Karen E. Bender: Thoughts on the 2016 Election

Karen Bender

I was going to write about Bernie and Hillary. I was going to write about identity and what each candidate offered and who I thought should win, but what really I wanted to write about was the seventh grade school trip to Washington, D.C. that I helped chaperone a few weeks ago. We took 17 seventh graders on a tour of the U.S. Capitol building. As part of this tour, we had a chance to sit in the gallery overlooking the floor of the Senate. The rules in the gallery were strict: No standing or sitting in doorways and aisles, applauding, reading, taking notes, sleeping, taking photographs, or wearing hats. (Why no taking notes?) The senators were discussing funding to support research on the Zika virus. The kids tried to spot the senators. There was Rubio. Schumer. McConnell. Franken. There they were! It was unclear what the senators were doing. They seemed to be talking affably. It was three in the afternoon, the kids were excited, briefly, but their blood sugar was starting to dip, and some of them seemed to be falling asleep.

The Capitol staffers stood at the doorway, watching the audience in the gallery. The staffers had a specific job, which was to walk over and wake people up. Sit up! Don’t slouch! The kids sat up. For a while. Then they started to slouch again. We, the teachers and chaperones, began feeling annoyed with the staffers. Why couldn’t we just sit and relax? We were tired. What was this enforced respect? Then I started thinking about what was happening in this country. I started thinking about the fact that there was the appearance of order on the Senate floor, and that the senators seemed to be doing something productive (though I knew that some were not). I started thinking about the fact that there was a man, a reality TV show star and foul-mouthed billionaire, shouting somewhere in the nation. He was dangerous, and he believed he should be President.

It seemed, suddenly, a sad thing, the sight of the staffers trying to wave their arms and wake up the tired, low-sugar-level children.  Wake up! Wake up! But then I thought—this was it. We all needed to wake up. We needed to wake up to the fact that Donald Trump was actually going to be the Republican candidate for President. And we needed to see that mainstream Republicans, who vowed never to support him, were starting to line up behind him.


Suddenly, I felt the approach of his violence. There was the violence Trump was directly inciting across the country, there was the violence in his misogynistic, racist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic language and his ideas, the violence in his dismissal of truth, of his blatant disregard of the Constitution. I sat with the children in that gallery and the approach of that violence made my arms feel cold.

But then I thought–there were other forms of violence going on here, too. There was the quiet violence on the Senate floor, the impeccably polite senators talking to each other but not actually able to pass any bills to, say, stop gun massacres in this country. There was the polite violence of the staffer of North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, who had set up our tour of the Capitol, and was so nice, so nice. But when I asked the nice staffer if Senator Tillis could make a statement about the horribly unjust HB2 bill, he stepped back and said, “It’s a state issue, and you know, we believe in states’ rights.” But he could go retrieve the backpacks we had left in his office. The niceness of that.

But the violence of neglect, of inaction. Of not wanting to speak out against a bill that clearly, obviously discriminated against the LGBTQ community.

And the children kept falling asleep.

No wonder they were tired; we were all tired. We were tired of a long campaign season in which the Republican candidates wanted to compete to see who would reveal the least amount of empathy. We were tired of listening to two Democratic candidates, both of whom were qualified and had numerous good ideas, snipe at each other. We were tired of what this country had become. We were all just tired.

But what we needed to do, in the face of all this cruelty, both active and quiet, in this nation—was—wake up. We needed to unite against the polite violence of inaction, or neglect, or disinterest, which enabled wrenching economic inequality and no gun laws at all, and police brutality and still-not-quite affordable health care and failing public schools. And many people were starting to do just that.

But first, we needed to unite against the direct violence and cruelty incited every day now by Donald Trump. We needed to choose one Democratic candidate, Hillary or Bernie, and get behind her or him, because, yes, though you might prefer one of them, either of them would be better than a fascist. We needed to wake up and see that the violence directed at each other was, yes, a result of our deep frustration with this nation and how it had failed many of us, and that nobody seemed to be listening, ever, to truly change what was wrong. But that we needed to take what was good and decent and effective in all of us and stop Trump from becoming the leader of this country. We needed to use our human decency to stop a man who would use his presidency for his own profit, for God knows what, really (why is he even running?) and who would end this country as we know it.

