My President, My Problem

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The NYC Women's March at dusk. Photos: Amy Lee Pearsall.

Last week, Donald Trump swore to uphold a Constitution that, even in his first few days, he seems determined to violate. As he spoke to the modest crowd, delivering a speech that he claimed to write but did not, the skies opened. Like drops of acid rain, the hashtag #NotMyPresident began to accumulate on social media.

Marchers stand with protest signs on 42nd Street in NYC.
Signs from the Women’s March in NYC.

#NotMyPresident seems to be everywhere right now — including on the Clyde Fitch Report as a video challenge. To participate, you shoot a video stating that Trump will not be your president until he addresses whatever issue is most important to you. Perhaps he will not be your president until he releases his tax returns, or is transparent as to what is really going on with Russia. Perhaps you need him to admit that climate change is real, or to promise to protect our national parks. You might want him to stand up for gun control, or pledge to do his part to uphold Roe v. Wade.

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You could also write a letter to him at the White House. Regardless of all the time he plans to spend in his golden tower on Fifth Avenue, and in spite of whatever hashtag you want to use (I personally am a fan of the John Lewis-inspired #IllegitimatePresident), he is still the 45th President of the United States. You may not support him, or his agenda, or his cabinet of deplorables. But as anyone who has ever spent time around the recovery community will tell you, admission is the first step.

Marchers in front of NYC's Grand Central Station.
A puppet at the Women’s March in front of NYC’s Grand Central Station.

Voicing your protest — assuming that is something you want to do — is important, and is your right. How you do so is your personal choice, and I will stand up for your right to express yourself until the day I die. That said, the words we choose (or we do not choose) are also important. As writers and speakers have proven through time immemorial, words have power. They can move, rally and inspire. Words can assume or deny accountability.

With that in mind, I feel I must claim this man as president. I do so as one might claim an estranged xenophobic, sociopathic, populist grandfather, one spiraling into dementia who keeps smuggling guns into the hospital, grabs at the nurses, and uses racial slurs on the staff: with embarrassment, trepidation, responsibility and no small amount of fear. Eventually the situation will draw to an inevitable conclusion; the question is simply how and when. He may not be at all like you. You may reject all for which he stands, but he is indeed one of yours, and one who requires watching. So I say this to you, with an open and weary heart: as an American, he is my president. As a constituent, he is my problem.

A speaker stands before a crowd on the steps of the New York Public Library.
Author A.M. Homes reads the words of poet Robert Frost at PEN America’s “Writers Resist: Louder Together” on the steps of the New York Public Library.

I have spent the last two months deep in thought as many of my colleagues have eloquently leant voice to a chorus of rage and dismay. I’ve attended various rallies and protests, many of which have dealt with First Amendment rights: freedom of speech, of press, of assembly, and of religion. It is the cornerstone of our Constitution — the very cornerstone that our president (the one I claim as my problem) has sworn to protect, but seems determined to challenge through his attacks on the media, his remarks against the religion of Islam, and veiled threats made toward his critics. One swift and heavy blow to the First Amendment could send cracks through the foundation of our democracy. Every time someone says “give the guy a chance,” they may as well be handing him a hammer.

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Those people are part of my burden as a citizen as well because we share this nation and there is clearly a divide between us. While I advocate participating in peaceful protest to defend or advance shared beliefs with members of my likeminded tribe, it is the people who don’t share my views or values that I need to somehow connect with and attempt to understand. I could try harder, as could they, as could we all, but to change the situation even a little, I must claim my part in that fraught relationship first.

A crowd gathers in front of the New York Public Library.
A crowd gathers for PEN America’s “Writers Resist: Louder Together” rally at the NY Public Library.

To not claim something unsavory in our relationships or in our own home is to avoid ownership. It shows disconnect, apathy and a lack of engagement. It is how we find ourselves at 2am in the bathroom, facing down the Grendel of all waterbugs, mumbling, “Not my cockroach.” The same applies to our government. If there is a problem in the house that serves us all, we as citizens must claim it and do all we can to rectify it.

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For those of us who fight better for others than ourselves, it is now our job to stay attuned to the rights of our fellow countrymen and women, regardless of race, sex, how they worship, how they identify, or whether or not they were born here. We must ask ourselves how we might best be of service and then take action. We need to get comfortable dialing people with opposing views and forging a connection with the person on the other end of the line. We must ask ourselves how we can stand up for the democratic process to prove to other, younger, burgeoning democracies that in spite of it all, it is worth the fight.

A peaceful crowd holding flashlights gathers in front of a theatre.
Theater artists in solidarity at NYC’s Public Theater to participate in The Ghostlight Project.

This may require a fair amount of patience, strength and vigilance from the American people. It will certainly require it from me, but there is a difference between being vigilant and being indignant, between taking active responsibility for resistance and just resisting. To say that someone who was recently inaugurated in the rain is not your president is no different than to buy into an alternative truth. For the good of our country, let’s all acknowledge the actual reality of what’s standing before us on the National Mall.