Look down, look down that lonesome road,
Before you travel on.
–That Lonesome Road, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915–1973)
This is America.
— Childish Gambino
I suppose it was inevitable that one day it would come to this, that racism would meet itself traveling down that lonesome road.
Witnessing it has been both ugly and delicious, new — yet hauntingly familiar. Lindsey Graham gets off a plane and walks through an airport in Virginia after recently acknowledging on the Senate floor that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States. He is greeted by a mob of enraged Trump supporters who yell “traitor” and record him on their cell phones while he is escorted through the crowd by a detail of police. A woman screams above the others, “You know [the election] was rigged, you garbage human being. Piece of shit. It’s going to be like this, wherever you go for the rest of your life.” A man beside her shouts, “Welcome to the new America, Lindsey.”
I watch him move through the crowd and recall the iconic image of 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford as she desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In the photo, taken by photographer Will Counts in 1957, Eckford maintains her composure behind dark sunglasses while clutching her notebook to her chest. She is followed by a mob of chanting whites, as one woman stands directly behind Eckford, taunting her, her face distorted with rage. She could be an ancestor of the woman shouting at Graham in the airport. A man who only a few weeks before had allegedly attempted to disenfranchise Black voters by privately calling an election official, now faces a mob of angry whites himself. The irony is spectacular.
Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia, who remained steadfast in insisting that there hadn’t been voter fraud in his state despite Donald Trump’s imploring and eventual condemnation, requires 24-hour security these days. I assume his children must be escorted everywhere, his house carefully watched. He too faces a white mob and death threats. I imagine him and his wife, peeking through the curtains of their living room, fearing that while they are watching television a brick might be hurled through their window, or a cross burned on their lawn.
Brian Kemp, probably not the most sympathetic civil-rights figure the world has ever known, fears, like many Republican officials who have defied Donald Trump, that if he walks out of his house he could be harmed by Trump’s supporters, perhaps fatally and in front of his family, as Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in his driveway in Mississippi in 1963. Brian Kemp may have lived in the South all his life, but I suspect this is a South he cannot recognize, cannot fully own. And yet, here we are.
White people, please allow me to introduce you to white people. Not the friendly neighbor who waves from across the street when you pick up the morning paper, nor the caring Mom who drops your teenage daughter off at soccer practice, but the white people you rarely see. When the dream of whiteness in which many Americans have invested is shattered, there is another layer to be found, and it’s a nightmare. This is the whiteness Black Americans know. A whiteness that can’t be negotiated or reasoned with, that refuses to see another’s humanity, that feeds on violence, despises difference of any kind, and blew like a tornado through the corridors of our nation’s Capitol, leaving destruction and murder in its wake on January 6, 2021. A whiteness that can shoot an unarmed Jacob Blake in the back seven times in front of his children or kill Breonna Taylor in her home, walking the streets uncharged, roaming the earth without consequence.
No matter how much I hate Donald Trump and all he stands for, I do have to give him credit for one thing. The most vulgar exemplar of white supremacy to hold the office of the presidency, has done what few people of color have been able to do to men like Brian Kemp and Lindsey Graham. With his perverse alchemy, Donald Trump waves a magic wand and, with a storybook wonder, turns powerful white men into niggers. And these white men, like the enslaved Black Americans whose graves they desecrate every day with their racist politics, are now running for their lives like escaped slaves — from other white men.
Carrying out Donald Trump’s wrath on January 6th, rioters hung a noose outside the Capitol and called for the lynching of Mike Pence. Mike Pence, for Christ’s sake: a white man who barely moves his lips when he speaks, who barely has lips,who’s spent his political career insisting a man’s anus shouldn’t be used for pleasure, who is probably insulted every time he has to touch his own anus. Pence is a good Christian, an upstanding citizen. A paragon of Conservative family values, he is a walking parody of 1950’s Eisenhower whiteness. I can imagine him asking his wife, “What’s for supper, Mother?” when he sits down at the dinner table and not even seeing the irony. In other words, you can’t get whiter than Mike Pence. And yet, under Donald Trump, even he faces a lynch mob.
Mitch McConnell is somewhere in the world as we speak, scowling with outrage in private rooms and hemorrhaging white entitlement. After Republicans lost the Georgia runoffs, I imagine he came home to his wife and burst into tears. He has only himself to blame, of course: he chose to indulge Donald Trump’s “rigged election” lie for weeks, coddling him and his supporters for political favor, hoping to save the Republican party by keeping his majority seat in the Senate.
