A Guide to All the Feels: Why People Are Reacting the Way They Are to Trump’s Victory
Now over a week removed from the election, we have seen a wide variety of reactions to Trump’s victory within the public. Some are elated; others are devastated; some don’t care at all. While much ink has already been spilled to explain the results of the election, less effort has been made to explore the divisions in society that it has created and reflects. I’m writing this article to fill that gap.
To start with some caveats: the goal of this piece is not to justify the behaviors or attitudes of any individual or group, but rather to explain how people can differ so tremendously in their outlook. More so than ever before, the American public is deeply polarized, to the extent that Trump supporters and opposers may as well be living in different universes. Many citizens do not understand why so many people they know feel so doomed by Trump’s win, or how so many people were willing to overlook Trump’s frequently inappropriate behavior, or why some people have already moved on. I’m not asking you to like those on the other side, to normalize their choices, or even accept their behavior — to understand is an important enough first step.
We don’t have to all like each other, but by not earnestly attempting to understand each other, perhaps especially when we disagree, we are doubling down on many of the same mistakes that made a Trump presidency possible in the first place. Voters who do not consider themselves to be bigots only strengthened their support for Trump after being labeled as such by the left (the bigots, and there were plenty, were voting for him anyway). Those on the left who deeply distrusted Clinton were turned off even more so by being called “childish” by less wary liberals. Clinton voters have been so castigated for their perceived support for the politics of corruption that they created a multi-million member secret Facebook group simply to avoid constant attacks and complaints from both the left and the right. And so on. If we don’t understand each other, the quality of our discourse suffers, and when that happens, our democratic nightmare only deepens.
Furthermore, I argue below that many of these misunderstandings arise not just from one’s choice of candidate, but from a deeper level of what it means for them to have political opinions at all. There are those who primarily think of politics as about people, and they simply aren’t going to consider the policy ramifications of Trump’s victory that many others do. Similarly, those who primarily think of politics as about ideas will have a hard time understanding those who, say, vote for Trump despite typically preferring Democrats, or those who are able to follow a primary vote for the socialist Sanders with a vote in the general for the libertarian Johnson.
Below, I start by borrowing some well-established concepts from the political science literature. Then, I apply this typology to the many types of election reactions I have observed over the past ten days — the categorizations are my own creation. Finally, I discuss some of the specific differences between the major factions of the left. Those on the left, despite strong (and critical) disagreements with each other, will have to find a way to productively talk to each other, even given all the (justified) anger and (understandable) frustration.
Four Different Kinds of Citizens
Political behaviorists generally accept that there are four or five rough tiers of voter sophistication. The typology below is borrowed from a Converse’s seminal 1964 paper “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics”, though I’ve changed the names of the groups to make them easier to remember. I think that these tiers work as a useful guide for helping us to understand what it means for different kinds of people to support a candidate, and how likely it is we might find each of these types of people out there. I will present these tiers in order of increasing sophistication. For each tier, I’ll talk about the kinds of things that motivate these citizens when they are deciding between candidates, or even whether to vote at all. As we move up the tiers, anyone on a given tier could have the concerns of either their own tier or any of those below.
Tier 1 — Apathetics: These people have no real knowledge of, or interest in, politics, even during high-profile presidential campaigns. They are thought to make up somewhere around 20% of citizens. While they might sometimes vote in elections, they generally don’t. Very few of the people in this group voted in this election, or in any given election. They tend not to have any strongly held or consistent positions on the issues, and are unable to explain any real difference between the major parties. They might like one party more than the other, but might not be able to explain why, and the party they like more might change frequently. Be careful to note that not all people who stayed home this election are of this group — many chose not to vote because they did not like the candidates, or wanted to, but were unable for some reason.
Apathetics lack interest in and knowledge of politics, so the results of this election are not going to affect them much. They may have preferred one candidate over another, but their victory likely doesn’t matter much to them. Their only real reaction may be one of relief that the election is over, and now they don’t have to hear everyone constantly talking about it. They aren’t going to understand why people still can’t stop talking about it.
