much work to do, but that doesn’t dim the sheen of this mandate. This victory is a win for organizers and volunteers and citizens who built diverse coalitions, phone-banked, texted, and ensured friends and family cast their votes. There is much work to do, but there is much to celebrate.
President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign has ended an autocrat’s reign of unbridled viciousness. It has anointed the first woman, and woman of color Vice President. It got the first Korean-American woman elected to Congress, the first openly trans state senator, the first openly LGBTQ Afro-Latinx member of Congress, and the first all women of color House delegation. Stacey Abrams and her army of volunteers fought decades of deep-rooted voter suppression and registered 80,000 voters to turn Georgia blue. The far left faction of the Democratic Party has also notched up an impressive tally, with Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Omar and Tlaib winning re-election.
The world cheered the news of the Democrats’ win and America’s allies across the world let out a sigh of relief. Church bells tolled in Paris and Berlin. Fireworks lit up the skies. People poured out into the streets and burst into impromptu dances of celebration. Though Trump has neither conceded nor shown the grace to congratulate Biden and Harris as is the norm, the people have proved that it is their will that reigns supreme in a democracy.
Authoritarians everywhere have to have heard the warning shot. One down, who’s next?
Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, “A Happy Place and Other Stories” (HarperCollins). Her fiction has appeared in the Santa Fe Writers Project Journal, Gravel, Barren magazine, Asian Cha, and in the anthology, “The Best Asian Short Stories 2018.” She is currently based in New Delhi.