So: Donald Trump, President-elect of the United States.
I said before that I think he's the worst Presidential candidate in my lifetime, a genuinely awful human being, and an existential threat to America. I'm not going to retcon that in a futile gesture towards cheering anyone up. Nor will I try to cheer you up, if you're upset about it.
But I'm going to ask what we're prepared to do about it, here in the aftermath.
Will we wallow, or fight? Will we proceed with campaign slogans, or with reflection and hard work?
Let's talk about it.
This is not the end of political or electoral history. To put Trump's victory in context, reflect for a moment how often you've been told that some election result shows a sea change in American politics. 1994 was the "year of the angry white man," touted as a new wave of white conservative power thwarting Democratic choices. Ask Bob Dole how that turned out. 2000 and 2004 were the years of "permanent Republican majority," sold as another end to Democratic chances. That lasted into Obama's victory in 2008, sold to us as the crest of a demographic wave that would crush the Republican party. Apparently not.
"This is the hugest change ever" is popular with media and pundits. It gets clicks. It hasn't been true so far.
America is equal to this: Assume the very worst about how Trump will govern for the moment, and then look at our forebears and what they endured.
Nearly three-quarters of a century ago my grandfather enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor. He was a peaceable man — he didn't even like loud talk — but it was what his country required. He and my grandmother married quite quickly and moved to Boston, his hometown, so he could complete supply officer training. He stayed at Harvard (then used as a site to train officers) while my grandmother stayed with his parents, whom she had just met. When she went into labor with my mother, she forbade anyone to reach out to him on campus:
Judy was born at the Chelsea Naval Hospital on January 14, 1943. When labor pains began a week early, I didn't want Paul [my grandfather] to know, because he had a major test in the morning that would influence his assignment in the Navy. There was a blizzard going on, so I sent Mother D [grandpa's mother] home from the hospital in the taxi we came in. I always prided myself on my independence, but having a baby alone was something else. It was worth the struggle though — Paul got a good assignment, and we named Judy after St. Jude, the patron saint of the impossible.
Grandpa went on to serve honorably and quite effectively in the unglamorous position of supply officer on a seaplane tender in the Pacific, winning a Bronze Star for his effectiveness at the job but not seeing combat, not counting the time a kamikaze destroyed his room while he was off-ship.
When I look at my grandparents and the dangers and uncertainties they faced alongside their generation, I am filled with confidence in American endurance. I feel the same when I look at how America came through the hellish abattoir of the civil war. I feel it when I see how Jehovah's Witnesses persevered, and eventually prevailed, in their fight to exercise their conscience even in the face of widespread bigotry. I feel it when I see how African-Americans fought through lynchings and murders and fire hoses and dog attacks and beatings along march routes and explicitly racist laws to secure some measure of legal equality and an African-American President. I feel it when I see that Americans who believed that the state has no right to regulate whom we love fought from Bowers v. Hardwick to Lawrence v. Texas in less than a generation.
America has fought wars of every stripe, against ourselves and others. We've plumbed the depths of economic misery. We've survived race riots and nativist strife. And so we shall again. The task ahead isn't easy. It's daunting. But we're up to it.
America is our project: Donald Trump will be the President of the United States in January. I support and defend the United States of America. That means that, though I do not support Trump personally or based on policy, he is my President. He is the President delivered by the Constitution I love and want to defend. I wish him well — meaning that I wish for him the health and strength and resolve to meet the challenges he'll face. I do not wish him success on many of his stated projects, but I hope that he will perform his Constitutional obligations effectively and to the benefit of the country. I will not be saying "not my President" but "for better or worse, my President." Though I hope he will not succeed in many parts of his stated agenda, I do not wish failure on his Presidency, and I do not think that defeating him in the next election should be his opposition's top priority. Our top priority should be opposing bad programs and policies he proposes, making the case for the rightness of our positions, and trying to use what consensus we can find to better govern America.
