|Posted on December 13, 2016 at 1:10 AM|
By Dennis Stone
This is the most difficult piece I’ve ever written. In fact, a significant part of me doesn’t want to write it at all. I put it off for three weeks so I could think through again and again my feelings, and ponder thoughtfully the complexities that increase the more I think. I’ve now been sitting here in a coffeeshop for two hours, reading news story after news story on my laptop, all the while telling myself it’s time to start writing.
This piece is difficult because I have to say some unpopular things that my compatriots in the left wing and queer communities do not want to hear. Part of me wants to rail and flail about the election, like so many are doing. Part of me is stunned that we elected to the most important position in the world someone I feel is unqualified, someone who cynically stoked the fires of intolerance, someone who demonstrated significant psychological flaws. Part of me doesn’t want to rock the boat of fear and rage steaming across our cultural ocean.
But a larger part of me wants to see the world as it is, to understand where we are and why, and to see past easy prescriptions for the future that are founded on faulty assumptions. And so here I am, finally writing.
Our reactions of fear have been over-the-top, often hysterical and sometimes bizarre. Following the election people everywhere were crying, breaking out in hives (Lena Dunham), melting down on YouTube and Twitter, contacting crisis and suicide hotlines, crashing the Canadian immigration website, generating creation of special “healing spaces” and cancellations of exams on college campuses.
The University of Michigan Law School set up an event called “Post-election Self-care with Food and Play.” Here is their description of the event: “Join us for delicious and comforting food with opportunity to experience some stress-busting, self-care activities such as coloring sheets, play dough [sic], positive card-making, Legos, and bubbles with your fellow law students.” This is a law school, with graduate students preparing to enter the stressful, confrontational world of the law. If at this point they need Legos and bubbles because a basic part of our constitutional system didn’t go their way, then something is seriously amiss with our child rearing and acculturation methodologies.
A gay man in Washington, DC said he took down his LGBT flag because he was worried about retaliation from Trump supporters. Never mind that well over 90% of the DC population voted for Hillary Clinton. People have compared Trump to Hitler, and have reminded us of how Jews in Germany assumed until it was too late that they were safe. And therefore the same could happen to us. “They are coming for us,” more than one gay commenter lamented. If you are really comparing Trump to Hitler you desperately need to study the Nazi era.
Oprah Winfrey was a bit relieved by the meeting of Trump and Obama, and tweeted her sense of relief that the two men appeared to be getting along and even working together. For that she took major flak from outraged people. Actress Heather Matarazzo tweeted: “Oprah, you can take a deep breath and hold it while the rest of us literally fight for our lives.” Really? I have a feeling that if I had followed Matarazzo around for the past three weeks I would not have seen a whole lot of life-preserving combat.
What bothers me about our excessive reactions - apart from my basic distaste for any wild twisting of reality - is that we are hurting ourselves. We are lowering our quality of life by filling it with unreasonable fear. And we are especially harming the younger and more impressionable members of our communities, who are being unnecessarily terrified. Furthermore, we are enhancing the perception of the far right that society is moving in their direction. Many of them have recently talked and written about that perceived movement. It’s not true, but our frenzied reaction is making it seem so.
It is legitimate for those of us on the left to be concerned that Trump’s Supreme Court nominees could tilt the court to the right for a generation (if he makes more than one appointment). It’s reasonable to fear that a Republican president and congress could enact legislation that is more conservative than we’d like. I am personally most worried about negative impacts to the fight against climate change, which I think could be an existential threat. It’s appropriate to be concerned that Trump’s rhetoric has emboldened a small number of fringe people to be more active in expressing their racism or xenophobia.
But the sky is not falling. As a gay person I am relieved that multiple legal experts say it is extremely unlikely that a future Supreme Court would overturn the Obergefell decision establishing marriage equality. Donald Trump himself says he considers the issue settled. Our system is a time tested set of checks and balances that makes it difficult for a president to change the country significantly on his own. Democrats have 48 Senate seats, and there are enough moderate Republicans to prevent any truly horrific actions. The filibuster rules require sixty votes. Public opinion is a de facto element in the process, and there are elections in two years.