Tier 2 — Weathervanes: Another 20% of the public doesn’t care much about politics, but pays enough attention to have reactions either to the candidates or how their lives have gone under the current government. I call them “Weathervanes” because they tend to evaluate each election differently on account of “which way the wind is blowing”. They look to see which candidate is a better person, or more similar to them, or more trustworthy. They also might vote for the candidate based on their opinion of how things have been going recently, punishing the incumbent president or party if things are bad. Many of these voters are independents and, because they react to each election differently, often tend to have a big influence on who wins. Many prefer one party to another, but not often strongly. These voters usually don’t have feelings about the issues — they just want someone in power they can rely on. If they don’t like either candidate, they might just not vote at all.
Weathervanes care about candidates and the vague notion of “change”, so most of these people were rooting for one candidate over the other, or at least against one more than the other. If they are thrilled or upset, it’s not because of what specifically they think Trump will do in terms of laws passed and problems fixed, but rather because of their trust in him to be a good leader. These people are probably more willing to wait and see how he does in office before judging him than those in the higher tiers. They will express some happiness or regret about the results, but they probably wish that everyone would calm down now.
Tier 3 — Identifiers: The largest group, about 45% of the public. People in this group are defined by their tendency to primarily think of politics in terms of society’s social divides, such as age, sex, race, class, religion, and education. They consider their own identities across these groups, figure out which party seems to support those identities best, and vote accordingly. Actual ideology means little to these voters — they’re more interested in finding a party that has their own group’s best interest in minds and trusting them to find ways to make their lives better. When they think about the other party, they might be thinking as much or more about the types of folks who vote for them — their “outgroups” — as they do the actual politicians in that party. Most people in this group will vote regularly, and almost always for the same party.
Identifiers think in terms of which groups will be hurt or helped by the results of the election, and will thus care intensely, perhaps more than even ideologues. Accordingly, they are the ones most likely to be visibly celebrating or having panic attacks. For instance, those who identify as minorities fear for the loss of their rights in various domains under Trump, and are therefore terrified. More generally, they may feel that those that hate them have been emboldened by the Trump victory, and may be more afraid of reprisals by fellow citizens than any action by politicians.
Tier 4 — Ideologues: About 15% of the public have a strong understanding of politics, know where the parties stand on most issues, speak in ideological terms, and may even have a well developed personal political philosophy. Members of this group are relatively rare. They are highly likely to have a strong allegiance to one party over others, will almost always turn out to vote, and almost always for the same party. They see the conflict between the parties as one between fundamentally different ideas of what the country should look like in terms of its values, its structure and its laws. Articulating the arguments for what their party wants comes easy to them, and their understanding of ideology is strong enough that they may often be able to anticipate what position on a certain issue is consistent with their philosophy, even before the party takes a stand.
Ideologues, given that they care a great deal about politics, will react strongly to election outcomes. The victory of one candidate rather than another will have a profound impact on what policies will be implemented and on what ideologies will be benefited. That said, those highly knowledgeable about politics also may understand how difficult it is to get things done in government, and therefore may feel less alarmed or enthused than Identifiers because they know only some of any agenda can ever be implemented.
The Different Reactions You Are Seeing
Below I breakdown the many types of reactions people are having to the election right now. For each type, I rate how strongly they’re reacting (where 1 is not at all and 5 is extreme), what they tend to be saying, which of the above tiers of citizens they draw from, and my thoughts on why they are reacting the way they are.
Reactions of those who did not vote for Trump
1. The “Wait and See”
Strength of reaction: 1 out of 5
Identifying quote: “Come on, I didn’t vote for him, but he won. We need to give him a chance.”
