Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Understanding and Responding to the Election of Donald Trump

Like many Americans, I have been struggling to understand how we recently elected Donald Trump as our next president, dreading what his presidency will mean for our country and the hard-won progress it recently has made, and pondering what we as citizens might do to limit the damage and ensure we do not elect Mr. Trump or anyone like him again. This blog will be dedicated to those topics.

My opinion of Donald Trump is as follows: By any traditional measure used to judge fitness for the office of President of the United States, Mr. Trump is stunningly and unprecedentedly unqualified. He has no prior public sector experience, and his private sector record is difficult to judge because his businesses and business dealings are largely opaque and he refuses to release his tax returns. Moreover, it is unclear when or how he will ensure that his substantial private dealings do not conflict with his new public duties. He shows contempt for the institutions, rules, and norms that comprise the constitutional system of government he will soon lead. He has an unpredictable and highly narcissistic personality. Like a petulant child, his skin is so thin that even the smallest criticism or challenge unsettles him, and his reflexive response is to insult and humiliate the messenger without examining the message. He appeals to the baser aspects of human nature, such as misogyny, xenophobia, religious intolerance, racism, and mocking the disabled. In the process, he normalizes and legitimizes these undesirable characteristics that civilized societies generally seek to overcome rather than entrench. He curries favor with a hostile foreign government and simultaneously dismisses the intelligence agencies of his own country. He repeatedly makes false statements, some of which aren't merely indifferent to the truth but completely turn it upside down.

Any one of these traits in a president would be troubling. In combination they are downright dangerous to our country and the democratic institutions and principles on which its continued existence relies. I am a Democrat, but this view of Mr. Trump is not unique to Democrats. Many Republicans, including former officials from recent Republican administrations and conservative members of the media, have expressed deep concern about a Trump presidency. For a brief moment, as the election neared and Mr. Trump's defeat seemed certain, even some in the current Republican leadership began to distance themselves from him (although, as I will discuss in my next post, most of them unfortunately changed their tune when he unexpectedly won).

Before it happened, hardly anyone thought Mr. Trump could win. Since it did happen, experts and laymen alike have been attempting to explain how and why. Hillary Clinton received nearly 3 million more individual votes than Mr. Trump did, so many have focused on how the Electoral College system effectively disenfranchised Clinton voters, particularly in populous and solidly Democratic states. Blaming the Electoral College system misses the point. We've seen wide divergences in the popular vote and electoral vote before, including cases as recent as George W. Bush's election in 2000 in which the winner of the electoral college lost the popular vote. That the electoral vote and popular vote produced different results in 2016 is unfortunate and unfair. It does not, however, answer the underlying question of how someone who comported himself as Mr. Trump did was able to amass the requisite votes to win under the Electoral College system, or indeed under any voting system.

Others characterize Mr. Trump's election as a fluke attributable to his over-the-top personality. It seems more likely, however, that Mr. Trump won in spite of his personality than because of it. For most of the lengthy campaign, Mr. Trump was widely regarded as more of an entertaining sideshow than a serious candidate precisely because of his showmanship, lack of preparedness, and many outlandish statements. Any one of those outlandish statements ordinarily would have been a campaign ender. Based on traditional norms that apply to the behavior of those seeking our nation's highest office, Mr. Trump's personality should have doomed his candidacy many times over. That it did not suggests something besides personality was at work.

Still others argue that Mr. Trump's election marks the triumph of populism, which has long been present but never before dominant in our politics. Populism unquestionably played an important role in this election, but that does not begin to explain how a self-proclaimed billionaire managed to emerge as its standard bearer. What constitutes a "populist" is a complicated question, however, by any definition of which I am aware, Donald Trump is not one.

After reading and reflecting on these and other competing theories, my tentative conclusion is that our country's election of Donald Trump was neither a fluke nor a transformative populist moment. Rather, it was a natural outcome when the forces that have dominated our partisan political culture for the last two decades collided with several broader cultural forces. Donald Trump was an unconventional candidate, without question, but he won by harnessing, at times even personifying, very familiar threads of our political and cultural fabric.

Our political culture has recently been dominated by the following forces:
  • a reflexive, yet pervasive, contempt for government and the act of governing;
  • a rampant and unprincipled partisanship, marked by an extreme "Us vs. Them" mentality that says "We" must win at all costs and toward that end encourages--
    • demonizing "Them," at both the party and individual opponent level;
    • brazen counterfactualism, in which fiction, if repeated forcefully and often enough, takes on the mantle of truth, and demonstrable facts are categorically dismissed when they threaten one's existing beliefs; 
    • basing one's assessment of an idea or action on the party affiliation of the person espousing or doing it, rather than the merits of what is being said or done;
    • communicating through short and catchy sound bites, which are at best overly simplistic and at worst completely untrue;
    • convincing Americans to vote in ways that directly conflict with aspects of their self-interest, frequently by pitting them against each other based on some combination of party affiliation, race, gender, wealth level, ethnicity, national origin, and religious affiliation; and
    • attempting to disenfranchise those most likely to vote for the other party; and
  • shameless obstructionism -- the politics of "No!" -- which says that when elected to office "We" must oppose "Them" at every turn instead of constructively participating with "Them" in the act of governing. 

These aspects of our political culture are exacerbated by the large sums of money that are spent on elections thanks to the Citizen United case, which gives the very wealthiest among us, liberal and conservative alike, an obscenely disproportionate influence over our politics. The worst tendencies of our politics are exacerbated further still by broader cultural developments, including the following:
  • a 24-hour news cycle, in which journalism is conflated with entertainment and the news is fragmented into partisan "echo chambers" that reinforce pre-conceived views;
  • the instantaneous speed with which information can reach the masses, which has promoted a public discourse that is highly reactive and lacks reflection;  
  • significant economic and social change, which has been too fast or too painful (or both) for some people, and as a result has provoked a kind of populist backlash; 
  • an eroding of the quality of primary education and increased limits on access to higher education in a world in which lifelong learning is a necessity; and
  • anti-elitism, a hallmark of populism in which people of intelligence, education, and experience are characterized as out touch with, perhaps even hostile to, so-called "ordinary people."

With all these forces at work simultaneously, is it any wonder that our country eventually elected a president who shows contempt for the very government he seeks to lead; has no experience governing yet claims that "[he] alone can fix it" and "make America great again" by substituting his corporate deal-making experience; appears to view all aspects of life as a competition he must win; communicates primarily through tweets and sound bites; receives huge amounts of media coverage because of his theatrics; seeks to divide people along deplorable, yet unfortunately common, dividing lines; and, throughout it all, utters a steady stream of false statements? While we should be deeply troubled that our politics has come to this, we should not be surprised by it.  

To me, the most troubling aspect is this:  if we accept as true the theory that our political culture made Donald Trump's victory possible, then that means in the future we could elect someone equally unqualified, or God forbid even less so, unless our political culture itself changes.  We, the People, are the ones who must change it. I intend to devote the coming months to examining how we might go about doing that, in order to form the more perfect union our founders envisioned. There has never been a better time to engage in such an exercise, and I invite all concerned citizens, regardless of party or ideology, to join me.

*This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.


  1. Just want you to know we're out here, catching what you're pitching!

  2. Glad you're devoting time to exploring this disturbing development in our history. I think the factors you note were all at play, and I think for a lot of people, what pushed them over the hump to vote for Trump was a real contempt for Hillary Clinton. That was the case for the Trump voters who I know. The factors you discuss are certainly the systemic ones to better understand though.