Tarnished City on a Hill

shining-city

What the f*** just happened?

Whatever way you lean politically, I think we can safely agree that no one—no one—expected this. Even the most staunch Trump supporter didn’t expect him to actually win. They hoped for it, but they couldn’t have known.

So what the f***?

I will attempt to explain to the best of my limited knowledge. My aim is to wrap my arms around this gorilla, not pass judgment. I want to point out the divide in the hope that folks standing on either side of it might hesitantly wave at each other instead of throwing rocks back and forth. The anger is real, I get that, and throwing rocks can feel damn good. But let us take a peek at who we are aiming at.

There are many, many reasons behind why a person casts a vote. Were there true blue bigots who gleefully filled in the bubble next to Trump’s name? Sure. Were there smug liberal elitists voting for Hillary’s inevitable coronation from the safety of their ivory towers? A few. Those voters are not my subject. There are voters who vote primarily for cultural reasons and those whose concern is mostly economical, and those are the ones I’d like to look at.

Back in “the day,” cultural concerns—what a candidate felt personally about social issues, reproductive rights, religious values, civil rights, etc.–were considered secondary. Candidates always had to prove their “integrity,” but it was rarely what got them elected. “What will you do for me?” was the main criteria, not “Do your values match my own?” Enter the old-school, disenfranchised, mostly white, working class voter from the heartland and the rust belt. They have seen their jobs sent overseas. They have seen their worry for their future and security ignored. Many voted for Obama at least once, with the hope that his promised buoy would lift all ships. It didn’t. Their anger is real. Their fear is real. As I heard brilliantly posed on a radio show recently, their fear is not new—many groups in this country have spent generations being marginalized—but it is new to them.

So here comes Bernie talking directly to their concerns. And there he goes, ushered out the door by the media, the DNC, and ultimately tone-deaf Democratic voters. Who will look out for my best interests now? Where do I vent my anger? Which candidate will allow me to keep my job and put food on my table? We know the answer to that now. Not the status-quo candidate who lumped me in with the rest of the “deplorables.” I’m going for the guy who wants to restrict global trade, keep American jobs in America, stop the flood of immigrants I need to compete with, and give me back some damn pride for a change.

Are these voters racist, xenophobic, and reactionary? No. They are mostly white people voting in their own economic self-interests. Cultural concerns about Trump’s hateful rhetoric may have been considered, but in the end what he said on a talk show eleven years ago or his batshit crazy wall-building talk were not the deciding factor. My job, my family, my vote. Self-preservation. A tale as old as time. If you want to know why conservative Christians, some African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and above all female voters could possibly vote for a candidate like Donald Trump, here it is: the rhetoric didn’t matter. Their jobs did.

And was there also a giant middle finger to the celebrities and the millennials and the smug “liberals” who underestimated their anger? Sure, why not. If you couldn’t be bothered to listen to me screaming for eight years, here ya go, suck on this. He probably won’t win no matter what I do anyway. These are the voters now telling Hillary supporters, “Get over it! I had to live through Obama for eight years.” They see the palpable fear of minorities as a gross overreaction. In their hearts they did what any sane person in their situation would do, the simple, pragmatic thing—they used the vote they had to ensure their livelihoods.

So let’s look across the divide at the Hillary supporters. For a voter who values cultural issues—economic justice, civil rights, marriage equality, Black Lives Matter, gun control, et al.—Hillary was never a perfect fit. She was a little too invested in big business and its unending fountain of political funding to be believed as a progressive crusader. The way Bernie was treated by the Democratic establishment left a bad taste. But most of these voters relented when Bernie pushed his chips in with hers, and began to get excited by her shiny, new progressive agenda. Then they looked at her opponent and saw every idealistic dream they had for their country turned utterly on its head. They saw intolerance, misogyny, xenophobia, hatred—the worst, basest underbelly this country has to offer. They saw minorities being punched in the face, the end of religious freedom, women being grabbed and assaulted, spewing, venomous anger toward themselves and their underrepresented friends. And Hillary–uninspiring, hard-working, smart-as-a-whip policy wonk Hillary—didn’t seem like a bad choice after all. In fact, she seemed to be the only sane choice. How could anyone support that man and all he stood for?

