I was walking through the NYU campus the evening after the 2016 presidential election when I noticed that almost everyone with glasses had my large black hipster-frames. Those big square Buddy Holly-looking things the barista from Starbucks gazes through when serving your cappuccino and replying “Vente?” when you ask for a “large”.
There were my black-framed glasses, worn by countless other people of all different backgrounds. I was attending a night class at NYU and saw that most of lower Manhattan had adopted my eyewear. For being such a melting pot, the campus completely lacked diversity when it came to optical style.
I had signed up for a journalism class at NYU, hoping it would tap into my political side. As a full-fledged news junkie I was desperate to escape the suburban bubble I’d been in as a substitute teacher in New Jersey, primarily working with elementary school kids—a world smelling of dirty sneakers and farts. I wanted to rekindle some youthful intellectual energy as I exit my 20s.
It was refreshing to be among my Millennial peers as I walked through Washington Square Park—the heart of New York University—with my coffee from Starbucks in hand. I caught myself counting every pair of black framed glasses. They defied demographics, from other dudes, to beautiful brainy college girls, to older professors. When I embraced the look a few years ago, they seemed to have a unique book-wormish charm, setting me apart. But here I was just another geeky-looking guy among a sea of hipsters trying to turn a visual impairment into a sophisticated aesthetic.
I looked forward to seeing my classmates, but tonight there was the greater political world to contend with. These were the early moments of a new, surreal world after what felt like an eternity of feuding with friends and family and absorbing all forms of punditry. I had come to view the political universe through blue and red: Trump and not Trump. The outcome of the election was sure to have found its way onto campus.
Before class, I arrived at the student lounge. The world fell out of focus when I removed my glasses to clean. I went back to a moment waking up at 3.a.m the previous night— my tired eyes checking the news and registering the results of the election through the white glare of my iPhone. With my glasses back on, I saw my fellow students sitting around in a haze of disbelief.
They were stories about showing up to work that day demoralized and with little sleep. Their places of employment paralyzed by the shock of a Trump victory in a city where many of the Millennial generation make up the foundation of the progressive movement. A young woman from Brooklyn, who had expected a Clinton victory, believed Trump’s rhetoric—to use her language— was “coded.” His criticism of Clinton’s “stamina” and “fitness to be president” was inherently sexist, she said. Another classmate pointed out the irony of a billionaire being a champion for American populism. But most people were silent.
A stupor seemed to envelop the class as we took our seats. We were mourning the death of the progressive dream, and Mr. Trump was the murderer.
My classmates were a defeated tribe. Here we were in downtown Manhattan, in deep blue territory, disconnected from the part of the American electorate that had won the election and swung states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and North Carolina in Trump’s favor. Those voices, many of whom I learned had voted Obama in the last two presidential elections, were a world away.
I had found myself in another bubble
Many of my political conversations leading up to the election were charged, including encounters with my younger brother and an old friend. The 2016 brand of politics wasn’t about ideas, policy, or values, but about setting yourself apart from those in the other camp deemed responsible for America’s perceived decline. As the arguments became personal, others saw in me the worst qualities of the Democratic Party: I was a vindictive redistributor of hard earned wealth—a supporter of a corrupt political machine complicit in a Benghazi cover-up. Let’s just say I assumed a lot of baggage. Each contentious conversation caused animosity that still festers. (My brother still gloats over Trump’s win: “America first” is his favorite line.)
A week after the class I ran into a man I’ve known since I was a kid, a baseball and basketball coach I admired and grew up respecting. He still possessed an air of intimidation. I found myself eager to pick his brain, so I delved right into politics—as if this figure had stepped out of my past to offer some sense in a world defying all sense.
He was honest with why he had voted for Trump, saying he had been “willing to take a chance with this guy,” because the Democratic Party had failed to promote a climate conducive to business growth. He said nothing about Trump’s provocative rhetoric, passing over the greater social impact of a Trump presidency. He simply thought a Trump presidency would be better for him and his family. His perspective wasn’t something I could have gained through watching cable news, or reading the best political columnists.
I started to believe that if I was serious about understanding this new America and building an honest worldview, I would have to stoke the fire. I began to crave combat with my ideological allies—my fellow defeated progressives at NYU. So I wrote an Op Ed for my next journalism class, which included these lines:
“A resurgence of the Democratic Party depends on young progressives embracing the strongest qualities of liberal culture: intellectual curiosity and the ability to constantly challenge our own beliefs.” I continued. “Liberals covet diversity, but looking around campus, around New York and even in this classroom, there’s no real exposure to any dissenting opinion. Progressive culture is more insular now than it’s ever been.”
My classmates immediately rallied against me. Wide-eyed with disbelief, one suggested I “move to Kansas.” Another accused me of “an authoritarian tone.” They were indignant—who was I to come in and proclaim such things? How could I paint with such a broad brush? They told me to go out and find some subjects to either confirm or deny my claim. Whether they knew it or not, they had been my first subjects.
On my way home I was exhilarated. I felt a connection with the greater political world—a long forgotten feeling of excitement over an exchange of ideas. As President Obama said in his farewell address:
“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life”. He continued, “America’s not a fragile thing.”
He’s right. An understanding of American politics is achieved one uncomfortable exchange at a time. Which is why I think it’s time to abandon the black-framed glasses. I recently made an appointment with the optometrist. I intend to buy multiple new pairs of large frames, and also round frames—in all different shapes and colors. I want to appear fresh as I seek out other political junkies of both the red and blue persuasions. Because it’s the people and their convictions—even the ugly and especially the impassioned—that make me love politics.
Jesse Winter is a 29 year-old born and raised in New Jersey. A graduate of Rutgers University; once upon a time Jesse wanted to be a philosopher. Now he writes creative non-fiction and has recently ventured into fiction, “Wing Dance” being his latest attempt. He’s a political junkie still coming to terms with the Trumpocalpyse and is the kind of guy who awkwardly brings up politics at parties.
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