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Words for what we had

I have no words for a world where Donald Trump won. I don’t have the words to explain how a man who hates so vigorously, who so blatantly admits to cruelty and who disregards the humanity of so many could have won.

I have always believed that grief brings stillness. That when you are mourning there is a sudden pause and words we know so well, words so worn out from being true, simply don’t make sense.

Maybe tomorrow I can write about an America – this place that is supposed to be a beacon, that was in so many ways exactly that – that chose Donald Trump. Maybe tomorrow I can write about an America that chose him over Hillary Clinton.

But today, I will talk about the moment right before that.

On election day, I had a midterm, a paper and a CS assignment due. But I woke up and I could barely keep still – and while reviewing for my midterm I looked for a white dress (I don’t own any pant suits) because today – today – women born before women could even vote would be voting for the first female president – and this was everything.

And before I left, before I shut my laptop – I wrote the last line of the article I was going to submit to The Daily after election night.

And the whole day, I couldn’t stop smiling. Because today was the day – the day that this woman who had worked so hard for so long, who had dedicated her whole life to public service, who had been beaten back by the public and media at every step, for not giving up her maiden name, for not leaving her husband, for saying she’s not sorry for picking her career – this tremendously talented and accomplished woman was going to stand in front of the country and finally, finally, be validated for her work. And tomorrow kids all over America would wake up to their first female president and they would know that bullies don’t win – that hate doesn’t win, that when they go low, we go high.

It hurts in a way that is hard to explain – to be sitting in the Women’s Community Center – to be in this packed room with people of every race and gender, and to witness the tears in their eyes as they watched in slow motion, with mounting disbelief, how Trump won this election. To watch them do the math and then do it in every other way possible — to hear them talk about what law, what policy, what right they can reasonably expect to lose, should he win. It is hard to describe what it felt like to walk back from the WCC – how obvious the things we were saying were – Clinton is so qualified, her unlikeability so much a product of sexism and Trump so blatantly unqualified to be president – and this whole thing, such an outrage – and yet none of the words felt right because after every tirade and editorial and every “last push” by those incredibly more articulate than me, we had heard it all. And yet he had won.

Where do you go with that?

I don’t have words for an America that picks Trump – at least, I don’t have words right now. So instead, I’ll go back a day. And the article I wrote for the America I thought we lived in, the America I thought we’d see today.

I was going to publish an article on Brock Turner and Donald Trump. I know it’s a little late to talk about Turner, and so much has already been said about him and even more about Trump, but I wanted to hold them up to the light one more time, side by side.

And I wanted to talk about what these men have in common.

I wanted to talk about how depressing it was that someone so close to the White House, and Bill Clinton, a former resident, are both accused of sexually assaulting women. How shameful that even today, that is more peripheral to their reputations than Hillary’s emails are to hers. And I wanted to talk about greatness and goodness – and how we as a society need to demand that they go hand in hand.

I wanted to talk about Priya Alika Elia, who, in writing about India’s most famous rape case, wrote, It’s not about what men desire but what they can get away with.” Because that’s exactly it – what is so astounding, so infuriating about Brock Turner and Donald Trump. That they thought they could get away with doing whatever they wanted to women, and that with Turner’s meager sentence, he did in a way get away with it even after being found guilty.

And I wanted to talk about men getting away with things – about the meritocracy we supposedly live in, where at every step of the way, Turner won by the rules we created – and never once stumbled because apparently we don’t require people to learn that women are human beings and deserve to be treated as such, that you can get away with a lifetime of believing having sex with an unconscious person is okay.

I wanted to say that you don’t rape someone in a vacuum; you don’t drink nine beers, take two swings of fireball and become a rapist. Like the attorneys argued, Brock Turner took her away from the party and he sexually assaulted her. That’s not a slip-up, that’s predatory behavior. That’s a person who was going to rape someone, it just so happened to be this night, and this girl. 

I wanted to say that it takes a village to raise a Stanford swimmer; it takes a village to help someone reach that kind of success. A good high school, teachers and coaches who care, parents who are invested, teammates who push you further. A whole village that believes in you and invests in you, and thinks you’re worth it. And it is shocking and disturbing that this village that made Brock Turner, who clearly cared for him, never once taught him that raping people is not okay, or that when you try to have sex with an unconscious person that is rape. Whichever one that is, he should’ve learned that.

That matters – because it is Brock’s crime, but a failure of the community that this crime happened. And that matters because with Trump, we as a country, as a community were facing a decision – a decision about what sort of behavior is tolerable.

My first week at Stanford, in his speech addressing the freshmen class, I heard Harry J. Elam make a comment on what kind of behavior is unacceptable, even if it comes from successful people. At the time, his comment seemed to be a dig at SnapChat cofounder and frat bro extraordinaire Evan Spiegel, and his email scandal – but I had no idea the comment would come back to mean so much to me.

Because we can choose – we can choose as a society to accept or reject certain behaviors. We can choose what success means, and that definition can require more than a great valuation or the shortest timings. We can choose to say that greatness and goodness should go hand in, at least in the most base sense that women are treated as humans and not sexual objects.

