Just over 4 years ago, on November 9, 2016, I woke up, as many other fellow Americans, to the fact that Donald Trump had won the electoral college vote. Like my fellow Americans, I showered and got dressed, crying through the process and dabbing makeup on my now puffy eyes. My black suit seemed appropriate in light of the day’s events.
I walked to the Richard J. Daley courthouse in downtown Chicago, and I went up to the courtroom assigned to my case. I sat, quietly, with incredulity. The courtroom too was silent — even the usually chatty litigation attorneys were shocked by the news of the day. What was happening?
My reflection abruptly ended when I heard the judge call out: “Connor v. Connor.”
I stood up. I looked around, even though I knew the other side in the case was not attending. I would be the only person stepping up to the bench to conference with the judge.
The judge looked at me, with my puffy eyes and my black on black on black ensemble, and she proceeded to ask me routine questions.
“You’re an attorney?”
“Yes, your Honor.”
“And, you’re representing yourself?”
“Yes, your Honor.”
“And, the defendant is representing himself?”
“Yes, your Honor.”
“But he will not be appearing today.”
“No, your Honor.”
“And both parties have agreed to the terms of the marital settlement agreement?”
“Yes, your Honor.”
“I see you’ve waived any rights to spousal maintenance. Are you able to support yourself?”
The world had just been set on fire with Trump’s election, I was 9 months into unintentionally starting my own law firm, and my 8 month marriage was coming to an end.
Could I support myself? I rolled her words in my head, thinking beyond the intent of the judge’s question about my financial stability. Could I support myself as a party of one?
I lifted my head and made eye contact with the judge for the first time, and I knew I could only answer one way.
“Yes, your Honor.”
After a few more questions, the Judge declared: “Judgment for dissolution of marriage is entered,” legally terminating a relationship spanning 7 years of unmarried ordinariness and 8 months of marital hell.
My brother sat quietly in the back of the courtroom. I had not realized he was there. He walked out with me and gave me a bear hug. I bit my lip to keep from crying because I knew he needed to get back to work and would have trouble leaving me if I was a sobbing wreck at the courthouse. We parted ways, and I got into a cab to head to my office for the balance of the day.
As I looked at Chicagoans outside my window starting to assemble to protest Trump’s election, the totality of that morning crashed into my body. Not only had my personal world been shaken to its core, the world around me seemed to manifest my sadness with the skies shaded in a desolate gray.
Where did this leave me? I sobbed — loudly — and the taxi driver asked me if I was ok. I managed to squeak out a “Yes, I’m okay, thank you,” even though — quite clearly — I was anything but okay.
As I watched crowds of my fellow Chicagoans take to the streets in collective anger over the election of Donald J. Trump, the devastation I felt over loss of my own status quo felt as though my loss was mirrored in the pain and anger of my fellow progressives. I knew that my internal world was not the only thing that was changing. The world itself was changing too, and the only thing I knew with certainty was that I knew nothing of what was to come.
On the day of my divorce, also known as Trump’s election day, I walked home from the office and sat on my drab brown couch in my unfamiliarly silent studio apartment. I stared at my phone. No messages from my now ex-husband. Just notifications about the election and Trump’s apparent victory. I felt words bubbling up, like bile in my throat, but I could not put my finger on what I wanted to say. I did not want to post about my divorce online because I did not want to make my news public until my parents had the chance to share news of my divorce privately with concerned family and friends that had just attended my wedding in July 2015. But, I needed to say something, anything. Too many new facts overwhelmed me.
Trump won the election.
You are a single woman.
I am alone.
I don’t have anyone to make dinner for anymore.
Trump won, even though Hillary won more votes.
I was terrified.
I began typing a post on Facebook. Until that day, my posts stayed on the safe side — largely focused on frivolity and lighthearted commentary, safe from criticism and devoid of substance.
“Congratulations, racists and bigots of America.”
I stared at the words I had typed. I knew it would shock some and upset others. I tried revising the post to soften the language, but I kept coming back to these 6 words. I pressed “Post.”
Promptly, fiery posts from Facebook friends that had voted for Trump sprawled my comments. They were offended by my words, that I would think that they were racist on the sole basis of their vote for president.
Whispers of shame and anxiety began to echo in my ear. Why would I put myself out there like that?
But, slowly, there were other comments that shared my sentiment, and I received messages from long-lost friends expressing gratitude that I had spoken my truth at that moment, which was that I was angry and scared.
The whispers of shame began to grow quiet as I felt something different. A new fact arose in my consciousness.
I am free.
Free, I was. Free from the binds of a toxic relationship. Free to pursue whatever kind of work I wanted with my new law firm, but also free from a joint income household. Free to speak my truth, but also free from my old security blankets.