I’m distressed at the uptick in harassment and hate crime type incidents. The genuinely racist and xenophobic population of the United States is a small part of the Trump demographic, but unfortunately his election has emboldened some of them into unpleasant actions. It is imperative - for our own good - that we don’t overreact to these incidents. We live in a nation of 325,000,000 people, and in that context the number of incidents is very small. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that most of them occurred in the first three days following the election, and have declined sharply since. We are reacting as if our society is dramatically transforming, and we are all in imminent danger. It simply isn’t true. As Jon Stewart said, we’re the same country we were three weeks ago.
The bottom line is that for most of us, life will go on very much as it has. Check back with me in four years. Your life will not have been dramatically changed by the Trump presidency. The energy expended in fear, loathing and despair will have been wasted. Channel that energy into helping your fellow citizens, whether through social service opportunities, political organizing, or on an individual basis.
It is important that we make a clear-eyed examination of why we lost this one, and what me must do in the future. I am amazed and disconcerted by how many progressives are misunderstanding the factors involved in this election. Racism did not elect Trump. Internalized misogyny by women did not elect Trump. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein did not elect Trump (they both ran in 2012 as well). I think there are three major factors that combined to produce a result we thought was unthinkable.
Much has been written about the ascendance of the white working class in this election, and that was indeed a major factor. But we are wrong when we say that a major component in that group’s motivation was either racism or xenophobia or both. I was born and raised in a rural community consisting almost entirely of that demographic, and among my family, co-workers and friends are several Donald Trump supporters. Not one of them is racist or xenophobic. In fact, all would be friendly and welcoming toward anyone of any minority group. Most were among the large group of voters who cast ballots for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but moved to Trump in 2016. That is obviously not racist behavior.
I talked to a couple of those voters at length, and the story was consistent. They feel abandoned by a political system they see as favoring either the wealthy or various identity groups, and ignoring their needs and concerns. They see a system that has become too bureaucratic, too dominated by moneyed and special interests, and too static. They see in Trump someone who will exorcise the system of self aggrandizing fools and charlatans, reverse what they see as excessive liberalism, and stick up for the “little guy.” They seem not to see the irony of a self-absorbed billionaire representing the little guy, but in a way it’s a sign of their desperation that such a man has to be their champion.
It is true that the ugly underbelly of racists and xenophobes responded to Trump. But the overwhelming majority of Trump’s voters do not fit into that group, and we make a huge mistake if we don’t recognize that. Unfortunately, many of us are making that mistake. Jon Stewart said it best: “In the liberal community, you hate this idea of creating people as a monolith. Don’t look at Muslims as a monolith. They are individuals and it would be ignorance. But everybody who voted for Trump is a monolith, is a racist. That hypocrisy is also real in our country.”
I am disturbed by how many of us are reacting with disdain to this working class white demographic. “They’re just privileged white people.” They don’t think of themselves as privileged at all, and they have a point. They work hard and play by the rules, but they don’t seem to get anywhere, with jobs leaving and incomes stagnating. They feel marginalized and ignored by politicians who court other groups, and by what they see as a cultural paradigm, dominated by the coastal elites, that belittles them.
But these are real people, with real needs and real concerns. Their lives mean something, their hopes and dreams are heartfelt, their problems and concerns are worthy of more attention than the Democratic party was willing to give them in 2016.
That brings us to the second major factor, the limitations of Hillary Clinton as a candidate. I was an enthusiastic rather than reluctant Hillary supporter, but I can’t deny her weaknesses. She was the consummate insider in a year when there was a clamor for anything but that. She was seen as too cozy with Wall Street in a year when the monied establishment was seen as a primary enemy. Being paid huge sums for speaking to Wall Street groups, and then not releasing transcripts of the speeches, made her look like anything but a champion of the little guy.