Think about that.

We’re tired, but we can’t be. We don’t have a lot of time; we need to wake up; Trump cannot become president. Let’s stop him. And then let’s keep shouting and working together so that we are glad to live in this nation, and glad to be awake.

Karen E. Bender is the author of the story collection Refund, which was a Finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize, and longlisted for the Story Prize. She is the author of the novels Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Ploughshares, Zoetrope, Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize series. Bender is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University in North Carolina.


“Election 2016” graphic courtesy of Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, Cornell University



  1. I could not agree with this more. I saw Mitch McConnell on Meet the Press this week. Chuck Todd played the most recent racist statements made by Trump regarding the Trump U judge and his ‘My African American’ comment at his rally. Todd then asked McConnell if he thought Trump was a racist. He would not directly answer the question. He only said that he did not agree with Trump’s statements but that he wanted his party to take back the White House. This was a wake up call for me. Republicans are only supporting him at the leadership level so that they can take back power from the Democrats. This support is regardless of what terrible candidate is their nominee. I am a Republican, but will not be voting for Trump. I am going to weigh Hillary and/or Bernie to see what they have to offer. I’m also taking a look at Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate. Trump does not represent me as an American and I have little respect for those that espouse his views.


  2. Using intentionally inflammatory labels, like fascist, is non-violent? Dismissing any Republican, any who argue states-rights or who disagree with you is addressing the issues that face our nation? Sounds like you would fit in well with the senators you decry.

    As to the “deep frustration with this nation and how it had failed many of us, and … nobody … listening, ever, to truly change what was wrong.” That’s what has ignited Trump’s campaign. Bernie taps into the same frustration. Is Hilary, the ultimate insider, the answer? Is she aware of the problem?

    This essay sounds like so many confused liberals. You are opposed to Trump’s violent rhetoric and yet can’t keep away from those fightin’ words yourself. Where is your own willingness to listen, to understand another perspective, another opinion? And yes, leadership from both parties will likely fall in behind their nominee. At least a few Republicans have been willing to come out opposing Trump and his racism.

    One thing for sure; both candidates will paint the opposition as the devil incarnate who will destroy this country. You do the same. Unfortunately, unless we can change this negative dynamic, the next president will be elected because enough, not a majority, but enough eligible voters will hold their noses and pull the lever as an act of opposition to the devil as they see him/her. OR we could teach candidates to listen. Imagine that.


    • I have three points to make in response to your assertions.
      1) False Equivalency: Truly, no one in their right mind can argue that Hillary and Trump are two equally bad choices.
      2) While Karen uses some pointed terms, they are not necessarily inflammatory. If someone is in fact a fascist, it is accurate, not inflammatory, to say so. Trump is a thin-skinned narcissist who needs constant attention and approval, cannot bear the slightest slight from any corner without mouthing off in return, and lacks the knowledge, experience, and temperament for the presidency. There are simply no facts to prove otherwise.
      3) Karen’s argument does not concern traditional conservative tenets like small government, low taxes (and services), and states’ rights. Trump does not appear to support those with much conviction.
      Personally, I was happy to see conservatives’ heads explode from Obama Derangement Syndrome when he was elected and, even better, re-elected. I will enjoy watching more heads explode when Hillary is elected. Imagine, 16 years of a Democrat in the White House, one (half-)black, one a woman. Terrible times, these, terrible times. Possibly the End Times. 😉 From my side of things, it just looks like the 21st century. Join us. The century is already in its 16th year; why delay the inevitable? After all, demographics destiny, and the future is ours. I think we all know that, hence the desperate and drastic actions of some conservatives this year and during the Obama presidency.
      Your mileage may vary.


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