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What do we do now?

November 9, 2016

I’m in shock right now. I didn’t sleep a wink last night, yet still I got up hoping that the election results would turn out to have been a bad dream. I thought I was clear-eyed about the risk of this happening — I’ve seen enough works of speculative fiction on the theme of “It Can Happen Here,” and I know from my studies of history that societies don’t remain stable forever. But still, I let myself get reassured every time the probabilities swung away from this outcome and just crossed my fingers. I feel embarrassed about my last-moment, half-hearted post about the election yesterday. I feel that I should’ve said more before now, done more. But I’m sure a lot of other people do as well — and many more will come to feel buyers’ remorse over the months and years ahead.

It’s happened. The United States has let an incompetent, abusive, bigoted con man trick it into believing he cares about anything but himself. A stooge of a hostile foreign power will now occupy the Oval Office. Civil rights in this country are likely to be set back by a generation. The economy will likely tank, the world will likely become more unstable and violent. The odds that we can stabilize the planet’s climate will plummet. This is probably the worst thing that has happened in the United States in my lifetime.

Still, I’m looking for reasons to hold onto optimism, because that’s what keeps me going. I was bullied and marginalized throughout grade school, my life was one of constant stress and fear and low self-esteem, but because of Star Trek and superheroes, I had hope that there was a way things could get better. I needed to have hope. It was all that kept me sane.

There is the hope that, now that he has won the prize which is the only thing he cared about, Trump will be completely uninterested in actually going to the trouble of governing. He essentially said in the campaign that he’d entrust both foreign and domestic policy to his vice president. I expect this to be like the Reagan administration squared — the celebrity figurehead will barely pay attention to the work and it’ll be taken care of by the staff and handlers who surround him, who will be working hard to walk back the figurehead’s rhetoric and keep the sharp objects out of his hands, like they did throughout the campaign. Which would mean we’ve effectively elected Mike Pence president, or maybe whoever becomes chief of staff. That’s awful enough in its own right, but at least it might just be an ordinary level of presidential awfulness rather than the authoritarian coup many have feared. There’s also the hope that, since he’s a con artist whose whole campaign was built on lies, he won’t actually try to enact the nonsensical or hateful policies he spent the past year advocating. His supporters will probably get screwed over as badly as the investors in his businesses.

Still, we can’t assume the worst won’t happen; that mistake led to yesterday’s outcome. The fact that there’s a movement that responded to a campaign based on racism and religious bigotry and authoritarianism, and that it was large enough to win the election, is terrifying. That movement isn’t going anywhere, and they’ve been emboldened now. And Trump thrives on their adulation, so he’ll continue giving rallies to stir them up, and that will be even worse now that he has the bully pulpit. So the rest of us will have to stand firm, to keep speaking out for what we believe in, to be a loyal opposition and a check on the government’s excesses and a conscience for the nation. We saw in the 1960s how powerful such protest movements can be even when the government is against them. Things may be bad for a while to come, but I believe it will inspire a counterreaction that will eventually make things better again.

I’ve been thinking, during this sleepless night, about the 1991 book Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The book, and the subsequent ones by the same authors, put forth a generational theory of American history stating that the country has gone through several iterations (“turnings”) of a four-generation cycle lasting about 80 years, give or take. There’s a High period, when society is optimistic and well-off but conformist, afraid of anything that would upset their stable existence; an Awakening, when a new generation challenges the previous conformist norms and restrictions and experiments with personal and spiritual awakening; an Unraveling, where the previous generation’s focus on the self leads to an era when social institutions are weak and the population is divisive and mistrustful, unable to unify to solve its problems; and a Crisis, where those festering problems erupt into a major upheaval, but the generation forged in that crisis unites and rises to the occasion, solving it and building a new order that ushers in the next High. In the most recent “turning” of this cycle, the Depression and WWII were the Crisis, the postwar era through the early ’60s was the High, the ’60s and ’70s were the Awakening, and the mid-’80s onward were the Unraveling. And that would put us in the Crisis phase right about now.

In the 25 years since the book came out, I’ve been startled by how closely reality has conformed to the predictions of this theory, although from a scholarly perspective I know that it would take at least another complete “turning” to confirm it scientifically. But I’ve expected for a long time now that we would enter another Crisis phase around this time, and so far, events are bearing that out. And that means things are going to get worse before they get better. I hadn’t expected it to take this form. But I do believe it won’t last forever. It may be a decade or more before we come through it, but I believe the counterreaction against what’s to come will lead to a better world for the Millennial generation and the one after that. And maybe that generation — so much more inclusive and multicultural than the American generations before it — will begin to find a way to break the cycle of highs and lows. That’s probably a long shot, but I need to believe it’s possible. We all need hope more than ever right now. And not just those of us who lost yesterday. Trump won over his supporters because they already lacked hope and were vulnerable to someone offering them easy answers. Real solutions are never easy, but they can only work if they offer hope to everyone, not just those we agree with.

So what will I do? I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep using my work to portray a better future we can strive toward, and to be as inclusive of diverse characters and worldviews as I can. I’ll keep writing allegories about the problems we face, and hopefully influencing some people to work toward solving them. I know, for example, that my upcoming Star Trek: The Original Series novel The Face of the Unknown, due out at the end of this year, is suddenly much more relevant than I ever wanted it to be. It may be hard to believe in a better future at the moment, but my work, both in Star Trek and in my main original universe, has always incorporated the assumption that the first half of the 21st century would be a time of crisis, but that it would be a catalyst for humanity to find new solutions and make the world better — not completely, not easily, and always with the risk of backsliding, but still better, wiser, more inclusive and enlightened. We need to keep believing in that future, and fighting for it. In the words of Robert Hewitt Wolfe (Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, “Under the Night,” October 2, 2000), “Pessimism is not a survival trait.” No matter who won or lost the election, we still need the audacity of hope, and we are still stronger together.

 

(I’m disabling comments again, because this is hard for me to think about or talk about. I needed to say this, to get it out of my system, but I don’t have the strength for an extended discussion, and I still have writing obligations that urgently need my attention right now. This will be reposted on my Facebook page, of course.)

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