Brock Turner kept saying he was drinking to fit in and partying to fit in – that this rape was a consequence of trying to fit in. And it just astounds me that in trying to fit he never felt the pressure to not be a rapist. To not try to hook up with someone who was literally passed out.

I wish that in his locker rooms and parties and classrooms, Turner had learned that it wasn’t cool to objectify women, that when he’d indicated that he thought he was entitled to a girl’s body just because he wanted it, someone had shut him down so hard that he felt really awful. That this happened often enough and surely enough that he learnt that this was a messed up thing to believe.

But here’s the thing – this isn’t the first time. He probably spent a lifetime getting away with believing the things that let him rape a woman on Jan. 18, 2015. And after everything we’ve heard about Trump – it probably isn’t everything he’s ever done or said to women. But until now – maybe even now – he got away with it. He thinks it’s because he’s powerful and famous, and we as a society will excuse anything he does.

And I wanted to write that what is so satisfying is that finally, finally a man’s treatment of women is actually impeding his success, when it came to Donald Trump. Because after the tape of him bragging about sexual assault leaked, his endorsements were retracted and his poll numbers dropped and his behavior was deemed unacceptable. For the first time, wives were supposedly voting differently from their husbands and men everywhere were standing up to say that this is not “locker room talk” and this is not acceptable. This was the final straw – and finally, it matters to us that Trump is sexist, that he is accused of sexual assault, that he doesn’t treat women – or at least he doesn’t talk about them – as human beings.

His whole stand on political correctness – this is what he was complaining about, right? That you can no longer get away with saying things that offend others, that the voices of those you insult will rise up. And yet, from his very first debates with the other Republican contenders, Trump got away with his flippant disregard, with his blatant disrespect. And we didn’t stop him. But maybe this would be it, the final nail in his coffin.

That tomorrow, we as a village will say to all the children watching this election that it is not okay to behave like Trump – that this is not the behavior we accept as a society, that no amount of success can justify this, and this kind of toxic masculinity outlined by violence is not a path to success or fitting in in locker rooms.

And in the end I wrote:  “Tuesday night we’re going to find out who won this strange, crazy, terrible election – and with everything else that has been dragged into the light this election cycle, we’re also going to find out just how much a man can get away with.”

I know what I’m supposed to do now – the obvious logical conclusion to my problem would be to submit my article, but just change the conclusion. Just the last line really – to say that today America proved that actually yes, Trump can get away with this too. Like he got away with xenophobia and racism. That yes, he can get away with being unqualified and Islamophobic – and all the other horrible things he is, and that America has embraced all the terrible things he stands for. That yes, here is another man, and he just got away with treating women as if they were a sexual object.

But even while writing those sentences, despite the fact that in a very real way they are true, I cannot bring myself to believe them. Because they are so unfamiliar and so unfair – because I cannot make myself say that after everything, this is how this fight ends.

Nicole Chung, in writing for Hazlitt about parenting the election, talks about her 8-year-old daughter and how inevitable “Dr. King’s long arc, bending towards justice” seems to her. She writes that her daughter believes that of course a woman will become president – because how could the arc of history take us anywhere else?

And that helps me remember that I’m wrong – that this isn’t the end. Yesterday, in the middle of all that numbing rage and confusion, my friend sat in front of me, and through her tears told me what Kamala Harris had said – that now is not the time to throw our hands up, it is time to roll our sleeves up. And I agree – but before I look at the horizon, I need a moment to stand still.

A moment to mourn a great candidate – who deserved to win, or at the very least to lose to a real competitor. A moment to mourn that, as Vance Jones explained so poignantly and painfully, today kids will wake up and their parents will have to explain to them why Trump won – that we as a nation will have to explain how there can let him get away with the things he said, how we can actually reward him for those hateful things by handing him the presidency.

I can understand frustration, and suspicion of the elite – but I cannot understand this hatred. I can talk about gender or wealth or race – but despite all these reasons I cannot see how this nation chose Trump.

Maybe that’s the whole problem – that it feels impossible to see how he won.

But for a moment, I truly believed we were on the threshold of an America that would ring with the voice of compassion — and that the voice would say “I’m with her.” For a moment, we were on a campus where people proudly wore their  “I voted” stickers – where girls born just as Clinton became First Lady for the second time dressed in white for those women who marched all those years ago, who got thrown in jail, so we could wear these stickers today. For a moment I believed in a country where I could tell the 7th grader I tutor not to be dramatic, that of course she wouldn’t have to move to Canada, because there’s no way Trump would win.

I don’t have words for a world that chose Donald Trump. All I have is enormous disappointment. And tomorrow that will be different, we will roll up our sleeves and we will fight for every inch we gained that is once again under fire. But for today I dwell on the moment: the moment when a man almost got what he deserved and a woman got finally almost got the thing she worked so hard for. And I mourn the country we almost lived in.

 

Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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