By Official Navy Page from United States of America MC1 Andre McIntyre/U.S. Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Trump’s Election: A Week of Reflection

Last Tuesday saw the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Like many of my fellow progressives, I found Trump’s victory deeply disappointing and intellectually troubling. Over the past week, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the implications of the election and what it says about us as a country. I’ve tried to collect some of those thoughts and frustrations into this blog post.

1. Overreaction

Humans have a tendency to overreact. The election of Trump doesn’t mean the end of the Republic. And his election does not mean that half the country should be written off as hateful, racist, misogynist, and xenophobic. These emotional reactions derive from an overly simplistic narrative that’s been peddled about Trump and the Trump voter that has penetrated deep into the progressive consciousness.

So let’s all just take a deep collective breath.

2. People will vote for their team

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the election for me, at least initially, was learning that half the country will support an individual who is openly misogynistic, racist, bullying, and has bragged about sexually assaulting women. Half the country will support somebody who has trouble stringing together a coherent sentence about any policy more complex than building a wall. Half the country will support a candidate who appears unhinged and unstable, a man who will wake up at 3:00 AM to send a series of bullying tweets at a former Miss Universe pageant contestant. Half the country will support a candidate who threatens to jail has political opponent and spent an entire debate stalking her around a stage. Half the country will support a candidate who seems to have zero regard or reverence for the democratic institutions and processes that have served our country so well for so long.

These are all things that I thought should have made him unelectable. I couldn’t believe that so many decent, good Americans would support such a candidate. That a man who says and does things that would get any 5th grader suspended or an employee fired could receive 60 million votes (nearly 50% of all votes cast). That’s a lot of people. So the biggest lesson from this election for me, my main takeaway, is that conservatives in this country will support their candidate for office, no matter how disturbing his words, actions and temperament.

Would progressives do the same thing? If faced with the prospect of a Ted Cruz presidency, would I vote for a democrat that did the things that Trump did and said the things that Trump said? I’d like to think not, but I’m not so sure. In other words, people will vote for their team and don’t really care about much else. We’re that polarized politically as a country.

Given all that, it’s probably best to avoid making a sweeping generalization impugning the decency of 60 million Americans.

3. Media’s Analysis of election wildly off base

The media has completely lost the plot. Over the last week, the media has made extraordinary claims about what the election means and the mood of the electorate. We voted for change! Voters reject globalization! The silent majority has spoken! Revenge of the working class whites!

Are you sure about all that media? You got just about everything wrong going into the election. Perhaps a dose of humility is in order.

More than 120 million people voted in this election, about 60 million for Clinton and 60 million for Trump. Of the 60 million who voted for Trump, the vast majority were conservatives who would have voted for the Republican candidate no matter who he was (and as we now know, no matter what he’s done or said). Of the 60 million people who voted for Clinton, nearly all voted for her because we are progressives who would have probably voted for the democratic candidate no matter who he or she was. Clinton and Trump were also unpopular candidates (at least when compared to Romney and Obama) so their vote totals as a percentage of the electorate were down a bit from the past two elections, though certainly not by historical standards. Maybe different candidates would have netted a few million more votes on one side or another, enough to make a difference, but we’re really talking about the margins.

Yes, it is true that white working class voters in rural and exurban areas in the rust belt who have been left behind by globalization and technological innovation voted for Trump in higher numbers than they did for Romney. Their votes were significant as they likely flipped several mid-western states by razor-thin margins: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. They probably voted for Trump because of his anti-trade, anti-globalization, I’m with you message. But that’s not why the vast majority of Trump voters voted for Trump. I mean, most Trump voters also voted for Romney, a pro business, pro trade, pro globalization, establishment Republican. They voted for their team, end of story.

The media has ignored the vast majority of voters to create a narrative around the election focused on 2-3% of the electorate. To use an analogy. Let’s say you offered 100 people chocolate or vanilla ice cream for dessert. 48 people selected chocolate and 48 vanilla. Of those 48 people who chose vanilla ice cream, only three did so because they were tired of chocolate and wanted to try something new. Most people simply picked the ice cream based on their preference for chocolate or vanilla.

If you were to explain why people chose chocolate or vanilla, you would say that most picked ice cream based on whether they liked chocolate or vanilla. You might point out that three people who usually preferred chocolate chose vanilla and that proved decisive. And you might note that four people didn’t eat dessert because they weren’t happy with the choice of Ice Cream. But you certainly wouldn’t explain the final 48-48 count as “professed chocolate lovers spurn chocolate en masse for a taste of vanilla” That would just be crazy, inaccurate, and laughably lazy.

But that’s exactly how the media has spun this election. It’s totally nuts.

4. Everybody wants change, obviously!

Nobody is happy with the gridlock in Washington. We all want change. Republicans did not like Obama and the direction he was taking the country. To state they obvious, they wanted a Republican with more conservative positions across the board. They wanted change! Democrats viewed the Republican congress as ultra-conservative and a body that stood in the way of progress. As we saw it, Obama was powerless to move the country in the direction we wanted due to the gridlock imposed by the Republican congress. We wanted the country to move in a more progressive direction. We wanted change!

Since both progressives and conservatives are unhappy with the status quo, everybody wants change. But putting up a statistic showing that 75% of the electorate is unhappy with the direction of the country and wants change seems irrelevant when you dig a little deeper into the numbers and realize that everybody just wants the country to move in the direction of their stated policy preferences since at the moment, nothing is happening due to the gridlock. That doesn’t make this a “change” election. By that metric, every election is a change election. If voters truly craved real “change”, why do they nearly always reelect incumbents running in the house and senate and why did they do so in this election?

