At first, the experience was of enormous relief. The noise might stop. The threat to civil discourse, to reliable institutions, to a recognizable set of values might decrease. A good man is taking the reins.
But the fact that almost half of our country seems to believe that the character of the leader doesn’t matter gives me pause. Trump’s character has kept many of us up nights, glued to the television, worried about the future of our children and grandchildren. But to many Americans, his chronic lying, attacks on a free press, directed hatred against the other half of the country, racist imagery, relentless self-promotion, support for dictators, abandonment and betrayal of long-term allies, and devaluation of knowledge, science, shared values and traditions seem just his “style”.
Many of us anticipated a wave election. But looking at the outcome indicates more clearly than ever that the rest of us have been locked into an elite bubble, talking only to ourselves. Seventy-two million Americans voted for Donald Trump, even after watching him for four years. Perhaps those who voted for him dismiss his character because they have seen some of their wishes addressed: some increases in income for the working class before the pandemic, tightened immigration, and tough talk about easily graspable ideas (NATO members paying their fair share, grand wishes for rapid return to a good economy). Perhaps the world is so complex and stressful that we can only focus on one idea at a time: end the pandemic, keep our job, get our kids to school. But how is it possible that such an amoral, corrupt, self-promoter can be seen by so many as heroic?
America is a minority-led country (the Electoral College and the Senate), giving rural states with white majorities and small populations (Trump’s base) more power. That is unlikely to change soon. We had moved too fast in a complex world and overlooked the needs of too many people. Have we failed adequately to educate our citizens? Has our moral center decayed? Has the rapidity of change — the transformations of family life, the pandemic, the bewildering bubbles of information technology on an exponential curve — thrown us so far-off course that simplistic conspiracy theories become effective as sources of clarity, reassurance, and relief for otherwise unbearable confusion and impotence?
The large group dynamics have to be taken seriously. The Norman Rockwell illusion of a ‘good’ America was sustained by widespread denial of racism, sexism, homophobia, and so much othering. So, I must ask, “How is Donald Trump me? How was he, my president?” Have I, like Trump, withdrawn from my institutions, dismissing them as impersonal bureaucracies that interfere with progress? Have I raged against obsessive regulations that preserve administrators over workers? Have I hunkered down in my bunker of privilege and disregarded the ongoing oppression of people who don’t look like me? Have I attributed any success to my own abilities and systematically ignored the shoulders I have climbed up on – and the bodies I have climbed over? Have I done this?
I don’t think I can indulge my momentary relief that he is going away – and I certainly cannot dismiss the rest of us. We are not good – and they are not bad. We are in trouble together, if we can find ways to see the same trouble.
If I meet you as an individual, you are an ‘other’. But if we find ways to join an institution as members and the mission matters, then you become ‘one of us’, and the otherwise distancing differences of age, gender, politics, and race can fade away in the face of a mutual commitment. Is there anything we can join that transcends our differences? Does America have a shared set of values? Is there any chance that the Biden administration can knit together such a country? Are there any institutions that have articulated their missions clearly enough so that we join together to work at something beyond ourselves? Where are those places – and who will be the leaders?
The election outcome might give us a space from the noise. But we have a lot of work to do.