Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Disgust and Hope: Thoughts on the 2016 US Presidential Election

Last week Donald Trump won the US Presidential election.  Here are some of my thoughts on the election.
  1. It seems that this election is at least partly about race and gender.  There are a lot of angry white people in America.  The channeling of racial resentment in the Tea Party and Birthers was just the start.  Note that neither I nor anybody else is saying that all Trump supporters are openly racist, card-carrying members of the KKK.  It should be noted that the KKK does support Trump and racists of all stripes from old school anti-semites to the Alt-Right heard his dog-whistles loud and clear whether Trump meant it that way or not.  But for most people I think it’s subtler than that, ranging from a kind of vague resentment to a passive acceptance of what Trump says because it doesn’t affect you.  And I see no wisdom in denying the role that misogyny played in forming the decades-old suspicion-mongering narrative about Hillary Clinton and in giving a bloviating man with no experience so much leeway against a candidate who, for all the issues with her candidacy, was one of the most qualified candidates in history.  It’s not just about race and gender, but to outright deny that these were factors is silly.  Perhaps all of this is a reaction to the changing social landscape of America.  As the slogan says: “When you’re accustomed to privilege equality feels like oppression.” 
  2. This election is also about many people’s loss of faith in American institutions and establishment politics as well as a rejection of elitism.  Many people perceive that their government, economy, and cultural institutions no longer serve people like them.  I suspect this perception is partly reasonable given the extent of income inequality and deep cultural issues.  I grew up in the Midwest and live in the South; snobby coastal elitism pisses me off, too. However, I think parts of this perception are worth criticizing.  For instance, it’s strange that some white people blame those who had absolutely nothing to do with creating our political and economic structures: your average rich white guy like Donald Trump has personally caused more working people to suffer than the average Muslim immigrant or working class African American. It’s also odd to believe that anyone with expertise is automatically a self-serving elitist or that those with no expertise have any desire or ability to help you. I’m not sure I entirely understand this perception that America no longer works for some people or how it fits into the larger Culture Wars. I’m even less sure that I have any idea what to do about it, and I doubt that anyone else does, either.  I wish people would listen to each other and think through these issues in a respectful yet critical way.
  3. Everyone is blaming everybody else for Trump’s victory.  Targets of blame include the media, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Republicans, Democrats, the DNC, James Comey, Julian Assange, the Russian government, Anthony Weiner, white men, white women, Latinos, young people, old people, third party voters, Bernie Sanders, Bernie-or-Bust people, the two party system, people who didn’t vote, the ignorant masses, the knowing masses, lack of critical thinking, etc.  What I see little of is anybody blaming themselves.  Like it or not, this debacle belongs to us all.  The strangest thing is that many people seem to think something as complicated as a Presidential election in the most powerful country on Earth can be explained by a single cause. 
  4. The worst thing about this election has been the mainstreaming of blatant bigotry, which has now inspired numerous disturbing incidents across the country (here's a list of some of them). This is not okay.  This is horrifying.  Worrying about this is not merely sour grapes about election results.  If John McCain or Mitt Romney had won in 2008 or 2012, would we have seen anything like this?  This is something specifically disturbing about whatever Trump's campaign has awakened. (And no, that white guy in Chicago was not beaten for supporting Trump).  If you can’t understand why many immigrants, women, people of color, Muslims, LBGTQ people, disabled people, and others are worried, try to imagine yourself in the position of one of these groups and then contemplate the specific harms Trump or Vice President-elect Mike Pence have been eminently clear about wanting to do to people like you: punishing women who have abortions, deporting millions of people, support for conversion therapy, banning Muslims from entering the country (or the lite version: “extreme vetting”), support for stop and frisk policing, and so on.  Would you be willing to wager your wellbeing on the chance that Trump and Pence will change their views or break their campaign promises (here are the promises for the first 100 days)?  If you can’t imagine yourself in such a position, perhaps you have an empathy problem: Do you only care about what affects you directly? Can you be sure that none of this will affect you? What will you do about it?
  5. What will you do about this?  There are a lot of ideas.  Protesting is one.  There's that safety pin thing.  If you’re not sure about wearing a safety pin because it's not enough or it's kind of hokey, here’s an interesting response.  My thought: wearing a safety pin is incomplete, but it’s better than nothing.  Here are just a few worthwhile organizations that may need your financial help: Trans LifelinePlanned Parenthood, the ACLU, Muslim Legal Defense Fund, Black Lives Matter, the Southern Poverty Law Center, etc.  And of course John Oliver has other suggestions presented much more humorously.
