America’s dark night

Like other narcissistic leaders before him, Trump rose to power by exploiting people’s darkest instincts and fears, both mythical and real.

Weeks after becoming an American citizen, I cast my first ever vote on the morning of November 8 in a suburb of Washington, D.C. I voted for Hillary Clinton and, like millions of her supporters, spent much of that day in a festive mood preparing for guests we had invited to watch the results at our home. The much awaited evening gradually turned into a sombre night and when, in the early hours of next day, it became clear that Donald Trump had been elected president, I took a walk out alone in a wooded area at 3 A.M. There was a subtle rustle on the trees as if beneath them the black and dense night was recoiling in horror. America was silenced. For a few moments I became disoriented and could not find the path out of the wooded park. It was in that grim moment that I remembered a few lines from Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy” in the first Canto: “Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood / for I had wandered off from the straight path… / How I entered there I cannot truly say / I had become so sleepy at the moment / when I first strayed leaving the path of truth.”

The verse was a fitting metaphor not only of my  own interior feelings at that moment, but it struck a much deeper cord with a stunned country as a whole. Was America waking up in a dark wood as well? Why was the election of Donald Trump such a calamitous event?  Why did I take the result so personally? Was I overreacting?

I don’t know why I reacted the way I did, but I was unfortunate enough to grow up during a dark decade in a country that though once celebrated for its ethnic cocktail, in the early 1990s had descended into chaos and war, thanks to the rise of dangerous demagogues that spoke Donald Trump’s language. I panicked that night because as far back as I can remember, the governments of my early youth were led by fascists, neonazis, homicidal maniacs, and wretched sociopaths who exploited the darkest instincts of people and galvanized their support to formalize politics of division. When they seized power in this way they proceeded to mutilate and divide and rule the country, and eventually unleash violence on their own citizens. The murderous regime of Slobodan Milosevic, who was the master of stirring the worst sentiments in people, rose to power the same way over the ruins of Yugoslavia. Just like Donald Trump did over the course of this campaign by exploiting bigotry and racism, Milosevic excavated old ethnic grudges and fomented social divisions, which served him as political fuel to seize power and then bring havoc to the entire region of the Western Balkans, which is still trying to recover

America is no Yugoslavia, of course. Its democracy is deep and its institutions are strong, having absorbed more violent shocks before including the Civil War, two World Wars, and the Great Depression. But for all its strong fundamentals, the American voters—the guardians of country’s strong democracy for over 200 years—have just elected the first authoritarian president in the full sense of the word. To see parallels between his thuggish and bigoted rhetoric that he has deployed throughout his toxic campaign, and those of other narcissistic dictators who rose to divide their people, one has to only follow his post-election behavior testing limits in curtailing the freedom of speech and attacking free press. No murderous dictator runs for office—not Hitler, not Assad, not Milosevic—by telling people he wants to crush them or their neighbors. They elevate themselves by chauvinistically seductive rhetoric that insinuates reviving glories (“Make America Great Again”) of old for those who perceive themselves as victims of the establishment and political order. The same pattern abounds: Germans seething with anger from humiliations of World War I and perceived Jewish conspiracies of taking over the country; Serbs bearing ancient rage and mythic grudges against everybody in the Western Balkans; American white nationalists and racists against intrusive immigrants and ethnic diversity. And so on.

My generation that came of age under Milosevic’s Yugoslavia and Serbia  did not have the luxury of growing up in a normal society. We lived in the margins of a country dying a violent death—a country that had hijacked our formative years and flooded the streets with uniformed thugs that transformed political messages of hate and division into organized violence. In the beginning, that state-sponsored violence was sporadic and isolated and then it became systematic and deep until one day genocide ensued. There was no country left, no social harmony, not even a hope of ever patching up again the broken ethnic quilt.  We were enemies along ethnic lines. We remain so to this day— almost a generation later.

Perhaps it is this deep trauma of growing up in politics of fear, hate, exclusion, and violence that gripped me that night. The unthinkable horror of Donald Trump’s presidency was real. In the days that followed, I was dejected and even despaired over the idea of yet again packing up and leaving. But where would I go? America, it turns out, is not only my adopted home, but it is the country of my child, my seven-year old daughter whom I took along on the morning of November 8 to show her how we were voting. The idea of quitting America struck me as preposterous.

Yet, I still can not stop obsessing over the fact that so many millions of voters cast a vote for such a demonstrably unfit and dangerous man for the country’s highest office. Perhaps it is, as  Joseph Brodsky once suggested, that America has no memory or experience with authoritarian politics, and sometimes the American people want to flirt with the idea of electing someone who has all the makings of a strongman or a dangerous autocrat.

We have that dangerous president now and he comes at an opportune time when the executive branch is the most powerful it has ever been. It has vast powers to harass citizens, free press, and institutions. It is hard to predict what will this man do exactly— he is unpredictable—but one thing is for sure and that is the next four years are going to be the truest test for the world’s loudest democracy and its divided citizens.  

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