America, at least the 25% of the electorate that voted in Donald Trump, did not express its better instincts. Quite the reverse. New Yorker editor David Remnick expressed the day-after dismay and sense of tragedy many of us feel in the starkest terms. Frank Rich, as he always does, put it in clear perspective. I cite them because they have said it better than I could, but also as examples of the many excellent post mortem pieces that have appeared in the last days. (Isn’t “post mortem” the perfect term when we’re facing the probable death of so many positive initiatives.) The problem is that we (Remnick, Rich and me in this post) are collectively talking to ourselves. I live in Chapel Hill part of the liberal highly educated geographic Triangle bubble that in so many ways is totally cut off from, and out-of-tune with, what continues to be a very rural and conservative state. You and I, like virtually all Americans of every stripe, essentially engage with and befriend (really and not in the Facebook sense) the like-minded. In fact, we’re shocked, often outraged, by any in our circle who deviate from what we have set as the “norm” of group-think. We dismissively characterize those glued to Fox News as narrow minded lemmings while being loyalty glued ourselves to the likes of NPR, New York Times and Washington Post. This is not a value judgment of the media involved ¾ the NPR and Fox are in my view hardly equal ¾but rather an admission that we all live in our own self-congratulatory echo chambers.
Our elections, at least for those of us who vote, are evenly divided: currently 25% for Clinton, 25% for Trump. Big surprise. While it is probably too glib and simplistic to say so, each “side” has a different ¾ often vastly different ¾ world view and voice. The media, often including the ones I follow so loyally, have often reacted to this numerically 50/50 split by slavishly giving “equal time” to each “side” which seems to assume moral equivalency. That’s a fiction of course, on which is both misleading and even dishonest. In its grossest terms during the campaign that meant often treating Clinton’s fact-grounded assertions and Trump’s documented lies as equal and, more damaging, as legitimate “news”. We’re paying a high price for this kind of faux journalistic fairness. The flip side of this, and speaking to our own echo chamber existence, is that we are not interacting or talking to those who live in what we see as an alternate universe to our own. As Frank Rich wrote in his New York Magazine piece, “…nothing symbolized the culture gap of this election year more acutely than the stunt of a liberal Times columnist interviewing an “imaginary” Trump voter rather than a real one.” Trump began his campaign talking about what we considered a mean spirited wall with Clinton, in contrast, increasingly speaking of bridges. The irony is that we, on all sides, have built fortress-like virtual walls between “us” and “them” and have made little, if any, effort to build, much less cross, bridges. There is no conversation, certainly no listening. So we find ourselves blind sighted by Tuesday’s election results. We were told over and over again, backed up by polls, that this could never be. Right.
Donald Trump regularly campaigned in authoritarian and outrageous tones that were, to put it mildly, off putting and are now are nothing less than frightening. Anyone who, like me, is a child of escapees from a brutal dictatorship can’t help feeling a sense of déjà vu. At the very least, we see Trump as a modern day reincarnation of Huey Long or perhaps more to the modern point, the reemergence of the business tycoon turned Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi. Neither are happy reassuring models. Without doubt, some of those who supported him were characterized accurately by Remnick as people who buy into “…nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism”. And Trump is truly a “…con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy.” But we shouldn’t paint all of his supporters with that broad one-dimensional brush. Nor are they all dumb. Many may be misinformed but sadly that has become a pan-partisan characteristic. Too many Americans across the board are disengaged and dangerously disinterested.
As I have written in earlier posts, many of those who supported and then voted for Trump are legitimately victims of a changing economic dynamic that includes globalism but perhaps more so automation, the necessity of reducing carbon output and being undereducated for our time. Fact is, they have, beyond some lip service, been given far too little attention. Lots of pious talk about the need to retrain but little done to make it happen. While we may be rightly less sympathetic to the other side of their problem, it’s a fact that these largely white and often undereducated people, feel the life which they have been long promised and seen as their American entitlement is no longer. Today they have to share not only with their own (which seems fair), but with the “other” whether they be of different skin color or national origin, people who figuratively or literally don’t speak their language. Share their view or not ¾ which I don’t ¾ it is a real-life anxiety of real people. Of course, it’s one that is not new or unique to our times. It has been repeated often as America’s melting pot has expanded throughout our history. As Ecclesiastes wrote long ago, “there is nothing new under the sun”. True, but it doesn’t matter when it touches your life.
