The Popular Vote

Donald Trump is our president.

A man who uses phrases like “the blacks” and “the Hispanics;” a man who called an African-American person at a rally “my African American;” a man who earned full-throated endorsement from the KKK; a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women now represents us to the world.

By some accounts, there is no precedent in American history for Donald Trump. In many ways, however, there is a frightening precedent — Richard Nixon in 1968.

Then, as now, the country had just gone through eight years of Democratic leadership. Then, as now, those eight years brought rapid social advancements. Then, as now, many Americans (mostly White) met those advancements with fear, violence, uncertainty, and wishes for what they saw as a simpler, better time. Then, as now, a civil rights movement used new technology to seize the nation’s attention (from satellite television in 1968 to Twitter today). And, then as now, a surge of White Americans voted for an insecure, power hungry, bigoted man with tendencies toward the dictatorial.

Then, as now, the Southern Strategy was used to great effect. Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained the Southern Strategy with what one can only assume was accidental candor:

You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites . . . ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.’

Then, as now, the election took place amidst an upheaval of social norms. Nixon was first elected after years of protests, riots, and legislative attacks on Jim Crow. The hope of the early 1960s — the March on Washington, the Civil Rights, and the Voting Rights Act — was doused by the Watts Riots (incited by alleged police brutality), the King riots (after his assassination), and the riot at the DNC in Chicago, which itself happened not long after the assassination of Robert Kennedy. The pendulum swung back, and Nixon won the presidency on the backs of White voters, with only eighteen percent of the Black vote.

Trump was elected after years of protests, riots, and legislative attacks on marriage inequality. The hope of the first African American president — marriage equality, universal health care, an end to the Iraq war, a stabilized economy — was followed by riots in Ferguson and Baltimore (incited by alleged police brutality), and the police slayings of hundreds of unarmed African Americans, from Eric Garner to Tamir Rice to hundreds of others. The pendulum swung back, and Trump won the presidency on the backs of White voters, with only eight percent of the Black vote.

After all of this, it should come as no surprise that Trump has already begun making a list of enemies. Sound familiar?

It’s impossible to tell how far the comparisons will stretch. Richard Nixon was one of the worst presidents in history, leaving office in disgrace. He was proof of the dangers inherent in electing a small minded, bitter, petty ogre to the highest office in the land, and we have yet to recover from the damage.

As for Donald Trump, we have no choice but to wait and see.

We have one reason for hope, though. Richard Nixon won the popular vote in ’68 by nearly one million votes. As of this writing Hillary Clinton leads the popular vote by nearly three million votes. That means Americans didn’t elect Donald Trump; the Electoral College did.

This is not an argument against the Electoral College — although given the frequency with which it doesn’t reflect the popular vote, perhaps an amendment to the system is in order. Rather, it is an argument against those who see Trump’s win as an endorsement of his policies or persona. He won on a technicality of the system, not on the will of the people. Whatever it means, whatever happens, when faced with a duplicitous, vulgar, race-baiting sex offender, the majority of Americans rejected him.

That’s one to grow on.

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