Back when it was safe to fly, I always dreaded the landing. As a recovering Catholic, I still do the sign of the cross out of impulse, a long-lingering tic that convinces me I’m making myself safe. I’d listen for the plane’s wheels to drop and then I’d touch my fingertips to my forehead, chest, and left and right shoulders before digging my heels into the ground and pressing my hand against the seat in front of me, bracing for impact or the off chance that something might go awry. That’s how I felt for the entirety of the inauguration, and I know I’m not the only one.
Watching Kamala Harris descend the steps of the Capitol on her way to becoming the first Black, South Asian, and woman vice president of the United States, something happened to my heart. It wasn’t that it was swelling with pride at this historic moment; it was beating out of my chest with panic. I thought: Surely if they come to the Capitol again with their guns and their hatred, they will come for her first.
The last four years have been needlessly cruel and violent in ways many of us anticipated, and in ways not even our nightmares could have revealed. While I wanted Inauguration Day to feel fresh and new and celebratory, I’ve mostly been filled with dread. Along with his inhumane policies in which the cruelty was truly the only point, in four years Donald Trump inspired a marked increase in hate crimes, a surge in militia groups, and an unchecked rise in white supremacist violence, culminating with an attempted coup at the nation’s Capitol just weeks before the inauguration. Trump has a way of soiling everything he touches and even though he was absent from the inauguration, I felt his presence and I feared his followers’ violence.
If you consider our nation’s violent origin story and our continued unforgivable flaws, there is little that is remarkable about Trump and the terrorism he whipped up. But it’s also true that our nation has endured a unique kind of chaos over the last four years. As a journalist covering gender, labor, and immigration, there is no real way to convey the alarm I felt every time Trump took to Twitter or I’d get a breaking news alert on my phone because I knew it meant something was happening that would fundamentally change the life circumstances of the people I report on—and almost never for the better.
I understand the relief people are expressing in this moment, and I hear them when they say that they just want things to go back to “normal.” I understand this to mean they want a president who is not an international disaster and embarrassment; they want a functioning adult; a president who is not a whiny, cruel, and petty despot. I empathize with these sentiments, and with the optimism many Americans are expressing for the Biden-Harris administration. But I learned a long time ago not to put my faith in politicians.
During President Biden’s inauguration speech, I was pleased by his expressed commitment to racial justice. I am moved by his promise to provide a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants and to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. These are things I want my president to want, but I know none of this would even be on the table if not for the blood, sweat, and tears of countless people on the ground and in grassroots movements across generations who have fought for all of us—no matter who is in office—because they believed we deserve so much more and better than any lawmakers were ever willing to give us. These are the people I am thanking today, and these are the people we owe our democracy to. It is because of them that so many of us are able to lead dignified lives.
I’m also thinking of the people who did not live to see a more empathetic president who could perhaps be moved to action. I am thinking of the essential workers who gasped for air and said their final goodbyes to their families from an iPad. I am thinking of the Black people robbed of decades of life when they are shot by killer cops, or otherwise slowly ground down by the pervasive nature and savagery of white supremacy. I’m thinking of the father who died by suicide after he was separated from his family at the border, and the countless people who disappeared while waiting for asylum or who were otherwise deported to their deaths.
We do not get these people back. We don’t get the last four years back. We have lost so much, and it’s going to take time before there can be a full accounting of what we just endured. The weeks ahead may not be easy, as we live among millions of people who were hungry for four more years of bile and racism. If you are happy today, relish it. If you are relieved, breathe it in. If you are feeling something else—an edginess and discomfort that is hard to describe—like me, you are maybe just bracing for impact. Please take comfort in knowing that we keep each other safe, as we always have and as we will continue to. The only difference is that now, our communities have more of a fighting chance.