Adjusting to an Unrecognizable Country


It was cloudy and gloomy this morning.  The sun did not come out.

For slightly more than half the voters of the United States, the unimaginable happened on Election Day. I certainly never believed Donald Trump could be elected president until the moment on Tuesday night when the outcome was beyond doubt. Neither did the editorial writers of  the nation’s leading newspapers, any of the major pollsters or the overwhelming preponderance of political pundits.

There will be torrents of analysis of why it happened. My mind is reeling trying to sort out what actually mattered and what was just noise. Single factor explanations won’t suffice but there is also the risk that  the election of Trump was so anomalous that there are no lessons which will be learned.

Everyone agrees that it was unlike any other election we’ve ever had in this country.  However, that observation doesn’t get us very far. Certainly there were warning signs: the appearance of the Tea Party, the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the rise of right-wing nationalism in multiple European countries. The strength of the Republican Party–controlling both houses of Congress and a large portion of state governments– might have warned us that the Republican candidate would garner a heavy turnout.

Prior to the election, there was lots of commentary about the rapidly shifting demographics of the country and how that was likely to favor Democrats.  It turns out that the backlash to the changing complexion of the United States was more powerful, at least for this election, than the influx of new voters.

Much will also be made, correctly in my view, of the media’s struggle to figure out how to cover so totally unconventional a candidate.  Similarly, we will debate what impact FBI Director James Comey’s inept handling of the Clinton email investigation had on voters.  Whether a significant number of Americans were simply unwilling to vote for a woman is another important question totally separate from any shortcomings of the  candidate herself.

However these various questions are answered, the reality is that we face a remarkably transformed political landscape.  Many see the very real possibility of assaults on our basic constitutional rights, the rolling back of advances in social welfare programs, the brushing aside of the reality of climate change and an increasingly hostile environment for minorities of all sorts.

Internationally,  Trump’s comments about judging the value of NATO in terms of the financial contributions of the other members, his apparent openness to trade wars and his lack of understanding of the complexities of the Middle East have much of the world nervous.

It is incredibly disconcerting to think that I’m in the one who lives in a bubble rather than Trump supporters who had seemed to me so out of touch with reality.   The challenge facing many of us is how to adjust in both our personal and our political lives.

Make no mistake, those of us on the losing side Tuesday face emotional and psychological challenges to regain our equilibrium.  My wife’s first response was to go to her yoga class.  Mine was to head for the keyboard.

A message from my best friend in graduate school reminded me that we had survived what we regarded as a politically unhinged world in the late 1960s.  I wish I shared his optimism about our resiliency, but I agree that it’s a better approach than despair.

Lots of people, including my daughter, are agonizing about how to explain to their children that a man who spewed hatred and bigotry throughout his campaign is now the president-elect of the United States.  A close friend from high school shared a text he sent to his family about the importance of supporting each other.  Many texts, emails and phone calls have echoed that theme.

Most of us will find ways to adjust personally, clinging to family and close friends, taking a break from the intensity of politics that has consumed us for more than a year, throwing ourselves into other causes.

Ultimately, however, the big question is how we respond to a political landscape that seems so hostile to the values that we hold dear.  A lesson that liberals might learn from conservatives is that in politics neither victories nor defeats are permanent.

Doing a much more effective job of getting like-minded candidates elected to state and local offices is one essential step.  Another is resisting the worst instincts of the new governing coalition in Washington.  Some friends have urged that Democrats not resort to the same kind of obstructionism that Republicans engaged in throughout the Obama Administration, but I’m not so sure.   As some Republicans have asked, do we really need nine justices on the Supreme Court?  In addition, it’s not too early to start planning and organizing for national elections in 2018 and 2020.

More painful but also more imperative is the need to rethink the Democrat Party’s appeal to Americans voters across the board.  Without compromising basic values, it’s critical that Democrats find ways to connect with working Americans who were once the backbone of the Party. It now appears that they have moved decisively toward the Republican Party, which strongly suggests that  Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is the wrong question.

Some may take solace in the fact that Clinton won the popular vote, but the reality is that all of the political trends have been going in the wrong direction.  The Party desperately needs new energetic leadership.  There have been too many examples of party leadership anointing candidates–Anthony Brown for Governor in Maryland in 2014, Katie McGinty for the Senate in Pennsylvania in 2016 and perhaps even Clinton this year –who lacked the ability to win the popular approval necessary for success.

In a perverse sense, I’m quite sure President-elect Trump–wow, that was really difficult to write–will give us lots of material to focus our attention.  Can we respond in a thoughtful and strategic way?   Today is the beginning of our new political lives.  Are we up to the task?