Mitch McConnell put all his poker chips on whiteness and for the first time in his political life, whiteness lost. And a Mitch McConnell without white power is a ship without mooring. I imagine he is both exasperated and enraged that now he too is a Trump survivor (there are support groups everywhere). Pundits will offer explanations on cable news as to exactly how we got here, but for McConnell, a white man used to winning, there is no comfort to be found, no butter for that burn.
Establishment Republicans are furious at having discovered, as so many have before, that Donald Trump’s loyalty is only to himself. Trump is the kid who wins the dance contest by freestyling, whipping the crowd into a frenzy of delight when boys like Mitch McConnell have been taking dance lessons for months, who know how to do a proper waltz and fox trot, but it doesn’t matter to anyone.
They are angry because Trump doesn’t understand that racism in America, as practiced by white men like Mitch McConnell, is practically an art form, developed over centuries, like great millinery or the creation of fine wine. When applied properly, there is finesse to racism, a strategy that when executed by real white supremacists — the kind that have refused to share power for centuries — leaves no fingerprints. Yes, you use white working-class people for your political ambition and encourage their tribalism, but you never vote to empower them economically or let them stand close enough to get factory grease on your best suit. McConnell is furious because he now realizes that Donald Trump can never be loyal to any tribe, or to history, and McConnell’s brand of racism requires a reverence for both. Pathological narcissists smash tribalism to bits, except when the tribe is devoted to them. How can a man who only knows “I” ever truly conceive of “We?”
In the cult of Trump, the Mitch McConnells of the world are not celebrated. For all their years of enabling the president, McConnell and Graham and Pence don’t get a pass, they don’t get a pardon, they don’t even get a thank- you. What they get is degraded for their disloyalty, even when they have been faithful until the 11th hour. They are old, racist fossils to Trump supporters, and fossils have no use except in museums. Donald Trump turned on Mike Pence the way a white slavemaster commends his most loyal slave for years, then when that slave displeases him once, sells his children. Pence is particularly appalled by being considered disloyal, because he has encouraged white supremacy his whole political life and practiced it with aplomb; a polite racist gentleman. He knows racism like the back of his hand, he’s just never been on this side of the “nigger equation” before.
When the president asked Mike Pence to steal the election on January 6, Pence did the nigger math and realized he was trapped with no way out. Suddenly, Donald Trump was enraged, saying to him, and I’m paraphrasing: “If you won’t steal the election for me then you get your Black ass out of this office.” (In Trump’s brand of whiteness, everyone is Black who doesn’t support Donald Trump.) And Mike Pence thought, “My Black ass?…I’m white, Mr. President. I’m white.”
But by then it was too late. Like To Kill A Mockingbird meets The Twilight Zone, the lynch mob was already waiting for Pence outside his door.
Former White House spokesman Hogan Ridley recently went on record to say that Donald Trump was the most masculine president in U.S. history. I understand why he said it, and in a way he is right: perhaps no one has shot up on the heroin of patriarchal power and racism quite like Donald Trump. And that’s where we are now, where white men like Pence, good ‘ol boys to be sure, are ex-communicated, considered traitorous because they just aren’t white enough. Lindsey Graham now faces the monsters he helped to create. Racism gets off a plane in Virginia in the form of Lindsey Graham, and racism also stands at the gate as Trump’s supporters to greet him, cell phones in hand, stalking itself, savaging itself.
Black Americans watch with fascination, having known that the death of George Floyd was the tipping-point; that whiteness, rapacious and greedy, having exhausted its pathology on Blackness, and finally bored, had to meet itself on the road and start going after white people. Whiteness, in fact, has gone so far under Donald Trump and his rioters, it has become ludicrous; Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence, political rivals now political prisoners, fight for space in the broom closet of the nation’s Capitol, fearing the footsteps they hear running down the hall.
Black Americans have always known that “Officer Bob” may or may not be our friend, but,Trump, through his anarchist takeover of the Capitol on January 6, has brought Pelosi and Pence the ultimate “Black experience”. As we are discovering higher and higher levels of complicity from the police and government officials on that day, they now have to plan in new and innovative ways if they want to stay alive, having to consider, perhaps for the first time, which of their colleagues and members of law enforcement they can trust.
In my dream, Establishment Republican white men pause a little bit longer at the mirror these days as they are shaving. As they rub their cheeks, examining the wrinkles and fresh worry lines that crease their foreheads, they catch their own eyes. They stare into the mirror, but only briefly, because truly to face themselves would be their ultimate undoing.
