To many of us, myself included, the anguish of Nov. 8 has not subsided. We think of the election almost as a kind of death — the death of the America we thought we knew or the death of a democracy we thought impervious — and ever since, we have been cycling through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief.
Still in the stage of denial, many friends have told me they have stopped reading newspapers, stopped watching the news on TV, retreated from any political information or activity whatsoever; just closed their ears and eyes and refocused. A good and wise friend confessed he had learned a valuable if agonizing lesson from the surreal nightmare of Donald Trump’s victory. “Life lies elsewhere,” he said, thinking of his family, his friends, his community, his work.
Though Kubler-Ross herself asserted that the stages of grief were not necessarily chronological, denial and depression — the disbelief that this could have happened and the despair over the fact that it did — seem, from my small sample, to have overwhelmed the stages of bargaining and anger. Many of us cannot rouse ourselves to rail at the system or the voters or God. It’s as if anger is an insufficient response. And this is all before the worst of it — before Trump has assumed power. We grieve. We stumble. We look for answers that are not forthcoming. We feel paralyzed, hopeless, bewildered. We don’t quite know what to do.
The last stage of grief is acceptance, and one thing I do know: It is imperative that anyone who thinks of Trump’s election as perhaps the single greatest catastrophe in American political history must never reach that stage. Nonetheless, we need to move forward. We must find some way to overcome our grief.
I have two suggestions. The first is to examine what got us to this point and then never forget it. The second is to analyze our options in preventing Trump and his minions from destroying democracy. The options aren’t plentiful and frankly they aren’t good, but they’re all we have.
I will have more to say about those tactical options in later posts. In this one I want to discuss how we might parse what happened — and how not to parse it. What’s more, I want to look at the larger strategic response. A colleague who lives in an affluent Republican community (you know, the people who were supposed to defect from Trump but didn’t) told me her neighbors had more than a little schadenfreude over the liberals’ agony. “What’s the big deal?” they say to her. You lost. Trump won. Thus has it always been in politics. Get over it. Life goes on. After all, they say, we had to swallow Obama’s victories.
This may be the single most dangerous attitude one can harbor toward a Trump presidency. It is the one most likely to savage the country beyond repair because it assumes that this was just another election and that Trump, in the final analysis, is just another candidate.
So begin there. Even overlooking the fact that he was elected with the surreptitious assistance of one of America’s biggest adversaries and with the help of the right-wing FBI, Trump is not just another candidate with whom most liberals and most Democrats happen to disagree. Indeed, though liberals quarrel with his policies, as they would quarrel with those of any Republican president, that may be the least of it.
It is Trump’s values, his gleeful ignorance, his poisonous bigotry, his authoritarianism, his demagogic populism that make his opponents shiver. In the 1930s, when the world was undergoing disruptions similar to today and its citizens were even more deeply resentful than ours at how the system had failed them, American voters brought forth Franklin Roosevelt to affirm our democratic values and eventually save the world from tyranny. He did so not by turning one group of Americans against another, but by appealing to what was best in us and what united us. What’s the big deal? The big deal is that we don’t have a leader to affirm those values when they are under siege, nor to save the world from right-wing rabble-rousing and self-serving divisiveness.
I am, both by nature and by experience, a pessimist. “Guardedly pessimistic,” I call myself. Democracy is fragile. By some miracle, it has managed to survive in the United States, albeit imperfectly. But its continued survival is no sure thing. When democracy has died in other countries, it has almost always been murdered by grievance — usually grievance nursed and fomented by individuals who do not have the nation’s best interests at heart. And when it dies, it does so with the complicity of the governed. In superhero movies, a villain imposes his will on a beleaguered people and then must be vanquished. In real life, a beleaguered people often welcome the villain. That’s what has happened here.
Those of us who love democracy and fear for it when we have, as we do now, an authoritarian leader and one-party rule, may be tempted to woo the other side. That is the bargaining phase of grief. We heard a lot about that back in 2000 when, after Al Gore’s defeat, some well-meaning folks said liberals had to learn to start speaking the language of religion and co-opt the conservative monopoly on traditional values. We already are beginning to hear some of that now.
