As the full dimension of the Trump victory became apparent, a veteran strategist remarked, “My crystal ball has been shattered…Tonight data died.” After a sleepless night, I struggled like many others to come to terms with the shocking turn of events. How was it possible that someone so unqualified for the presidency could defeat the most qualified candidate in decades?
Trump owes much to the moral collapse of the Republican leadership who abandoned principles for political expediency, and to the arrogance of Democrats who took their base for granted and failed to reach beyond it. There should be serious soul-searching among the media giants who profited hugely from Trump’s ascent. He in turn received billions in free promotion through disproportionate coverage. Media gave virtually no consideration to matters of policy. They grossly underreported the underlying concerns of voters and relied heavily on polls and punditry.
The biggest take-away from the election is that much of America lives in parallel universes. The mindset and daily realities of those on the east and west coasts are worlds apart from those in America’s heartland. And while the thriving and increasingly diverse major metropolitan regions across the country are largely Democratic strongholds, the vast rural areas and numerous small towns, many of which face declining economies and opportunities, are less diverse and strongly Republican.
Much has been made of “working class” support for Trump. He won significant support in the rust-belt where the effects of globalization are felt most keenly. But the median income of Trump voters in the primaries was $72,000 while Clinton’s was around $61,000. Issues related to culture, values and identity were greater contributing factors. After all, if Trump was truly leading a working class movement, why did an overwhelming majority of African Americans and two-thirds of Latinos vote for Clinton?
Racial anxiety, or, as a Pew Research Center survey found, concern that “the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens US values,” appear to be the most common indicators of Trump support. White nationalism is a more accurate description of the movement. From the outset of Obama’s presidency, the backlash against the first black man to occupy the White House was vicious and sustained. Put in the context of similar backlashes in Europe, what we may be seeing is reaction to the end of 500 years of white colonial domination.
Our young people are experiencing the deepest and most lasting wounds. The memory of this brutal campaign will not be easily erased. A Muslim friend says that for months before the election her children were reporting racial taunts from white kids in affluent county suburbs. A Latino leader whose son attends a Jesuit school in affluent Silicon Valley told me that a boy came into class this week chanting, "Build that wall, deport them all!" Children who have grown up with Obama as a role model are confused and traumatized. Across the country thousands of young people who feel betrayed have taken to the streets in protest.
Besides race, Trump tapped into a deep-seated male chauvinism and misogyny. Had Clinton behaved as crudely towards men as Trump did towards women she would not have survived a day in the primaries let alone in the presidential campaign.
But despite all this, we must also recognize that many white Americans do feel genuinely bewildered, lost and left behind in a rapidly changing world. Cultural, social and demographic changes as well as economic stress cause anxiety and a crisis of identity. Middle-aged white males are getting sicker and dying in greater numbers compared to every other group.
Liberals, particularly the college-educated elite, must share blame for the deep polarization. As one commentator observed, they failed to foresee the political shockwave and have virtually no understanding of the worldview of Trump supporters. Within the white community the gulf between so-called “educated” and “working class” voters is as great as the racial divide. Charles Camosy writes in the Washington Post about the “monolithic, insulated political culture” in most of our colleges and universities.
Liberals have often been guilty of bigotry against conservative religion and against rural and poor whites. Conservatives are not wrong when they resist what they see as a decline in moral values and family life and the crudeness of our entertainment industry. Democrats have been reluctant to recognize that many Christian evangelicals who may differ with secular liberals on issues such as abortion could be strong allies on racial justice issues. America is a vast and complex country and defies easy stereotyping.
Supporters of Trump and of Bernie Sanders are rightly in revolt against the corruption of Wall Street and Washington, DC. Above all, millions of Americans want their voices to be heard. The election result was more a shout against the establishment than a vote for Trump. Democrats and Republicans would do well to listen carefully.
There is much talk now of the need for “healing.” Clinton’s concession statement in which she pledged to help Trump be a good president was a model of graciousness. Democrats should follow her lead. Trump praised Clinton and says he wants to be a president for all the people. After his attacks on Muslims and immigrants he has work to do, and those Republican leaders who first denounced and then supported him must hold the new president accountable.
Obama displayed class and dignity by reminding America – and the world – that the peaceful transfer of power by the ballot and not the bullet is a hallmark of this nation. His remarkable welcome to Trump at the White House prompted the president-elect to call him “a very good man” and to add that he would seek Obama’s counsel.
Healing will not be easy. Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, could play a key bridgebuilding role in the Senate. He is well-liked and trusted by members of both parties, and he combines a strong faith with a passion for racial justice. As a representative of an increasingly diverse southern state, he understands the importance of history and tradition as well as the reality of changing demographics.
The trustbuilding work of Initiatives of Change USA with its focus on race, reconciliation and responsibility has never been more relevant. The core principles of its manifesto issued in 1996 as a Call to Community could form a basis for the healing that America so desperately needs. They include a commitment to listening carefully and respectfully to one another and the whole community; honoring each person, appealing to the best qualities and refusing to stereotype; building lasting relationships outside our comfort zone; and holding ourselves, our communities and institutions accountable in areas where change is needed.
Initiatives of Change is partnering with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and more than 130 other organizations to develop a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation process for the United States. Perhaps the shock of the election will jolt Americans enough to take a fresh look at our assumptions, prejudices and insularity. We might take a break from social media and talk with our neighbors. Perhaps we are more ready for honest conversation than we realize.