The one point that Americans seem to agree on in the aftermath of the stunning 2016 election is that the country is deeply divided. Almost every other issue reflects that division.
In face to face conversations, on social media and in the quiet recesses of our minds, a lot of questions are being asked. How did Donald Trump, the unlikeliest of candidates, end up winning the presidency? What does his succession to the highest office in the land mean for the future of the country? And what do those who did not support him do next?
You also see frequent references to the stage of grief, groups marching under the banner “Not My President”, and already an increase in racial incidents. As the soon-to-be Trump Administration goes through the early and inevitably chaotic days of the transition to power, there’s lots of speculation about what each announcement or tweet means for the country.
I want to pick through a few of the questions that I have been wrestling with, some more successfully than others. Despite Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote, I don’t question the finality of Trump’s victory. Had the rules been different, the campaigns would have been different and we have no way of knowing who would have received the most popular votes under different circumstances.
As to the Electoral College, signing a petition to abolish it might make you feel good, but is a political non-starter. The very same dynamics that prevailed at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, giving small states added weight through equal representation in the Senate in exchange for their approving the constitution, apply to the Electoral College. There is no reasonable shot at an amendment that would require the consent of those same states.
It is noteworthy, however, that two of the four times in our history that the winner of the popular vote has lost in the Electoral College have come in this century. Despite our concerns about how the Constitution works for a country so different from the one for which it was written, it’s hard to see the path to a better system. What we need to concentrate on is not changing the Electoral College, but instead making sure that we preserve and protect the rights and liberties that are enshrined in the Constitution.
Some people are demonstrating against the Trump presidency. Most of those marches have been peaceful, with a few unfortunate exceptions. My personal instinct is to demonstrate for causes–preserving Roe v. Wade, protecting the planet’s environment–rather than against an administration that has not yet taken office. Still, the right to assembly is constitutionally protected and is a legitimate form of political expression.
How Trump won and Clinton lost, two deeply interrelated questions, will get and deserve lots more attention. I am struck, as I listen to the commentary, that one important factor, one of many, was that Clinton did not make a sufficient effort to listen to and speak to the angry white working class. Trump’s supporters certainly included racists, but broadly tarring his backers with that label was a significant error. The history of campaigning includes few terms that backfired more dramatically than her “basket of deplorables” comment.
The media needs to engage in a serious autopsy of its performance. Until late in the campaign, too much of the coverage treated Trump as entertainment and ratings rather than a potential president. He received a huge amount of free airtime. There was little to no analysis of how skillful his manipulation of the media was and what a sharp instinct he had for the mood of parts of the country.
Where each of our major political parties stand today may be the most fascinating question for the future of democracy in the United States. Republicans who opposed Trump for very clear reasons now must decide whether to let him take over the party. Are there core values or are parties merely vehicles for winning elections? Does the Republican Party stand for something?
The dilemma for Democrats depends on how they interpret the results of the election. Will they concentrate on Clinton’s victory in the popular vote, the unseemly intervention by James Comey and a series of strategic blunders by the campaign? That line of thought might lead to the conclusion that little needs to be changed and that merely doing a better job with the same game plan will lead to success the next time.
The alternative is to see Republican control of both houses of Congress, the presidency and the overwhelming proportion of state legislatures and governorships and conclude that a major readjustment is in order. Even those who greatly admire Barack Obama ought to recognize that the Democratic Party as an organization declined significantly during his presidency.
If, as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have argued, income and wealth inequality is the fundamental challenge facing this nation, why has the Democratic Party failed so dramatically to connect with working class voters who have suffered the most? How did Hillary Clinton – rather than her billionaire opponent – end up being seen as the tool of Wall Street ?
At this point, I have all the worries about Donald Trump that I did during the election. Designating Steve Bannon as his chief strategist in the White House is a scary and ominous but not surprising decision. Moreover, many of his campaign pledges would create even deeper divisions and wounds in this country.
And that doesn’t even get us to the issues of national security and foreign affairs. Secretary of State Rudy Guiliani? He has neither the experience nor the temperament, but of course that’s what we said about Trump.
There are, to be fair, some potentially more positive signs. I strongly hope Trump follows through on his promises about protecting Social Security and Medicare. Engaging in massive infrastructure improvement could have an immediate positive impact on jobs and the economy if he can get the approval of a wary Republican Congress.
President Obama and others are urging us to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. I’m more inclined to follow Ronald Reagan’s Cold War admonition: trust but verify.