Eight years ago, I watched the live stream of Obama’s inauguration while chatting online to my friends across the world. Through the whole ceremony, I was holding my breath, waiting for what I believed to be the not unlikely gunshot. When the festivities ended, and it became clear that Obama had been allowed to take office, it finally became real for me.
During the ceremony, in between making jokes and sharing the emotional weight of an event as seminal as the swearing in of the first Black president of the US, I wrote a long letter. In my flair for melodrama, I tend to write letters to the future, creating space to imagine what the world will be like when they’re read, who I hope to be. This one, unusually, was to the children I hoped to have.
I found the letter a few years ago, and it made me sad. It was so full of hope. So sure that this was a turning point in the world – that if America, a country founded on racist ideology and with racism encoded into every structure of every institution, could elect a Black president, then maybe we had reached the point where the tide raises all boats.
I wrote to my potential children about how I hoped they lived in a world where the idea of a Black president was not unusual, not unlikely. I hoped they lived in a culture where the idea that we were surprised was bizarre. I hoped they understood the weight of this moment that I was experiencing, as I watched the faces of people who had lived under the Jim Crow laws and marched, been beaten bloody and broken, for the right to just be part of the society they lived in. The people who had been born without the right to vote, now watching a Black man take the stage and swear to give his life over to the country that finally seemed like it might be worthy of him.
I wrote that they should understand that it wasn’t just that he was Black. We were also watching the end of the nightmare that was the Presidency of George W Bush, an administration which had plunged the world into perpetual war for profit and destroyed the image of the US in the wider world. The world had changed in so many ways since he took office in the opening days of the new millennium, and it seemed darker, scarier, more unstable. We knew that Obama could not live up to the weight of hype that had raised him to the highest office, but we hoped that he would restore the balance, heal the divisions. We hoped he would be a beacon.
In his inaugural address, while I held my breath, I cried as he spoke about closing Guantanamo, protecting whistleblowers, restoring justice to the country, creating inclusion where it didn’t exist. Of course they were pretty words – he was always a skilled orator – but he seemed like he was committed to them.
Of course, we all know how his presidency turned out. He did restore the image of the US – maybe not to its original place, but at least to a position where they were not seen as an actively hostile threat to world peace. At least for a few years. As the consequences of the wars became clear, the people who had warned about the cost of entering wars without clear goals and without clear plans for reconstruction and responsibility were vindicated in the most terrible ways. The rise of the death cults was entirely predictable. Sadly, the response from Obama was to increase exponentially the extrajudicial assassinations of whole families in other countries. He expanded the surveillance network which was exposed by Edward Snowden, he created an army of drones which spread terror and death across the world. I cannot pretend to know the weight of the decisions he had to take. I know I could never make them. I know I would be crushed by the responsibility, and I am not privy to the intelligence he was shown or the advice he was given. It’s easy for me to judge him for his choices in these matters, not having the full picture. However, it’s also right to judge him for them, because they are his responsibility, for good or ill.
Through it all, though, it was clear that he did not take these decisions lightly. However much I might have disagreed with him, I never doubted that his choices were made based on evidence, reason and serious examination. The world has changed, and the actions of the President have changed with it.
Tonight, the last night he will be President, I am haunted by a song I heard before the election. It has been haunting me since the results came in, but particularly in the last few weeks. Sara Bareilles was asked to write a song about how the outgoing President sees his replacement, with Leslie Odom Jr singing it.
You ask am I angry?
And I’m at a loss for words
After all we’ve done
Every battle hard won
Every hair gone gray
In the name of this place
In a history plagued
With incredible mistakes
Still I pledge my allegiance to these
United divided States
I’m at a loss for words. I genuinely can’t imagine how Obama must feel tonight, about the hand the office and the weight of responsibility to a man supremely unfit and unprepared. To a man who cannot be trusted not to hand the keys to their mortal enemy. To a man who celebrates his vacuity, bigotry and malice. I cannot imagine how it must feel to have given his life and his health to the country he loves, only to watch that country betray everything his own ascendancy was supposed to represent. I think about ‘Hamilton’, and George Washington’s desperate desire to ensure that the country he had sacrificed so much for was capable of continuing without him. I’m at a loss for words.
I want to talk about tomorrow, about the marches being held across America, and across the world in solidarity. Every major city in Scotland is having a protest to stand with the women in Washington, with all the marginalised people at risk from this nightmare.
I look back at the letter I wrote, about my hope that the world would never again know a president like George W Bush, would never succumb to ignorance and fear again. I could not have imagined that the inauguration I watched was certainly a turning point, just one where people were so furious that a Black man could be in charge that they would choose annihilation over progress. I could not have imagined that I would never feel nostalgia for W, that I would ever consider the mass murderer at least a person who wanted to be seen as a good man.
I have no idea what the next few years will bring for any of us. I don’t know if I’ll write anything tomorrow, partly because to imagine the future is an exercise in nihilism right now. My newsfeed tonight juxtaposed these two stories. The first, by Connie Schultz, about how the fact that Obama’s interview about his love of books included mention of a gift he gave to his daughter – a Kindle loaded with the books which shaped him and which he thought would help her be the best, strongest version of herself – revealed just how wide the gulf between the outgoing and incoming presidents truly is.
The second was a piece about how Trump spoke in an interview about how troubled teens are great in bed, talking about fucking the 18 year old Lindsay Lohan. He was 58 at the time.
I don’t know how to counter people who aren’t working from a baseline of reason and a concept of the common good. I don’t know how to reach people who don’t care about who they hurt as long as it’s funny or they get what they want. I don’t know how to convince people who refuse to engage with not just facts, but what facts actually are.
I don’t know how the next few years will go. I don’t know how the next week will go. I stand with everyone who is afraid and I will fight the good fight with my last breath. I wish I had wisdom to offer or comfort to give, but all I have is the knowledge that I know fierce, passionate, angry, wonderful people who will listen and learn and resist. That might be enough.