Types of citizens: Apathetics, Weathervanes
Explanation: While most who say this are likely those that actively supported him, some expressing this sentiment did not. How is it possible to flip so quickly? Because these individuals are likely to be Apathetics or Weathervanes who didn’t care much to begin with, or were evaluating the candidates based mostly on their individual characteristics. Regarding the latter, while Trump’s personality may seem hard to warm to, it’s at least easier to convince yourself that you’ve misjudged someone’s character than their support for various societal groups or ideologies. Besides, it’s now been a few weeks since Trump has said something outrageous, and those that pay little attention to politics have frighteningly short memories. Without something in recent memory to jar them, it’s pretty easy to fall back on the standard democratic norms of waiting to see what happens next.
2. The “Sophie’s Choice”
Strength of reaction: 2 out of 5
Identifying quote: “I’m not happy, but it’s not like things would have been better under Hillary”
Types of citizens: Weathervanes (mostly), Ideologues (some)
Explanation: Similar to the above, this person doesn’t care very much — in this case, not because they don’t care much about politics, but because they didn’t see much difference between the candidates in the first place. How could two candidates with such clearly different visions of America inspire this response. In most cases, these are Weathervane voters. They’re evaluating off of personal characteristics, so they just don’t see or care very much about the big policy and social differences they represent. Instead, as each candidate’s favorability ratings attest, they just see two crappy people with lots of personal scandals and negative media coverage. However, some of these people might be Ideologues who see Trump as someone who may be extreme rhetorically, but actually not that extreme from an ideological perspective, unlike Republicans such as Cruz or Paul. In that way, they may convince themselves that Trump is sort of a populist, old school democrat, while Hillary represents many of the global elite interests that are often associated with Republicans. If that’s true, they just might not have felt they’d be much worse off with one over the other.
3. The “Kristallnacht”
Strength of reaction: 5 out of 5
Identifying quote: “FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK”
Types of citizens: Identifiers
Explanation: These are the individuals who are pants-shittingly terrified at the moment, and they likely make up the bulk of people reacting on the left. Why are they so scared? Because they are Identifiers, and they believe that this election will have profound consequences for the relative standings of different groups in American society. First, they take Trump seriously when he talks about groups like muslims or women. If you do not belong to these groups, it may be easy for you to now say things like “he was just exaggerating” or “it’s just locker room talk”, but people who belong to said group tend to take very seriously whatever is said about them. Trump has more than eroded their trust — he has strapped their trust to a rocket and shot it into the sun. If they seem to think that literally anything could happen to them now, it’s because he’s in control of a unified government, and they do not trust him at all — a big problem for a candidate whose main sales pitch has been himself. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they don’t see Trump as Trump alone — they see him as, at best, emboldening and, at worst, actively in favor of overtly racist and misogynist citizens. Telling these people that the filibuster will keep his worst tendencies in check, or that he’s not liable to pursue his most extreme policies, is not going to help, because they are equally or more worried about newly motivated Neo-Nazis beating them to death. Perhaps you think it will help to inform them that these people are, of course, very rare in society. What percentage of the public would you need to think might be outwardly violent towards you on sight before you start looking over your shoulder constantly?
4. The “Phase Shift”
Strength of reaction: 4 out of 5
Identifying quote: “Nothing is ever going to be the same.”
Types of citizens: Ideologues
Explanation: When these citizens talk about the future under Trump, they may not be talking much about Trump at all. Instead, they will be referencing what they believe will happen under Trump — policies repealed and created, executive orders passed and overturned, people appointed and fired, and so on. You can definitely stop telling these people to calm down, because they make up the 15 or so percent of the electorate that knows about and cares about the actual political outcomes that are on their way. The only way these people could be made to feel better would be if they were persuaded that his agenda isn’t bad…but because these tend to be highly engaged, highly partisan, highly knowledgeable people, you’re not very likely to change their minds. There’s no such things as “giving him a chance” because they’re not waiting to see what happens as a result of his actions, they believe the actions that he has already promised to pursue are themselves bad, and don’t need to wait for the inevitable results to trickle in to point out that the sky is falling.
