For as long as I live, I will never forget November 4, 2008. I was 19 and an undergraduate at American University, among the most politically active schools in the country. I’d arrived in Washington, D.C. the year before, another earnest young man on an Amtrak train from a small town, marveling like Jimmy Stewart at “the Capitol dome as big as life, sparkling away.”
Like many of my classmates, I was filled with idealism about everything good American government could be, and on that night—a night that today feels like a far-away dream—we showed the world exactly that. As images of Chicago’s Grant Park were broadcast around the world, we felt that this was our best selves as Americans. Better, in many ways, than we’d ever been before.
I was in The Washington Post newsroom when the result came in, an intern surrounded by some of the nation’s finest journalists during world-historical news: The United States, a country founded on the original sin of slavery, had elected its first black president in Barack Obama. Against the historical odds, this brilliant, compassionate, and inspiring man who called on us to hope and believe in progressive change would hold the highest office in the land.
I couldn’t stay in the newsroom for long. I wasn’t essential, so I excused myself and hurried home. The campus was euphoric. I hugged my friends. We cried.
We had spent so long wishing for this, watching all the debates together, packing the rallies, listening to the soaring speeches. We were there in AU’s sports arena when Ted Kennedy endorsed Obama, a symbolic passing of the torch from one generation of Democratic leadership to another. We were the generation that made him president, organizing and turning out. Now we were huddled together, watching the president-elect as he told us that everything we so desperately wanted to believe about our country was true.
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” Obama said in his victory speech. “It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled.”
He was right. We hadn’t just elected a black president. We’d elected a man of mixed race who’d lived all around the world and stood as a testament to an ascendant multicultural majority. As young people, we’d embraced the diversity that is the hallmark of our generation, urged on by a leader with a vision of true equality for all Americans.
“Americans sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states,” he said. “We are, and always will be, the United States of America.”
I wish I were still confident of that. After winning the White House on Tuesday, Donald Trump is poised to undo Obama’s legacy. Millions will lose healthcare. Efforts to fight climate change will be scrapped. A conservative Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade, and that may be just the beginning. Trump’s proposals to restrict immigration, build a wall on the Mexican border, and deport millions of undocumented immigrants will now presumably move forward. There’s no way to see this other than a descent into darkness.
The next four years are going to be devastating for Americans of all stripes, and my generation will be among them. Over the past eight years we witnessed incredible strides for gay rights and feminism, and even the fight against climate change. Racial justice activism, including the Black Lives Matter movement, spurred an awakening, and there was even talk for a while about bipartisan criminal-justice reform. Soon it may be as if none of that ever happened—and people of color, women, gays and lesbians, immigrants, and low-income Americans will bear the brunt of it.
Obama is everything you could hope for in a politician. He’s been an exceptional president, and no post-election analysis—not even the very real soul-searching Democrats need to do about the white working class—should make us forget it. We’ll be grateful to have him and Michelle and Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders all fighting for America and against the Trump administration over the next four years. We need his hope again, now more than ever.
But today, as many have said, is not a day for hope or healing. Trump’s victory is a repudiation not just of Obama, but of all of us who so proudly put him in office twice. Eight years ago we were rewarded for hoping for progress. Now we’re hoping that not all is lost.