“There is an urgent, awful specialness to being young right now”
In the spring of 2016, I voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary for president. I’d gone to a rally that March, and Sanders had said things I’d never heard any politician say. He wanted to give Americans universal health care, economic equality, affordable college education, a more sustainable economy and easier access to reproductive health services. When I recall my excitement at these endeavors — and his — I feel the frustrated, pointless burn of misplaced naivete.
The future I imagined through him is so very different than the one I live in now.
Even though Sanders lost the Democratic primary in June 2016, I was still excited to vote in the presidential election. I thought that when I voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I would be voting for America’s first woman president. Besides, the fact that Sanders made it all the way to the primary felt like an omen of a coming progressive wave. This was the world my friends and I lived in: one where experts told us it was very likely a woman would be our next president, one where truth and democracy seemed possible even when they failed to create justice.
On Nov. 8, 2016, I voted in Palmer Commons and immediately texted my mother. She sent me a selfie with an “I voted” sticker on her forehead. I promised to call her later that night so we could celebrate together. My mom was one of the 6,972 people in Emmet County who voted for Hillary Clinton. 10,616 cast their ballot for Donald Trump. Michigan — like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — would go Republican for the first time since the 1980s.
As I walked through the Diag to my Sociology exam on Nov. 9, 2016, I tried not to let my mind wander away from Trump’s win. Later, my professor projected Hillary Clinton’s concession speech live in my history class. It seemed to mark the magnitude of the occasion. We were unashamed to cry with one another. A girl who had defended Trump during a class discussion the week before excused herself to the bathroom for a long time. When she returned, she looked embarrassed and only a little smug. I almost felt guilty that she was excluded from our collective grief.
As college students, national politics are at once distant and immediate. From the protest of the Vietnam War at Kent State University to the anti-Apartheid demonstrations at Harvard University and Wesleyan College, college campuses have always been hotbeds of political and social anxiety. Protests centered on individual issues — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Israel-Palestine, Brett Kavanaugh — still abound at the University. But many of the anxieties that have accompanied the Trump administration are difficult to understand and articulate, much less protest against effectively. What good would it do to march around Ann Arbor with signs decrying Russian collusion? To chant in the Diag about nepotism in Trump’s White House? The menace of the Trump administration vacillates between insidiously subtle and glaringly apparent, and students are coping with this uncertainty in a number of ways.
College culture has become self-conscious, half-ironic hedonism: Juuling and throwing away Juuls, binge-drinking but fetishizing health food, using Tinder for meaningless hookups while also secretly hoping to find love. We want immediate pleasure because things seem so bad right now, but we’re not ready to abandon a future that doesn’t require indulging in these temporary escapes.
Two years after the 2016 election, my classmates and I are living in the world that many of us feared. I am trying to remember a time when there wasn’t an endless barrage of news every day –– news that only serves as a reminder of how deeply bizarre and unbearably tragic Trump’s America is. For college students like myself, it’s hard to remember anything else. I’ve been having an unsettling sense of déjà vu this semester. Just as they did during the first semester of my freshman year, everyone is talking about voting. It’s making me think about how the world has changed over the past two years, and about how college is both a protection against, and a microcosm of, our country’s anxieties.
I’ve been wondering recently: Was I just guileless before the 2016 election? I know now that I entered college lulled to complacency by a false hope and security. As a white person, I recognize that America has always felt much safer for me than it has for people who hold minority identities. Still, I think it was more than youthful ignorance, white privilege and economic security that made the world seem so different two years ago. This is why I’m struggling to reconcile the near-immediate impact of the election on my sense of America and of the world.
Has everything always been so hateful and violent? Have people always been so cruel and selfish?
Sometimes my friends and I play a game where we name everything we are worried about. We start small and then we work our way out, and out, and out. This makes the scope and depth of our fears feel almost comical. It’s much worse to let the specter of our anxieties remain private.
Many of my friends share my identities: white, woman, middle-class, heterosexual. These majority identities protect us. Like numerous students at the University, I do not face immediate bodily harm from some of the things I am afraid of. At a university whose student body is majority white and wealthy, there’s a striking disconnect between anxiety and tangible impact.
There is a pervading sense on campus — among students as well as professors — that we are living in an unprecedented time, no matter what identities we hold. People are constantly making broad reference to the news or what’s been going on recently. They never need to explain. We all know. We are all worried.
What are we worried about? We are worried about our exam next week. We are worried about paying off our student loans. We are worried about getting a job when we graduate and about leaving the warm bubble of college. We are worried about being shot in our classrooms before we even have a chance to leave. We are worried about being shot in our synagogues and in our churches and in our newsrooms and at the movies and at the grocery store and in the street. We are worried about not being able to get birth control or a legal abortion, about being sexually assaulted and having our attacker walk free.
We are worried the National Guard will fire at the migrant caravan. We are worried Trump will issue an executive order to negate the birthright clause. We are worried about private prisons and nuclear weapons and Flint’s water and gerrymandering and voter fraud and Russian meddling in the 2016 election. We are worried about antibiotic resistance, PFAS, the UN Climate Report, Monsanto and the Sixth Mass Extinction.
Most of all, we are worried that as bad as things seem now, we will remember these years as the final ones of a dying country and a dying world. We are worried that right now is when we still had time to act — that these are the days and months when we could have saved ourselves and yet did not.
Of course, these issues did not begin when Trump was inaugurated, and many of them have nothing to do with him. Somehow, though, they feel connected. The past 18 months have been struck through with a particularly forbidden thrill. There is an urgent, awful specialness to being young right now. The threat of all-out chaos permeates everything, giving each day an aura of tense hyperreality.
For college students, it’s tempting to be cynical — especially while we’re still on campus and shielded, to some extent, by the distraction of classes, social lives and extracurriculars. It’s much more painful to devote ourselves to speaking out against what we deplore and still falling short. The amputation is far easier if we say we never cared about the limb in the first place, that it was gangrened and rotted long before we tried to save it. What is the limb in this metaphor — our rights? Our planet? Our future? I don’t know.
I think there are two ways to cope with the frantic anxiety of our time: numbing ourselves against the fear or trying to live with it somehow. I want to say — like we all do — that I’m choosing the latter option. I’m really trying. It’s just so much harder than I thought it would be.