How did we get here and what do we do now: thoughts on the 2016 American presidential election

As the world begins to process the results from this week’s American election, two questions seem to bubble to the surface. The first is, how did we get here? How did America, long seen as a bastion of hope and inclusivity, elect a man who openly espoused racism, xenophobia, nativism, and misogyny before and during his excruciatingly drawn out and dismal campaign? How did the land of the free opt for an authoritarian demagogue over the most qualified and experienced person to run for the nation’s highest office in memory? How did the country go from “Yes we can” to “Grab ’em by the pussy” in eight short years?

Numerous theories have been floated, many of them persuasive, all of them incomplete.

Most commentators point to the impact of white voters on the final result. According to CNN’s exit polls, 63% of white men and 53% of white women chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. According to the same polls, blacks, Latinos, and all other ethnic groups preferred Clinton. Exit polls published by The New York Times paint this picture starkly: blacks preferred Clinton over Trump 88% to 8%; Latinos 65% to 29%; Asians 65% to 29%; and other racial groups 56% to 37%.

Some of this support among whites is no doubt due to Trump’s appeal to rust belt voters, who have seen their homes and their towns ravaged by an economy that never entirely rebounded from the crash of 2008, manufacturing jobs that have been outsourced or automated, and galloping technological change.

Pulitzer Prize winner Dennis Cay Johnston, author of The Making of Donald Trump, is also an expert on inequality in America; he sums up Trump’s appeal to the disaffected middle class this way:

Trump won because many millions of Americans, having endured decades of working more while getting deeper in debt, said “enough.”

From 1967, when Lyndon Johnson was president, to 2014 the average income of the vast majority of Americans rose by only $328 to $33,068. That’s just one percent above inflation after 47 years and this income stagnation applies, statistically, to the 90%, everyone who made less than $121,000 in 2014.

Over the same years, incomes among the top tenth of one percent grew so much – and tax laws were so generous to them – that many enjoy multiple mansions and a few own his-and-her private jets.

Many in the vast majority are worse off now than in LBJ’s day because while their real incomes remained flat, their bills – for housing, cars, college tuition – kept rising. And fear spread as unions were weakened, manufacturing required fewer workers, and all jobs became less secure, with fewer health and retirement benefits except for top executives.

This is a compelling argument, and surely must factor into the results of Tuesday’s election, but it can’t fully explain them. It can’t entirely explain why CNN’s exit polls show that voters who earned under $50,000 annually preferred Clinton, while those earning $50,000 and over all leaned toward Trump (albeit by slender margins of one or two percentage points). Moreover, the Washington Post‘s exit poll shows the economy as the most important issue for voters, but also shows that more respondents preferred Clinton to Trump in that area.

So, what else can explain Trump’s historic upset victory? Clinton herself was widely unpopular – a lifetime Washington insider who was considered too tight with lobbyists and banks, and thought by many voters to be dislikable and dishonest. Her use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State haunted her throughout her campaign, even though the FBI cleared her – twice – of any criminal wrongdoing. Certainly she was not helped by FBI director James Comey’s late-October revelation that the bureau was investigating additional emails that had been uncovered on a laptop shared by Clinton campaign adviser Huma Abedin. Nor was she aided by the news that premiums under the widely loathed Obamacare health plan were to rise by 25% in 2017.

And yet.

It is impossible not to recall pictures of Trump supporters wearing t-shirts that read, “Trump that bitch,” or internet memes with slogans like, “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica.” Annalisa Merelli asserts the sexism and misogyny that continue to infect western society indicate America is not ready for a woman president. Merelli addresses the issue of support for Trump among women, which was arguably one of the most surprising outcomes of all: “Women all over America voted for Trump in enough numbers to see him to victory. In doing so, they have condoned everything that Trump stands for, and have absolved a sexist society (and a xenophobic, homophobic one) of its ills. They have shown that they have, if not a lack of respect of their own rights, then a sense that their own rights are not their most important priority.” Would a male candidate – Joe Biden, say, or Bernie Sanders – have been able to beat Trump? Possibly, even probably. Did Clinton’s status as a woman on its own negatively affect people’s reaction to her? Almost undoubtedly.

Nor is it just women who were targeted by Trump’s campaign and its most rabid followers. Pictures circulated online of a Trump supporter wearing a t-shirt reading, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” Besides being frankly horrific on its own, this testifies to the fractious relationship Trump had with the mainstream media throughout his campaign. Though he relied on daily newspapers and 24-hour cable news networks to provide him blanket coverage – from which these organizations benefited immeasurably, Trump being nothing if not fodder for sensational stories – he also denied media outlets access to his rallies and threatened to expand U.S. libel laws to make it easier to sue press outlets that publish unfavourable pieces.

The journalist t-shirt also recalls the ugly history of U.S. race relations, a history that Trump and his camp have reignited throughout a campaign that oscillated wildly from dog whistles to openly racist rhetoric and imagery. Fear of the other was a cornerstone of the campaign, from the promise to build a wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, to the proposal to deport some 11 million illegal immigrants, to a ban on Muslim immigration (reference to which temporarily disappeared from Trump’s website earlier this week), to his calls for enhanced stop-and-frisk police powers that would disproportionately target blacks and other minorities. Ignore for a moment that many of these policies are unconstitutional and unlawful: the mere fact that people knew about them and voted for Trump regardless is shocking on its face.