Strength of reaction: 3 out of 5
Identifying quote: “Well, this is bad, but good for Democrats in the long run”
Types of citizens: Ideologues
Explanation: This group is rare, given that it draws almost exclusively from ideologues, and represents what is likely a minority position within that group. While these people might be unhappy with a Donald Trump presidency, they are cautiously optimistic about the long-term ramifications of this outcome. Their position is essentially that this election has provided an opportunity for creative destruction — the Democrats will be forced to reform themselves to be more palatable to their base, they will be able to rebuild the bench of quality candidates, Trump will be an unpopular president that will ruin the Republican brand for years to come, and most of his policy goals will fail due to the filibuster and dissent from members of his own party. If a recession hits in the next couple years, as many have predicted, it will be Trump, not Hillary, who will be saddled with it. They’re still unhappy, of course, about Trump’s abilities to shape foreign policy, appoint new Supreme Court justices, and undo many of Obama’s executive actions, but see this ultimately as an opportunity for growth. Others on the left may be quick to point out that people in this group often may enjoy the privilege of not having to worry about the worst potential outcomes of a Trump election.
Reactions of those who support Trump
1. The “Drain the Swamp”
Strength of reaction: 3 out of 5
Identifying quote: “Maybe we’ll finally get some change in Washington”
Types of citizens: Weathervanes
Explanation: For these voters, the Trump victory means little more than an opportunity to demolish what they perceive as a Washington overrun by corruption. Many of these voters will freely admit that they don’t particularly like Donald Trump, or have much faith in his ability to fulfill his campaign promises (if they know what those are, given these are often low-information voters), but do genuinely believe he will shake up the toxic political culture and poke the elites in the eyes. Why are they willing to accept this tradeoff, considering they don’t trust Trump much either? These voters typically don’t pay enough attention to politics to have actual policy preferences. When they think about government dysfunction, they aren’t thinking in terms of the issues, they are thinking in terms of the bad people they have seen running things over the past decades. Trump’s disdain for elites is a strong signal that, at least, those people will be flushed out by his administration, and that needs to happen before anything else can. To them, when the government is filled with “good people”, good outcomes will naturally follow.
2. The “Manufacturer”
Strength of reaction: 4 out of 5
Identifying quote: “Trump is going to put America back to work!”
Types of citizens: Identifiers, Weathervanes
Explanation: These voters have received the most attention by the media since the election, and for good reason. This group represents the white working class voters who flipped several states in the upper midwest to Trump, due to their frustrations with the decline of the manufacturing sector throughout the rust belt. Like the previous group, many of these voters actively dislike Trump, and many typically select for the Democratic candidate, but as Michael Moore put it, they see Trump as a grenade they can lob into the White House to express their rage and frustration. Trump is the only candidate they’ve seen for decades that they believe has spent this much time specifically catering to their concerns. Their hope is that he will be able to revitalize their local economy and get them out of the wage stagnation many of them have been mired in for several decades. Trump’s behavior and rhetoric is seen by them as a price they are paying to get what they really care about. If they themselves are not the target of his rhetoric, and they really think their own livelihood is on the table, you can imagine, though perhaps not appreciate, why they would be willing to swallow their disgust and vote for Trump.
3. The “Deplorable”
Strength of reaction: 5 out of 5
Identifying quote: <graffiti’d on wall> “Trump won, [insert epithet here], your time is up.”
Types of citizens: Identifiers
Explanation: These voters have also received an enormous amount of attention as many consider them to make up the lion’s share of Trump’s support base — even Hillary famously estimated them to make up about half of his voters. While their exact number is unclear, it is easy to see why others perceive them as constituting such a large number of his supporters; while for the previous two groups Trump’s rhetoric is something to be overcome, for this group, it is the main feature feature. This type of citizen actually is racist, misogynist, etc., and believes that Trump’s victory is a signal that their beliefs have become dominant once more after decades of irrelevance. Clearly, they are the most dangerous group from either side, and the one most likely to further polarize supporters in each party from one another, with those on the left considering them the typical Trump supporter and those on the right thinking of them as a “few bad apples”. For those in the former camp, thinking this way will not help the left persuade those non-deplorables to exit the Trump camp. For those in the latter camp, consider carefully how many bad apples are necessary to spoil the whole batch. The “alt-right” would not necessarily consider themselves to be members of this group, despite the strong racial language used in the alt-right, as many such individuals are more likely to be ideologues than identifiers. They would consider many of these people to be “stupid skinheads”. Some on the alt-right, though, may fit well into this group. Despite the attention they’ve been given, they do not explain why Trump won — this group is effectively captured by the Republican party every election, though this may be the first time they feel like they have any meaningful power.
