In 2008, I was in college in west Texas. Being in my early 20s, I will admit that I was pretty wrapped up in my own world. Between playing lacrosse, trying to pass my classes, and figuring out my sexuality, I was pretty consumed with, well, myself. Trying to figure life out, you know? That being said, I was ignorant to the politics of the time. I had the privilege to be ignorant, too. I’d been aware of who was running in the 2008 election, sure. But I didn’t feel like I had a grand stake in the decision-making. I do, however, remember walking through the student union during one of Obama’s early addresses, pausing with the rest of the passersby to watch him on TV. “This is a big deal,” I remember thinking. But, then, I went on my way.
Fast forward to the mid 2010’s. I was living in Peru from 2014 until late 2016. That was an interesting time to not be living in the United States as a U.S. citizen. From my tiny blip in the southern hemisphere, it always felt like I was watching an inexplicable reality show taking place on another planet. My news consumption wasn’t frequent due to spotty internet and the whole living in a country with its own stuff to play on the nightly news reel thing. Still, I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my host family, staring up at the large flat-screen TV as time went on and more and more coverage of the U.S. election aired. Over our nightly pan con mantequilla my host mom and I would watch what seemed like a strange boxing match between Clinton and her opponent.
Time marched on and I stared slack-jawed at what was happening in my home country. Laughing, I would tell my host family, “He can’t win. No way. I don’t know what’s happening, but this is surely some massive hallucination I’m having from the desert heat.” Meanwhile, in the back of my head, I thought about the presidents in my lifetime. I knew that there tended to be a back and forth of parties in regards to who was elected. Republican-Democrat and back again. If there had been a reasonable candidate chosen by the Republicans, I imagine they would have been elected simply because of that pendulum that had been swinging since the late 80s. But, when Trump was chosen as the candidate, I thought there would be a disruption in that back and forth. Surely, I was not reading, seeing, or hearing right as he gained momentum. It was truly bizarre as I watched my country become an insult-slinging, divisive nation seemingly unwilling to pay attention to facts.
Recently, I watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Jimmy Stewart. Taken from IMDB, the premise can be summed up as thus: “A naive man is appointed to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate. His plans promptly collide with political corruption, but he doesn’t back down.” One of the reasons I love films from Hollywood’s Golden Age is the writing. It’s so crisp, so smart. This movie is no exception. I adored Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith and his journey, beginning as an idealistic new senate chair to the man who quickly learns the glory and boasted ideals of D.C. is tainted by the corruption of greedy men. The movie is full of wonderful lines of dialogue. Surprisingly (or maybe not) I felt like this film could have taken place today. It was simultaneously amusing and disheartening to see how some things have not changed.
There’s a point in the film when Mr. Smith is dejected, and his secretary Clarissa Saunders (who is truly the hero of the film and without her Mr. Smith would not have succeeded in his cause) gives him a pep talk. It’s a wonderful speech, but one line struck me. Clarissa is telling him that, yes, there are corrupt men in D.C. running the show, but those men often are only intimidating because “Their kind just throw big shadows, that’s all.” That made me think about the state of things, lately. How the immense tension in the current political climate, oftentimes fueled by 45 himself, has cast our country in one big, discordant shadow. We have fallen from grace in the eyes of many nations around the world, lost in a dark cloud of dissent and distrust.
But, like Clarissa reminds him, “Your friend Mr. Lincoln had his [corrupt men]. So did every other man whoever tried to lift his thought up off the ground. Odds against ’em didn’t stop those men. They were fools that way. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that…. You can’t quit now. Not you! …You didn’t just have faith in Paine or any other living man. You had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain, decent, every day, common rightness. And this country could use some of that. Yeah – so could the whole cock-eyed world. A lot of it. Remember the first day you got here? Remember what you said about Mr. Lincoln? You said he was sitting up there waiting for someone to come along. You were right! He was waiting for a man who could see his job and sail into it. That’s what he was waiting for. A man who could tear into the Taylors and root ’em out into the open. I think he was waiting for you Jeff. He knows you can do it. So do I.”
While in Peru, I couldn’t clearly see the shadow making its way across the U.S. I caught glimpses of it, saw the billowing clouds forming on the edges of our nation, but it wasn’t until I was back, watching in shocked disbelief the results of election day, that I began to understand.
Lately, I think we’ve done some good work to move out of the shadows. But the fight is only beginning. Our status as a shining example of democracy is in a free-fall. Or maybe we were never really as high as we thought. We have to keep moving forward with facts, with kindness, with concrete actions for a nation we can be proud of. Please, make sure you’re registered to vote. Let’s vanquish the dark shadows 45 has thrown. I believe in us. Do you?