by John Stafford
November 8, 2016 was an inconceivable, shameful and dangerous day for America.
How does a candidate who: questions the birth certificate of its first black president; refers to Mexicans as “rapists”, demonizes Muslims; demeans women; wants to increase tax cuts for the rich in an age of unprecedented income inequalities; calls global warming a concept, “…created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”1; is copacetic about the prospects of nuclear weapon proliferation; knows virtually nothing about public policy; does not acknowledge scientific fact; says that, he could, “…shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”2 ; and so on; become president of the United States?
It will take years and many books to come to terms with the 2016 election. This article seeks to do three things. First, it summarizes the levels on which this election has damaged the nation. Second, it reviews a variety of compelling theses that try to explain the election. Third, it offers closing observations.
DAMAGE ON MULTIPLE LEVELS
The 2016 election will hurt America on multiple levels:
- Institutions: The Supreme Court will become conservative, a status that will last for decades. Both chambers of the U.S. Congress are Republican. Thirty-three state governorships are held by the GOP. The GOP controls the governorship, state senate and the state house in 25 U.S. states; whereas the Democrats control this trifecta in five – two lower than the prior all-time low of seven just prior to this election, a level itself not matched since the Civil War (when there were 15 fewer states).3
- Leadership: Trump’s leadership team will include Breitbart News executive Steve Bannon as Senior Strategist. Anna Navarro, Republican tactician, writes: “Oh hell, White supremacist, anti-gay, anti-Semite, vindictive, scary-ass dude named Senior Strategist. After vomiting, be afraid, America.”4 Myron Ebel will lead the EPA. In 2007, Vanity Fair referred to him as, “…an oil industry mouthpiece.”5 John Bolton, Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani are among other highly concerning potential picks.
- Policy: The list of potential areas of policy calamity is vast: EPA evisceration, climate change policy repeal, Paris Treaty non-compliance or withdrawal, ANWR oil drilling, Affordable Care Act repeal, Roe vs. Wade repeal, deportation task forces, inappropriate immigration screens and restrictions, expansion of Guantanamo, torture as an interrogation technique, withdrawal of support for Syrian rebels, unprecedented tax cuts for the affluent, Dodd Frank repeal, large trade tariffs, net neutrality repeal, etc.
- Values: Many of America’s foundational values (the belief in immigrants; the importance of a pluralistic society based on respect for minority communities; respect for women; a social safety net; the importance of decorum, protocol and standards for dialog in elections; open trade policy; etc.) have suffered major blows. Reporter Sean Nelson writes, “His campaign has already raised the bar of cynicism in national politics to a height no one even knew existed before.”6
- Ethos: This election is a dagger to the ethos of substance, fact, science, logic, the recognition of intellectual authority, etc., that is at the heart of sound public policy formulation. For Trump, lying and fact-invention are essential tools of the trade.
- Global Status: Der Spiegel correspondent Holger Stark writes that: “The overwhelming feeling is that the U.S. has now lost its role as a beacon and messenger of the free world.”7
- Future Generations: How does one explain to their children that when the safe limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million and the current global level is 408 parts per million; when 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have been since 2000 (with 2016 to be the hottest year ever); when there is a 97% consensus within the scientific community on the underlying science of climate change and its anthropogenic causes; and when the potential implications of unchecked climate change are catastrophic; that the most powerful nation in the world elected a president who, without any background in the field, refers to the crisis as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese (at the same time that China is implementing a cap-and-trade carbon pricing mechanism and investing heavily in green technology)? Similar examples in other realms abound.
The suggestion that we will have to wait and see how the Trump administration works out is absurd. We have already lost. The institutional damage, value and ethos denigration, diminished global status and violation of the implicit pact with future generations has already occurred. Disastrous policy change will follow. I agree with the Seattle Times editorial board, which asserts that it is, “…as if we’re in a dystopian novel come to life.”8
The following is a summary of some of the theses that have been advanced to try to explain the 2016 election. The descriptions represent an attempt to explain each thesis succinctly and do not (unless noted) reflect my views. There is overlap between the theses, and certainly multiple theses may be concurrently accurate. The theses are organized into seven categories: change; anti-establishment; underrepresented white middle class; reactionary backlash; global populism; American society in decline; American Democracy in decline.
