Fire is an interesting thing and used in so many ways. To bring people together, to cleanse, to destroy. Today it seems fires are everywhere, and you could easily be forgiven for thinking that the world is going up in flames.
These past few months have been surreal to say the least, and I like many other people in the world have been struggling. Struggling because I can’t see my family, struggling to keep kids entertained and help them understand what’s happening, struggling to adapt to this so called new normal and struggling to wrap my head around what could possibly happen next, and perhaps more importantly struggling to understand what is going on in the world.
Like many others, I have been glued to the news watching what has been going on in the US, and the fires that have ignited over the murder of George Floyd. The US is on fire, both literally and figuratively, however this did not just begin with the murder of Mr. Floyd, the fire was always there, and has steadily grown in size, fueled by the oxygen of hatred and mistruth.
The fire began four years ago, and I will never forget the day the match was lit.
Four years ago six of us went down to Ohio to volunteer for the Hilary Clinton campaign, we felt that we couldn’t simply sit back and even give Trump the chance to win and all wanted to be part of history. To be there on Election Day to see the election of the first female President of the United States.
We left full of optimism and excitement at the prospect of being able to get involved and I think the majority if not all of us expected a Clinton win, because let’s face it – how could anyone with an iota of morals or common sense for that matter hand the White House to Donald Trump. Now, I’m not saying Clinton is without her faults, far from it in fact, but when standing the two candidates next to each other, quite honestly the decision with respect to who to elect seemed relatively straightforward.
Looking back now, we probably should have seen the flags that began to crop up as a warning to us.
The first red flag came when we crossed the border, having to state our reason for entering into the US. The border control officer asked us what we were doing, we replied that we were going down to volunteer on an election campaign, purposely leaving out the name of the candidate, then the question came, who are you volunteering for? Our response was, “does it matter?” in an attempt to tread carefully, and he replied, “No, they’re both idiots”. Eyebrow raising to say the least, but I suppose not entirely unexpected, as it seemed to some Americans that neither choice on the ballot before them was particularly inspiring.
Election Day – the two most exciting words to any election geek, and we headed over to the campaign office or home as those of you reading this who have worked on a campaign will understand.
Unfortunately, the second red flag quickly presented itself.
Despite being greeted by an obviously enthusiastic team, the cracks and the lack of organization were painfully obvious to the campaign vets among us. No one really knew what to do with the bunch of Canadians who stormed the office. We got the rundown from the campaign team on where we were needed and what we could do to help, handed our canvass sheets (which were weeks old), street maps, buttons, door knockers, other campaign swag and hit the pavement for Clinton/Kaine. And while there were two or three elderly volunteers making phone calls (some to a great deal of dismay while we were being briefed) there was an apparent lack of other volunteers that day. The smattering of staff in the office appeared to be core staff with no intention of hitting the doorstep like we were about to, and as any campaign vet would know, that is the most meaningful contact you can make with voters, especially on E-day.
We were deployed out to your typical American neighbourhood, like the kind you would see on any movie, idealizing the American dream. Wide streets, huge trees overhanging them and an American flag perched on just about every house on the street. So door knocking we went to pull the vote.
I suppose that’s where the real trouble began, when you’re pulling the vote, you’re only as good as your data, and to be frank, in this case it was shit. Which, given what we were used to from our own campaigns and the storied ground game of Obama’s amazing GOTV (get out the vote) strategies was both shocking and disappointing to say the least. Supporters were misidentified more often than not, if they even still lived at that address (Josh and Lisa, if you’re reading this you will remember the elusive Stephanie). The actual canvass sheets and areas we were supposed to cover were also quite a bit disjointed and to honest didn’t make much sense to those of us who had spent time pulling the vote in previous elections. The other curious thing to us, was that there seemed to be zero support from a larger or more central campaign. Very few check-ins, updates etc. which again, given what we were used to was a bit surprising, especially given everything that was at stake in this election.
We soon saw the massive, obnoxious Trump signs, disturbingly outnumbering the ones for Clinton.
Then came the calls…asking us to go check on a poll because reports of voter intimidation had stated to roll into the campaign office. Stalwart Trump supporters lined up in their lawn chairs, sitting outside the entrance to the poll, harassing anyone from the Clinton camp. In Canada, we have rules about that, no campaigning of any kind within 50 meters of a voting location, apparently that wasn’t the case in the US, and if it was, no one seemed to care.
