In light of Donald Trump’s stunning upset victory over Hillary Clinton in this year’s presidential election, two questions come immediately to mind: what happened and what now?
What happened is that the voters in states representing the majority of the electoral votes chose Trump over Clinton. That’s not really the question, of course, but it is the answer, or at least a critical part of the answer. This wasn’t a military coup or a violent insurrection. Trump won the presidency the only way he could legitimately win it — by prevailing through the constitutional process.
The real question, of course, is why so many millions of our fellow citizens (including, I’m sorry to say, a significant number of Orthodox Jews) chose to install in the Oval Office a man so utterly unfit to wield its awesome power. There is no single comprehensive answer to that question, but one place to start might be by taking note of some of the reactions that have followed Trump’s victory. Many of those who are rightly horrified by the result profess a complete lack of comprehension as to the reason for the populist rage underlying it. They either dismiss that rage out of hand or fall back on what for some is the all-purpose explanation for anything or anyone they disapprove of — racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. By that reaction, they demonstrate (albeit unintentionally) precisely how they managed to alienate so many voters in the first place.
I am not defending those who voted for Trump. They chose to play Russian roulette not only with the security of our country but possibly with the survival of humanity. But I can understand their anger and the fear out of which it grows — and I have trouble taking at face value the professed puzzlement of those who vented their frustration on social media in the days following the election.
Take the archetypical Trump voter — a white male, in his 50’s or 60’s, with a high school diploma but no college degree. He has worked hard all his life and believes that he has kept his part of the bargain — working hard and playing by the rules — and in return should be able to enjoy his modest share of the American dream — a home with a paid off mortgage, a dignified retirement and the opportunities for his children to do as well as or better than he has.
But with perhaps ten years to go until retirement, our Trumpist archetype is laid off, his well-paying blue collar job falling victim to the combination of technological advances and globalization that has devastated the country’s manufacturing base. He may be unable to find full time work again, forced to work part time without benefits. The empty nest years — the period of his life when he should have been able to put money aside to supplement Social Security and (if he’s lucky) a small pension — has instead become a period in which he struggles to make ends meet, leaving his modest retirement savings depleted.
Admittedly, only a small percentage of Trump supporters fit this profile in its entirety, but that hardly matters. Those who are fortunate enough to still be employed full time often have no way to know when the ax may fall on them. They may have children who are having trouble breaking into the job market, and they surely have relatives, friends and neighbors who have been less fortunate. They have good reason to be afraid and — if they believe that the country has broken its implied promise to them — every right to be angry.
Shrugging off the anguish of such citizens, telling them that the recession is over, the economy is doing well, and unemployment is low is not likely to mollify them. That is not the reality they see around them. The official unemployment rate, moreover, includes only those still actively looking for work, not those who have given up or who were pressured to retire early. And with the oldest wave of baby boomers having started to reach retirement age in the last few years, this focus of anger and fear is likely to grow.
Thus, my problem with Trump does not arise from an inability to understand the fear and anger of his supporters. It arises, rather, from my realization that they have been deceived into giving their votes to a man whose announced policies at best would do nothng to alleviate their plight and at worst would do a great deal to aggravate it. Trade agreements are not the cause of job loss; those agreements usually create more jobs than they lose, albeit not necessarily in the same communities, or even in the same part of the country. While there is certainly room to be more aggressive in negotiating and implementing trade agreements, protectionism is not a viable solution; it would trigger a trade war, make our products uncompetitive abroad and raise consumer prices at home.
Undocumented immigrants, likewise, are not the enemy. The jobs they are taking are mostly low-paying service jobs that native Americans don’t want. Deporting all of them, even if it were feasible, would do nothing to bring back the well-paying blue collar jobs whose disappearance has caused so much of the hardship and angst they have experienced.
Another factor in Trump’s victory was complacency. I’m not talking about the tactical complacency of those running Hilary Clinton’s campaign (though that didn’t help), but about a more fundamental complacency that is best summarized by the question Trump directed at African-Americans during a speech in Michigan: “What do you have to lose?” Things are so bad, according to Trump and his followers, that they can only get better, so why not elect someone who will in effect blow up the existing system?
