I’m still absorbing the result. My coping drifts between ignoring the news “analyses” to obsessing over them. Many of you have asked for my reflections and insights. The truth is I’m still trying to understand.
I am sad, disturbed, embarrassed — but not surprised. I have always believed that Candidate Trump was emphatically “on trend” – globally, where intolerance and bully style leadership are on the rise; nationally, where wealth worship is epidemic and reality TV has turned a lack of decorum into entertainment; and even in the Republican Party, where Trump just said out loud what they’ve been saying in code for years. The pearl clutching of establishment Republicans always seemed a little hollow to me. Notice how many of the Party’s leaders came home in the end.
Surprised or not, we lost the election. The question “why” has been the subject of lots of commentary by better-qualified observers than me. As odious as Trump’s behavior and many of his positions may be, he spoke to voters and not at them or over them. And he made many feel heard. Meanwhile we seem to be running against something rather than for something.
Like it or not, the Trump campaign must be credited for giving voice to the yearnings and anxiety of working people. Not just whites, though that seemed to be the target of his message. The displacement and frustration and voicelessness of working people in all corners of the country are real. If we care about those realties in the lives of our fellow citizens, we ought to be glad that someone stood up for them.
So why is that I am so uneasy?
It’s not just that the messenger was a pretender, with no record of empathy and no regard for truth. Insincerity in politics is not new.
It’s not just that white working class voters placed their confidence in a party whose policies have significantly contributed to their predicament, rather than the Democratic Party, which calls itself the champion of just such voters. That’s more than a bitter irony but a profound reminder to us of how important it is for Democrats to stand for what we say we believe.
The reason I’m uneasy is that the Trump campaign also unleashed something dark. At the same time it gave voice to the voiceless worker, the Trump campaign gave voice, without hesitation or apology, to contempt: the contempt of black and brown people, the contempt of immigrants, the contempt of Muslims, the contempt of women. He acknowledged real anxieties and shortcomings, and then blamed them on “the other.” If, as some say, he has been speaking what’s on the minds of many Americans, how I am supposed to separate empathy for justifiable economic grievances from condemnation of and resistance to hate?
The answer for me is as it has always been for me: community. Community gets built one person at a time. The challenge in building community, whether in public or private life, is to let others in, to try to listen for what you may not want to hear. Lord knows, I am still working on that in my own life. But I think the effort matters, and I don’t think it means leaving one’s conscience behind. I met lots of people in the decade I spent in politics who told me they agreed with little I said or did, but who supported us anyway. I think it was because we took the time to try to hear them, adjusted where warranted, still stood up for what we believed — and still tried to govern for the greater good. And we tried never to give up on kindness.
I want to believe that lots of people – not all but many – voted for the President-elect not because of what he said but in spite of it. I want to believe that a big part of Trump’s support came from people who heard him say “Make America Great Again” and did not think about a time when women stayed home and African-Americans were second-class citizens. I wonder if what they thought about was a time when they could do business with a handshake; when they knew they could graduate from high school and find a good-paying job, buy a house and support a family in the town where they grew up; when they could walk outside and talk with and count on their neighbors; when we turned to each other and not on each other. These are the people who deserve the special attention and respect of government today. These are the people we tried to hear and to serve, the ones without lobbyists and connections. We can’t give up on them now just because their perceived champion was coarse and boorish.
I am not willing to declare myself in opposition to everything the Trump administration does before he even takes office. It was repugnant and unpatriotic for Mitch McConnell to do that to President-elect Obama, especially in an hour of national crisis, and I will not repeat the transgression. I will, as the kids say, “stay woke.” I will remain vigilant and informed. And I will listen, the way Louis Pasteur admonished the educated person always to listen, without losing my temper or my self-confidence.
If you’re uneasy like me, use it as fuel. Use it to involve yourself in local service, like our Project 351. Use it to speak (publicly and privately) and write on issues of economic and social justice, and how the fundamentally American values of equality, freedom, opportunity and fair play should inform what our policy choices should be and how we implement them. Use it to organize locally for local and state races, and to take the United States Senate and even the House in 2018. Use it to run for something yourself. Use it to remind yourself to stay in touch with what you know to be right, instead of what’s expedient or clever or conventional. Use it to stay connected to each other and to build community.
Keep the faith, friends. America remains a work in progress. It’s up to us, in the ways we can, to do the work.