Our values endure: Our values do not die just because you might interpret an election as rejecting them (more on that later). You don't hold on to your values because they're popular, you hold onto them because they're right and just and they make you who you are. America's history is full of popular fidelity to our stated values ebbing and flowing, and of Americans stubbornly holding on to those ideas in the dark times.
Salena Zito — one of the more perceptive journalists documenting Trump's success — famously said "The press takes [Trump] literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally." Some of the things Trump said — taken literally — should offend our fundamental values. Did he mean them? Will he try to make policy based on them? That remains to be seen — identifying Trump's stance is often like shoveling smoke. I think it's entirely possible that Trump won't even attempt to do most of the things he's said, or that he'll attempt them in extremely watered-down desultory ways.
We must be prepared to fight against policies that conflict with our values. But that requires, first, some soul-searching about what those values are, whether we have already compromised them, and whether we have been effective and credible advocates for them. The rule of law, the equality of all people (feeble or powerful) before that law, freedom of thought and speech and worship, strict limits on the power of the state over the individual — those are a few I care about. I've been arguing for a while that neither major American party is a reliable friend to those values. It may be a little late to speak out for them if we stood by while "our team" demeaned them. But as I believe in grace and redemption, I believe in the possibility of a renewed commitment to values and a new fight for them.
What makes us Americans? What core rights do we have that the state cannot violate? What are we willing to do to protect them? Now, more than ever, we need to be willing to ask those questions. When President Trump works on his agenda, we need to examine it clearly and honestly and fight what's wrong. It is essential that we persuade. We can't rely on asserting that a policy is wrong because Trump offers it, or because "everyone" knows it is awful. That was the argument against Trump's election, and it lost. We need to return to forceful advocacy of our values and how they apply to policy choices. It's not about popularity. Miscegenation laws were once extremely popular, but they were wrong and violated core American values without regard to their popularity. In striking them down the Supreme Court did not ride a tide of popular support (there wasn't much) but recognized fundamental values embodied in the Constitution. We need to return to using those values as our tools of persuasion and not rely upon the fickle support of culture or popularity or authority. We need to earn support, not assume it.
Charity and Malice: Claiming that Donald Trump won because 40% of the country is made up of irredeemable racist misogynists is not a sustainable path towards recovering political power or governing. It's not even a good way to endure the next 4-8 years. Premising your politics on the Other being horrible may bring short-term successes but not long-term ones. Governor Romney's infamous "47%" remark was so damaging because it conveyed that he viewed half the country as an impediment, as inherently not part of the right team. Hillary Clinton's comments about "deplorable" and "irredeemable" people wound up conveying the same sentiment. It would be a mistake to build an new opposition to President Trump on the foundation of hating a plurality of the country and considering it worthless and evil.
Of course there are racists and misogynists in America. Of course both those things continue to play a significant role in American life. (How significant? That depends on how much money you have.) Of course some of Trump's supporters are very explicitly racist and misogynistic, and of course Trump courted those groups as part of his base.
But attributing a Trump victory to racism and misogyny is a quick, cheap, easy way out. People aren't that simple. Americans didn't conclusively reject racism by electing President Obama, and didn't conclusively embrace it by electing President Trump. Trial lawyers know this: people don't make decisions like computers. People don't tend to weigh all the evidence or consider all the factors or evaluate every counter-argument to every argument. People tend, in small decisions and big ones, to latch on to a few main ideas, come to a conclusion, and then stop considering contrary evidence. A man sees what he wants to see, and disregards the rest. Obama's election didn't mean Americans were free of racism; it meant that Obama effectively communicated big ideas that connected and shut down the other voices whispering in our ears. Certainly some Trump supporters are avowedly racist, but some of them latched on to big ideas and stopped listening to the rest — like his troubling flirtation with evil.
