As I boarded the Boston flight that was the first leg of my trip home to Vancouver, I passed a well-heeled, grey-haired white man conducting a phone call as loudly as if he were in a private corner office.
Americans now know exactly what kind of country they live in, and the reality is far worse than many would have imagined. #USpoli #cdnpoli #Kavanaugh #Trump
“Lisa Murkowski should be flogged,” he growled, visibly pained despite the comfort of his business-class seat. “What she’s done is simply inexcusable. Inexcusable!”
It had been a couple of hours since I’d checked my phone for the latest news on the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, so I wasn’t sure what had my fellow passenger so infuriated: Had Murkowski, an Alaska Senator who is a moderate Republican, betrayed the women of America by advancing Kavanaugh’s nomination? Or had she betrayed her party by voting against him?
And by extension, how did I feel about Mr. Business Class: Was he an outraged feminist ally, a fellow traveller in the Trump resistance? Or a privileged white dude, entitled enough to share his dismay with the whole plane?
As soon as I pulled out my phone, I had my answer: Murkowski had declared herself unable to support Kavanaugh. I fought the urge to push my way up to the front of the plane so that I could berate Mr. Business Class for his insensitivity to all those grieving the Kavanaugh nomination. Didn’t he realize that his diatribe might be downright traumatic for anyone who’s actually survived sexual assault?
But I didn’t have the heart for a confrontation — not when it could easily devolve into a shouting match or get me kicked off the flight. Instead, I settled miserably into my seat, and into the black cloud that had consumed me for the previous 48 hours.
It’s the same black cloud that descends whenever I visit the Trump-era United States. Maybe it’s the furrows on the faces of my progressive friends, worn down by resistance and only rarely breaking into true joy. Maybe it’s the more and more frequent sightings of jingoistic hats and bumper stickers and T-shirts, celebrating American guns and greatness. Maybe it’s how people lower their voices when the talk turns to politics: For now, that choice still feels like it’s about civility rather than safety, but it evokes the dangers of public conversation in an authoritarian regime.
But it’s visceral, this change: A thickening of the air, a tightening of the muscles between my shoulders. Fear, anxiety and grief lie heavy on the faces that pass me on the street. I walk with my eyes fixed ahead so I won’t catch the latest horrific headlines crawling across some nearby screen; I keep my headphones on lest I overhear a chat between Trump enthusiasts. The casual, intimate conversations between strangers that were once my very favourite part of visiting the U.S. — don’t you love how Americans just open right up? — are now a source of dread: What if this person turns out to be a Trump supporter?
When I catch up with a friend or colleague, it’s a matter of when — not if — we’ll get around to the latest Trump outrage. I try to soak up their grief and anger and fear, to play the role of visiting chaplain, absorbing their pain so they can keep on fighting after I’m safely back across the border. As a dual citizen, I feel something akin to survivor’s guilt: Yes, I’m a fellow outraged American, but I’m an outraged American with a Canadian passport.
As the Canadian-born child of two Americans, I’ve spent my whole life criss-crossing the border, but this is new. Whether I was visiting my grandparents in New York, spending summers at hippie New England arts camps, attending university in Ohio or settling into Boston for grad school, the U.S. felt different from Canada but not alien.
Where Canada was restrained, earnest, peaceful and safe, America was brash, ambitious, hectic and exciting; where Canadians were thoughtful, circumspect, considerate and patient, Americans were intense, warm, demanding and impetuous. While Canada felt like my country, Americans felt like my people.
And yet there was never any need to choose between them: I felt equally at home, and equally out of place, on both sides of the border. Over time I learned that even if my Canadian friendships took a little longer to develop, they were as deep and intimate as any connection I had with American friends. And over the course of completing three political science degrees in the United States, I finally fell in love with America itself: With the mirage of American democracy, beautiful in its myriad flaws and self-delusions, each shortcoming serving to underline the breathtaking ambition of its founding ideals.
Then I found myself in America on the day it all came crashing down. Quite by chance, I landed in Massachusetts — the state where I’ve cast my U.S. ballots for the past twenty-three years — just as the polls were closing on November 8, 2016. A friend invited me to an election-night gathering, and even though she was the only person I knew in the room, that American warmth and intensity made me feel immediately at home, surrounded by old friends.
I wish I’d known it was the last time I’d feel at home in the U.S. As the results rolled in, we took turns dissolving into tears. How much more we would have cried, I now imagine, if we had actually known what was to come. But their tears were already different from mine: I knew that in two days, I’d be back home in Canada. They had no idea what kind of country they were now living in.
Two years later, that uncertainty has lifted: Americans now know exactly what kind of country they live in, and the reality is far worse than many would have imagined. Those steeped in knowledge of the past invoke the similarities to the rise of authoritarianism in Germany, Italy, Russia; those devoted to fictions of the future reference dystopias from novels, movies and TV. They need these analogies to convey how far their nation has fallen, and how alien Trump’s America now feels, even to its own citizens.
But America’s progressives and liberals and moderates are stuck, imprisoned in that cloud of constant, numbing despair. What keeps them stuck is not the lack of a second passport, but something much more powerful and fundamental: Belief. They believe so deeply in the America they knew that they will work and organize and fight to bring it back, even if they can only hope to bring back little pieces of it, and even if some days it’s hard to find hope that it will come back at all.
As I land in Vancouver, the news arrives that today is one of those days: The U.S. Senate has just voted, and Brett Kavanaugh will indeed be the next member of the Supreme Court.
I step off the plane, and breathe the crisp, bright air. I almost gasp with relief, a now-familiar sensation: Where my border crossings were once tinged with longing, no matter which direction I travelled, for the past two years I have felt nothing but gratitude every single time I return to Canada.
And then I feel it, almost like it has stowed away in my luggage: that black cloud of despair. It’s followed me from Trump’s America, a land where children are pulled from their parents and penned like animals, a nation that denies the science of climate change, a country that elevates a bitter partisan to its highest court over the agonized cries of its bravest women.
The border thins the cloud, lifts its weight, makes it possible to see some light through the darkness. But clouds don’t respect borders. We can see the storm gathering from here, and it’s closing in.