- It is difficult to retain the White House: Historian Michael Beschloss points out the difficulty of a two-term president having the candidate of his party succeed him. This has happened just three times since 1837 (Hayes after Grant, Truman after FDR and Bush after Reagan).
- Americans are tired of the political establishment. There is too much outside money in politics, too much corruption, and too much partisan gridlock. The nation’s problems will not be addressed via an establishment candidate. Evidence in support of this thesis was glaring from the start, with the meteoric rise of both Trump and Sanders. Some analysts see Obama as part of this trend, arguing that his internet funding made him an insurrectionist candidate. Elizabeth Warren has argued that Trump’s initial self-funding helped his image in this regard – he was not seen as beholden to established interests.9
- Trump is the quintessential outsider – he violated norms on every dimension. Trump is the first president without political or military experience. He largely funded his own campaign. He relied on Twitter. He did not establish a large field presence. He did not know policy. He did not abide by commonly accepted principles of decency and decorum. He did not follow the advice of his own advisors. He shunned and criticized leaders of his own party. All of this fed his image as an archetypal anti-establishment candidate. Trump’s erratic behavior was a successfully orchestrated phenomenon designed to generate a specific effect. Michael Moore referred to Trump as a “human Molotov cocktail” that voters get to throw at the establishment.10
- Trump is effectively the nation’s first successful third party candidate. Many have argued that Trump is not a liberal nor a conservative, but rather a reactionary. To prevail with this ideological platform, Trump effectively ran as an outsider. Gary Pearce, Democratic consultant, writes: “Trump beat the Republicans, then he beat the Democrats. Trump is really a third-party candidate.”11
UNREPRESENTED WHITE MIDDLE CLASS
- There is middle class economic disenchantment. There is a large, economically frustrated middle class that has not benefited from globalization, but rather has lost jobs to outsourcing, offshoring and imports. They were not effectively represented by either political party, and sought a populist candidate to redress their plight. Nancy Benac and Thomas Beaumont report: “Middle-aged white men with only high-school degrees—the core of Trump’s support—saw their inflation-adjusted incomes plummet 9 percent from 1996 through 2014.”12 In this sense, there are parallels between the Trump vote demographic and the Brexit vote demographic.
- Trump is a faux populist. Many argue that Trump is a faux populist. His rhetoric pays homage to the forgotten middle class, but his tax plan, for example, reduces taxes per capita by $88,410 for the top 1%, compared to $200 for the bottom 20%.13 He also favors repealing Dodd-Frank, which would be a giveaway to Wall Street. Seattle resident Jennifer Thomson expresses this faux-populist sentiment in a letter to the Seattle Times, writing that Trump has been, “…conning a vulnerable population of white men without a college degree that he is their economic savior. They will be the first to realize the depth of his deceit.”14
- It is time to reassert the dominance of the white American. The nation is tired of liberal change. It is unseemly to have a black president. The nation does not want more minorities within its borders. Islamic terror is a major threat, as are Muslims who may be affiliated with it. The nation has had enough of “Black Lives Matter”, “Occupy Wall Street” and “Standing Rock.” It does not want any form of socialized medicine. It is tired of gay marriage and LGBTQ rights. It is time to halt the liberal agenda, and reassert the preeminence of the white American and his old-school values. It is time to, “Make America Great Again.” Many have argued that this bigoted, racist, sexist, nativist philosophy is essentially fascist (while others have draws distinctions). Columnist Leonard Pitts discusses the underlying futility of this reactionary project. Pitts argues that the white American middle-class is not concerned about jobs and economic security, but rather, “…the coming America in which white people no longer bear the stamp of demographic primacy, in which they will find themselves reduced from lead actor to member of the ensemble. That America is still coming. But notice was just served that it will be resisted every step of the way.”15
- Historically, periods of increased globalization have often been followed by nativist populism. Columbia University professor Sheri Berman notes that the late 19th and early 20th century was characterized by increased economic interdependence between nations (globalization). This was followed by the Great Depression, and the rise of fascist populist movements. Somewhat similarly, the late 20th and early 21st century was also characterized by intense globalization, and this was followed by the Great Recession. Trump and other nativist populist leaders worldwide, are again ascendant. Berman summarizes: “Like many of today’s right-wing movements, fascism originated during a period of intense globalization.”16
- Historically, periods of change in racial relations within society have often been followed by reactionary backlash. Georgetown University professor Michael Kazin observes that fundamental changes in race relations also tend to lead to reactionary populist movements. The U.S. has had its first black president, and the percentage of the U.S. population that is non-white is continually increasing. This has been followed by Trump. At the end of the U.S. Civil War, as blacks gained freedom and new status in society, the KKK (and other groups) emerged, “…which used terror to try to stop black men and women in the Reconstruction South from exercising their newly won freedoms.”17 Progressive racial progress tends to be met with reactionary backlash.