Then there was the fiasco of the DNC appearing to sabotage Bernie Sanders while being in her pocket; the self-admitted bad judgement in using a private email server; the deletion of over 30,000 emails before anyone had a chance to inspect them; the Benghazi attack and her lie about its cause; a thirty year record that allowed liberals to think her too conservative and conservatives to think her too liberal; the residue of Whitewater, Travelgate and other issues of the past. Those and many other things created a patina of corruption and untrustworthiness that clung to her and generated suspicion. I thought most of it was unfair and overblown, but there was some truth in much of it, and it made for a tarnished, overly familiar candidate at a time when the country wanted something new.
Clinton’s team did not understand the working class dynamic I described earlier. That is a bit ironic and surprising considering that her husband won two terms by focusing much of his attention on that group. In fact, by multiple accounts Bill recognized the problem and counseled a change in course. But he was ignored, and then increasingly marginalized as the campaign progressed. It didn’t help that most of the advertising money went toward demonizing Trump, thereby passing on a chance to accentuate the positive nature of Hillary and her vision for America. Trump’s flaws and misdeeds didn’t need highlighting, but Hillary’s optimistic vision did.
That brings us to the third major contributing factor in Trump’s victory, one that has been dramatically overlooked and misunderstood. Over the past decade or so we on the left have become increasingly arrogant, self-righteous and intolerant of people who don’t share our views. Those on our end of the political spectrum really, REALLY don’t want to hear that or believe that, but when I step outside of my liberal bubble I can see that it’s true.
We can’t fathom how anyone with any decency or intelligence could hold beliefs or have values that are different from ours. Those who don’t share those values are dismissed and demeaned, seen as lesser beings or outside the realm of “good people.” Further, many of us want to not only criticize these lesser beings, but actually impose and enforce our viewpoints on all of society. We view as racist someone who votes for Trump or has reservations about the “Black Lives Matter” movement, we label as Islamophobic someone who criticizes “radical Islam,” we consider as a troglodyte anyone who favors gun rights or opposes abortion, we lambaste people who don’t use what we’ve decided is the proper terminology in all aspects of our social discourse. And we do all of that with a smugness and arrogance that is deeply resented by those who see the world differently.
The following personal story illustrates the point. On our local “Nextdoor” neighborhood social network someone posted about seeing a traffic altercation on the street in front of her house. She described one driver as “male presenting” and the other as “female presenting.” Another site member questioned that, and asked if “this is what we’ve come to now.” The original poster, in a remarkably condescending tone, said that yes, that was how inclusive people did things, and the questioner should “educate herself” by reading a website to which the poster linked. The website listed 50 terms for various sexuality and gender identity situations, about half of which I didn’t know myself. And I make an effort to stay up to date.
The point is not that the idea is silly, though in my opinion it is. (“And the Oscar for the best performance by a male presenting actor is…”) The point is that we presume to decide for other people how they must see things and say things. And we don’t merely disagree with those who see things differently, we mock them and bully them and attempt to exclude them from the community of “proper thinkers.”
Robby Soave of the “Daily Beast” explained it well: “The segment of the electorate who flocked to Trump because he positioned himself as ‘an icon of irreverent resistance to political correctness’ think it means this: smug, entitled, elitist, privileged leftists jumping down the throats of ordinary folks who aren't up-to-date on the latest requirements of progressive society. The left sorted everyone into identity groups and then told the people in the poorly-educated-white-male identity group that that's the only bad one. It mocked the members of this group mercilessly. It punished them for not being woke enough. It called them racists.”
I think it would be impossible for us to overestimate how intensely much of America despises our arrogant attitudes and our self righteous insistence that we know best. Since the election I have immersed myself in analyses, news stories, comment sections, and discussions with real people. The backlash against the “intolerant left” was immense, and I am not alone in thinking it was a major factor in Trump’s victory.