They touch their embattled skin and consider America and how we got to where we are now, a Capitol under siege and a fascist takeover by a would-be dictator who was once a reality TV star. They search the bewildered eyes that look back at them for answers. I trust, somewhere in his soul, McConnell feels genuine grief and regret for supporting Donald Trump. Lindsey Graham, however, who wakes up every morning wondering which face he will wear that day — the way that some people select a wig — perhaps not so much.
McConnell grieves because, in a bizarre twist of fate, the most vulgar racist our country has ever elected may have turned out to be a Manchurian candidate. Donald Trump went so deep and lowdown into whiteness that he actually struck Black gold. It must be acknowledged: Donald Trump has led this country to some of the greatest victories for Black political candidates in American history. To put it simply: we couldn’t have done it without him.
We are days away from the inauguration of the first female Vice President of the United States, a woman who is both Asian and Black. Every day Brian Kemp must ask himself, Why the hell didn’t I just let Stacey Abrams be governor? The Fulton county district attorney in Georgia, Fani T. Willis, is sharpening her pencils right now and gathering facts about Trump’s recorded call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger telling him to “find” more votes. And Letitia James, the district attorney of New York, sits in a parked car across from the White House, playing Candy Crush on her phone and holding a set of handcuffs.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if one of the most racist men in American history was eventually taken down, not by Russian interference, nor Big Macs and high cholesterol, but by a group of Black women who, while standing on the shoulders of Civil-Rights activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash, refused to be afraid of white supremacy and instead provoked a country to justice?
How am I doing these days? Kind of you to ask.
I suppose I’m fine, eating way too much and all the wrong food, and my anxiety disorder is through the roof. Truth be told, I have been seriously triggered for the last four years. We don’t have to go deep into my childhood, I’ve told you all that shit before, but you may recall that in my family I’m the oldest child who listened at night to Mom and Dad fighting, waiting to see if I needed to call the police. There wasn’t violence every night, but if violence happens even once, and it is the right kind of violence, it molds you. Since I was four and a half, I’ve been watching and waiting.
(The comparison with family abuse and the Trump administration, I believe, is apt: when I watched Officer Eugene Goodman walking backwards up the Capitol stairs and extending his baton at an approaching rioter, it recalled that iconic scene of Jack Nicholson advancing on Shelley Duvall as she swung a baseball bat at him in The Shining — a film less about the supernatural than it was about domestic violence as seen through a child’s eyes.)
When you live in a house with a man whose anger is out of control, you lie awake at night, you feel you must stay vigilant. It’s many years later now, of course, and both my parents are dead. Different man, different house, same vigilance. The irony is that I thought I would feel relief in November, but in many ways the last two months have been worse than the years that came before.
I don’t smoke and I don’t have kids, but in this last month I’ve envisioned myself as a mother waiting for her child to come home from a weekend party. It’s past curfew, the rest of the house asleep, and I sit by the window, smoking with an ashtray in my lap, and I wait. It’s two a.m, it’s two-thirty, my child was supposed to be home by midnight, and they aren’t answering the phone. What I know is that I cannot step away from the window until my child walks through that door. Every passing car on the street contains hope then disappointment, every sound is a key turning in the front door. Yet the house remains silent.
That’s what it feels like, waiting for Donald Trump to leave office. I know I watch too much news, I fall asleep with it on sometimes, but I can’t miss anything, I have to be a witness. I’m up all night, waiting for our democracy to come home.
My imaginary story ends two ways. In one scenario, my son or daughter walks in, at almost three. There is shouting, there are excuses, probably a lot of tears, but there is also enormous relief and a promise of a long talk in the morning. That’s what happens when your child comes home.
But some parents greet the dawn with bloodshot eyes, staring at a phone that never rings. And as the rest of the house begins to stir, one child’s bed hasn’t been slept in all night. The unfortunate fact is some children never come home, like some nations descend into authoritarianism. That’s what it means to lose your child, to lose your country.
I have a whole new understanding of how a nation can descend into fascism, how it can happen slowly, by degrees. I understand how madness like the lie of “rigged elections” can travel through a community like wildfire, encouraged by people who are brainwashed, and also by careerists who know better, but who long for shinier jobs. I understand how a charismatic leader can turn a nation against itself. These are stories told in history books, and for far too many of us Nazi Germany may as well have been Narnia — until the raid on the Capitol changed everything.
