It seemed, to me, mythology. An election gripped so deeply by a mythological, collectively unconscious story that the result was certain: Hillary Clinton would prevail.
Let’s define those terms. Mythological: Occurring at the deepest levels of the psyche. Collectively: Individuals swept up, en masse, in the same wave. Unconscious: Below the level of conscious thought. Story: How we shape and frame our reality, consciously and/or unconsciously.
In this election, The Story was what Joseph Campbell called “the hero’s journey”: A woman, of common origin, goes on a heroic search for what had never been, seeking to stand at the world’s highest pinnacle of civic honor and authority, where only men had stood before – and doing so in the name of all women everywhere.
Underneath the personalities, issues, rhetoric, politics, way down in the psyche of the country, that was the story. And, as is fitting in so epic a story, this woman was confronted by a gargoyle of properly epic proportions, an Unthinkable Creature such as had never been seen at this level of importance before – a brute, but a grand brute, grand enough to get away with the presidential nomination of a once great political party and grand enough to be followed fawningly by troll’ish political gollums of every variety, from former Klansmen to trashy Jersey pols.
Mythic. So exciting and so excruciating to the psyche that psychologists and counselors across the country reported untold numbers of people who could barely take the pace.
All sides felt something monumental was at stake, and so it was: The relationship of the genders was about to be dealt a huge psychic charge that would change society on a cellular level.
Brothers and sisters, I believed in the power of that story – believed in it buoyantly and without doubt.
Even when Hillary Clinton’s aide and sidekick Huma Abedin inadvertently shoved her candidate into the FBI’s investigation of Abedin’s soon-to-be-ex-husband, gollum Anthony Weiner, I thought: “This seems a disaster but it’s not, because it fits the hero’s story, in which, almost at the climax of victory, an utterly unexpected setback makes all seem lost – but somehow the hero’s cause perseveres and prevails.”
I promised friends that it’s not Clinton who would win; what would win is The Story, which she is (and we are) enacting. I said, “The Story will win. It has to. I promise.”
Then I’d explain why I thought so.
Half a century ago, the feminist movement leapt fiercely from our collective consciousness and took its grip on society. By the 1990s, in popular culture, women were taking the hero’s journey. Xena:Warrior Princess led the way in burlesque style, playing serious societal commentary tongue-in-cheek. Buffy the Vampire Slayer recognized American high schools as Hell Mouths at which only female slayer-power could best a monster’s. Neither show could have worked with male leads. With Beyoncé and Lady Gaga laying down the tunes, TV and feature films gave us woman-as-warrior, straight through to Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent, Sandra Bullock’s astronaut in Gravity, Charlize Theron’s “Furiosa” in Mad Max: Fury Road, and Jennifer Lawrence’s core embodiment of the hero in all four parts of The Hunger Games. Woman-as-hero is great box office. Our collective consciousness and its unconsciousness have fed on contemporary manifestations of that archetype for three decades.
Fanciful? Not really. History (and herstory) is one long myth-making invention in which individuals and entire societies regularly become gripped by a story they tell themselves about themselves, and they act that story out come hell or high water – to their triumph sometimes, and sometimes to their destruction, be their story “The Master Race” or “Manifest Destiny.”
Election night, early in the returns, it was clear The Story, as I’d envisioned it, would not win. As strong as The Story is, in America it isn’t strong enough yet – because a sizeable slab of this country is stuck in another story, the High Noon or Tombstone archetype, repeated over and over in Westerns, private eye flicks, and cop shows: a gunfighter – a white gunfighter – comes to town and rights all wrongs, shooting from the hip. Donald Trump is a grotesque, a gargoyle, but he claimed that story and it worked.
The day after Election Day, an email from a dear friend. Subject line: “The Story” didn’t win. Message: You promised that it would.
High Noon won again, though we blithely thought power had gone out of that (very white) story. What happened to The Story as I’d cherished it? Oh, yes, I did (and do) cherish it, so much so that I woke on Election Day buoyant in the conviction that The Story would sweep all obstacles aside no matter what. I overestimated The Story’s power. But The Story was not yet strong enough to saturate the rural people, the people we forget about, the people who always come last and always dig in the hardest.
America loathes to admit this, but it does have a peasantry, mostly rural, overwhelmingly white, mal-educated, not a bit stupid, but superstitious, distrustful of strangers, and increasingly furious as technology erodes their sense of purpose and as their whiteness is less and less a badge of prestige. They hate the 21st Century and are mightily proud to give it the conqueror they want Donald Trump to be. Only he, they believe, can reinstate The American Century and make America, not great again, but theirs again.
Have they been ignored by the elites of both parties? Definitely. Were they perceived by the media as backward, ignorant, and rotten with bigotries rooted in ignorance? Yep. Were their religious passions respected? Not really. Were they portrayed sympathetically, much less heroically, on the screen? Not anymore, and not for a long time. At best, on the screen, they are comic foils, much as African Americans, Mexicans, and Italians once were; at worst, they’re portrayed as brutal slobs. And here came a large, intense white man who gave voice not only to their frustrations, but to their bigotries, a hero unafraid to flaunt everything about them that offends and frightens those Americans who’ve left them behind and who would be heartily grateful if they quietly just died off.
Theirs is a story not very deep but effectively angry.
Hillary Clinton has been thoroughly demonized for such a long time that many could not recognize in her the hero of The Story that made me see this election as important on a species level – that’s right, I said a species level; it is a species-level event for a woman to hold the most powerful political office that has ever existed and to sit in a chair that literally gives her the power to end all life on this planet.
Instead, that power has been granted to a personification of resentment, envy, fear and anger; granted because Donald Trump personifies resentment, envy, fear and anger. And good luck to us all.
As for The Story I’ve been speaking of – The Story of the heroic woman, fully a woman, fully heroic, and fully the equal of any man – it was right in front of our eyes, it reverberated in our psyches, but perhaps the truly heroic proportions of Hillary Clinton’s resilience worked against her. We’d come to expect resilience of her. We’d come to expect that she could face any threat and endure. Because, until now, she has. I disagree mightily with at least half her policies, but on no day was this election about policies. It was about mythology – the sort of mythology that generates history as mere policy cannot.
Ah, The Story – so vital a mythology! We needed it so much. Blame it on absent voters, on the Electoral College, on Hillary Clinton as a candidate, on an ignorant rural peasantry, on whatever – The Story, as I’ve spoken of it here, has not the force yet in America, and it may never.
Or maybe it will… because The Story kind of winked at me the day after the election, and allowed me to see that it, The Story, is going where it perhaps most needs to go: into the hearts of little girls.
Jazmin, who allows me the honor of being her husband, teaches 5th grade at a Waldorf school in the forest hereabouts. Kids in her class are 10 years old. The day after the election Camille was jubilant that Hillary Clinton lost, not because her parents are Trumpists (they’re anything but); no, Camille was delighted that the prize could still be won: “Now I can be the first woman president!”
At which Gillian insisted, with equal delight, “No! I’m going to be the first woman president!”
And friends report that thousands of miles from Jazmin’s classroom an 11-year-old named Alana told her mother, “Mama, I’m fine with it. ‘Course I want a girl, too, to be president. Maybe someone who starts awesome, without judgments. And [here she began to whisper] – deep down, I knew one person had to win. And since Trump won – I still have a chance.”
A chance to be the first woman president.
Seems it may be a catchy dream. If so, well – that is not a small thing.
Michael Ventura © 2016. All rights reserved.
Michael ventura is a writer who lives in the mountains of northern California.