5. Have we oversold Trump’s awfulness?

Probably. Trump’s candidacy had been viewed on the left, the editorial pages of major newspapers, and by a select few on the intellectual right as an existential threat to the Republic. The hysteria almost seemed to at times mirror the conservative conversion of Obama–a center-left Christian pragmatist–into a socialism loving Islamic Kenyan monarch who wants to turn our country into an Islamic socialist state. I obviously think the cartoonish view of Obama is absurd while I’ve at least partially bought into the danger of Trump.

The view is not based on Trump’s policy positions, which are typically to the left of the Republican party. The assessment is based on his temperament and his behavior. He’s been labeled a fascist, a demagogue, an authoritarian strongman, a charlatan, a racist, a misogynist, a rapist, incompetent, an ignoramus when it comes to international affairs, mentally unstable, and emotionally and temperamentally unfit for office. And i’ve found myself persuaded that he is at least some of these things. But is he really and if he is, what are the consequences?

Let’s take Trump’s temperament and international affairs. At times, Trump seems ignorant, unhinged, unrestrained, and vindictive. The behavior has led many to conclude that Trump poses a clear and imminent geopolitical threat. Many of us have shuddered at the thought of him holding the nuclear codes. And there are fears around the world that Trump his little awareness or regard for the current world order, will abandon traditional alliances, and start a nuclear arms race in the Asia. But will he decide to nuke Turkmenistan because he was insulted by their President. I doubt it. Will we see the use of tactical nuclear weapons during Trump’s presidency? I doubt it. Will he abandon NATO? I doubt it. There is certainly no evidence right now that he will do these things. Will our relationship with Russia change? Probably. Is that a bad thing? It could be, but doesn’t have to be. The prophecies of doom appear to be greatly exaggerated, based more on emotion than evidence.

Which is not to say that certain concerns that many have about Trump are not legitimate. I have concerns that Trump has the megalomaniacal instincts of an authoritarian. I also have concerns that he lacks the cognitive ability, competence, and attention span to sort through complex policy positions and quite frankly, govern. And finally, I have concerns that his temperament and seemingly isolationist instincts could lead to dangerous conflicts abroad and a crack-down on free speech, minorities, and the press at home. I have a feeling that those concerns are based more on the caricature of Trump that emerged during the campaign than the man itself. I hope that proves to be the case. But vigilance is critical. Things could go bad, and quickly. And while certain things Trump has said and done should have made him unelectable in the eyes of most voters, the reality is that being a misogynist or a bully or making fun of the disabled does not mean he will run the country into the ground.

His election and rhetoric on the campaign trail has also brought an ugly, racist, hateful, element of our society into the open. While that element has always existed and has long been courted by the GOP, people are impressionable and Trump’s overtly hateful rhetoric has no doubt pushed more people in that direction. Hate crimes are up and the potential normalization of that kind of behavior is deeply disturbing. It’s unclear whether Trump will continue to make overt appeals to this element, but even if he doesn’t, the next year or two will be ugly. That was going to be the case regardless of whether Trump was elected.

The country will also surely move in a direction that I don’t like. Voting rights will be undermined, Roe v. Wade may fall to the wayside, environmental regulations won’t be enforced, global warming will remain a debate rather than a problem that we try to address, medicare may get privatized, the rich may pay less in taxes, social programs may get rolled back, etc. If those things happen, and they all might, it would really suck. But it would not mean the end of the United States. Laws can be changed, regulations reinstated, social programs restarted, new Justices appointed, global warming (well… that’s a trickier one, but it’s not like we were on a trajectory to solve that problem before Trump). Our complaint here is not really about Trump, but about the policy positions of the Republican party.

In short, the reality of a Trump presidency is unlikely to live up to our worst fears and perhaps cartoonish expectations. Maybe he’ll govern as a typical 2016 Republican, which honestly seems to be the main source of my anxiety and the anxiety articulated by my friends and colleagues. Sure, he’ll push extremely conservative policies that are terrible for the country, but that would be true of any Republican. I mean, Paul Ryan just made clear that the abolishment of medicare will be a priority for the next Congress. On the domestic policy front, Trump may even be preferable to the other 16 GOP members (perhaps excepting Christie) who cast their lot in the ring for the nomination as well as prominent members of congress such as Paul Ryan.

Better yet, he may turn out to be a center-right pragmatist. Perhaps he’ll act as an important check on what is truly an ultra-conservative Republican congress. Maybe those New York values are still there, just beneath the surface. Maybe he’ll turn to twitter to shame the hateful elements of the Republican coalition, although the appointment of Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor is discouraging. As is the apparent disarray of his transition team, which seems to be plagued by petty, amateurish infighting.

So let’s hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

Stay active, organize, mobilize, and support progressive candidates and policies at all levels of government. Support Foster Campbell in the Senate run-off election in Lousiana. And while we’re at it, support the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the NRDC, and other organizations on the front-lines fighting against what will surely be a conservative assault on the progress we’ve made in the 21st century.

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1 Response

  1. Andrew says:

    Nicely argued, Jesse. You’re 100% right that the media get fixated on the narrative of the marginal voter rather than the median voter. It’s easier to understand and it sells better.

    All that said, Trump’s election is so deeply alarming not just because of how despicable he is but also because he is, in many ways, the logical culmination of increasingly reckless and unqualified candidates from the Republican side — from George W Bush to Sarah Palin to Donald Trump. In that sense, he’s not an aberration or a fluke. He represents something deep and disturbing. Whether or not he himself does a lot of damage, the institutions that truly protect us are becoming more and more frayed. That’s the thing that should worry us most about our future.

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