WASHINGTON, November 25, 2016 — In February, 2008, Michelle Obama told an interviewer, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country.” At the Democratic National Convention in July she told the delegates, “don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth.”
Many in her party disagree. The day after the election, a common refrain on social media was, “I’m ashamed to be an American.” Essay writers from the Huffington Post to the Daily Kos expressed their shame for their citizenship and for their fellow Americans.
Across America, protests, #NotMyPresident, shoe-burnings and cry-ins conveyed the message, “America is horrible, Americans are horrible, I want out.” The Washington Post and other papers have called on the Electoral College to function as a circuit breaker, to elect the “right” candidate who the American people “really” want and not do the travesty that they are preparing to do in January.
These feelings of shame and loathing are nothing new. The Harvard-educated Obama was seemingly ashamed of her country before she was for the first time proud of it. The Daily Kos and other leftist sites have run articles over the years from people ashamed of being American, often because they bear a physical resemblance to white, American Republicans. People inclined to admit shame of their country now are long accustomed to the sentiment.
With time they might, like Mrs. Obama, change their minds. America and Americans are the same as they were a month ago, in July, and in 2008. In many ways they’re much better than they were a generation ago. Millions of Americans who voted for Donald Trump also voted for our first black president, Mrs. Obama’s husband. The last Republican in the White House had a black secretary of state and black national security advisor.
Drugs, violence and poverty still plague black America, but the Obamas’ America isn’t Jim Crow’s America.
Many who voted for Obama also support same-sex marriage rights, which are now supported by most Americans, including millions of Republicans. Even if the caricatures of Vice President-elect Mike Pence are true, he’ll find that there’s no stuffing that toothpaste back in the tube.
So why are so many people ashamed? Partly because they’ve bought a lie: Anyone who voted for Trump is by definition a racist, misogynist, a bigot and a homophobe. They’re ashamed to share a country with 59 million bigots.
Some of Trump’s supporters are bigots. The candidate himself made comments that lead Mitt Romney to fret about “trickle down racism.” Trump’s supporters counter that he did better than Romney among black and Hispanic voters, and that these charges rest on distortions, out-of-context quotes, and the verbal gaffes of a man who wasn’t a professional politician and doesn’t know how or care to talk like one.
Intentionally or not, Trump has inflamed racist and nativist sentiments that he and his supporters will own unless they forcefully reject them. But at this point the problem isn’t racist violence. The problem is fear fed by rumor and anecdote, spread by people who are frightened or enraged out of their minds and their normal ability to function.
That fear is prompting some dangerous moves. Jill Stein is issuing constantly escalating requests for money to fund recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Electors have been deluged with pleas, demands and even threats to change their votes from Trump to Clinton.
When Richard Nixon lost a narrow election in 1960, the evidence of fraud and chicanery in Illinois and Texas was so compelling that President Eisenhower encouraged him to demand a recount. Nixon, an uncommonly intelligent man if not always a wise or good one, saw clearly the threat this would pose to the political fabric of the country and gracefully conceded to John Kennedy.
Donald Trump is no John Kennedy, and fears about his temperament and qualifications for the presidency are rational, not paranoid. But Hillary Clinton did concede, and President Obama is doing his best to produce a peaceful and orderly transition of power to a man he neither likes nor respects. Trying to undo the electoral results at this point would produce political chaos like this country hasn’t seen in over a century, and an explosion of rage that would dwarf anything felt by Clinton’s supporters right now.
Michelle Obama is right; America is great. It isn’t perfect, and it isn’t even always good, but it has been and remains great, and that greatness is a justifiable source of pride.
America will survive Trump, and it would as certainly survive Clinton. It’s not in the election of either that America shows its greatness, nor in its ability to survive them that we should take pride. It’s in that peaceful transition of power—between two men who don’t like each other, from one who knows that his successor will move to efface his legacy to one who ran on the promise to do just that—that America shows what it is that we should be proud of.
This is a country that sometimes forgets its ideals and loses its way, but it eventually remembers and tries to do better. America can always be counted on to do the right thing after it’s exhausted the alternatives. We’re in a period of looking hard for alternatives, but we will eventually do the right thing, just as Clinton, Trump and Obama, sometimes in spite of themselves, are trying to do.