Maybe it’s because we’re Canadian but, we also seem to have a higher level of etiquette and decency when it comes to our own elections. So when we heard we should be careful because some teenagers and had been arrested the previous night for setting Clinton elections signs on fire, we were a little taken aback. Yet another red flag and perhaps the first smell of smoke, the telltale sign of fire, and a sign of things to come.
By all accounts the rest of the day unfolded more or less like any other, but there was this sense that something was off. Maybe it was the rain that was coming or maybe it was because of the feeling that we were getting from voters on the doorstep. Maybe it was because we felt a little lost, like trying to find our way (ok my way) out of the stupid rain ponchos we were in by the end of the day.
Either way, something just didn’t feel right.
By the early evening the last efforts to pull the vote should have been in full swing, and our team had returned to the campaign office, pulled the sheets and began the last rounds of identifying marks before the polls closed. What was odd to me was that it seemed foreign to the campaign office staff that we would be calling at that time, as they had all started to settle in to watch the massacre unfold.
We knew we had to reach as many marks as we could before voting closed, even though our team of six had covered more ground than their volunteers had in at least a week. We didn’t have time to go back out, if we had we would have been lucky to get half a street done taking into account travel time, so we went to our own playbook and set up shop at the back of the campaign office and began calling the last marks on our lists, encouraging them to get to the polls if they hadn’t already done so.
As I said, things had felt a little off all day and we needed to do everything we could to make sure Trump did not win the White House.
With the polls closed and not much left to do until the counts came in, the team went to grab something to eat, eyes glued to the multiple TV screens. We watched some of the counts from the earlier polls roll in and the longer we sat there, the more and more I wanted to sink into the floor.
It was not looking good.
I remember so clearly Richard and I looking at each other, knowing exactly what the other one was thinking, something that neither of us could bring ourselves to say out loud, “she’s going to lose”, as if not saying it would somehow prevent the loss from happening. I think it was Richard who finally broke and said it and we conferred with each other in hushed tones, neither of us able to tell the rest of the team, what we knew. A team who still seemed hopelessly optimistic, especially the half of us who had not worked on many if any campaigns.
For anyone who has worked on a campaign, you know that when you start saying, “well we still have this (insert name of state, county or poll)”, you know you are in trouble and sitting in that little restaurant that is exactly what started happening and what we heard repeatedly in the campaign office that night.
To be honest, I had a hard time wrapping my head around how they were so optimistic still when the writing was already on the wall. Looking back now I think that maybe they quite honestly couldn’t or didn’t want to believe that there was any way that Trump could possibly win.
Much to our dismay, Trump did, in fact, win. Not because the majority of Americans voted for him, but because of the number of Electoral College votes he amassed over Clinton. A tough thing to come to terms with, when you consider that more than 3 million Americans did not want this man as their President.
So we sat in that campaign office, surrounded by men and women of all ages, and races, with tears streaming down their faces at the prospect of their future living in Trump’s America and soon we began fielding questions about what it was like to live in Canada, to varying degrees of seriousness. We stayed with them for as long as we could, thanking them for letting us help, but before long the room became suffocating and we needed to get out of there to process what had just happened.
After many rounds of hugs, and thank yous and promises to send information about the best places to live in Canada, our small shell-shocked team of six left the campaign office in search of the closest place to find a drink.
As we drank, we watched the numbers continue to roll in, solidifying the Electoral College votes that would catapult this reality TV personality to the highest office in America. We sat there in disbelief asking ourselves, and each other: did this really happen? Most importantly, HOW did it happen?
Were we the only ones watching the campaign and listening to what this man was saying? Are Canadians that much more logical than Americans? Did no one realize that the “Drunk Trump” videos hadn’t actually changed what was coming out of his mouth as opposed to just slowing it down? For God’s sake, the man talked about grabbing a woman “by the pussy” and was the subject of countless accusations of sexual assault and racist behavior throughout the campaign and even before that and they still elected him. Excuse my language here but I think we were all thinking it: how in the ever living fuck did this happen.
Nothing made sense in that moment to any of us, and I think it’s fair to say that most if not all of us were terrified what it would be like to wake up in Trump’s America. The only thing we knew for sure was that we could not wait to get out and in some sick masochistic way, observe from a distance.
I remember going to bed that night, and thinking, tomorrow I am going to wake up and this will have all been a bad dream but here’s the thing about wishful thinking: it’s a wish, not reality.
By the time the long sleepless hours of the night had ticked by we were beyond ready to leave, and amidst the dread that filled us, we had the comfort of knowing that we could.
