Seven days have passed, and Donald Trump is still president-elect. Not in spite of his long history of flagrant disregard for the people downstream from his words or actions, but precisely because of it. Voters, spurred on by angers both general and specific; real and imagined, looked at Trump and saw someone not fit for the presidency, but representative of their rage.
Exit polls, however pliable they are, show large portions of voters who viewed Trump negatively, unprepared or ill equipped—and with the wrong temperament to be president—voted for him anyway. This is cognitive dissonance on a national level. President Obama will leave office with an approval rating in the high 50’s, if not higher, and yet—using the electoral college—voters directly repudiated every single last thing about the Obama years, both in style and substance.
For anyone to say this was “change” election, and simply chalk Trump’s victory up to the cyclical nature of American politics, is doing a profound disservice to the breathtaking jolt electing such a person represents in our republic.
No, this wasn’t a change-mandate. Not when the Trump takes control of the White House with the support of only a quarter of the nation’s electorate. This was, and still is, a social experiment gone deeply awry.
Trump won the Republican nomination without the support of a majority of the party’s primary voters, and now he’s parlayed his uncanny ability to use the system into the most powerful job in the world. And he’s done it by playing on the worst in us. Using an election strategy designed to fracture and divide. Creating a vaudevillian stage far beyond even the most voyeuristic reality television.
I can’t help but think of an excerpt from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death:
“In America, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and it is certainly useful to have a few when a pollster shows up. But these are opinions of a quite different order from eighteenth- or nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions, which would account for the fact that they change from week to week, as the pollsters tell us. What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation.
I am using this world almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”
It was in this environment, which is far bigger than Trump, that sexual assault, racial dog-whistling, anti-semitic imagery, cyber bullying, and a blatant disregard for facts became plot devices in a bizarre narrative…instead of foundationally disturbing and disqualifying elements in presidential candidate. In many ways, Trump was able to fictionalize his past even though there is an immense public record to ground each and every claim firmly in reality.
No, this isn’t normal.
Despite attempts to unify the country, we can’t allow for this to become normal. Systematic and intentional rollbacks of the Voting Right Act directly contributed to Trump’s victory in North Carolina, at a minimum. Russian government officials have acknowledged actively “helping” Trump’s campaign. Leaders of the Klu Klux Klan and ISIS favor Trump’s victory. Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, and other nationalist leaders in Europe are actively celebrating America’s single largest lurch towards an ethnocentric, authoritarian regime.
On the campaign trail, president-elect Trump regularly threatened basic constitutional freedoms. He restricticted press access, said he would seek to change libel laws to be able to sue journalist for printing information he found inflammatory, proposed religious tests to enter the country, threatened to jail his political rival, and refused to accept the outcome of the election unless he won.
Even if the burden of governing moderates Trump—which there is no evidence to suggest—that cannot color our memories of this campaign, and the choice voters made. And to be clear, this is the choice voters made. Despite the direct voter suppression strategies deployed in VRA states, this election was not “rigged” and its outcome is not dishonest. It would be far, far easier to deal with if it were. No, this is an accurate rendering, if not rending, of the social fabric.
To bring restoration and healing to our country, to truly restore whatever greatness or exceptionalism once existed, we need to directly confront Trumpism. It was the complicity of entertainment-focused cable “news,” the moral equivalency of white evangelical voters, the disaffected burnout of Obama’s coalition—along with the confounded who simply stayed home—that gave Trump his path. Some have more integrity than others, but still, rationalizations abound.
Confronting Trumpism requires seeking the intentional and repeated benefit of the “other.” It requires a politics that is inclusive, not divisive; a national conversation—held face-to-face, neighbor-to-neighbor—not through social media about our common desires for our jobs, our families, and our communities. It requires a willingness to be wrong, and to hear the merits of the opposing view. And above all, confronting Trumpism requires that we view people for their inherent worth, and not their strategic value to our cause.
Clinton was unable to take her campaign to that place. So too were liberal elites. And for this there is only the mirror. But to be clear, there were no conservative voices—not Senator Ben Sasse, not Mitt Romney, not one—who got to that place either. They chose silence, acquiescence, or complicity.
This lies at the feet of us all.
Some will say political turnabout is fair play. That this what people thought and felt four or even eight years ago. To them I would say, you’re wrong. This isn’t partisanship or sore losing. In fact, it’s been an incredibly gracious—perhaps even incorrectly so—defeat from Secretary Clinton, and President Obama. But more to the point, those elections didn’t make categories of Americans measurably less safe. They enfranchised record numbers of voters, and they were built on an optimism and hopefulness that was never present in Trump’s campaign. Disagree on policy, dig-in on tactics—hell, even deny the accomplishments!—but don’t compare 2008 or 2012 to this. These are definitionally different species.
Still others celebrate this as a great turn in America’s history. They secured their victory. Had their ideas validated. To them I say, caution. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. When globalization is not reversed, when ISIS isn’t quickly or easily defeated, when the deal with the Russian devil turns, when China calls in the debt, when families are torn apart by deportation, when the wall doesn’t get built, and when replace and repeal crumbles the health and wellbeing of the people who were willing to risk their futures on Trump, the power of potential will fade like a distant memory.
That’s the problem when you truly believe one man can fix your problems, and even more so when he believes it too. There’s nowhere left to turn when it doesn’t work. There is no shared commitment, only blame. No accountability, only excuses. Trump will get his and get out. That’s the thing with guys like him—they always do. It’ll be you and I left holding the bag…with no real idea of what’s inside.
Which leaves us with two options: we can recede further into our corners, becoming less and less connected. Or, we can open the front door, walk outside, and seek out someone who doesn’t look, think, or act like us. We can reconnect through civic and religious institutions. We can bear the burdens of our neighbors and buy-in to the shared success of community. But it’s no longer about an election. It’s about us. Will we do the work that needs to be done to make America whole again?