Change Trumps All: Reflections on a Divided Nation

Politics Features 2016 Election
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Change Trumps All: Reflections on a Divided Nation

I had a hard time sleeping last night. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

I began the year filled with hope for our country. Bernie Sanders was building a movement to break up the cozy relationship between politicians and their corporate sponsors. Beyond all expectations, he tapped into a desire for a seismic shift in how we do politics. The corporatism that dominates our republic is the worst kind of marriage between capitalism and socialism, where government works tirelessly to appease those with the most money to spare on campaign finance.

When it became clear that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee, there were two bitter pills I swallowed. First, she had as many ties to the financial industries responsible for our economic woes as anyone. Second, no family I know of has amassed as much personal wealth from public service as the Clintons—not exactly a recipe for holding corporate America accountable. I washed that all down with the hope that Sanders had moved her to the left on issues that mattered to progressives like me, and the belief that her email scandal paled in comparison to twenty things I could name about her opposition. I resigned myself to the notion that this wouldn’t be a time for real change.

Like everyone else in my insular world made up of urban college graduates, I was so wrong.

There was a revolution happening on the other side of the aisle, tapping into the frustrations at the Washington establishment. A famous businessman was confounding the Republican politerati who had helped sink us into a stagnant economy and were still slinging lies about the benefits of trickle-down economics and cheap labor. I was horrified to see him using fear of the other to ramp up racism and xenopobia, and horrified that parts of the electorate could overlook his treatment of women; of countless small private businessmen; of his political opponents. Surely America wouldn’t be attracted to this guy.

By all measures, they weren’t. Less than 17 percent of voters strongly favored the new President and voted without reservations. But the candidate quality that mattered above all others was “can bring change.” Trump won among those voters 83% to 17%. Nearly 70% of the electorate was angry or dissatisfied with the federal government. It doesn’t matter that these same voters have a favorable opinion of Obama (53% to 45%), an unfavorable opinion of Trump (his -22% approve/disapprove margin was worse than Clinton’s by 12% in exit polls), or even that they thought Clinton was more qualified (52% to Trump’s 38%), would be a better Commander-in-Chief (49% to 46%) and would better handle foreign policy (52% to 43%). It didn’t even matter that only 29% of voters weren’t bothered by Trump’s treatment of women or that more voters have an unfavorable view of the Republican party than of the Democratic party (55% to 49% respectively). All that mattered was that 62% of those surveyed said the country was on the wrong track. And only one president believably promised change.

It’s easy to be cynical. It’s easy to look at a Republican party that obstructed Obama at every turn and wonder why they’ve seemingly been let off the hook for the slow recovery. Or even to point at all the statistics that show how much better off the country is than eight years ago (including the exit poll where 31% said their personal financial situation is better than four years ago compared to the 27% who say it’s worse). It’s easy to accuse the more than 59 million people who voted for Trump of blinding themselves to his misogyny, narcissism, racism and xenophobia, especially as the small-but-still-very-real openly misogynistic, racist and xenophobic elements of our society seemingly crawled from under the woodwork to burn churches, bully protesters and generally just be their deplorable selves. And when you live in a city and surround yourself mostly with liberal-leaning, college-educated, multiracial people of all sexual orientations, it’s easy to imagine the bulk of those voters as one big unenlightened, unwashed mass.

But that’s lazy and dangerous thinking. Those Rust Belt States are full of white working-class Obama voters who desperately want change. Trump carried 21% of the non-white vote, including 29% of Latinos. He carried 42% of women and 43% of college graduates. It may be hard for me to imagine how a significant group of Latinas could vote for a man who has spent the last year spewing so many offensive and demeaning things about both women and Hispanics. But I have to chalk that up more to a lack of empathy and imagination on my part than to delusion on theirs.

So my plea to fellow progressives is this: We need to understand. We felt some of the same outrage going into this primary season, but we settled for a status quo candidate. We need to find common ground with this surprising coalition on the right if we’re going to find a way to keep a populist, authoritarian figure from damaging our Republic in irreparable ways. We must fight against the dismantling of democratic ideals, but we can’t just do that with smug self-righteous online screeds, late-night-TV rants, and Facebook posts—of which I’m plenty guilty.

This country was founded with checks on presidential power. It scares me that most of those checks will soon be in Republican hands, whose policies I disagree with in just about every way. It frustrates me that their ploy to obstruct Obama, even when they might have agreed with his policies, seems to have worked gloriously. And a big part of the pit in my stomach this morning came from the seeming unfairness of it all—that Trump could tell objective, easily contradicted lies every day and bully and insult enemies and allies alike, and yet still be rewarded with the highest office in the land. But there are well-meaning Republican men and women who condemned the worst impulses of our president-elect during the primary who are now tasked with actual governance and making sure this isn’t the end of the great American experiment. I pray they can do a better job than they did during the election.

And to conservatives: Congratulations. If you believed the vast majority of polls and pundits, you probably walked into the voting booth yesterday expecting your vote to ring out as a protest against a government that is not working for you. You may have checked that box for Trump/Pence with unbridled enthusiasm, or you may have held your nose and thrown your lot with the lesser of two evils, but you got the result you asked for. Now don’t be smug winners.

The majority of people in America voted against Donald Trump, and many of us are legitimately afraid, especially those groups who have historically been treated poorly in our country, both institutionally and individually: minorities, women, the LGBTQ community, and particularly Muslim-Americans. Trump has incited real vitriol and violence against these groups who already faced real vitriol and violence. Silence on this is tacit approval when the President of the United States of America has said things that make them feel like America doesn’t belong equally to us all. Institutional racism is real. Homophobia is real. Islamophobia is real. You’re in power now; help stamp them out.

The three branches of government will soon be settled when Republicans confirm the vacant seat on the Supreme Court after refusing to do their Constitutional duty this year. But there is a fourth estate, and we at Paste will attempt to do our part to promote the ideals we believe are best for this country. We’ll try to do it without conceit, but we will spare no quarter when it comes to the man we still deem unfit for the office he’ll soon hold. I’m sure Trump will try to threaten and bully the media, but we’ll not stay silent. We only have our vote, our voice and our actions. I’ll speak and fight against bigotry and hatred, but I won’t assume that all those counties that turned red across the country are only filled with bigotry and hate.

The greatest check we have is with our vote—this time in 2018 and 2020. Hopefully the people of America will once again be in the mood for a change.

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