On Clinton’s Failure, Trump’s Victory, the Misguided Quest for Unity, and the Search For Hope
I remember watching Trump’s campaign announcement in a hotel room and thinking that this was going to be one of the more hilarious flameouts in modern political history. I remember his rising in the polls and thinking that it would pass once those supporting him out of spite towards the establishment came to their senses and realized that such a charlatan could not win a national election. It was not until he won the New Hampshire primary in February that I began to believe that he was going to win the Republican primary, yet I don’t think it was until about 9:15 on Tuesday night that the thought of his winning the general election entered my mind in any real way. I, like so many others, was unbelievably wrong. We refused to accept that the racism and sexism and xenophobia that he invoked would resonate on a scale wide enough to win a majority of electoral votes, but this belief, like so many others, was misguided.
With lots of blame to go around, I worry that Democrats will say that third party voters were the problem and not take a hard enough look in the mirror at their own failings. The Democratic Party, and the Clinton campaign, seemed to believe that destiny was on their side, that they had been waiting for precisely this moment for eight years and their turn had finally come. Yet few outside of that inner circle had remotely similar feelings. It led to a contentment with the status quo and a lack of vigor in their campaigning, assuming that they would automatically win states that had gone blue in the previous two elections, failing to realize that they did not vote Democrat as a matter of fact, but due to a number of external factors that were not present this time around. Their slogan — I’m With Her — showcased a faith in a single person rather than in an ideal or set of values. Even if you didn’t like Trump, the idea of making America great again could possibly resonate, while if you found Clinton distasteful, what were the Democrats offering the electorate apart from not being Trump? For many, including myself, that was plenty, but for many more, it was not. The Clinton campaign seemingly saw Trump support as an aberration that would vanish as cooler heads and rational thought prevailed. They never stopped to suppose that all the fact checking in the world would not make a difference for his support was not based on facts, but on feelings — something that, ultimately, all political support comes down to, to a certain extent. And, perhaps most foolishly, there was never any desire to understand those feelings, to see the ground shifting beneath them, to reconcile the reality of the moment with their preconceived ideas of how things should play out. Rather than reaching out to disenchanted Obama voters and fearful whites, she and her campaign, for some reason I cannot fathom, decided that attaining the endorsement of genocide enabler Henry Kissinger was a worthwhile goal. That one decision does not symbolize the failure of the Clinton campaign in its staggering entirety, but it comes as close as anything else that comes to mind.
Her hand in creating outdated policies haunted her and even when she forsook them, adapting to the changes at hand, it always seemed calculated rather than principled. I do not mean to imply that she did not actually change her views over time, but that her dispassionate appeals easily led those innately skeptical of her sincerity to see her malleability as evidence of duplicity rather than as a positive sign of open-mindedness. The DNC did admittedly, and reluctantly, adopt a more progressive platform than expected after being forced to by the wide and enthusiastic support that Bernie Sanders earned during the primaries, yet by nominating Clinton, it was the proverbial putting of new wine into old wineskins — it was bound to burst. While anger at the DNC and the Clinton campaign may seem misplaced in the multiplicity of places one can direct it at this moment in time, it is necessary to correct the course of the nation’s ostensible left-wing party as rather than truly fighting for progressive causes, Clinton merely reacted against the reactionaries.
While so many wanted to believe Trump was an aberration in the political mainstream, he was the culmination of what the GOP has been running on over the last half-century. While his devotion to Republican doctrine, so to speak, was always questionable, it was his race baiting that continued a long standing GOP tradition of stoking the fires of white resentment in the hopes of inspiring enough white voters to vote in order to get elected. The sole difference is that while previous Republican nominees for President had attempted to hide their racial biases just enough to give them plausible deniability, while also allowing it to unmistakably resonate with their base, Trump made the subtext explicit. Is it really so surprising that a party who nominated a man who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in Barry Goldwater, a man who referred to welfare recipients as “strapping young bucks” in Ronald Reagan, and a man who aired the Willie Horton ad in George H.W. Bush would also nominate a man accused of housing discrimination, a man who referred to Mexicans as rapists, a man whose election thrilled David Duke? You did not have to self-identify as a racist in order to vote for Donald Trump, but you absolutely had to be okay with racist policies and racist rhetoric. While the Republican Party likes to see itself as the party of Lincoln, their being so is only true as a matter of historical record for the beliefs they propagate are divorced from the ideals he promoted in his public life. If the Republican Party as we knew it is dead, it is only because we never cared to take the effort to get to know it in all its horror.
