Inauguration Eve: PEN Writers Respond

By Robert Jensen

Published in PEN Center USA · January, 2017

On the eve of the inauguration, we asked writers and journalists to share short essays of strength, hope, reflection, and resistance. These essays are part of a series that demonstrates PEN Center USA’s continued efforts to defend freedom of expression.

The election of Donald Trump reflects the failure of America. The tough question: Who is responsible? Whom do we blame?

Is the problem Trump’s self-aggrandizing authoritarian charisma? Or is it really the fault of the wealthy—the top 10%, or maybe just the top 1%, or the 0.1%—who as a class seem incapable of empathy and solidarity? Or Trump voters’ willingness to embrace a carnival barker rather than think critically about who really rigs the system? The Republican Party’s ideological fanaticism? The hypocrisy of the politicized evangelical Christian community that suddenly decided a candidate’s character was irrelevant?

The Democratic Party’s preference for the three-decade-old Clinton program of privileging wealth and “experts” over an energized grassroots? The bitterness of some Sanders supporters that led them to minimize the danger of Trump? The apathetic who don’t engage politically because they believe the system to be corrupt beyond redemption?

What about the failure of systems, notably of capitalism and U.S. imperialism, not only ignored by conservatives but downplayed by most liberals? The collective failure to face the everyday realities of patriarchy and white supremacy? The failure of humans to recognize the catastrophic impact of our high-energy/high-technology indulgence, with the United States leading the way to the edge of the cliff?

Wherever we drop the blame, I’m tempted to scramble to make sure it isn’t too close to me. After all, I’m an activist fighting illegitimate structures of authority, but one willing to make pragmatic decisions about political choices at any given moment. I’m a teacher who brings critical perspectives into the classroom. I’m a writer who uses his limited visibility to challenge systems and structures of power.

But I can’t ignore reality: I’m a failure, too. More accurately, I’m part of the great American failure. We are not all equally responsible for that failure, but we all are part of the failed American project. “America”—the country itself, and its affluence—is built on a domination/subordination logic that immiserates the most vulnerable and relentlessly degrades the larger living world. That is the America we all live in, live with, are haunted by.

America is a failed project. Trump asserts “make America great again” as a promise. I take it as a threat.

It’s a bad feeling, the awareness of this failure, and I can’t shake it, and I shouldn’t try to, and neither should anyone else. For the next four years (let’s not ponder the possibility of eight), there are opportunities for resistance that we should take up, vigorously. But let’s let that bad feeling linger. There’s something to learn from it.