4. The “Pepe”
Strength of reaction: 4 out of 5
Identifying quote: “The tears of all the SJWs are delicious”
Types of citizens: Identifiers, Ideologues
Explanation: To a certain extent, this is the “troll” faction — they like Trump primarily because of how much he is able to freak out the practitioners of identity politics on the left. Those having this reaction are usually themselves not explicitly racist (or at least do not see themselves this way), but are frustrated by what they see as a progressive movement that uses language that is increasingly hostile to non-minorities, and seeks protection from what they consider to be open and free political debate. They are in it, quite simply, for the “lulz”. Whether this group will continue to be happy under an actual Trump presidency is not clear, as many in this group are young, non-religious, and often libertarian, characteristics that do not cleanly fit into the typical Republican coalition. They also might not consider themselves full members of the alt-right, given that their libertarianism is at odds with many aspects of the alt-right platform. Mostly, they are happy because they see the election result as a blow to the nose of who they consider to be their oppressors. When policy outcomes start rolling in, some in this group may no longer like the joke, though many may be too busy laughing at the reactions on the left to notice.
5. The “Nervous Conservative”
Strength of reaction: 2 out of 5
Identifying quote: “This…is good…I guess?”
Types of citizens: Ideologues
Explanation: On one hand, these people, being conservatives, are happy that Republicans have unified control of the government. On the other hand, they are not necessarily so happy that it is unified under Trump. Being ideologues, some may be concerned about the fact that Trump is not necessarily a reliable advocate of conservative philosophy, given his unwillingness to commit to many key policy goals, and his willingness to pursue a foreign and trade policy that is actively in contrast with establishment conservatives. Others may be more worried about Trump’s effect on the Republican brand, which could poison youth and minorities against their party for a generation. In this view, Trump has won the battle but may very well lose them the war. As such, their enthusiasm for gaining unified control of government for the first time in 15 years is significantly tempered. Many in this group chose to vote for Johnson or to not vote at all, though many also held their nose and voted Trump anyway.
6. The “Christmas Morning”
Strength of reaction: 5 out of 5
Key quote: “I AM EXPLODING WITH JOY.”
Types of citizens: Ideologues
Explanation: People in this group believe that the Trump administration is the ideal vehicle for their ideological and policy desires. Like the “Deplorables”, these people are fully in support of Trump, but unlike them, their primary concern is not necessarily, or at least exclusively, about group status and competition. This is where many of those on the alt-right find themselves. These individuals want a very specific slate of policies — immigration restriction, trade renegotiation, and isolationism and/or cooperation with Russia, to name a few — that they feel have not been seriously pursued by either party over the last several decades. Some may see Trump as a useful idiot who has managed to bring along enough other Americans to see their own preferences enacted, while others consider him to be a strategic genius who really is to be greatly admired. His lack of political correctness is generally seen as a feature, not a bug, as it is a direct attack on the “social justice warriors” they believe are harming political discourse.
The Battle for the Left
Anyone active in liberal politics has observed (and/or participated in) a great deal of conflict between different factions on the left over the past several months, but perhaps particularly so since the election ended. Nothing pours fuel onto the flames of a pre-existing factional conflict like losing an election. Setting aside some nuance for a moment, on one side are those who advocated strongly for Hillary, and on the other side those on the left who cast a vote for Stein, or Johnson, or wrote in Sanders, or didn’t vote for all. As far as I can tell, the election has led to one similarity between these two factions — each is utterly convinced that the results of the election prove that their side was correct all year long.
