Now what? Life after Trump

Journalist and former Berliner Zeitung columnist Steve Kettmann has published a book of essays written in the aftermath of the Trump presidency. 

Soquel, California - It was one of many times that week when I thought the networks might call the 2020 election for Biden-Harris any minute and I didn’t want to miss a thing. I’d carried the girls’ little blonde-wood table and chairs into my work room, computer in the background tuned to election coverage as we sat down to dinner.

We don’t have a TV. For most of their lives, Coco and Anaïs had never seen us watching cable news on a computer. October 20 had been the first exception. Coco, six, came in at one point during the first Biden-Trump debate and sat on the sofa next to my computer. She gave the screen a few minutes of blank-faced scrutiny, more confused the longer she watched, then her face collapsed into a scowl.

“I don’t like this!” she wailed. “Why are they so mad?”

I lay in bed with her that night for an hour before she had fully calmed down and could sleep. Now, two days after the election, the girls and I were discussing food preference. Or were we?

“I hate parsnip!” Coco, never halfway on anything, insisted.

Our conversation took a few twists and turns from there. Soon she was asking, “What is ‘hate,’ Daddy?”

It was a rhetorical question. Or a philosophical one. Coco knew what the word meant. She wanted to hear me expand on the idea, which I did, giving her a somewhat sanitized answer about hate meaning really not liking something a lot. A light went on in her eyes.

“Do you hate Trump?” she asked me suddenly.

I stared back at her. Did I hate Donald Trump? I had to give my daughter an honest answer.

“No, Coco,” I said. “I don’t hate Trump.”

I hate what his utter cynicism and naked racism did to bring out the worst in so many

At times, yes, I wondered. I hated, really hated, so much of what he said and did since he came down that escalator at Trump Tower. I once stood near Donald Trump on a short elevator ride at old Yankee Stadium in the late 1990s and saw him then, as I see him now, as a shell of bluster and bluff with sharp enough edges to try to prevent you from looking within to the hollow, pain-filled centre.

I don’t hate the man. But I hate that his con, running for president as a publicity stunt, led to four of the worst years in the history of our country. I hate what his utter cynicism and naked racism did to bring out the worst in so many. I hate how his manipulation, shamelessness and craven bad faith challenged us to be better and do better, and so often, these terrible four years, we collectively came up short. As John Lewis once told me, removing Trump from office will be a “down payment” on our future, not more.

Will Rayman, a 23-year-old who regrets not having voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, writes from Estonia, where he’s a professional basketball player: “The Biden-Harris victory is a step in the right direction, but in no way is it the end-all-be-all.”

I think each of us has to look within and challenge ourselves to do better, be better, if we are truly going to move forward and find ways to connect with other Americans who might disagree on much but can agree on our common humanity. I hope the perspectives that follow can help kick-start that reckoning, a reckoning not only with the depths of depravity and corruption the Trump years unleashed and exposed, but also a reckoning with ourselves.

The above text is from my introduction to a new book I edited and published called Now What? The Voters Have Spoken—Essays on Life After Trump, available in U.S. bookstores — and also at German Amazon — featuring 38 essays by an eclectic mix of writers, including three winners of the Pulitzer Prize.

It’s easy to lose one’s mind trying to follow the latest in U.S. politics, even with Donald Trump out of the White House for almost two weeks. What’s true one day seems totally off the next. Then a day later the deck is reshuffled again. The upcoming impeachment trial has many reporters spewing the kind of cocksure predictions that the chaos machine Trump loves to upend, and yet the droning conventional-wisdom regurgitation proceeds apace.

I’m struck with how much more illuminating it would be to focus in on individual stories of how individual lives have been shaped and shaken by the trends and turbulence of the Trump years. The way to gain insight into the Trump phenomenon isn’t to pound the chest and hold forth with pompous, all-knowing proclamations, but to let go of self-importance and try to bring alive a compelling picture of what you really know, which is how the Trump time hit you and those you love—and how much of a sense of relief the transition to Biden brought.

Jon Meacham, the former Newsweek editor and bestselling author who has been helping Joe Biden write his speeches in recent months, hailed Now What? The Voters Have Spoken as as an “insightful and wide-ranging collection” featuring “many of America’s most thoughtful voices.”