A link recently took me to a conservative website that included in its masthead this quote from David Horowitz: “Inside every progressive is a totalitarian screaming to get out.” Many of us act and talk as though we are trying to prove Horowitz right. I am reminded that George Orwell was a socialist and crusader against social injustice whose writings warned against the potential totalitarianism of the left.
Dan Nainan is the son of Japanese and Indian immigrants, and his reasoning for his Trump vote is emblematic of a large swath of the electorate. Talking about the pressure he felt from the self-righteous left, he said this to AOL: “I felt it was very liberating to vote for him and thumb my nose at everybody... In theory, you should be able to vote for whoever you wish and not be beaten up or vilified or ostracized or un-friended [on Facebook]. There was something about it that felt really cathartic."
Few on the left accept or acknowledge this reality. It doesn’t square with our perceptions of ourselves as purveyors of truth and goodness. Bill Maher, who has been talking about it for some time, is a notable exception. Rather than looking at ourselves and doing a bit of analysis in response to the criticisms of Maher and others, most of us seem to be doubling down on the arrogance and self-righteousness.
So how have we gotten to this point? The answer is one of today’s hottest sociological concepts: “living in a bubble.” I think this is one of the most significant realities of the modern world. We readily believe that those we blithely describe as “Foxtards” live in their own little world, watching Fox News, reading and commenting on Fox, Breitbart and other right wing sites, talking politics only with those who agree with them. But we on the left do exactly the same thing. Most of us are exposed in a serious way only to people and media that reinforce what we already believe - and what we WANT to believe. Our ideas and viewpoints get no legitimate pushback - because we don’t expose ourselves to any legitimate pushback.
Our existence in our bubble allows us to think that we are the dominant force in the mainstream of American society. Alas, we aren’t. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, only 24% of Americans self-identify as liberal, with 35% as moderate and 37% as conservative. And yet we want to force the rest of society to see things our way, prioritize what we think is most important, and elect the candidates we want.
I’ve made a point since my college years to expose myself to thoughtful people of all political persuasions. I still hold most of the liberal opinions I began with, but I’ve learned a very important lesson. We progressives tend to think we have the answers to all of the complex and multifaceted issues out there. We don’t. We have opinions.
So where do we go from here, how do we best proceed in future elections if we want to avoid another Trump? Or a Ted Cruz, who could well be worse than Trump?
The most important thing is to approach the electorate not as a collection of identity or interest groups, but as a unified whole. That emphatically doesn’t mean ignoring the needs of queers, blacks, immigrants, etc. But we should start with the reality that many of the most important issues - jobs, security, infrastructure, environment - affect everyone. If the Democrats emphasize the “common good,” and then integrate into that basic idea programs and initiatives for individual groups, they will be seen as a party for all the people. A party that wants to protect and enhance all citizens because of the universal humanity that binds us together. A party that can win.
We should also as individuals do some deep soul searching about how we think about those who have perceptions or philosophies or positions that differ from our own. And how we interact with our fellow citizens. Our viewpoints are not Holy Writ, we do not have a monopoly on “truth,” people are not evil or stupid just because they disagree with us. So have a respectful discussion with a conservative, watch Fox News once in awhile (though not Sean Hannity!), read a Thomas Sowell or George Will column. Think before you react.
We’ll get through the next four years. We really will. And then we’ll have another shot at turning the country more in our direction. Our political system has been a marvel for over 200 years, and it has survived far worse than Donald Trump.
I’ll leave you with the words of President Obama.
“Sometimes you lose an argument. Sometimes you lose an election. The path that this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag, and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back.
“That's the way politics works sometimes. We try really hard to persuade people that we're right. And then people vote. And then if we lose, we learn from our mistakes, we do some reflection, we lick our wounds, we brush ourselves off, we get back in the arena. We go at it. We try even harder the next time.”