College-educated millennial women grew up taking certain fruits of previous waves of feminism for granted. We had the right to choose. We could confidently pursue equal pay, we could enjoy respect in fields that were traditionally male. We could opt to live independently without being labeled spinsters, we could express our sexuality freely. We could reasonably expect to go to an office, or a party without being groped. But enough of the country to elect a president doesn’t agree with those assumptions. And Donald Trump’s presidential win is the harshest wake-up call imaginable. Trump won not because of sexist voters, but because people who should have stood up to a sexist candidate simply didn’t vote.
The 2016 narrative wasn’t set up to end this way. The good guys were supposed to win. In Trumpland, female voters found a perfect villain, ripe for a satisfying vanquishing. His biography, as told in vignettes, reads like The Patriarchy’s Greatest Hits: male entitlement to a high-stakes job for which he wasn’t remotely qualified, extreme sexual creepiness, hyper masculine chest-puffing in the face of conflict, disregard for women’s bodily autonomy—both in terms of their physical boundaries and their access to choice—and being grossed out by periods. In Trump’s worldview, respecting women and wanting to have sex with women are interchangeable. Assault is a compliment bestowed upon only those who are pretty enough. Miss Universe is fat. He’s a nightmare. He was the loser who was supposed to lose to a woman, a sexist pig that women were supposed to reject.
But voters did not reject him. Donald Trump, a man who ran on misogyny and hate and who cozied up to the worst of humanity, is going to be the next president of the United States. The worse news is that conservatives have both chambers of Congress, the Supreme Court is gone for a generation, and Vladimir Putin might as well have his own copy of the key to the Lincoln bedroom. Trump’s cabinet promises to be a murderer’s row of aggressively idiotic ideologues, the kind of guys whose appearance on a talk show signals that it’s time to get off the couch and maybe spend the next 10 minutes examining one’s pores in the bathroom mirror. Not since 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey has access to choice been more fragile, Obamacare is toast. And Donald Trump was elected after a campaign that promised to enact policies that are harmful for black women, undocumented women, Muslim women, and trans women. For women on all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, things got bleaker this week. Don’t get me started on Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Hope isn’t lost, but boy did we ever fuck up.
The only shred of positivity to be taken from this rabid badger of a campaign comes with its own disturbing negative implication. Americans aren’t as actively bad as the outcome of this election suggests. Even the most superficial of voting data skims shows that Trump doesn’t represent a massive swell of support for his particular brand of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, or sexism. Fewer people voted for him than voted for any Republican in 16 years. Trump’s insistence that his big rallies meant he was inspiring the nation is simply not true. But here’s something that is true, and uniquely troubling for different reasons: The number of Democrats who showed up to vote for the Democratic candidate cratered. Voters who propelled Obama to victory during the last two elections stayed home this time.
It’s certainly possible that Democratic voters got cocky. For months, the media painted Clinton as all but a shoo-in; why subject oneself to the mild inconvenience of voting when you could go to a matinee screening of Trolls: The Movie? But there’s a darker possibility, one shocked young feminists must wrestle with as they consider what just happened: Maybe we don’t live in the country we were so confident we did. It’s time to face the truth beyond our customizable virtual worlds, beyond our gentrified city blocks—it’s worse out there than we thought.
Of course, young women knew that a lot of people out there hate us; we see it in our real and virtual lives every day. But young women banking on voters coming out for Hillary underestimated how many people simply don’t care enough about us to get in their cars and drive to a polling station and stand in line and fill in a circle and then get back in their cars and go about their lives. Much has been written about how people who voted for Donald Trump either endorse his sexism or aren’t bothered by it. But the same statement can be applied to the millions of Democrats who stayed home this year. Americans didn’t just wake up on Nov. 8 and decide to not use their vote to stand up for members of the many groups that Donald Trump has targeted. It’s been this way. It’s always been this way.
This election reminds young women, painfully, that progress is something that must be fought for, disproportionately by us and inch by inch. It’s not something that can be coasted toward using only the momentum and work of the people who came before us; every day requires new engagement. Last night, tens of thousands took to the streets in multiple cities in the U.S. in protest of President-elect Trump, an encouraging display in a grim week. It’s hard not to wonder how many of those people did everything they could to make sure as many people who possibly could would vote, how many of these people phone banked and knocked on doors and actually engaged in a way that would help assure Trump be defeated, before it was too late. It’s too late now. Things are not as good as we had chosen to believe.
So here we are, two months and change away from the inauguration of President Donald Trump. While it might seem baffling to blue-state women, the attitude that enabled his rise, and indifference to that attitude is not alien to the people in the rest of the country. The gains that feminism has won, much to the surprise of the women who have benefitted from it the most, have not been accepted by Americans who live elsewhere.
As the urgency in seeking a scapegoat for Trump’s rise fades, a new, more terrifying spectre emerges: Who is to suffer? Whether or not we voted, no matter how engaged or disengaged we were in the process, it’s Muslims, members of the LGBT community, immigrants, non-white people. And it’s us.