In the pro-Hillary camp are those who either unconditionally supported her candidacy, or those who, despite reservations ranging from minor to serious, nevertheless voted for her to avoid a Trump presidency. For the former, the constant attacks on Hillary from the left resulted from a combination of actual sexism, conspiratorial thinking, sour grapes about the primary, and a willingness to buy into what they perceive as the right’s disinformation campaign. For the latter, many of the criticisms were justified, but to them, those who would refuse to vote for Hillary on this basis were abdicating their own responsibility to work with the actual, realistic choices before them, and instead indulged in unjustifiable protest voting or abstention. In either case, they point to the depressed turnout and weakened democratic support by youth and minorities as the major cause of Trump’s victory. The numbers bear out their story — while Hillary wouldn’t have won in swing states like PA or OH simply if the Stein voters had instead voted Hillary, those votes plus the increased turnout of those demographics in those states indeed would have probably made the difference.
In the anti-Hillary camp are those who believe that she was unsupportable due to a combination of past scandals, her lack of full-throated support for many key leftist causes, and the machinations of the DNC in preventing Sanders from winning the primary (NOTE: this Sanders primary voter begs you to accept that the DNC did not, in fact, do this). Somewhat amusingly, they point to the exact same data as above — depressed turnout and enthusiasm among youth and minorities — as evidence that their side was right. That is, the Democrats lost because they attempted to force a deeply unpopular and flawed candidate down people’s throats, and are paying for their hubris.
In that sense, both camps are basically right that Hillary lost due to dampened enthusiasm for her candidacy. The question is whether moral responsibility should be assigned to those who refused to choose the lesser evil (or insisted she was evil in the first place), or to those who enabled a weak candidate to move on to the general election. What I’m going to suggest is that it doesn’t really matter.
If the left is going to be competitive in the next few elections, it is going to have to make some changes. Unfortunately, many on the left seem to have forgotten the most important rule of politics — you’ve got to work with the public you’ve got, not the one you wish you had. Pro-Hillary leftists are absolutely correct that voting for third parties is self-indulgence masquerading as principled idealism; if you’ve only got two realistic options, all that is left is to choose between them, and no, third parties cannot win now, or ever, under our country’s electoral system, but that’s a topic for a different essay. Anti-Hillary leftists are absolutely correct that there is a significant percent of the public that just will not vote for a candidate who fails to inspire them, and they’re not going to change their feelings, no matter how much the people who they think are sellouts and sycophants tell them they are stupid and childish.
It’s tempting right now to lash out at the people who you think cost you everything. It’s even justifiable to do so. What I’m suggesting is to try not to do this, regardless of how correct you are, how good it feels, or how obnoxious the other side is. Every time you tell them how corrupt, how stupid, or how unearned their feelings of superiority are is one more instance that will prevent them from listening to your side. I’m not saying to disengage; far from it, these two sides need to be having serious conversations. They just need to be doing so in the genuine spirit of trying to move on, and make sure this doesn’t happen again. The damage is already done. Future damage can be prevented, both only if there’s enough connective tissue remaining between the factions on the left to keep them focused on their mutual enemy.
To wrap things up, the same goes for the much, much larger divide between the left and the right. We’ve probably never been more different from each other than we are right now. We can either try to stay together for the kids, or we can get a divorce, but you’ll find that divorce is not very realistic politically. So, if we’re stuck together, we may as well try to understand each other. If you’re on the left, you’re going to have to win some of those Trump voters back, and make sure the more skeptical folks on your side remain in the fold, and you’re not going to do that by accusing them of having attitudes they genuinely don’t have, and ignoring those attitudes they do have. If you’re on the right, if you want anything productive to come out of the Trump administration, you’re going to have start calming some of the fears of those on the left and even in the middle, and simply telling them to calm down or that “things will be fine” is not taking their feelings seriously.
You may think the other side is not deserving of careful understanding. Fine. Understand them anyway.