I keep thinking of a quote from Andrew Young, who worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. throughout the 1960s. Regarding the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, he wrote in An Easy Burden that “Medgar’s murder was one of many in the South that made us aware of how deeply the progress we made had disturbed the racist psyche. We were now in uncharted psychological territory: never before had whites seen blacks as determined, as defiant as they were in 1963.” I believe that once again that those who fight for justice for black persons have entered “uncharted psychological territory” with the election of the first Black President in Barack Obama, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and a new sort of militancy that has become mainstream. While this is undeniably exciting and hope-inspiring for many, for others, it is threatening. Trump saw the psychic threat it posed to many white persons and capitalized on that, promising to push back and restore a previous way of life — although one that never really existed — in a starker and more forceful way than any other candidate did and, tragically, it resonated.
The election also raises the question of what exactly what it means for one to be an evangelical. Over eighty percent of evangelicals voted for Trump and it is very difficult to understand what the coalition who most ardently championed the idea of “family values” found to appreciate in a man who has been married three times, cheated on his wives, and continually treated women as no more than objects to be utilized for his own personal gratification. They will claim that it was about the Supreme Court and the fight against abortion, but that provides no cover in the eyes of those who Trump’s policies will affect most horribly. Even if you are stridently opposed to abortion, it would be wise to consider that sometimes the means don’t justify the ends. An outside observer would be completely justified in thinking that a Christian’s convictions begin and end with abortion, homosexuality, and all that threatens their own heterosexist and patriarchal hegemony in the realm of establishing what it means to be a morally sound American.
Now is not the time to call for unity or peace or tranquility: I refuse to unite with people who just voted to marginalize and disenfranchise and dehumanize wide swaths of people I care deeply about. While unity is, of course, an admirable goal, it cannot be forced, it must be earned. What people asking for peace are asking for is not peace in any sort of holistic sense, but merely tranquility. They want the fighting to end, the conflicts to stop yet now is not the time to lay low and adopt an attitude of wait and see. In the sixteen months since Trump announced his candidacy there has been no indication, his acceptance speech excepted, that he will work for all Americans — rather he has promoted a truncated view of who does and does not even count as American — or that he cares even the slightest bit about justice and liberty for all. If he and his administration do begin to work towards legislation that ensures healthcare to those who do not have it, food to those who cannot eat, makes progress towards peace in the Middle East, etc. I would not deny them support out of a devotion to opposition for the sake of it, but it would be the height of naiveté to believe that such efforts are forthcoming. He has shown us just who he is for over a year now. Now that he is President-elect, having his toxicity validated by millions of voters, he has less incentive to change than ever before.
There is a need to understand just why and how Trump garnered so many votes on Tuesday night. While racism, sexism, resentment, and economic anxieties are all part of whatever noxious mixture gave rise to it, it also seems to be of paramount importance to peel back behind that and look at the fears, longings, and wounds that plague these voters without condoning the oppressive expression of such fears. It is a fine line here between empathizing with those anxieties and endorsing the sexism and racism that led to Trump’s nomination and election, yet it is one that we must attempt to walk. In my mind, this is crucial to establishing a real and genuine peace that transcends mere tranquility and can lead to a mutuality of understanding and compassion. It is far from the only task to undertake — it is one of many — but it is nevertheless necessary.
I am truly struggling to find traces of hope right now, as I am sure many others are. Yet hope is never logical and always a little bit mad. As a person of faith, I believe that hope is, in a certain sense, the trademark of the believer. Hope is not merely optimism or the belief that things will be better in a little bit. According to a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr., hope is rooted in an “in-spite-of quality,” a belief that while the world crumbles around me, it is still possible to see traces and glimpses of a future not fully inaugurated yet nevertheless present. I can see it in the compassion given towards a neighbor, in the protestors fighting for living wages and against police violence, in those fighting the prison industrial complex and in those committed to grassroots organizing that empowers communities in new ways. I am sincerely trying to be both critical of that which is and unconditionally hopeful regarding what could be — equally cynical and idealistic simultaneously. That, to me, is part of what this hour calls for. This is no time for neutrality. Rather, it is time to stand in solidarity with all those who are marginalized and oppressed and partake in concrete actions that can finally fulfill the biblical dream of setting at liberty all those who are oppressed, of letting justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.