Hillary Clinton won an epic, historic struggle to be the worst Presidential candidate ever. Ultimately she won that struggle — and thus lost the Presidency — because she did not persuade. She did not articulate her core ideas effectively enough, and so not enough people latched onto them and disregarded the bad things about her. Trump dallied with racism — hell, Trump nailed racism in the coat closet and walked out smirking — but Clinton still did worse with Latinos, African-Americans, and Asians than Obama did. It may be that she was doomed from the start — too much baggage, too many vulnerabilities. Or it could be that she lacked Obama's power to persuade. She couldn't get them to accept her simple pitch and shut everything else out. Trump could.
It falls to realistic Trump opponents not to crush the people who voted for him, but to persuade them. In this election the GOP showed that it could fight back against demographic change — not just by marshaling high percentages of white voters, but by persuading higher-than-expected percentages of minorities. The Democrats can't respond to that by writing 40% of the country off as irredeemable.
Hubris and Entitlement: The catastrophic polling failures of 2016 reflect the fatal pride of Clinton's team and what I'll call "the establishment."
Americans are stubborn and proud. They'll be persuaded, but they won't be told who to vote for like you'd tell a recalcitrant child to eat his vegetables. The media, childishly obsessed with Donald Trump (and frankly unenthused with Hillary Clinton) promoted a us-versus-them mentality. It was far more class-based than race-based — it was the message "isn't it unbelievable and hilarious that those people support Trump." The message was "of COURSE vote Clinton, you idiot" or "you're pretty dim but at least you can see how to vote on THIS one." Generally people can't be expected to embrace stories that demean them.
There was another way, but hardly anybody took it. There was the way of "let me earn your vote by persuading you why these policies are right," conveyed as part of an effective set of ideas. There were far too few forceful and effective advocates of how free trade makes us richer and freer. There were too few people willing to risk a genuine discussion of the costs of frequent military intervention. Everyone was too busy arguing what immigration policies they didn't support to debate specific policies that they did support.
The anti-Trump message was based too strongly on entitlement — based on who you are, we are entitled to your vote, by right. You can see that in the frothing rage at third-party voters after Clinton's defeat. You'll see it in the ugly backlashes coming at the minority voters who didn't vote "correctly." But voting isn't a matter of entitlement. "Vote for me because the other guy's horrific" is not an effective method to persuade or get out the vote. It's an idea that focuses on the other guy, not you. You've got to deserve victory. Clinton didn't. Clinton stank of entitlement to rule, the media conveyed that message, and that message fatally amplified Clinton's scandals, conveying that Clinton was entitled to follow the rules differently, to act differently, to be treated preferentially.
The apotheosis of hubris may have been the Huffington Post's imbecilic (and deeply humiliating in retrospect) attack on poll maven Nate Silver for not favoring Clinton's odds heavily enough. At common law, it was treason merely to encompass the death of the king — that is, to verbalize the possible circumstances. In the media's echo chamber, it was a sin to express doubt, and damn the actual facts. Clinton and the establishment relied on things being true because we wanted them to be and because there was a polite consensus, not because of facts.
Your Facebook Page Is Not The World: We were told that the internet would expose us to more people, different people, different cultures. In reality, 2016 helps show us how we can shape our own private internet to confirm our beliefs. People mistook all their friends hating Trump for the whole country hating Trump. People mistook the unanimity of those they had chosen to follow as general unanimity. The exceptions tended to prove the rule. Twitter was notorious for bigoted pro-Trump trolls, but their existence may have served to make pro-Trump sentiment seem extreme, isolated, not formidable, and easily noticed. The closer we look at the internet and how it touches us, the more we should be called to a healthy skepticism.
We Are Not All Equally Vulnerable: Not everyone feels the same way about a defeat, because we don't share circumstances.