- Anti-globalization sentiment and dysfunctional Western democracies are fueling populist movements worldwide. France (Marine Le Pen and the National Front), Austria (Freedom Party), Germany (Alternative for Germany), Spain (Podemos), Greece (Syriza), Hungary (Vicktor Orban and Fidesz), Bulgaria (Ruman Radev), and others (e.g., Italy, Poland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia and Switzerland) have seen a resurgence of support for populist parties and movements. France’s Marine Le Pen writes, “There is a form of revolt on the part of the people against a system that is no longer serving them.”18 And former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, when asked about Trump’s victory, said that he believes, “…the world is more toward the beginning of the era of these types of populist uprisings than it is toward the end.”19
AMERICAN SOCIETY IN DECLINE
- The decline in societal standards and changes in technology facilitate the emergence of unqualified candidates. There is an alarming decline in the influence of substance in our society. The presidential debates focused on e-mails and unwanted sexual advances toward women, but neglected climate change and gave little attention to income inequality. Adherence to fact is increasingly irrelevant. Trump regularly referred to all-time highs in urban crime, which is exactly backwards. There is also a declining recognition of intellectual authority. With social media (e.g., Twitter), every citizen has their own platform to express their views publicly, irrespective of their level of qualification to do so. Columnist Leonard Pitts has referred to our society as the “post-fact” society.20 We pay a severe price for this elevation of individual opinion (a form of narcissism) over science and fact. Regarding Trump, the Atlantic stated that, “The press take him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”21
- Trump is the extension of a line of absurd candidates. Trump is in the lineage of Palin and Bush II. Palin (now a likely cabinet pick) cited the ability to see Russia from Alaska on a clear day as evidence of foreign policy experience; Bush II started a tumultuous war in Iraq under wholly false pretexts, argued that the U.S. invasion would spread democracy to the Mideast, and claimed that the mission had been accomplished six weeks into a 13 year (and counting) war. As Paul Krugman stated during the primary, “He (Trump) or someone like him is where the party has been headed for a long time.”22
- The Republican allegiance to certain interest groups also encourages the emergence of non-serious candidates. The GOP is deeply tied to the fossil fuel industry, which means that its candidates cannot espouse climate change policy as a critical objective. Similarly, the GOP is tied to the affluent class, which means that its candidates cannot espouse income inequality reduction as a primary objective. When the party’s standards for candidacy preclude the acknowledgement of science, and preclude addressing the primary challenges of our era, the party tends to end up with a procession of non-serious candidates. If you believe in the ethos of fact, science, logic and substance, the modern GOP will not be a home for you as a political candidate. Trump is one of a long litany of non-serious candidates who have emerged from a party that has become untethered to these foundational values.