Wherever we stand on the political and social spectrum, there is one thing that probably all of us share in common. We couldn’t wait for this election cycle to be over. It was long and it was exceedingly ugly. We all have some soul searching to do about both of those things and those of us who are Democrats have some real soul searching to do about our party. Let’s be honest, we gleefully expected that to be the post-election problem of Republicans, but the shoe is now firmly on our collective foot. Democrats, as has been pointed out in the wake of the ballot counting, took for granted constituencies whose changed situation or true needs were at best ignored and certainly were never addressed. Surely a big part of Rust Belt’s problems stem from the systematic destruction of trade unions ¾ blame the Republicans for that ¾ which decimated the middle class more than anything else. But Democrats have often sat by watching it happen, taking union support but not fighting for its survival. We also have a very thin and (even worse) aging bench. The main two contenders for the presidential nomination in 2016 were Medicare qualified and one wasn’t even a Democrat.
I have said and repeat here that Hillary Clinton was highly qualified, perhaps, as President Obama said, the most qualified candidate for the presidency in recent memory. She is smart, tough and, in my view, right on most of the issues that face us. I voted it “for her” with conviction and not “against him”, though it was hard not to do that as well. She ran a generally content rich serious campaign, though some have suggested not as a “natural” campaigner. She shined in the debates and delivered a polished and sometimes inspiring (at least in political terms) convention. That said, I think it’s not unfair in retrospect to suggest that she was probably the wrong candidate for this time and this election. She didn’t speak to what ailed Trump’s followers and, relative to the concerns of Bernie voters, never passed the optics smell test of being too aligned with Wall Street and easily earned (in her case speeches) big money. While it never became the issue it was in 2008, the dynasty question always hung over her head. Much of the burden she carried had to do with her sex, a very sad commentary on how far we still have to go. But being a woman alone doesn’t explain it. Back in early 2015 I wrote in a post about receiving mail headlined “are you ready for Hilary?” In part because of the timing ¾ these campaigns go on far too long, a different subject ¾ my response was “not so much”. I had mixed feelings about her, not the least the dynasty issue which played a significant role in supporting Obama over Hillary in ’08.
Perhaps discomfort is too strong a word, but I was reminded of it a few days before the vote in watching Vice President Biden speaking for her on the campaign trail. He was compelling, not only in his case for Clinton which was strong, but in the way he made it. I could not help thinking why not Joe, the title of a June 2015 post written when his potential candidacy was being actively discussed. We’ll never know, but somehow he might have been the perfect baggage-free antidote to Trump in 2016. No one is more plain spoken or carries it off with greater authenticity than Joe Biden. His habit of sometimes speaking before he thinks exposes Trump’s so-called “candor” as an Emperor without Clothes. It isn’t done for affect and it doesn’t depend on crass language. Perhaps more important Biden is of the very people (if not their soured attitude) that once were the Democratic base and this year supported Trump. He understands their problems including having to live within a modest budget, a man whose tax return’s only possible embarrassment lies in its humble numbers. I’m not offering this as hindsight and I surely don’t know if Joe could have, would have, prevailed, but am not alone in posing the same question.
I won’t go into why Clinton lost in this post; others are doing that, many with better credentials and insights. What can be said here is that the reasons are manifold and complex often differentiated depending on the voter. The fact that she is held in such low esteem, albeit often very unfairly, by so many even in her own party can’t be discounted. It certainly may have impacted turn out. What I will say is that if we continue to avert our eyes, ears and minds from those who voted for Donald Trump, we do so at our own and the country’s great peril. But that’s not all. The years ahead are going to be tough and even brutal. Sadly, that probably would have been the case even if Hillary had won, if for different reasons. Different but also the same. This polarization fostered in part by only talking to ourselves and more so by believing so emphatically in the echo conversation while shutting out any contrary view is killing us. I think we will somehow survive, but only if we take a hard and honest look at the causes and the potential for self-destruction. We better start doing something about it. We have no choice in this time of shock without awe.