This result is genuinely horrifying to many people, and reasonably so. We can hope that Trump does not pursue policies overtly hostile to minorities of all sorts, and we can fight like hell if he tries. But whether you think Trump is racist or not, whether you think the result was an endorsement of racism or not, Trump's campaign was accompanied by a groundswell of explicitly bigoted sentiment, one that I maintain he courted and did not effectively reject. Across the country, ethnic and religious and sexual minorities are afraid of what will happen to them. My daughter, like many, has heard talk about which classmates would no longer be allowed to stay in America. I know people who are genuinely afraid, and I don't blame them — I think Trump's rhetoric invited the fear, some segments of his supporters made it a realistic fear, and that there will likely be an upsurge in bigotry and violence. As a well-off white guy in the suburbs I'm lucky — my kids, not white, are somewhat less lucky. My friends and neighbors, of various ethnicities and religious and identities, are even less.
It falls upon all decent people of good faith to defend our friends and neighbors and countrymen. It falls to us to speak out at bigotry even in the face of sneers and shouts of "Trump Trump Trump." If falls to us to continue to call out bigotry even when we are told that we've lost that fight. It falls to us to monitor, and resist, individuals who feel that Trump's election is a green light for bigoted violence. It especially falls to us to stand up and do our part to resist any state-sanctioned bigotry that President Trump might possibly pursue. That fight may involve pro bono help by lawyers, financial contributions to litigation and campaigns, personal support to the targeted, and tireless advocacy in public. It could, conceivably but (I hope) improbably, involve a commitment to violence.
It's a big, complex country. There are a lot of issues. You won't be able to stand up for them all, nor should you try. I submit that every American appalled or outraged by President Trump's election should pick an issue that is important to them, educate themselves thoroughly about it, and come together with fellow Americans to fight for that issue — to defend people in various circumstances who cannot defend themselves. The First Amendment remains my issue, and I will continue to ask for help defending it. More on that to come.
As we prepare to fight against bigotry, we should keep three things in mind.
First, as I said above, the internet is not the world. The most vivid and aggressive bigots online are, for the most part, profoundly marginal people. They were marginal before Trump and they'll be marginal after Trump. They are shock troops for campaigns, but they lack the ability to participate meaningfully in governing. That's why they're trolls. In assessing how bad things will be with President Trump, do not conclude that Twitter trolls will suddenly be striding the halls of power. They'll still be misfits.
Second, the wave of genuine overt ethnic nationalist political candidates will come next, emboldened by Trump. We will fight them. We will take them more seriously than we took Trump.
Third, it might be a good time to reflect on how we talk about race, gender, and sexuality. Trump struck a chord by fighting "political correctness." I've argued that blasting political correctness often involves whinging that we can't act like a dick without being called a dick any more. But it would be foolish not to inquire why Trump's message resonated. The steadily growing social consensus against bigotry is a good thing. But people are flawed — okay, people are assholes — and the consensus gets twisted and distorted and expressed in foolish, counter-productive ways. Some of America's admirable opposition to bigotry has been filtered through human frailty to become obnoxious, counter-productive, petty, and sanctimonious, an obsession with form over substance. I'm not saying you shouldn't explain what pronouns you prefer. I'm suggesting that maybe the way you convey the message might have an impact on your audience's receptiveness to other messages. It's just possible that "we'll grind these bigots under our heel until they talk right" is ineffective and might actually be more about our character flaws than winning. I'm saying there may be a better way.
The Button: Oh yeah. And we may face the end of human civilization, if Trump acts as President the way he acted as a candidate. My fear of Clinton was that she'd start the apocalypse after careful consultant with advisers and based upon thoughtfully crafted policies. My fear of Trump is more that he'll Trump himself into a geopolitical corner and use nukes out of petulance. So. We have that going for us. Good luck, I suppose, with all that.
In summary: think about what values are important to you, think about how best to come together to fight for them, and fight.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Free Speech Triumphant Or Free Speech In Retreat? - June 21st, 2017
- The Power To Generate Crimes Rather Than Merely Investigate Them - June 19th, 2017
- Free Speech, The Goose, And The Gander - June 17th, 2017
- Free Speech Tropes In The LA Times - June 8th, 2017
- I write letters - June 1st, 2017