Now that I have pulled myself off the floor of despair, I have a few observations about what could be one of the most significant elections in American history.
This was America’s Brexit moment. It is pretty clear that the Brexit movement in the UK was a thumb in the eye of the elite by people who felt left behind in the new global economy. The message: we have had enough.
First and foremost I believe that electing Trump, the anti establishment, “champion of change” candidate is sending a similar message. Bernie Sanders picked up on the alienation and discontent of those left behind and so did The Donald though Bernie was hearing the voices of intellectuals and lefties while Donald was listening mainly to the white working class. They both got it, however, and the message resonated with a lot of people. Bottom line: there are a lot of Americans who are sick and tired of stagnant wages, congressional grid lock, changing demographics, alternative lifestyles, changing cultural norms, and a deck that is stacked in favor of the elite. They want change.
The irony , of course, is that Trump was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and and is quintessentially elite himself. His appeal apparently is his outrageous personality, a product of reality TV, which allows him to say “politically incorrect” things that many of his supporters feel but cannot express and to make the solution to their malaise real simple—throw out the aliens, build a wall, stop free trade, kill Obama Care and climate deals, and get tough with foreign powers—in short, to “Make America Great Again.” Think about the good old days when men ruled the roost, minorities were kept in their place, jobs were secure and life was good. Though many of us think he is a sham and a phony, we now know that his message worked.
A second irony is that the centerpiece of his economic proposals is a huge tax break for the rich and more trickle-down economics, which would do very little to help his alienated constituency. He is opposed to a minimum wage and skeptical of safety net programs. But that does not seem to matter. He is not part of the political establishment. He is not part of those people. He might not be part of the white working and lower middle class but he would be their champion.
Enter Hillary Clinton. We liberals did not get it, but from the outset she had three things going against her. First, she is the political establishment personified. Second, she is a woman, and sexism continues to be alive and well; and third and perhaps most important, she positioned herself essentially as running for Obama’s third term. We progressives did not get it because we love Obama. We want to see a continuation of what he started. We value experience, expertise, and competence and support her message of inclusiveness. We did not realize that precisely those things were what were on trial in the election of 2016. We missed this as did most of the press.
Given the fact the Hillary Clinton was the status quo candidate in an era of antiestablishment fervor, it is remarkable that she did as well as she did. She actually won the popular vote (by a hair) and was only one or two battleground states away from winning the election. We remain a divided country, pretty much straight down the middle. In other words, despite the populist revolt, half the country was in her corner.
The pundits I listened to today on the radio told us the reason she lost was also due in part to an “enthusiasm gap” and to her wonkish personality. They add that she never recovered from the Comey email investigation sandbag and that her “basket of deplorables” comment stuck with her. And, of course, the Wiki Leaks and email controversy just never went away. Despite all this she almost won. She ran a great campaign and held up under incredible pressure. She would have made a fine president.
So what happens next?
The first move is up to Trump. Who is this guy anyway? What does he really believe? What of all the horrible and outrageous things that he says he is going to do is he actually going to pursue?
There are two directions he can take. First, he can move toward the middle and try to achieve some reconciliation. This would involve backing away from massive deportations and building the wall and trying to work out compromises on some items, like infrastructure, that the Democrats can go along with. He will have to do some things like kill Obama Care because the Republicans will demand it–and that is a terrible thing for 20 million people who now have insurance–but perhaps the “replacement” could build on the structure now in place. Getting out of the Paris Climate Accord could be delayed until, say, Miami was under water when even the Republicans will get the picture. Since it is not readily apparent that Trump himself actually believes any of the things he says, maybe there is some hope for compromise since presumably he wants to go down as a good president in order to boost his fragile ego.
The second direction is the red meat direction—more outrageous remarks to stir the masses, radical changes to health care and immigration and a move toward strongman leadership. This is always what has scared me the most. I have made the comparison to the 1930s in Europe when the most enlightened countries on earth gave in to Fascism. That does not appear to be a fear at this moment for us, but when you have a “ruler” with personal insecurity and a mandate for radical change, you can’t rule it out. Our democracy is fragile and cannot ever be taken for granted.
There is also much we ordinary people can do. The split between the two camps is very real. Regardless what happens on Capitol Hill or in the White House, we need to reach out to others we can’t understand and try to work together to move forward. How this happens right now is pretty much up for grabs; but if it does not happen, the Republic will be in even worse trouble.