I was free, but my freedom signified that, for the first time in 8 years, I was alone. No more ex-husband. No more Obama. This was new terrain, and I had no idea what to do. My old network remained in the far suburbs. My white ex-husband with whom I had spent a majority of my time until the divorce was gone, and I no longer had the mirage of his protection. He had always discouraged community involvement and criticized my efforts to network and meet my neighbors, but he was no longer a factor. He erred on the side of silence, and I realized that I no longer had to fear his criticism. I was free to speak my truth, and I didn’t have to ask anyone for permission.
In some ways, the simultaneous occurrences of my divorce and Trump’s election felt like my past was dictating my future, that my next steps would push me back into a toxicity similar to that I had just escaped in my marriage. Alas, just as I became free from the binds of one unhealthy relationship to fall involuntarily into a forced new relationship that would span for the next four plus years — the new relationship with my country following Donald Trump’s election.
Since that fateful November day in 2016, our country has been held hostage in what feels like an endless shithole of tweets, narcissism, bigotry, xenophobia, and showmanship. Since that day, I have felt the eye of racism look at me with more scrutiny than years before. Don’t get me wrong — I have suffered plenty of discrimination throughout my life, but when two different racists repeat the same thing, they are feeding off the same rotting fish head. Within one week alone, I was told three times to go back to where I came from because I stated that I believe that Black Lives Matter. An opposing party interrogated me during a closing because he simply couldn’t believe that I — an Indian American woman — was handling a multimillion-dollar commercial transaction.
Within months after Trump’s elections, spaces that previously felt somewhat safe no longer offered the same security, and this was my experience as a South Asian American — meaning, while I am a minority, I am a member of the “model minority,” and enjoy certain privilege not extended to other communities of color such as the Black and Latinx communities in America. While I felt unsafe, my feelings were no comparison to the fear felt by Black Americans as their brothers and sisters continued to be murdered at the hands of police, never treated as innocent until proven guilty but rather assumed to be guilty by verdict of the police. My feelings were no comparison to the refugees seeking sanctuary for their children are instead brutalized at the border and separated from their babies. Emblazoned by Trump’s rhetoric, quiet racists reclaimed their voices of bigotry in the era of Trump.
As the days of my new life as a divorcée continue to equal the number of days during which Trump would hold his newfound presidential power, there have been (many) times where I’ve asked myself what would be worse: still being married to my ex or another 4 years of Trump’s America. I have wondered (with, admittedly, great narcissism and self-absorption) whether having to live in Trump’s America was punishment for failing at my marriage. Was this the universe’s way of reminding me that I would always be subject to the rule of a white man? Was some sort of divine retribution that my decision to disrupt my status quo, my decision to divorce, my decision to start a law firm, my decision to live my life alone, my decision to not have children, that these decisions were wrong? I felt that I had betrayed my role to society by walking away from my marriage, the eventual babies, the white picket fence, and living in Trump’s America was my punishment. I realize the irrationality and the narcissism inherent in this line of thought, but this was not an intellectual understanding — it was an emotional feeling, rooted in feelings of shame and rejection.
Don’t worry — I have realized that this line of thinking was not only irrational, but that I had imposed on myself the social constructs of what makes a traditionally good woman. I had spent my years with my ex trying to keep him happy first and making myself happy second, thinking myself lucky to be in a relationship. I had judged myself in a way that I thought society would judge me, and I made myself the villain in my own story. I perceived myself as a villain when, in fact, I had made the right decision for all parties involved when I walked away from a toxic relationship, especially before we continued to pursue a life together and have children, etc. I viewed myself through the lens of what I thought society expected of me, and I felt I had failed. Over time, I’ve learned what led me to staying with someone that simply wasn’t right for me and have taken responsibility for my contribution to the breakdown of my relationship. By recognizing my own shortcomings and missteps, I’ve been able to engage in healthier and more productive relationships, both romantic and platonic.
With Trumpism flourishing in the background, I had to somehow build a new life for myself, regardless of my past. I began networking in spaces that aligned with my values, making unexpected friendships with fellow businesswomen that nourished my battered soul and helped me find a new voice, one with confidence and honesty, untainted by worries of external judgment or self-censorship. I began learning what I liked and what I didn’t like. I remembered my values, and I started prioritizing adherence to my value system over everything else. These were not absolute remedies; rather, these were steps in learning who I was outside of my toxic relationship.
In many ways, Trump has caused our nation to speak backward into a place where overt racism is unquestioned, where Black and brown communities are not only ignored as before but denigrated by the rhetoric of our federal leadership and again abandoned as a result of the American caste system, where our nation’s steps toward change as a nation have been perceived as pawnable pieces in a political fire sale. His rhetoric has created many monsters, but it has also prompted formerly silent citizens to speak their truths. It has forced many to return to the fundamental questions of fairness and morality taught to us as children.
