Yes, Our President

Unfortunately, it's actually "Yep."

I thought I'd said all I needed to about how we're stuck with Donald Trump in the same way a public school teacher has no choice but to teach every student who comes through the classroom door: they're all my students, for as long as I'm at this school and they're attending it. I really thought that was a frame of reference I could apply to the unpleasantness of having this awful man become the leader of my country.

The name "Dylann Roof" may not immediately ring a bell, so here's a quick review: on June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel AME Church of Charleston, South Carolina, to attend a Bible study. At the end of the gathering, as the participants stood to pray, he took out a gun and killed nine of them. He did so for one simple, powerful reason: to incite a race war. All the victims were Black, and Emanuel was a church with a great history of advocacy for African-American rights.

Three days ago, Dylann Roof's trial began. Hearing the testimony of the three survivors was too much for his mother: she collapsed, whispering "I'm sorry."

That percolated down into my heart, and I found myself again grieving all over again for the people he'd killed, for the message the massacre sent to Black communities across the United States, for the way in which the Trump campaign came to embody Dylann Roof's philosophy, for the fear with which persons of color are facing the next four years of their lives as Americans--and for Amy Roof, who has not only lived to see her son become a white supremacist and mass murder, but will probably also live to see him executed for his crimes.

I don't know anything about how Dylann Roof was raised, or how he became one of the millions of Americans who think their world would be better if white men had even more power than they already do, then channeled that delusion into an act of domestic terrorism. What I do know is that Amy Roof's life has been permanently maimed by what he did, in ways that I can't begin to understand; because no matter how monstrous he was, Dylann Roof was still, and always will be, her son. And because of that, she will be atoning for his crimes for the rest of her life.

That's the connection we have with our children: no matter what they become, they remain our sons and daughters. Their triumphs, their failures, their accidents and mistakes, traumas and successes, all that happens to them, all that they cause to happen, is on us because we are the ones who brought them into the world. If it hadn't been for us, they wouldn't exist. That makes us ultimately responsible for them, whether we like it or not.

To put it another way: we don't choose our children.

Just as 53.8% of Americans did not choose to have Donald Trump be our President. And yet here he is, whether we like it or not.

As a voting-age adult, I've now lived through ten Presidential elections. Of those ten, I missed voting in one (I would've voted for Dukakis, but couldn't figure out in time how to register as an ex-patriate absentee voter); of the remaining nine, my candidate won four times. The first of those winners was Bill Clinton; the second was Barack Obama.

This means that for the first twelve years of my voting life, my President was a person I didn't choose. Neither Ronald Reagan nor George H.W. Bush made me proud to be an American; and especially during my time as an ex-pat, I felt the need to constantly apologize for the militaristic, interventionist policies of my President. I'm sorry, I'd say. I didn't vote for him. We're not all like that.

Then came the Clinton years, a time when my President frequently earned my approval. Oh, there were rumors about what a horndog Bill Clinton was, but I pushed those away, believed him when he insisted they weren't true, when he said with powerful sincerity that he had not had sexual relations with that woman.

Except he had.

The day after Ken Starr released the report of his investigation into the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it was printed, in its entirety, in the Sunday Oregonian. I read the report over breakfast, then drove to the Amity United Methodist Church  to deliver a sermon. I grieved in the pulpit that morning because my President had let me down. He had lied to me about doing things that violated not just the covenant of marriage, but the ethical standards of any person who holds power over an employee. He had exploited his office to take advantage of an intern, and in the process, had thrown away all the good a politician of his gifts could have continued to do for his country. I can't remember what I used as a text that morning, but I couldn't have found a better one than 2 Samuel 11, in which King David abuses his power as king to have one of his generals sent to the front, where he dies in combat, so that David can take his wife from him. And still, David was Israel's once and future king, even as God punished him for his sins by taking the life of the child conceived by David's murderous adultery.

Barack Obama, the President I've been most proud to call my own, has embodied the dignity of the office better than any head of state in my lifetime. And yet, as President, I know he has pursued policies that run counter to the highest ethical and moral standards of that office. He has used drones to prosecute undeclared wars in the Middle East, at times bragging about the body count. He has fallen well short of the transparent Presidency he promised as a candidate. His discomfort with the glad-handing part of his job has permitted Congress to become a partisan brake on all the good he could have done. Don't get me wrong, I will very much miss having him as my President, and would even if Hillary Clinton had won; but he's still let me down.

The fact of the matter is this: even when the person we vote for wins, we don't really choose our President. Who that person becomes is shaped by forces beyond our control--and honestly, most of them are beyond the control of the President. Donald Trump rode a wave of bigotry into office, tying himself to a tiger that will not be easily appeased. The empowerment these people feel at his victory will fade fast when they realize he is not restoring jobs that simply can't be put back. When they lose the health care they've received thanks to the Affordable Care Act (probably called something more palatable to Obama-haters), when their parents have their Social Security and Medicare benefits cut or privatized, when they realize that those benefiting most from Trump's policies are the very fat cat elites they thought were on Clinton's side, when they see that the Wall is just a fence paid for out of their own tax dollars rather than Mexico's, when so many of Trump's promises turn out to be empty lies, they will turn on him. But all those failures are not just his, not just his voters'; they belong to all of us who are Americans. He is our President.

We don't have to like it, and we don't have to just take it. Responsible parents draw lines, create consequences, and act on them, often with tears in their eyes. Responsible citizens hold their elected leaders accountable. We've got to be absolutely clear that the hate-speech he continues to generate through his speeches and tweets is unacceptable. We've got to hold the feet of his Cabinet croneys to the fire, insist that our city and state governments continue to promote policies that are progressive and inclusive, and pour our energies into organizations that oppose all the retrograde policies of the incoming administration.

But no matter how hard we work against him, how much we hate him, how much we commiserate with our friends who are persons of color, how sincerely we apologize to non-Americans, how desperately we want someone else to have his job, until that day arrives, there is one inescapable reality:

He's our President.


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