I did not vote in 2016. Neither Clinton nor Trump reached the standard of personal acceptability that would allow me to cast my vote in good conscience, let alone aligning with my views on policy. I woke up Wednesday morning prepared for disappointed no matter the outcome. I am still proud not to have had a hand in the outcome of this election. Being forced to choose between Trump and Clinton is the electoral equivalent to having to provide a yes/no answer to the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”
I wrote previously about my difficulty in understanding and loving Trump supporters. I stand by what I wrote, though I would make a moral distinction between people who supported Trump during the primary and those who gritted their teeth and voted for him once he became the Republican nominee. I don’t agree with that decision, but I do see a moral distinction; see below.
Trump is a vile person, aptly described “as everything we teach our children not to be”. I certainly hope that his executive actions do no match the rhetoric he employed on the campaign trail, but he has certainly done enough damage to our society already by fanning ugly sentiments in the first place. It seems juvenile to me to claim that he is not my president, but I can say with all conviction and resolve that he could never be a guest in my home.
With that background, I would like to point out that the sky is not falling.
Trump’s victory, as such, tells us nothing about what is acceptable in America
Trump won the electoral college by having a total margin of perhaps 100,000 votes in several key states. Nate Silver points out that if 1 in 100 people had voted differently, we would have a different president. If those 100,000 people had simply lived in different states, we would have a different president.
If Clinton had won the presidency, we would still be living in a country where 47.3% of voters were willing to support Trump, in spite of it all. That is a bracing fact, and it would still be a fact if Clinton had won the electoral college. That is the kind of country we live in.
My cynical prediction is that, had Clinton won, people would not be tearing their hair out over the 47.3% of the population that was willing to support Trump, in spite of it all. For the most part, therefore, I judge the emotion (and now the riots) to be disappointment over losing, rather than to actual sorrow over the moral state of our country. If you are wracked by the sins of your countrymen in the years that you win as well, then of course I owe you an apology.
Put differently: Is it a cheering thought that Clinton won the popular vote? That there really are more people who wanted Clinton to be president than Trump? If not—if that’s salt in the wound—then I suggest that the emotion is disappoint over losing, rather than disappointment in the electorate.
In spite of this, I do find a silver lining in my next point.
I credit most voters with voting for policy over personality
I don’t know anyone (personally) who was excited about these candidates. Everyone I know who voted was gritting their teeth throughout the electoral process. The most compelling argument I encountered for choosing the lesser of two evils is that the next president will likely make three appointments to the Supreme Court. That is not trivial. Subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, that amounts to controlling a ninth of the federal government for a generation. Everybody wants their party to have that sort of power; nobody wants the opposition to have it.
With these things in mind, I credit the vast majority of voters with voting for a candidate who could provide an approximate match on policy positions, rather than for a candidate who was personally acceptable to them. I don’t believe that Trump voters were ambivalent about his manifold sexual indiscretions and his incendiary language about, e.g., Muslims and Mexicans. I don’t believe that Clinton voters were indifferent to her history of victim shaming, or her solicitation of funds, as a member of government, from heads of government for her family’s organization. I really do think most people were just willing to bite the bullet and cast their vote.
There are good exit poll figures to back this up. Trump was pushed over the threshold by people who liked neither candidate but felt forced to choose one.
Again, that is not the choice that I made; I disagree with those people. I think that there is a basic threshold of decency required of a president. (I believe that our last two presidents are both decent people; obviously it’s no reflection of my beliefs about their policies.)
It’s not as if most people chose Trump
This is a minor point, but voter turnout seems to have been about 55% this year. That’s a pretty good sample of the population, but it still exonerates about 75% of the population from actually voting for Trump.
Non-voters who didn’t like Trump are equally to blame
Here is a brief interlude for personal self-examination. Are you angry at the situation—which is morally creditable—or are you angry at (what you conceive of as) the other side? As noted above, the election could have been tipped by a trivial change in the voting preferences of the electorate. (As noted above, voter turnout was around 55%.) Those who would have supported Clinton but did not vote are just as much to blame (mathematically) as those who actually voted for Trump. Are you equally angry at non-voters who are otherwise just like you, and at voters who are different from you?
Presidents don’t have that much influence on the moral character of the nation
The candidate who receives 51% of electoral votes receives 100% of the presidency. There’s a bit of a symbolic boost there, I admit.
But consider that eight years of Bush were followed by eight years of Obama, which will be followed by Trump. There’s no cultural narrative there. There are no permanent changes. The presidency flits between the parties on the basis of 51-49 splits. The resident of the White House is an indicator of the national sentiment that fluctuates trivially over the years, not a generator of change.
Now, that last paragraph is not going to sell a lot of newspapers, so don’t expect to see it in print: but it’s true. Obama was the most inspiring presidential candidate in living memory, and he still didn’t move the needle in our national conversations. The president simply doesn’t have that much cultural power.
Overreacting now will blunt the impact of your reaction in the future
What’s striking to me is that Trump is the least qualified and most personally repulsive person ever elected to the presidency, but the rhetoric I’m seeing is the same rhetoric I heard from Democrats in 2000 and 2004, and from Republicans in 2008 and 2012. It’s the same volume. It’s the same fury.
This is a clear reflection of a news media that requires commentators to be furious and outraged, permanently. Would that it were only Two Minutes’ Hate! Now we have to keep it up 24/7. This is profoundly degrading to the moral fiber of our country. But there is a practical concern as well.
If everybody is a crazed extremist, then nobody is. Every recent presidential candidate has been vilified as extreme and out of touch—Bush, Gore, Kerry, Obama, McCain, Romney, everyone. When Trump came along, there was really nothing left to say. Trump’s a demagogue inciting violence and playing on people’s worst fears? Yep, that’s what they said about the last guy.
Consider: if Hitler were to appear on the ticket in 2020, what would be left for us to say about that? We’ve already cranked it up to 11.
It follows from the previous point that the only productive way out of this situation is to have civil conversations and to moderate our own political views by considering the views of others in a genuine way. As a practical matter, promoting your party by demonizing the opposition is a dangerous game. That motivates the opposition as much as it motivates the base. Exhibits A, B, and C, in this respect are Bush 2000, Obama 2008, and Trump 2012.
Receiving. As a conservative person, I try to get most of my news from center-left outlets. I try to read editorials from perspectives that I disagree with. Guess what? Most of it is exactly the kind of tendentious reasoning that is used to defend conservative positions in conservative news outlets. But sometimes I learn something new.
Sending. Lightning would strike me from Heaven if I suggested being sensitive, so I will instead suggest that we try to be issue-driven rather than party-driven or personality-driven. There will always a lunatic fringe that believes that Bush started the Iraq War for oil, and that Obama was born in Kenya. Those are not the people I want to be associated with. I want to be engaging with people who can talk about the philosophical motivations and practical consequences of various policies. I have found—sometimes to my surprise—that people are often quite willing to discuss policy, rather than to simply use it as a political cudgel.