And here’s where it gets a little poetic. Culturally, the past decade or so felt like a series of wins. Our first African-American president. Gay marriage. Outrage at the deaths of unarmed Black men. The acknowledgment of violence against women. Online movements for equality and solidarity. It felt like being on the precipice of a new country where inclusion and fairness were valued. And then—the first female President of the United States seemed to be a looming reality. Don’t underestimate the importance of the narrative of improvement and evolution to these folks. It is the reason their hearts are authentically broken today. They are the people who see in this country the possibility of the shining city on a hill. There is no American dream without these people dreaming it into existence.

To them, the election of Donald Trump feels like a repudiation. The back of the hand given to uppity women, minorities, gays, Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans. A punishment. A death. They feel unsafe, now that the thin veneer of acceptable behavior seems to have eroded like the ozone layer, and they worry for the safety of others. They look around them and see Germany in the 1930s. And some will roll their eyes at that. But just like with the unheard, disenfranchised heartlander, the anger and fear are real. And for the non-white, the violence seems frighteningly imminent.

And then there’s the dream deferred. The specter of a demagogue, backed by a Republican Congress and Supreme Court, hurling us back into the cultural dark ages, rolling back all the progress we’ve made, killing the dream of equality and reproductive rights for women, equal educational opportunity, affordable health care, racial healing, LGBTQ rights. To understand the depth of disappointment these voters are experiencing right now, you have to understand the dream they feel slipping away.

So here we are. No claims of “racist voters” are going to change this. No amount of “get over its” are going to make the grieving process easier. There is endless invective on each side, endless reasons to revel in your rightness or curse your oppressor. The rabbit hole has opened up and swallowed us. And we can take the long view, say that this open wound between us will eventually close over and heal. And that is very true. But it doesn’t help us here and now. All that can help us now is empathy. If we can maybe, maybe take a step back and see each other as human beings instead of profile pictures. If we can make simple commitments to try to understand those who disagree with us, even when that disagreement runs far and deep. If we can come to the common conclusion that whatever our political bent, we need to be vigilant in the support of the powerless and unheard among us. It will be hard, maybe the hardest thing the country has done since WWII. Families will turn against each other, fights will erupt, opportunists will use this as an chance to turn us hateful and resentful and violent. I won’t be able to hold my tongue myself, especially in the face of prejudice. Nor should we. If we are who we say we are, Trump and Hillary voters alike, Americans, people with anger and fear and dreams and pragmatism, we will not stand for it. Let that be our common ground: protection. If…

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  1. In a nut shell!
    I believe what generation you’re from feeds into this. The older, set in their ways folks would like things to be the way they remember it, when they were young and happy and not afraid of change, but now are.
    Then here comes the younger generation, eager and ready for all new things and change. Believe in fighting for it.
    Then somewhere in the middle is where I find myself (or like to think of myself) believes so many of these changes are necessary and right and deserved, yet want to feel the soothe of the things we remember, the familiar. Maybe things are moving too fast?
    I remember my parents saying things and thinking to myself that they were idiots, set in their ways and just not thinking, yet here are a lot of us now. How the hell did that happen????
    Yet I believe, and hope I always will that change is needed and mostly good. I believe we must see the other persons views and respect them, yet find myself being defensive if someone attacks my views.
    In the end I believe that we all have the common goal of happiness, fairness and peace. At least in the bottom of our hearts. We just need to reach deep down and embrace each others views.
    There’s my 2 and 1/2 cents!

    • Helen Christenson
    • November 12th, 2016

    Thank you! This is the most balanced comment I have read about the election in the US. Made me, who don’t live in the US, better understand what has happened.

  1. November 11th, 2016

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