AMERICAN DEMOCRACY IN DECLINE
- For the U.S. this election represents an unprecedented descent into a dangerous realm. Certainly, the U.S. has had a wide range of quality in its leaders, from the outstanding (Washington, Lincoln, FDR) to the absurd (Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Bush II). However, Trump represents a discontinuity – he is not merely an unqualified and vulgar candidate; he represents the ascendance of an ethos, worldview and philosophy that is a departure from all standards of American political history. Trump is an existential threat. Many countries have experienced political descent into unthinkable realms (e.g., Germany, Italy, etc.). It is not my intent to compare Trump to historical tyrants, but rather to argue that this election is a sea-change event in American politics, and represents a move into a very dangerous realm.
- Democracies end when they become too democratic. Andrew Sullivan, writing in New York magazine, and citing Plato, suggests that late-stage democracies become unstable when they become too democratic. There is not recognition of authority, institutions are not respected, and each individual’s views are seen as equal to all others with little acknowledgement of expertise. Plato argued that such late-stage democracies are susceptible to tyranny. And Sullivan suggests that Trump can be seen as a sort of would-be tyrant. Sullivan observes that The French Revolution brought Napoleon; the English Civil War brought Cromwell; Russia’s unstable democratic yearnings led to Putin; etc. In this narrative, he sees Trump as heading a populist, anti-establishment movement to a position of national leadership, and now dangerously poised to seize even more power.23
- This election represents the end of America. If America is conceptualized as a collection of values and ideals (liberty, personal freedom, pluralism, toleration, rule of law, protection of the minority, and so on), then the rise of Trump can be seen as a pending threat to many of them. Juan Cole, writing on Moyers and Company Online, sees Trump as a threat to the nation, and asserts that, “Donald Trump should have been kicked out of the Republican Party the moment he began talking about violating the Constitution.”24 Others have extended this view of Trump as an existential threat. Der Spiegel published a cartoon depicting Trump’s comet-head hurtling toward Earth with the caption, “It’s the end of the world (as we know it).”25
It is an alarming time in America. One should not take this election lightly or underestimate the implications for the country. We have refuted our foundational values; cast aside the importance of fact, science and protocol; and elevated ignorance, bigotry and racism. A country cannot do this and get away with it.
Some have argued, “Give him a chance and let him govern.” Are you kidding? Trump’s values, ethos and policy priorities violate every principle of importance to me in the political realm. I agree with Alec Connon of 350 Seattle: “to comply is to be complicit.”26 And I agree with Elizabeth Warren, who says that if and when Trump actually works on initiatives that will benefit the middle class, she will support them; but she will not give one inch on issues such as bigotry, catering to the elite, or Wall Street giveaways.27
Are there any silver linings in this dark cloud? I suggest five:
- Trump has pulled the curtains off the depravity of our political system, in two ways. He has demonstrated how ineffective the current system is (by revealing the depth of voter discontent with its gridlock and corruption); and he has revealed the lows to which the U.S. electorate itself is willing to descend.
- The U.S. political system faces a potentially significant restructuring. Both parties face major structural issues. This will likely lead to the increased prominence of compelling progressive candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. There may also be momentum for additional political parties. The Seattle Weekly writes: “This election represents an opportunity – and, frankly, an obligation – to tweak the great demographic experiment that began so many years ago. We must adjust the current system and find ways to makes third- (and fourth- and fifth-) party politics possible and not just a disruptive sideshow.”28
- The protests against Trump are inspiring. Franklin High School student Quinn Angelou-Lysaker states, “We hope to send a message that Seattle students won’t be passive in the face of xenophobia, racism, sexism or bigotry that Trump represents.”29
- Trump may do less damage than is commonly thought, for two reasons. First, the contradictions inherent to his platform may partially hamstring his efforts at implementing change. For example, he favors the middle class but wants tax cuts for the rich and the repeal of Dodd-Frank. Reporter David Willman writes that Trump’s challenge will be, “…reconciling the rhetoric that propelled him to victory with how he is prepared to govern.”30 The New York Times’ David Sanger adds: “No one knows how much of Trump’s agenda, largely thrown together rather than the product of deep study and debate, is for real.”31 Second, Trump does not appear to be a true believer in many of his policy proposals, which may weaken his resolve on a number of issues. Indeed, some have expressed hope that we have already seen “Peak Trump.”
