I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, but after it became clear that he wasn’t going to be the nominee, I instantly backed Hillary Clinton. Ms. Clinton, an accomplished and intelligent public servant, was the obvious choice, compared to Donald Trump, an incompetent demagogue who used hate as his campaign message.
Last week, I waited an hour to get tickets to the big Clinton Election Night Party at the Javits Center, where the symbolic “glass ceiling” would finally be broken. I was excited to be part of history.
On Election Night, the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood around the convention center was chaotic, as thousands of Clinton supporters and the mainstream media crammed into an area blocked off by armed police officers. Those who had general public tickets, like myself, were sent to the back entrance to airport-style security. A few campaign volunteers grumbled about being stuck with the regular folk when VIPS, in their Wall Street suits, were guided inside without waiting in line. But, all in all, we all felt like we were on the same team, confident in a Democratic victory.
By nine o’clock, we knew Trump was going to win. The crowd turned to the brightness of their iPhones in a desperate attempt to distract themselves from making eye contact with others. It was heartbreaking.
In the subway going home, you could feel the gloom in the claustrophobic underground air. A homeless man sitting alone in the corner was screaming at his demons in Spanish. The darkness outside the windows grew ominous as the metallic screeches of the train’s wheels pulled us further into the unknown. I asked myself, “How did this happen? “How did Donald Trump become elected when we were so sure that Hillary Clinton was our next President?”
When I returned home, I was too wired to sleep, but too anxious to watch the news. I needed something stupid for entertainment, television as innocuous as possible. I went to my DVR and found my choice.
Every year, around this time, the Hallmark Channel starts showing their annual Christmas movies. These “feel-good” cable movies are hopelessly corny, like the type of network “movie of the week” starring B-list actors that felt outdated even back in 1975. But like many things lowbrow, people like me have turned them into an ironic guilty pleasure. I’m even involved in a Facebook forum where we dissect each new Christmas Movie premiere on the Hallmark Channel. These movies have become so popular, that Hallmark has even started to show them as early as October! I had recorded a few last week, so I picked a rerun that I missed. On election night, with Donald Trump now as the president-elect, I watched a Hallmark Christmas movie.
One of the reasons these Hallmark Christmas movies have achieved a cult- like status is that 85% of these films are the same story told in a slightly different way. It’s amusing to watch the writers tell another yarn from the same basic plot. The protagonist is someone from the big city who travels to a small town in Middle America for some nefarious reason. It can be a real estate guy who wants to turn the “old mill” into a Chipotle, a self-absorbed actress who returns to her roots for some photoshoot about her origins, or some snooty marketing executive who wants to sell off the family farm after her father dies. All of these urban characters have disdain for these boring small towns. They are blind to the fact that they are unhappy in NYC/LA/Chicago and that their big city fiancé or fiancée is self-absorbed and unfaithful.
You know what happens. The protagonist falls in love with the small town values. He/She falls in love with a cowboy/waitress/farmhand. And he/she pays back the small town by saving the mill/the farm/the Christmas parade.
The myth of these Hallmark Christmas movies has nothing to do with the Miracle of Christmas. They are about America. Big cities and small towns need each other, and learn from each other. The big city is more trendy and knows how to get things done in the outside world. They can teach the small town citizens about modern art and rap music. The small town can teach the urban dweller how to fish/hunt/farm, and most importantly, how to live in a loving community where people care for each other.
This pop culture myth of big city/small town, and their need for each other, has been part of American culture for two generations, especially popular after the Second World War, in which the country was required to be unified, and American soldier stood with American soldier, bonding together to save our country. Our most popular Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, is about a small town man, George Bailey, who dreams of moving to the big city and living the exciting life, like his big-shot, college-educated brother. Instead, he is trapped in a crappy old town, living in a drafty old house with a broken staircase. But what is the final message of the film? Yes, George Bailey’s brother become a war hero, but it is George who saves the town and America’s values from Mr. Potter. George is as important as any soldier. He didn’t march into Berlin, but held the fort at home. Bedford Falls, and George’s values, is why America was fighting. Small town values. America’s cities were important to this country, but if we let them create the values alone, we get the darkness of Pottersville.
Big city and small town must coexist or else America ceases to be. The big city is America’s muscle and brain, but the heartland is American’s heart.
As I’m watching this Hallmark movie on Election Night, enjoying this absurd romance of a lonely prima donna fashion editor from New York and a hard-working cowboy who’s wife had died, I ponder the mythology of the narrative. The myth of the big city and small town needing each other, learning from each other, was a myth that allowed us to live in the same country, to believe in one America. But as we started to watch different TV, get our news from different outlets, and follow different leaders, this all changed. The cultural interaction stopped. The cities grew more diverse and prosperous, but ignored any of the issues in the small towns, stereotyping their fellow Americans as fat racist losers who only shopped at Walmart. The small towns, at least the ones which declined as we shipped off jobs abroad, retreated into their comfort of white supremacy and anger at the elitism of the establishment. Hillary Clinton felt it was useless to woo small town America, especially in the Rust Belt. Donald Trump exploited the anger of small town America by spreading his vision of bigotry and racism.
We all discovered the real truth about our country today — the big city and small town now hate each other. Both Hallmark Christmas movies and America need a new myth.