It never really hits you in the gut until you think about your own kids. The horrific reality of 9/11 didn't fully sink in for me -- so focused on the evolving facts and how I would write a story about the terrorist attack for the next morning's paper -- until I realized that we'd have to tell our two kids, then in grade school, that bad people had randomly killed a lot of Americans, and that airplanes had crashed into the skyscrapers that we'd once pointed to as a landmark that we were nearing New York City.
In a very different way, 11/9 -- the early morning haze when the presidential race was finally called for Donald Trump -- was another intense moment of national anxiety and uncertainty. Again, I was frantically fixated on trying to find the right words to write for the newspaper; it was a few minutes after 1 a.m. when my son -- now (in the Time Flies department) a senior away at college -- texted to say it was "disgusting" that a plurality of Americans had just elected a man appealing to our darkest instincts. That's when the enormity of it all hit me. The idea that my son -- just turned 22, such a wonderful and hopeful time of life -- would now graduate next spring into an America a lot of us aren't sure we recognize anymore.
Make no mistake about it, Donald Trump's America is about to come crashing down on my children's generation -- call them the Millennials if you must -- and it's going to land hard. I see it in my own family -- wondering what my daughter, 24 and starting grad school, will do about health care after Trump's GOP repeals Obamacare, or whether the 45th president's reckless, know-nothing foreign policy will bring new meaning to the draft registration card in my son's dresser somewhere, or how Trump's incoherent fiscal policies will plague them as they enter the job market.
And they are much more fortunate than most young Americans. I can barely imagine what today is like for Mexican migrant children terrified their family will be ripped apart by the "deportation squads" that the president-elect promised during his campaign, for Muslim kids whose religion was portrayed as evil and anti-American by the man who'll be swearing on a Bible on January 20, for low-income families from North Philly to South Bend about to lose their health coverage in Donald Trump's America.
And that's just the concrete stuff. The cosmic, psychic meaning of a Trump administration is arguably scarier. If you're a parent, you've probably invested a lot in teaching your daughter to demand to be treated with respect, in telling your son that bullying is the worst behavior -- only to watch a cyber-bully whom you'd never trust alone in a room with your daughter to ascend to the Oval Office. And the fact that millions of Americans -- our neighbors, even our relatives -- willingly signed up for that would understandably make a lot of young people question everything about their country.
What we tell our children about spending the next four years of our life under President Trump? What did I tell my own son in the purple haze of Trump's win this morning? I told him not to be disgusted but to fight back. He agreed "that maybe it's a good time for a wake up call," that maybe people needed to realize that America hadn't really changed as much with the arrival of President Obama was we'd thought. I was proud of his answer, just as this afternoon I'm already proud of of hundreds of high school and college students from coast to coast who've already walked out of classrooms or packed civic squares to protest Trump and his regressive views.
Every minute that our young people idle their engines -- brooding in a funk about how terrible and hopeless that America seems because a plurality of folks elected such a man as president -- is a minute they've surrendered to his form of tyranny, real or imagined. But every minute they spend fighting back or simply doing things to make the world more just and more sustainable will set them free. Presidential elections, for better or worse, happen every 1,461 days, give or take a few. Social change can happen any second.
If President Trump has a terrible idea, like throwing 20 million Americans off their newfound health care that has saved scores of them from premature death, or deporting a few of your classmates, or speeding the arrival of catastrophic climate change with dirty coal, oppose him. Oppose him the old-fashioned way -- taking to the streets, occupying the office of your reactionary congressman -- or some newfangled way.
But fight back.
And if President Trump tries to shred the U.S. Constitution and upend the rule of law -- as he has threatened so many times, from his proposed ban on Muslims to the return of torture to his promised assaults on press freedom and the 1st Amendment -- don't just oppose him.
And it you're still despondent about the state of Trump's America, act locally. The road to justice starts where you live, in your own neighborhood. Here in Philadelphia, we have old-fashioned bail laws and other tools of New Jim Crow, a pro-Trump police union (and its lackeys like state Rep. Martina White) that blocks social-justice reforms, and a charter school regime that values profits over students. There is a lot of work to be done, not in 2020 but tomorrow, and the day after.
The phrase "President-elect Trump" is a nightmare but also, as my son said, a wake-up call. A game changer. Indeed, when my children were younger and a president named George W. Bush was wreaking his own special brand of havoc on the American dream, we told them that we opposed his actions but everyone should still respect the office of the president.
More than two months before he even takes office, Trump has already destroyed that respect with his words and his deeds, through his talk about grabbing women by their private parts, through discussing his own private parts in nationally televised debate, through mocking a handicapped journalist and....do I really need to go on?
In her gracious statement earlier today, Hillary Clinton asked Americans to keep an open mind about Trump. And yes, he could change everything tomorrow. But until that unlikely day, Donald Trump is not my president. And if you raised your children to see all human beings as equal and worthy of respect -- regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, their religion, their circumstances or their sexual orientation -- then there is only one thing you can truly tell your children about Donald Trump. That he is not their president, either.