At around 10:40 p.m. on election night, as it was becoming finally, terribly clear that Trump would win, Paul Krugman wrote the following in The New York Times:

We thought that our fellow citizens would not, in the end, vote for a candidate so manifestly unqualified for high office, so temperamentally unsound, so scary yet ludicrous.

We thought that the nation, while far from having transcended racial prejudice and misogyny, had become vastly more open and tolerant over time.

We thought that the great majority of Americans valued democratic norms and the rule of law.

It turns out that we were wrong.

It is interesting to contemplate the “we” in these sentences. Would the pronoun apply to, say, the families of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or Sandra Bland or Eric Garner? Would it apply to any of the women who are raped or assaulted, groped or propositioned in the street or on public transit, harassed by their bosses and coworkers, beaten by their domestic partners, or denied basic dignity in a host of other ways on a daily basis? Would it apply to Jews who see anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled on the sides of synagogues, or Muslims who are targeted for verbal or physical abuse because of the way they dress? Victims of misogyny and racism aren’t surprised that these things exist – even thrive – in so-called liberal America, or elsewhere. They’ve always known it.

America is a nation forged in a cauldron of racism. In her (not plagiarized) speech at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama pointed out that the White House was itself built by slaves; the institution of slavery was essential to the creation of a country whose founding document ironically insists on the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal.” Dredd Scott; the Civil War; Jim Crow; the Ku Klux Klan; Brown vs. the Board of Education; George Wallace; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; and on and on through to the present: the history of America is a history of racism and intolerance. On one level, what is shocking in Trump’s victory isn’t that it shows America has changed, but that it proves it hasn’t.

If that, at least in part, begins to address the question of how we got here, it does nothing to answer the second question that has been plaguing most right-thinking people since Tuesday: what do we do now? Like the first question, this one is complex, emotional, and difficult. And it seems clear that there is no single, one-size-fits-all answer.

For many, the short-term response will be to mourn and allow themselves to be scared. This is a perfectly reasonable reaction under the circumstances. Though the immediate fallout of a Trump presidency will be felt most acutely in the U.S., it will have inevitable – and most likely negative – consequences for the entire world. And around the globe, it will be the most vulnerable who will suffer greatest. One thing that those of us in positions of relative privilege and security can do is reach out to those more vulnerable among us and let them know that they are not alone, that there is support and help and friendship available, if desired or needed.

A period of quietude and reflection is understandable, and perhaps necessary. But equally necessary, in the longer term, is a renewed determination not to allow the forces of hate and intolerance to acquire any more of a toehold. One of the troublesome aspects of Trump’s victory is the degree to which it has emboldened similarly intolerant factions around the world: Nigel Farage in Britain; Marine Le Pen in France; Geert Wilders in the Netherlands; Vladimir Putin in Russia; and Conservative leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch here in Canada. The virus of xenophobia and hatred must not be allowed to spread; it must be countered with values of reason, enlightenment, tolerance, and acceptance of difference.

More than ever, we need a media that upholds its public trust as purveyors of truth and critics of governmental overreach and error. Trump has already tried to curtail this: PEN America reports that the president-elect refused to allow members of the press to accompany him to the White House for his Thursday meeting with outgoing president Barack Obama. “Trump’s decision to exclude reporters from his campaign plane en route to essential discussions on the nation’s transition is a warning sign when it comes to the transparency we can expect from the incoming Administration,” writes PEN America’s executive director Suzanne Nossel.

Equally important is that the media and others work to counter the paranoia and rumours that swirl around the alt-right online. So-called “fact-based” journalism is not a tool of elites intended to denigrate or diminish regular people; by contrast, it is one of the essential mechanisms to assist people in distinguishing between truth and palaver. It is vitally important that press freedom be protected and that journalists be allowed to do their jobs of holding administrations to account.

In America, the Republican party now controls the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. One of Trump’s first jobs as president will be to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court bench, which effectively means that Republicans will also wield control of the judiciary. That means there will be few if any institutional checks and balances against the unfettered use of power in American government. Like it or not, the consequence is that citizens become the checks and balances. Activists must be allowed to continue their work, protestors must be granted the freedom of peaceful assembly, and a multiplicity of voices must be provided space and time to be heard.

Read. Read fiction and non-fiction. Read poetry and prose. Read newspapers and magazines. These things not only enrich our lives, they can also serve as guideposts marking where we’ve been and charting where we might be going. Read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. Read It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. Read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Read Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. Read Richard III by William Shakespeare. Read The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. Read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Read The Trial by Franz Kafka. Read The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. Read The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman. Read Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. Read A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising by Miron Bialoszewski. Read Working by Studs Turkel. Read Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff. Read The Diary of Anne Frank. Read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson. Read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Read The Wars by Timothy Findley.

It is Remembrance Day in Canada, a day to pause and reflect on those who fought and died overseas so that we might have the freedom we enjoy today. Their sacrifice secured us our way of life, but it is essential to bear in mind that freedom is ever fragile, and must be protected at every turn from forces – institutional and otherwise, foreign and domestic – that threaten it. So let’s take time to think and assess, to remember and regroup, and allow ourselves to feel what we need to feel.

And then let’s get down to business.

How did we get here and what do we do now: thoughts on the 2016 American presidential election

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