- The American Electoral College system may come under additional pressure for reform. One can only imagine how much better off the U.S. (and the world) would be had Gore won in 2000 and Clinton won in 2016.
The U.S. has lost its way. If there is any truth to the statement that a nation gets the leaders it deserves (and I believe there is some), we are in serious trouble. America has devastated itself on multiple levels. The damage is already severe. Much worse is likely to come.
John Stafford is a senior substitute teacher for Seattle Public Schools. He is a former partner with Strategic Planning Associates, a corporate strategy management consulting firm in Washington, D.C. He has a B.A. from Dartmouth College, an M.A. from St. Martin’s University and is completing an M.A. from the Harvard Extension School. He is involved with the Democratic Party in South Seattle.
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Nick Pezzillo/via Flickr
- Donald Trump, Twitter, 11/6/12.
- Cited on Mediaite Online, 1/23/16.
- Alan Greenblatt, Republicans Add to Their Dominance of State Legislatures. Governing Magazine Online, 11/9/16.
- Michael D. Shear and Maggie Habberman of the New York Times, Trump divides power in first picks. In the Seattle Times, 11/14/16, page A6.
- Coral Davenport, Climate Policy Faces Reversal by New Leader. New York Times, 11/11/16.
- Sean Nelson, Trump Dread: You Think the Campaign is Almost Over. It Will Never Be Over. The Stranger, 11/2/16.
- Holger Stark, cited by Gardiner Harris, On foreign trip, Obama to face questions about Trump victory. New York Times, 11/14/16.
- Seattle Times Editorial Board, If We Don’t Give Up, We Will Still Be Great. Seattle Times, 11/10/16.
- Elizabeth Warren speech to AFL/CIO Executive Council. Heavy Online, 11/10/16.
- Michael Moore, cited on Fast Money, CNBC, 11/4/16.
- Gary Pearce, quoted by David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau, The Trump era begins, fueled by social-media people power. The Seattle Times, 11/10/16, page A3.
- Nancy Benac and Thomas Beaumont of the Associated Press, How Trump won the election, but not the popular vote. Referring to data from Senior Research, cited in the Seattle Times, 11/10/16, page A3.
- The Fiscal Times Online, 9/26/16.
- Letters to the Editor, the Seattle Times, 11/13/16.
- Leonard Pitts, It’s mourning in America. The Seattle Times, 11/13/16.
- Sheri Berman, Populism Is Not Fascism: But It Could Be a Harbinger. Foreign Affairs, November/December, 2016, p. 39.
- Michael Kazin, Trump and American Populism: Old Whine, New Bottles. Foreign Affairs, November/December 2016, p. 17.
- From France’s Next Revolution? A Conversation with Marine Le Pen. Foreign Affairs, November/December 2016, p. 1.
- Tony Blair, during televised interview on The National, 11/14/16.
- Leonard Pitts, We are a facts-optional society. Tallahassee Democrat, 4/3/16.
- Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally. Atlantic online, 9/23/16.
- Paul Krugman, The Donald and The Decider. New York Times, 12/21/15.
- Andrew Sullivan, Democracies end when they become too democratic: And right now, America is breeding ground for tyranny. New York online, 5/1/16.
- Juan Cole, How the U.S. went Fascist: Mass Media Make Excuses for Trump Voters. Moyers and Company online, 2/24/16.
- Der Spiegel, Cover Comic, 11/11/16.
- Alec Connon, speaking at Climate Out Loud Forum in Burien, Washington, 11/12/16.
- Elizabeth Warren, speech to AFL/CIO Executive Council, 11/10/16. In Heavy Online.
- Editorial Board, What We Must Do Now. The Seattle Weekly. 11/9-15/16
- Thousands of students join walkout to protest Trump. Seattle Times, 11/15/16.
- David Willman, Trump’s goal: Deport 3M undocumented immigrants. The Seattle Times, 11/14/16, page A4.
- David Sanger, New York Times (TNS). If Trump acts on promises, U.S. will forge new paths. In Seattle Times, 11/10/16