I'm watching ABC News on a TV my mother bought me for Christmas. There's footage of the violence at the Capitol, the word INSURRECTION is on the screen, something I never thought I would see in the United States in my lifetime. A mother is telling a reporter about her seditionist son's shamanic diet, how he'll get sick in jail if he can't eat organic food. Excuse me, what White nonsense! I hit mute to call my mom and thank her for the gift.
But first my mom and I talk about how she can't taste anything and that she's going to get tested. "Well, if Wendy was okay, you'll definitely be fine," I say. Wendy is my mother's neighbour who doesn't believe in wearing masks and voted for Trump in November. They all live in Louisiana, a state that hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton.
When I was getting ready to visit my family in Arnaudville, Louisiana, early last year, my mother asked if I'd like to meet her boyfriend. "That depends, did he or does he plan to vote for Trump?" I had sworn I wouldn't even enter the United States while Trump was in office, but my grandmother doesn't travel and you never know which visit is going to be the last. My mom asked him, but he called me an intolerant bigot and they broke up. Forgive me for being a queer man who has a problem with people who expected Donald Trump to suddenly grow presidential once elected. The tin has always contained what was written on the lid. Anyone claiming surprise is either lost in denial or gaslighting.
Back to ABC News. Seeing White supremacists carry the Confederate flag into a seat of government was beyond surreal. This kind of imagery belonged in textbooks or documentary footage, this could not possibly be the world I live in.
But a large part of me was not surprised. Trump and Republicans have been denying the election results for months, dozens of cases have been thrown out of court, and the president has sent messages to his followers vehemently reinforcing this lie. He didn't even win the popular vote the first time, and we all know about gerrymandering and other voter suppression tactics. Or do we? Gerrymandering was a vocabulary word in high school, but we never discussed why it's wrong or who benefits from it.
In fact, my public school education in Louisiana had me believing that racism died with Martin Luther King Jr. and that the United States was founded on freedom of religious expression and escaping the heavy hand of England. I wouldn't hear anything about Indigenous genocide until my university years, but in any case it was treated as something that used to happen. Not anymore, we're civilized now, apparently.
I moved to Quebec when I was in my early twenties, hopeful and starry-eyed over a man I had met online. When I met Canadians, I would say I was Cajun from Louisiana; it not only gave me an in with francophones, it allowed me to avoid calling myself American during the time when Bush was president. I didn't want him to represent me. I disliked him and his policies, and a major factor in coming to Canada versus bringing my then-husband to Louisiana was that there was no federal recognition of gay marriage there at the time.
I also desperately wanted to escape a place that made me feel like I didn't belong. I liked marching band better than football, character-driven stories over explosions and action. I was called sissy and effeminate and once I grew old enough to learn that these things were "wrong" and unmanlike, I suppressed them in myself and became a stoic and emotionally constipated monster. I was a man at last, but toxic masculinity had corroded my marriage.
After my divorce, my mother asked me if I was coming home. I had been living in Quebec for over seven years, in a suburb of Montreal where I perfected my French working shifts in a video rental store. I wasn't sure where home was, but I knew it wasn't Louisiana, even though things had improved during the Obama years. Like any Canadian, I've kept my eyes on the States; it's important to know what your neighbours are up to when they're hugely influential on a global scale. And as a queer man, I'm always trying to gauge how dangerous it is to be myself when I visit family.
In the weeks leading up to election day 2016, it hardly seemed possible that Trump could win. He was loud and blustery and full of lies, who could seriously vote for him? But I would see ordinary people interviewed saying things like, "I like him, he's like me: he tells it like it is." I could not understand this, how could spewing such blatant lies be telling it like it is?
Maybe it's the freedom of emotional expression. People want to be able to say whatever they like, uncensored, without having to consider someone else's feelings. They get upset when certain epithets are denied them, and they don't question why they feel such a need to say those particular words. They have a difficult time putting themselves in the place of someone else and trying to understand their experience, their struggles, their pain.
I've always been a curious person who likes to listen. It's why I'm so good at these customer service jobs I haven't managed to free myself from. Trust me when I say that a Trump-like customer is the last person you want to be caught on a phone call with. They seem to think that the more of a fuss they make, the more likely it is they'll get their way. (Word to the wise: the more entitlement you enter a conversation with, the less likely I am to go out of my way to help you. Courtesy will win you my compassion any day of the week.)
There needs to be a shift. Trump is on his way out, but Greek mythology teaches us that cutting one head off the hydra leads to two more popping up. Just ask Kathy Griffin. We are not done with the kind of person who wants to put themselves first and deny everyone and everything else.
This is another thing that mystifies me, the fact that people who voted for Trump or who have worked for Trump are plagued by the illusion that he supports them, or has their best interests at heart. How could anyone who has witnessed his behaviour believe that the man spends energy on anyone's interests but his own? How could someone expect a person like that to do them a good turn?
Unless they're all like him. A gang of megalomaniacs who want to smash everything and erase all existence that doesn't match their own. They can't use racial slurs anymore, they're losing jobs and opportunities to people who don't look like them, and they are desperately afraid of being subjected to the same oppression they have turned a blind eye to. After all, if one is colourblind, how can one see that this violence has a clear and undeniable pattern?
I watched the Black Lives Matter protests, and how the news coverage trickled down to nothing even though protestors marched on. The president said horrible things about them, just like he said horrible things about Mexicans while promising a wall, an expensive and ineffective symbol that most closely resembles a tall fence.
What have Republicans had to say? Back in the House of Representatives, they regurgitate the party line, saying that Trump never explicitly calls for violence in his tweets so how could he be held responsible. What will it take, what behaviour will finally be reprehensible enough for them to condemn, instead of conjuring conspiracy theories and blaming anyone but the man responsible?
That's probably easier than admitting they've made a terrible mistake. If they admit that Trump attacked the sanctity of democracy, what would they be admitting about themselves? They've dug themselves into a pit of shame by refusing to embrace the truth. All they know is that they've dug this far, better to keep on digging. Nothing can grow in that darkness, however, and their calls for healing and unity are as preposterous as the conspiracies they cling to.
I wonder if they'll wake up, and I wonder what's coming next. Leading up to the inauguration, reporters are talking about gatherings planned in every state, and security is beefing up as we approach January 20. Images of temporary barriers and soldiers sleeping on the floors of the White House provide a harsh counterpoint to those of Trump's boxes being loaded into moving trucks.
I choose to hope that we will be moving on. I want to summon some of that feeling when the November election was first confirmed. That feeling of going out into the city and enjoying the beautiful fall day with my boyfriend and coming home and listening to Kamala Harris and Joe Biden speak to a wounded nation. It is a time for healing, and we will achieve catharsis only through accountability, personal growth, and being better not only for our own sake but for the sake of our communities.
Lukas Rowland is the communications coordinator for Confabulation, where he has told several true tales in Montreal. A transplant from the United States, he watches Washington with apprehension and cautious optimism.