Similarly, we hear that the voters who chose Trump were not bigots or even illiberal, just folks embittered by economic inequality, and that if progressives hope to win, they have to start making amends to them rather than stigmatize them. “Sorry, Liberals. Bigotry Didn’t Elect Trump,” political analyst David Paul Kuhn wrote in a New York Times op-ed, trumpeting this view by using survey data claiming to show Trump’s voters were simply protesting the system, not minorities, women and immigrants.
Kuhn’s argument is specious on several grounds — not least of which is that it relies on self-reporting, which is to say that Trump voters told pollsters that bigotry wasn’t a factor in their choice. (Anyone want to buy a bridge in Brooklyn?) Moreover, Kuhn actually believes Obama lost those white voters when he decided to promote health care reform over a new New Deal, as if there were a snowball’s chance in hell of Republicans passing such a program. You wonder what country Kuhn has been living in. Democrats don’t win anywhere near a majority of white votes. Hillary Clinton won 37 percent, Obama 43 percent in 2008, 39 percent in 2012. In short, with the exception of Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1996, 48 percent and 44 percent respectively, Democrats lose white voters in a landslide.
But there is a far more damning argument against this courtship idea — namely that Trump didn’t win a majority; he didn’t even win a plurality. So why are we talking as if aggrieved white voters are more important than aggrieved black and brown voters? Given our bizarre and highly undemocratic system designed to benefit less populous states, Trump’s votes were better distributed than Hillary Clinton’s, but it bears repeating — constant repeating — there weren’t more of them. Whenever Democrats start losing faith, this is something they must keep in mind. I may be a glass-half-empty kind of guy, but in this election, the glass was more than half full for those who believe in a progressive, democratic America. It just so happens that the system is rigged against them. Believe me, if Clinton had won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote, you would be hearing about little else for the next four years from Republicans and their media bullhorns.
But suppose you embrace extending an olive branch to the so called “deplorables.” Suppose you follow Columbia professor Mark Lilla’s logic in his now-famous New York Times piece that basically advised Democrats to trade minority support for poor whites. There is a flaw in the reasoning.
Doing so won’t expand the progressive coalition. Talking the language of values won’t attract evangelicals who, let’s not forget, voted overwhelmingly for Trump despite his groping women and his three marriages and his lies about his charitableness and his contempt for the challenged and powerless — in short, for his blatant un-Christianity. And foregoing identity politics — basically, marginalizing black and brown voters to make a play for whites, even though it is never phrased that way — isn’t likely to attract the white working class either, however favorable your policies might be to their economic well-being.
If we have learned nothing else over the past several decades — decades during which much of the American working class abandoned their interests to the Republican Party, which serves the interests of the wealthy and only of the wealthy — we should have learned this: Rhetoric and attitude co-opt policy. Trump had no policies, but he had angry rhetoric and a populist attitude. Among people looking for scapegoats, that’s a hard combination to beat. It is not, however, a progressive combination.
We all know that the nation is deeply, deeply divided — politically, racially, geographically, religiously, economically and, perhaps above all, culturally. Republicans have worked hard to pry open those divisions, to make them chasms in the service of their own ends, as most Democrats have worked hard to create inclusiveness in the service of their ends. Republicans have been far more successful. As a result, these chasms are not likely to close any time soon. In essence, we have a cultural civil war. Trump’s election is its Fort Sumter.
So the strategic lesson isn’t to appease people who claim to have voted for Trump, in spite of his numerous failings and his open bigotry, any more than it is to actively incite against them. The lesson isn’t to pretend that Trump’s voters were just an aggrieved bunch left behind by the global economy, though many of them doubtless were left behind. The lesson isn’t to sacrifice the principles for which you stand if you are a progressive — tolerance, compassion, decency, equality, fairness.
The lesson I have drawn is quite the opposite. You double down on all the things in which you believe in large part because you realize that they will benefit everyone — minorities and whites alike. You assert your values not with less force but with greater force. You believe in and promote a national sense of basic goodness, even as we know now that many of our fellow citizens aren’t particularly good or kind or compassionate — not because you hope to convert the bigots, but because you have no choice but to think there are more of you than there are of them. And you realize this, even as you grieve: This fight for democracy isn’t for the faint of heart.
Progressives have a lot of work to do. But it begins not by changing who they are. It begins by cherishing who they are and what they stand for.
Let the fight begin.