  6. Another source of dismay for me is the way this election has brought out the worst in people’s self-assured dogmatism across the political spectrum.  The internet, aided by the tunnel-vision effect of social media, has transformed everyone into a self-proclaimed infallible political expert.  This has led to the increased popularity of conspiracy thinking and the demise of critical thinking applied to one’s own views.  It has also driven many to smug condescension even toward people who mostly agree with them.  This is no way to run a civil society.  It’s also a crappy way to treat other human beings. 
  7. Smugness has been especially bad on the left, but it's a problem everywhere.  The dogmatism and smug condescension that pervade our political discourse have almost destroyed my willingness to engage.  I post things on social media with trepidation.  I've disabled comments on this post.  Not because someone might rationally disagree with me (I would welcome that), but because some smug person who might even basically agree with me is likely to condescendingly belabor some irrelevant point until I become so fucking exhausted that I lose whatever shreds of faith in humanity I still possess.  As much psychic trauma as this election has caused me personally, its damage to our national character has been far worse.  This damage would have been nearly as bad had Clinton won.  That Trump won is just the cherry on top of the shit sundae.
  8. Given Trump’s surprise victories in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and (probably) Michigan and his better than expected performance in other Northern states (including my native land of Minnesota), it’s time we realized that racial resentment is not just a problem in the South.  It’s also time we, especially my fellow white Americans, thought of ways to seriously address this issue.  Is there a mean between demonizing Trump supporters as inhuman and normalizing their passive or active acceptance of bigotry that dehumanizes others?
  9. It’s tempting to say “I don’t know my country anymore” (at least for white liberals; I imagine many people of color were already well-acquainted with this country).  We’ve been getting glimpses of this country for a long time: the Tea Party, Birthers, the narratives surrounding police killings of unarmed black people, the reaction to Black Lives Matter, the blind hatred of Hillary Clinton, and threats against women and people of color from the vitriolic, hate-soaked corners of the internet (Rabid Puppies, Gamergaters, the Alt-Right, etc.).  We may be surprised by a Trump victory, but we shouldn’t be.
  10. I hope Trump has pissed off the Republican establishment enough that he won’t be able to work with them and will get little of his agenda through Congress.  I hope he will break a lot of his campaign promises.  And maybe Democrats should steal the playbook of the Republicans in recent years and go full obstructionist.  One mistake we should not make is to underestimate Trump’s intelligence and ability to make good on his promises.  Look where this got us with George W. Bush.
  11. It looks like Clinton may be on track to win the popular vote by hundreds of thousands of votes or more.  (There are already people disputing this trend, which leads me to suspect that Americans are now incapable of agreeing about how to count...  Sigh... ) Maybe a Clinton win of the popular vote will encourage a rethinking of the Electoral College.  Maybe it will dampen Trump’s claims of a mandate.  Actually, I doubt either of those will happen, but I do gain some small comfort from the likelihood that the slim majority of American voters did not vote for Donald Trump.  If Clinton does win the popular vote, as it looks like she will, we should remember this in the next four years.  Even if she doesn’t, it will probably be extremely close such that any claim that Trumpism represents all of America will be wrong.
  12. The bigotry, smugness, misinformation, and sloppy thinking that this election has unleashed and that show no signs of slowing down have left me disgusted with my country, with the right, with the left, with independents, with voters, with non-voters, with everyone, with myself.  How did it come to this, America?  How will we go on?
  13. Despite my disgust and the very real threats and challenges ahead, which I in no way mean to dismiss, I still believe we are experiencing the last gasps of reactionary bigotry (as I argued a few months ago).  These gasps are loud and destructive, but there are reasons to hope that the voices of decency will eventually drown out the gasps of bigotry in the decades to come.  I’m not sure if Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  I suspect King meant that whether this is true depends on whether we actively resist injustice today and plant the seeds for a future that is kinder and more just for everyone.  I don’t know to what extent my hope for this future is rational and to what extent I merely need to believe it to go on.  At the very least I don’t think it’s entirely irrational to believe that we might find a way to move past our disgust with each other and ourselves, to create a society that really does work for everyone.  We don’t know whether such a society is possible, but on the other hand we don’t know that it’s not possible.  In uncertain times perhaps not knowing is a greater source of hope than anything else.