What is right? What is wrong? What is good? What is bad?
For so many of us, the past 4 years have felt like a reminder of how easily half a country can be rendered insignificant if the right branches of government fall under the same partisan umbrella, but it has also been a reminder of something more important. Madam Secretary Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as our nation’s Secretary of State, is well known for what is called her “Doability Doctrine”: ‘You deal with the pragmatic situation you have. You may have to scale back your objectives and decide that just because you cannot do everything does not mean you should do nothing.’’ In many ways, Secretary Albright’s Doability Doctrine has underwritten the battle fought by progressives against the Trumpian changes of the past four years. We have been faced with dozens of challenges to the basic tenants of our democracy, but, where we can get things done, we have — states and cities taking the initiative to fight the pandemic when the federal government failed, courts refusing to interfere with lawful elections, millions of Americans from all backgrounds protesting the murder of Black Americans at the hands of police and racists resulting in many local and state level changes in police policy, electing a record number of diverse progressives to the US House of Representatives in 2018, and mobilizing a safe and progressive vote in 2020 even in a pandemic.
The losses suffered by our country in the past four years have been significant, tragic, and widespread; but, we have been reminded of our collective strength, even in the face of a divided country. As I sit in this moment, watching a lame duck president fighting the reality of his defeat, I am reminded of what the Court had asked of me in 2016.
“Are you able to support yourself?”
While I was wholly uncertain of what my life would look like without my unhealthy marriage, I knew that the answer had to be yes because there was no other option for me. I couldn’t go back to the life I had left with my ex, and the future was not completely clear; but, I knew that I had the tools to support myself and that I would somehow piece them together to make a new life.
America, as we divorce Donald Trump and deal with the devastation that our toxic 4-year marriage with him has been, this is the question that has been on my mind -
America, are we able to support our democracy in spite of everything Trump has done? Who are we now that Trump is out but his followers remain? Can our nation meet the challenges of white nationalism and supremacy, xenophobia, and racism? Can we support our democracy in spite of the fact of our new conservative Supreme Court and the real risk that some of our nation’s greatest achievements in equalizing our society are on the line?
The short term (and lawyer-y) answer is, apparently, yes. We won the election and voted Trump out, but not without a fight. The changes and obstacles ahead will require a more voluminous support by the collective of American progressives, a support that requires consistent citizen engagement — not just every 4 years. A support that believes that Black Lives Matter every single minute of every day regardless of the news. A support that demands and holds all officials, even those that we voted for, accountable for their decisions. A support that demands truth over ease, transparency over coddling, empathy over bullying. Like any divorcee, our country must look introspectively at our relationship with Trump to make sure we don’t go down the same road again. We must explore the flaws inherently built into our social systems to understand how nearly half our country voted for Trump in light of the past 4 years and seek to overcome those flaws, somehow. The 2020 election marks the beginning of a potentially new chapter for America, but the efficacy of this new chapter will be dictated by our willingness to confront the real conflict between white supremacism and anti-racism that exists in our society.
If we refuse to understand what got us into bed with Trump (and almost made us stay there for another 4 years), then we will surely end up there again.
We don’t know what the future will look like for our country, whether there will be concession speech from Trump and if he will leave office quietly, whether the Supreme Court will go down a path of judicial activism and relitigating settled law, whether Trumpism is here to stay. But, what we do know is this: We know that we, collectively, have the tools to support ourselves as we move into this next chapter.
Our tools are many. Experienced and diverse leadership in place now on state and local levels and more leadership on the way come January 20, 2021. Collaborations within and among communities of color and allies to make equality possible. A collective voice that cherishes and holds sacred the essential multiculturalism that makes America great. A youth voice that is unafraid of speaking out in the face of injustice. Persistence in the face of discrimination. Love in the face of hate. A collective readiness to mature as a society, as evidenced by the election of the first Black and Asian American woman to the 2nd highest office in our government. We have the tools to build, for the first time, an America that offers to every American unfettered and unalterable rights of equality and respect.
The need for these tools will not disappear with Donald Trump’s presidency; rather, these tools will become even more important for us to create change in the days, weeks, months, and years to come. Keep these tools close and keep your fellow citizens closer as we continue to fight for a new America, one that fulfills the promise of liberty and equality for every single American, regardless of what they look like, who they love, or where they live. Hope underwrote America’s survival in spite of Donald Trump, and hope will continue to exist as long as we are willing to fight for our most essential democratic principles — freedom, equality for all, truth, and compassion.
After all, breaking up is hard to do, even when you know it’s good for you.