There is a story about “Saturday Night Live” actor Chris Farley’s time as a student at Marquette University that has been running through my mind for the last week as I’ve thought about our presidential election.
Apparently one night he and some of his roommates went out and really tied one on. (For those who know Milwaukee or Marquette from that era of the early 1980s, they undoubtedly spent a good part of their evening drinking Red, White and Blues at the ‘Lanche, and probably finished with some Real Chili or Angelo’s Pizza.)
When they got home, Farley crashed hard. Meanwhile his roommates got some permanent marker and wrote on him, then followed up by wiping food all over him. Stuff like butter, potato chips, leftover pizza. (Because college students.)
The next morning when Farley got up and came out of his room everyone was waiting, anticipating his reaction. But Farley just poured himself a bowl of cereal and sat down with them to watch TV, like nothing had happened.
Before long his roommates started to get irritated—not only because he was not giving them what they wanted, but because he was still covered in all that food. It was dripping off of him. He stank of it. It was disgusting.
So someone told him he needed to get up and take a shower. But he just looked at them and smiled.
“Oh no,” he said. “You made me. You live with me.”
I had been using that story as an analogy to electing Donald Trump. You elect the guy who has said and done the things he has said and done, you better be prepared to live in the America he creates.
But in the wash of emotion and confusion that was the day after the election it strikes me that maybe that story is actually not about electing Donald Trump, but about America, how we as a country have allowed large parts of our nation to become both more and more disenfranchised and more and more comfortable with prejudice and misinformation.
Some this week are arguing the election is a repudiation of “liberal elites” and their “arrogant dismissal of the common man.” But to believe that is to ignore that much of what those “elite” voters fight for are things like justice for all and the protection of our weakest and most vulnerable. It is also to miss that Mr. Trump’s election equally repudiates the nation’s right.
It is the entirety of the establishment that has been condemned and what is perceived as their weasel-worded disinterest and/or just plain hostility towards the concerns of many, many Americans. And not just white male working class Americans, either; as “Saturday Night Live” demonstrated so perceptively in its recent Black Jeopardy sketch, in many ways the insights and anxieties of Trump supporters are exactly the same as those of Black Lives Matter.
Over the course of a generation at least, we have allowed this mess, if not helped create to it. Now we have to live with it.
There is one further point to make. Long before the world had any concept of a representative democracy, an “election” was understood as a personal choice of long-term significance. Usually it referred to the action of the divine: God, Rem-Hotep or Our Lord Bob the Ever-Hungry Bovine would choose his people—that choice was his election, they his elect. And with that choice came a sense of responsibility on his part. Much as we think about the bonds of marriage, an election implied a commitment.
Even today, in a religious context, the term “election” has that layer; an “election” is a choice that a person makes to follow a certain path. It is a choice that entails one’s personal commitment to a specific way of life.
In many ways our representative democracy has lost this sense of things. We have spent all this time and money arguing over who we as a country should “elect,” it becomes easy to think our responsibility ends at that ballot box. Mr. Trump got elected, it is going to be awful and/or awesome (depending, I guess?); either way, there’s little for us to do.
Especially in light of this election’s clear expression of outrage about the status quo, maybe it is helpful today to consider our individual votes as having been not the culmination but just the beginning of our action, as the commitment we have now each made to the life we want for ourselves and our communities.
Social media is fun (and by “fun” I mean “crazy making”; at this point our entire culture desperately needs a parent to tell us to spend more time playing with our friends outside), but it’s a distraction. If we voted the way we did because we want Muslims or refugees or whomever to feel welcomed and at home, then we should join groups that work to do that. If we voted as we did because we are fighting to get our country to value and protect life, then why not get involved in that issue?
An election is about putting not just our country, but ourselves on a path. We have all each made commitments. Now let’s begin the work of seeing them through.
Jim McDermott, S.J., is America's Los Angeles correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @PopCulturPriest.