The drive home was long and exhausting, and the amount of emotions radiating from each member of our team that were trapped inside that caravan was overwhelming. The needle swung from outrage, disbelief, fear, humour to total silence. And it was that silence that spoke volumes.
To us, or maybe it was just me, I felt like I was witnessing the beginning of a fire starting, or maybe it was the smoldering of what once was. I could not understand how a country that had twice elected a progressive, inspirational leader could have possibly elected someone like Donald Trump to replace him.
As we continued our long, emotionally charged ride home what happened next could be considered pathetic fallacy, the actual manifestation of the impending sense of doom that everyone, was feeling.
As we got closer to the border, the skies began to darken, and when I say darken I don’t mean a simple clouding over, it was almost unnatural, and they kept getting darker and darker the further we drove.
As with everything on that trip, it didn’t seem right so we started checking the news and the internet to see if there was a major storm coming or if there was something else going on to explain the blackness that seemed to be taking over the sky. After a few minutes of searching, someone found the answer. We learned that a major fire had broken out at a 1,000,000 square foot warehouse that was formerly part of the Bethlehem Steel complex in Lackawanna, New York, just south of Buffalo, and that the darkening sky that seemed to chase us to the border was part of an ash cloud that extended 30 miles to the south of the site of the fire.
Before my eyes was the first tangible fire of the Trump Presidency. After seeing sparks throughout the entire election campaign and almost literally hearing the match lit when they announced that Trump had won the election, we had a fire and although Trump had nothing to do with it, it’s the imagery of it that has stuck with me to this day.
At the time we joked that it was started by highly educated women rioting at the election of Trump, joined by members of every minority community in America. Little did we know that soon enough those groups would be starting fires of another kind, fires that continue to burn to this day.
By the time we got to the border the sky was black with ash and as we looked out the rear window one more time before crossing the border the last thing we saw was quite literally America on fire. A fire that is still burning, with the man they elected as President continually throwing accelerant after accelerant on the blaze and fanning the flames of hatred and division, and otherness with every lie that comes out of his ignorant mouth.
Looking back at that trip and the entire election campaign, it’s no surprise that America and its citizens find themselves in the position that they are today and it’s hard not to look back at that November 9, 2016 fire as a warning shot if not a sign of things to come.
It would be fair to say that Trump cannot be blamed for every problem Americans are facing. While he did not cook up COVID-19 in a lab and personally inject it in his citizens, the response of his government can certainly be blamed for its spread and being the leading country for cases, more than tripling the total cases of the country with the second most cases and a comparable population size. While he did not personally place his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while his friends held him down, the choice to vilify protesters and call them “THUGS” was a choice that is all his own. Not even a month ago, angry white citizens took to state capitals, guns in hand to protest the COVID-19 lockdowns and were referred to as good people by Trump. A few years back a flock of white nationalist college aged boys (not men, boys) in Charlottesville protested and marched with tiki torches and Trump was quick to say there was blame on “both sides”. His blatant disregard for facts, complete lack of empathy and his obsession with his ego as a direct result of his extreme narcissistic personality is what has led to all 50 states uniting as one for the first time in well, possibly ever.
But as I write this, I would be remiss to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Trump, he was after all elected by the people, so the American people themselves must take some of the responsibility for the current state of their country.
What we are seeing in America underscores the incredible importance of the sanctity of our democratic institutions and the importance of electing leaders who are actually capable of leading. Leaders at all levels of government must be elected based on their merit and qualification to hold the position. Municipal, county and state elections are just as important as the one that determines who gets to sit behind the resolute desk. We need to stop electing leaders based on vapid traits such as age, sex, looks, and entertainment value, and to be clear, Canadians are just as susceptible to this as Americans.
These elections are not high-school popularity contests and we need to stop treating them as such. It is time to stop the bullshit and actually become educated and smart voters and with that voters who actually show up.
As we get closer and closer to the November 3rd, 2020 American Presidential Election and as I continue to watch what is unfolding in the US, and the fires that are burning, my mind is constantly pulled to that trip the six of us took four years ago to try and stop Trump. In the end, he was elected and despite our optimism and our hope, we felt as though we failed because we couldn’t stop it from happening. But Americans failed America that day and I only hope that what has happened and what has been happening over the past four years is a wakeup call for them.
Americans have the tools and the knowledge required to put the wildfire in the US out. The test this November will be whether or not they decide to use them. Be better, America. Be better.