Trump’s question did not score with its intended audience — African-Americans have fought hard for what they have achieved in recent decades and understand full well that they have a lot to lose — but it sums up the mentality of the typical Trump voter. We have come to take the freedom and democracy we enjoy in this country for granted. Being history-challenged Americans, we ignore the warning signs that our constitutional system may be at risk. When the freedom and democracy we take for granted are not accompanied by a sufficient level of prosperity, it appears, many are all too willing to risk serious damage to our democratic institutions in order to recover a level of prosperity that they consider adequate. They don’t see it that way of course, but actions speak louder than words.
For those of us who are not merely disappointed by these election results but deeply troubled by Trump’s temperament and character, where do we go from here? There are likely to be many voices offering conflicting advice as to the direction the Democratic party should take. Some will urge the party to tack left, while others will advocate staying the course of Clintonian moderation. There are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides, and hopefully at least some of the party’s leaders will take a fresh look at hard data rather than cherry picking statistics that support their preconceived ideological biases.
Democrats as a whole will have limited leverage in Washington and will have to be careful about wielding the leverage they have. Some of the policies Trump advocated during the campaign will be difficult or impossible to implement. Others would require legislation, which would be susceptible to Senate filibuster. (Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the incoming leader of the Senate Democrats, should get a lot of practice counting to 41, the number of votes needed to sustain a filibuster.) Where this will take us in the next four years remains to be seen.
Some of the responses of Trump’s opponents in the immediate aftermath of the election are disturbing. More than four million voters signed an on-line petition urging the Electoral College to ignore the will of the voters who elected them and elect Hillary Clinton as President. The best thing I can say about that effort is that it was an exercise in futility. Electors are generally chosen by state party officials and are loyal to their parties. Occasionally, one or two “faithless electors” vote the opposite way, turning themselves into a historical footnote, but never in American history have enough electors gone rogue to affect the result. Unless some horrific secret comes to light after the election that was unknown to the voters, the likelihood of swaying enough electors to change the outcome is minuscule.
If there was any prospect that the effort could succeed, then it would be truly dangerous. It would seemingly confirm Trump’s baseless accusation that the election was “rigged” and feed the conspiratorial fantasies of his nuttiest supporters. Yes, Hillary did win the nationwide popular vote, but it’s the electoral votes that decide the election. The Electoral College is our idiosyncratic way of electing presidents. We can debate whether to change it but until it’s changed (which would require a constitutional amendment), it’s the system we have to live with. You can’t change the rules after the game is over.
I’m less critical of the other immediate response that emerged in the days following the election: the anti-Trump demonstrations that have broken out in many cities throughout the country. Demonstrations are a very American way of getting your point across, and even if the specific goal of a particular demonstration is unclear, there’s nothing wrong with demonstrating to show disapproval, as long as it doesn’t devolve into violence, which would be counterproductive. Once the immediate post election period has passed, however, continued demonstrations will be effective only if they target specific issues. Trump’s immigration policies would seem to be the most obvious target for such demonstrations, but I’m confident that Trump will provide other such opportunities.
In the midst of everything that is worrisome about Trump as president-elect, I nearly reached the end of this post without any mention of a Jewish perspective. As an American citizen of course, I am concerned for the election’s effect on the country in which I live, quite apart from its effect on Israel and the Jewish community. I see no need to apologize for this; Israel is the most important factor in determining my vote, but not the only factor. But the fact that I got so close to the end of this post before mentioning any Jewish perspective only serves to underscore what I said in my pre-election posts — that those who have claimed Israel to be the reason for their vote rather than its pretext were either deceiving others or deceiving themselves.
What was true before the election remains true afterward, with one caveat. A Trump administration for the most part will be friendly to Israel, just as a Clinton administration would have been. Donald Trump may be many unpleasant things but he is not an anti-Semite, nor as far as I can tell, are his closest aides.
The caveat is that some of his supporters have displayed symptoms of classic anti-Semitism. Trump cannot be held responsible for every bigot who attended one of his campaign rallies, but he will need to do more to distance himself from the hatemongers than he has done to date.
Trump’s campaign has unleashed the demons of hate that usually lurk beneath the surface of American political discourse, and such demons are not usually very accurate in their targeting. The Jews today are not the prime targets of the Trumpist haters, but history suggests that when populist movements seek scapegoats, sooner or later they find the Jews. We need to remain vigilant
However much we may disagree with Trump’s election, that is the result we must live with. The process that got us to this point has been full of surprising twists and turns, and there’s no reason to believe that the surprises will stop here. We have to hope that our fears were exaggerated but be prepared to respond if it turns out they weren’t.
It should be an interesting four years.