How am I doing these days? Well, If you’re looking for a message of hope, I’m not sure you’ve come to the right place. I’m writing this inside a house that is still on fire. I told myself in November that I refused to relax until Joe Biden did his first fart in the Oval Office as President, until he’s firmly seated in that chair, signing something official or doing a crossword puzzle, I don’t care which. Until that day, however, until that hour, nothing can be taken for granted, nothing can be assumed.
Personally, I’ve wanted Donald Trump under 24-hour surveillance until 11:59pm on January 19th. I have a recurring fantasy that Melania leaves the Oval Office for a facial and Trump is left alone. It is a White House janitor, an older Black man in his seventies mopping the floor, who saves the world. He watches Trump edging over to the door where the nuclear codes are and says to him: “What you doing over by that closet? And why you trying to pry open the lid on that glass box with that butter knife? Let me call security right quick before this nigga blows up China.”
Like a successful horror movie franchise, Donald Trump has laid something deeply psychological on us. We know the movie is over, but as Trump sold a lot of tickets we anticipate a sequel; defeated by the end of the film, you still sense he’s going to try and come back. And if he does go to jail and we can’t get Chucky, there is always the Bride of Chucky — there’s talk that Ivanka Trump may one day run for office. Whatever happens, I suspect, the Trump’s brand is finished. Making a reservation at the Trump International Hotel right now feels about as cosy as staying at a bed and breakfast called “The Osama Bin Laden Seaside Inn”.
How am I doing these days? I guess if I’m honest, I’m sad, I’m Black and I’m exhausted. I’ve lived through Reagan, the Bushes, both George Bush the First and George W., and now Donald Trump. I’m tired of a life held hostage by Republican depravity. And now there is a new batch on the horizon. I look at Josh Hawley, and I marvel that we’ve created this person. It’s one thing for McConnell and Graham to be old crusty, dusty racists, hopefully a dying breed, but younger people are supposed to have had more exposure to multiculturalism, more possibilities for understanding. It’s naive to wonder, but I’ll wonder anyway, how can they have the Black friend in college, admire the Black musician or sports figure, and still be committed to disenfranchising black voters? The answer, of course, is tribalism and legacy. They love Shaq and are still racists the way their grandparents played Nat King Kole at Christmas and still supported segregation and colored-only drinking fountains.
When I am at my most cynical I ask myself, How can I trust any of you? When I meet you on the street, I have to ask, did you vote for Donald Trump, did you? How do I search through 70 million faces — that’s a lot of motherfucking faces by the way — for the culprits? I call you my countrymen and -women but how do I ever trust your judgment again when you saw exactly what I saw and you still decided Donald Trump was okay?
What we’ve experienced in the last four years is more profound than we can fathom in this moment. Men like Donald Trump have nothing to reveal; their only purpose is to reveal us to ourselves. And perhaps the majority of ourselves are seeing our country in a new way for the first time. Maybe we will finally understand that our refusal to confront the horror of American slavery and what we must do to make that evil right — a refusal that led us to the ascendancy of Donald Trump — if not truthfully faced, will eventually enslave us all. But I still believe in hope. If people can be radicalized for hate, perhaps they can also be radicalized for love.
Some people will look at the 2020 election and say with relief, “Whew, that was a close one”, looking forward to everything going back to normal. In other words, they look forward to a return to whiteness. But normality is gone, if it ever existed in the first place. We’ve lost the right to normal. On the subject of America’s coming terrifyingly close to a fascist takeover, the fact is, the dream of democracy is dead, because Donald Trump killed it and it’s never coming back. At least, not as it was. Some people will grieve that our democracy is irrevocably shattered, but be glad — the death of the dream means that we may finally face each other honestly for once; about our history, about the past.
I’ve written about Donald Trump for years in the most effective way I’ve understood him: through the lens of my own alcoholism. Every recovering addict instinctively knows that once you cross over into chronic alcoholism, you can never go back. For the rest of your days, you will always live two parallel lives. In one life, you remain sober, not drinking one day at a time. But somewhere there exists another life, a life that shadows you, like an exercise partner who jogs besides you on a morning run. You can feel her breath matched with yours, you feel the heat of her body beside you. She waits for you on the corner every morning. In this shadow life, the car did crash into the tree that night after the party and ended your life, you did overdose in the hotel room later surrounded by police, you were found in the bathroom in the nightclub with a needle in your arm.
