Note to Readers: I have elected to post this commentary earlier than the regular publication date of November 21, 2016, as it addresses the nation’s recent election. Since that is so, I wanted the effort to be available in a timely way. Soundings will next appear on December 5, 2016. Best wishes, MOS
This Soundings finds me musing on the Presidential election and Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the Electoral College. I make that distinction because he actually lost the national popular vote to Hillary Clinton. So, for the second time in 16 years and the sixth in our nation’s history, we have a President-elect who was not the preference of the majority of Americans voting in the election. That fact is but one of many that journalists, scholars and analysts alike have been pondering as they seek to make sense of this electoral outcome. This election highlighted a number of paradoxes and it has elicited a host of equally paradoxical explanations from those seeking to make sense of it. Here is a sampling:
- Economic distress drove the election and those voting for Trump did so in a sort of primal scream against globalization.
This claim is surely partly true. Many of Trump’s supporters come from economically hard hit areas, but paradoxically, most are not themselves suffering economic duress. Moreover, many of Trump’s voters view those who are in distress in their hard-hit communities with contempt. Oddly too, the GOP has fought hard not to provide needed governmental assistance to these communities on the argument that such support will nurture their “dependence” on public aid. These are paradoxes of the highest order.
- Social change drove these voters to Trump. Growing gender equality, same-sex marriage and concerns about the decline of organized religion and the traditional family created frustration and caused Trump’s voters to accept his authoritarian claims that he alone could “fix” these issues.
While I do not doubt that the values clash on these concerns is real, I am not persuaded that those citizens lamenting the changes in family composition and dynamics have not themselves participated in furthering the shifts they now purport to resent. More, such worries, valid expressions of values though they may be, do not justify voting for a demagogue who offered no specific suggestions for how their concerns might be addressed. I cannot explain this paradox and have seen no adequate explanation for it to date.
- Donald Trump was never really a demagogue and he never actually meant his now infamous diatribes on the electoral system being fixed, the character of immigrants and Muslims as a class and too many others to recount here. Nor, did he really mean to lie so flagrantly and so often about so many issues. He will behave differently now that he has won office. Moreover, his advisors will rein in his worst tendencies.
Well, perhaps, but the problem with this argument is that rhetoric matters, and in this case it galvanized millions to embrace hatred and rationalize overt racism, misogyny and xenophobia, among other of Trump’s tropes and lies. I, at least, will not soon forget video footage of Trump rallies at which his supporters were seen screaming “Sieg Heil” and “Lock her Up” and much worse. As I write, it is not clear that, even if Trump’s rhetoric was all for “show” to gain power, the President-elect can contain the evil genie he and his Party have unleashed. His was a full throated cry against heterogeneity that embraced vilification of the “other.” White nationalism was surely one factor at play among his supporters in the election. Many of that number proved willing to overlook his many obvious lies in its name. How this could be so remains something of a mystery. But in no case did his advisors prevent him from pursuing the course he did and a share of his most important aides actually outdid him in the outrageousness of their claims in the public square.
- Trump’s election is the fault of the elites in the Democratic Party. If they had not viewed the voters of the Midwest, particularly, with such condescension and even contempt, their Party would have triumphed.
Once again, maybe, but this contention imagines that voters would embrace a demagogue out of anger at elites who were not running in the race, and would accept policy positions (dismantling the national health insurance support program, for example) that will materially hurt millions of them, in a fit of pique over a supposed social phenomenon of which many of those supposedly affected were not likely aware. I am not willing to imagine voters are so utterly undiscerning. In addition, the rural/city divide and rural mistrust of “cosmopolitan urbanites” is as old as the nation. The same can be said of anti-intellectualism in our country. Trump surely played on both in his campaign and both played roles in this election, but paradoxically, rural residents suspected urbanites at least as much as analysts arguing that Democratic Party elites disliked those residents. Which came first? The chicken or the egg? Or is the issue here that Trump and the GOP successfully exploited the same, regardless of its origins?
- GOP voter suppression efforts were successful in specific battleground states, as the African-American voter turnout was down compared to 2012.
This may have been one factor, as the GOP sought systematically in many states it controls to achieve just such a result, but the matter is not yet clear as analysts sort the evidence of an election in which just 27 percent of the voting eligible population cast a ballot for Trump, and less than 57 percent of all registered voters nationwide participated in the election. Nonetheless, it could also be that Clinton was not as attractive a candidate to this group of voters as President Obama proved to be or, indeed, both of these factors and the obvious broader lack of political engagement could have been at play. In any case, this argument does not explain why working class white voters voted for Trump in unprecedented numbers in key Electoral College states.
I could expand this list, and comment on FBI Director James Comey’s role in the days prior to the vote, but the arguments already presented suffice to highlight just how muddy our understanding of voter choices in this election remains. This said, two facts do seem clear. First, Donald Trump is our President-elect and second, he gained that office with textbook demagoguery, and that fact cannot simply be forgotten in a simplistic drive to “normalize” him as a key figure in American governance. So, the nation’s citizenry is now confronted with a difficult overarching paradox: how can it honor its institutions while also holding the soon to be chief executive accountable for the country’s devotion to equality and freedom for all? That is indeed the central paradox of this paradox filled election season.
Interestingly, the revered Canadian singer, songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, who died on the eve of our election day, may have provided food for thought on this count in one of the songs, “It Seemed the Better Way,” on his final album, You Want it Darker, released just days before his death. In that song/poem, Cohen reflected on the frailty of human choices and the decisions and behavioral changes in turn that must be made to allow judgments to be set right when those go awry. Here is an excerpt of that haunting lyric:
It Seemed the Better Way
Words and music by Leonard Cohen
It seemed the better way When first I heard him speak Now it's much too late To turn the other cheek Sounded like the truth Seemed the better way Sounded like the truth But it's not the truth today
I wonder what it was I wonder what it meant First he touched on love Then he touched on death Sounded like the truth Seemed the better way Sounded like the truth But it's not the truth today
I better hold my tongue I better take my place Lift this glass of blood Try to say the grace.
My sense as I reflect is, that like the protagonist in this song, all Americans must now move forward together with hope to heal the wounds of a heedlessly venal campaign—to hold their collective tongue—and to support President Trump and his Republican congressional majority when they further the American Constitutional tradition—to “lift this glass of blood [and] try to say the grace.” Likewise, they should oppose these leaders strongly should they seek, as in so much of the campaign, to discriminate and to deny civil and human rights to any group (to include Trump’s outrageous call for the reinstatement of torture). President-elect Trump and the GOP Congress surely deserve no less and no more from a self-governing people. The question will be whether the new chief executive can now learn to play his role in the nation’s governance with empathy, hope and deliberation in the name of all the nation’s people, even as the population whose divisions he has willfully exploited to gain power—supporters and opponents alike—must discipline itself to do the same. Democratic governance now hangs on whether and how President-elect Trump, the Republican congressional majority and our society addresses this challenge.
 Cohen, Leonard, “It Seemed the Better Way,” on You Want it Darker, Leonard Cohen, Columbia/Legacy Catalog Number: 536507. CD. 2016.