It’s one thing to hear Anthony Scaramucci on cable television analysing the future of the Republican Party, and another to read his description of a moment alone with Trump in the Oval Office, during Scaramucci’s very brief tenure as White House Director of Communications, when his heart was “racing” and he got Trump to admit he was “overwhelmed” his first day. Then when Scaramucci lowers the boom on Republicans lying for Trump, and hits them for “Profiles in Cowardice,” it has more impact.

“Many Hispanics also see themselves as whiter than Archie Bunker,” Scaramucci writes. “They see Trump as the last white man standing between them and a horde of latte-drinking, Hispanic and Black transvestites that are going to come up over the transom and take over their government and their culture.”

Many writers focused in their essays on family members or people they admired. The actress Rosanna Arquette (Pulp Fiction, Desperately Seeking Susan) writes of visiting her cabin in Big Sur, California, with fellow actresses Catherine Keener and Jane Fonda, for a getaway—and how the three turned it into a brainstorming session on activist politics. Thus was born Fonda’s Fire Drill Fridays, and all three were arrested together in Washington DC on two different occasions.

We’re all in a collective state of PTSD.

Rosanna Arquette

“I’ve always been a super positive person, but this last four years has been extremely toxic on so many levels,” Arquette writes. “We’re all in a collective state of PTSD. We have to recover from the trauma. Donald Trump is the abuser. If anyone has been in an abusive relationship, this guy is our abuser. It takes a long time to get away from that kind of trauma.”

As editor of these essays, I thought back to my time in Berlin, where I lived more than a decade starting in 1999. I always loved the kind of long, serious, thoroughly-thought-out piece you’d see in the Feuilleton section. (I even wrote some pieces like that myself for this paper more than a decade ago.) Now as a book publisher in California, I’ve had the chance to ask other writers to tackle the form with personal essays about that feeling of finally moving beyond the Trump years, and what to expect of Biden.

As former U.S. men’s national soccer coach Bruce Arena put it in his essay: “If I were his coach, sending him into the middle of the action with a little pep talk, I’d keep it simple. I’d tell him, ‘Joey, the reason you’re in the lineup is because we believe in you. Do what you do. You don’t need me telling you how to play. You know how to play. That’s why you’re where you are. Be Joe Biden.’”

Watching Biden give his inaugural address, it felt like he’d read Arena’s essay. The speech hit notes of passion and urgency and vision that it had to hit, but it operated on another level than that of language, a level I’d call moral or spiritual. I had read online chatter suggesting Biden had better avoid quoting Lincoln, that’s the expected move, and I wrote back: Only if it’s a memorable Lincoln quote. It was: Lincoln, upon signing the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, saying, “My whole soul is in it.”

It was a powerful way of combining a Biden asset, his artless authenticity, and a devastating critique of a system failure of the last years, that of pervasive bad faith and falseness.

As former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe pointed out in his essay in the collection, Trump was for years a Democrat. A big donor. “This whole Republican evangelical thing of his was a shtick,” McAuliffe writes. It was, in other words, a performance. A lie. The Trump era gave us a plague of debased souls contorting themselves into Tennessee-Williams-on-Broadway theatrics to convince us they believed the lie, when we all knew they didn’t. Way, way too many journalists saw repeating the little lies that went with the big lie as part of their “job.”

I’m starting to think there was more to Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris than I understood. Biden’s an East Coast dude all the way, but there is something very California about his “whole soul” inaugural address. It’s like a form of meditation: don’t pretend you don’t hear the lies, the cheap shots, the blatant spin, just notice the parade of B.S. briefly, then let it slide right by and keep doing your thing. Be you, Joey.

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Steve Kettmann
is the co-founder of the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods — a Northern California writers retreat — and Wellstone Books, which recently published Now What? The Voters Have Spoken—Essays on Life After Trump. A former staff reporter for New York Newsday and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Berlin correspondent for and columnist for the Berliner Zeitung, Kettmann has reported from more than 40 countries for The New York Times, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Salon, GQ and others. He has co-authored more than 12 books, including six New York Times bestsellers. He still hopes to run the Berlin Marathon one more time, all the better to try to keep up with his two young daughters, Coco and Anaïs. 

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