And if you are smart, you will wake up every morning not denying her, but instead greeting her, offering her a cup of coffee when she walks into your kitchen: “Good morning, Heartache, sit down.” She keeps you alive and awake and present, suggesting with her dazzling smile and sad eyes all the terrifying possibilities that await you if you drink again. She reminds you that the decision to stay alive is yours. Others may speak of death as an abstraction; but if you are a recovering addict and you want to live, death eats at your table every night, death becomes your twin.
It’s true: democracy won in 2020, but so did COVID-19. After 400,000 deaths, most of them preventable, death will forever be our twin. And there will always exist a parallel world where democracy in this country didn’t win. We can never congratulate ourselves on a functional democracy fully knowing that tyranny was just one Brian Kemp, one Brad Raffensperger, one Supreme Court decision away. When 140 Republicans sign onto a lawsuit that says a legal election was rigged, we didn’t defeat fascism, we just managed to make it inside the car before the rabid dog lunged at the windows.
There will always exist an America where Donald Trump won. Not the votes he tried to steal in the 2020 election, but the American soul. The bottom line is that for four years too many of us were for sale and he bought us. Some Republicans are already trying to change the narrative: James Lankford, the Republican senator from Oklahoma, has apologized to his Black constituents for selling them out, for putting the descendants of slaves on the auction block one more time. But it’s too late. No exchanges, no returns.
In 1992, Sister Souljah recorded a song with the lyrics “slavery’s back in effect”. A lot of listeners probably considered it a parody or hyperbolic cry from the paranoid left. But after the summer of 2020 when protesters were picked up in unmarked vans under the “leadership” of Department of Homeland Security’s Chad Wolf, without due process and without being told why they were being arrested or who was arresting them, is it that hard to imagine these same protesters being placed indefinitely in detention centers, forced to work until their cases come up, and then given 10, 15, 20-year sentences for sedition? If you can put children in cages, you can do anything.
If we are smart, we will observe that in some parallel universe we will never be a democracy again, not the way we once were, but the paradox is that this knowledge will save our democracy from the next charismatic figure who tries to overturn our constitution. In other words, we will always be a country in recovery from fascism.
Maybe when we are able to reflect on the phenomenon that was Donald Trump’s presidency, we’ll understand in a new way that violence as we’ve seen it in the nation’s Capitol isn’t an aberration, it’s the oil that makes the American machine run; that you can’t enslave people or disenfranchise them as voters without violence, you can’t keep women out of positions of power in corporations without violence, you can’t stop children from being truthful about being transgender or queer without violence, you can’t maintain all-white neighborhoods and workplaces without violence. We may also see that fellowship and progress and reconciliation occur naturally in the absence of violence, and that also, in the absence of violence, human greed is always displaced.
How am I? While Black people are now arguably more powerful in the political sphere than we’ve ever been, the last four years have left irrevocable damage. After the murder of George Floyd, loving white friends called to sympathize and offer support. But with some of the condolences, there was a presumption that was hard to shake; that as a Black American, the answers to what contributed to his death belonged solely to me. Some asked, although we’ve stood together on the same American soil for centuries, “What’s racism really like?”, the way one may ask a foreign friend about an exotic cultural dish: “What’s it like to munch on whale blubber?”
White Americans want discussions about racism to be foreign, because what’s foreign is far away, distanced and safe. It’s not in your own backyard, until it travels down the hallways of your Capitol with bloodlust. Violence is always theoretical until the razor is at your throat.
You’ve turned to Black Americans for inspiration, for gospel songs, for pardons and indulgences and for compassion, and frankly — we’ve run out. When more than 70 million of you vote for a racist monster, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt anymore. You have all the information and testimonials from us that you need. It’s time to save our Black lives for a different conversation.
But now that you’ve run from that mob, down that endless hall with no open doors, now that you’ve seen the harm that white folks can do firsthand with that gleam of heat in their eyes, you have a different story to tell, a different relationship to whiteness and victimization — as a witness, first-hand. And you know who in your family and friends needs to hear that story. And if you do decide to tell the truth - and it’s a fascinating truth to tell - we just may have a chance.
White people, I’d like to introduce you to white people. Now talk amongst yourselves.
(An abridged version of this essay premiered at the First Person Plural Reading Series event, entitled, “The Way Forward” hosted by Stacy Parker LeMelle, January 17, 2021.)
Max S. Gordon on Donald Trump: