“Sail on, sail on,
O mighty ship of State.
To the shores of need, past the reefs of greed.
Through the squalls of hate.
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.”
—“Democracy,” Leonard Cohen
It was fitting that the day after an election that torched the status quo, smoke filled the sky over North Georgia from mountain wildfires. It symbolized an uncertainty that clouds our future because something somewhere is burning.
If you had told even Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters a year ago the billionaire reality TV showman would be elected president, many would have sniffed what was in your cup. But it happened, leaving analysts to read the tea leaves and wash down a healthy serving of crow.
We’ve heard postmortems aplenty, but at the risk of bouncing echoes, there are several takeaways we can learn from going forward. One, ironically, comes from Bill Clinton’s first campaign: It’s the economy, stupid. Concerns over jobs, trade and America’s slipping working class steered many toward Trump, particularly in areas hardest hit by the global economic shift. In a contest between two rich, connected New Yorkers battling for blue-collar votes, Trump filled a void others could not, even if some believe he was selling snake oil cures.
Along with pocketbooks, it was culture. Many Americans in Midwestern and Southern states felt sneered at by coastal elites, national leaders and media. Columnist Mike Lupica called it the “mad as hell” moment from the iconic movie “Network,” when Americans opened their windows and screamed their frustrations at the night.
Many predicted gender and race would push Hillary Clinton to victory on a rising demographic tide of nonwhite, millennial voters. Yet Trump did no worse among groups expected to reject him than recent GOP candidates, to the puzzlement of many. Perhaps it’s a sign “identity politics” are giving way to other concerns for many voters.
Enough of them felt left behind by both parties they latched onto someone who gave voice to their anger. Country club Republicans couldn’t connect during the primaries, and many were put off by Barack Obama’s “cling to guns and religion” comment and Clinton’s slap at “deplorables.” As in the turbulent 1960s, when youthful revolt and a shift in moral paradigms led to the election of Richard Nixon, a new “silent majority” rejected the establishment candidates who didn’t speak to them and embraced Trump.
Many in both parties feel left out of the global economic surge, a mood tapped by both Trump and Bernie Sanders. Though their parallel populist tracks seldom intersect, they represent a shared desire for big change, not small ideas from carefully scripted politicos spewing phrases tested in focus groups. They wanted “throw the bums out and start over” change.
But even with the votes counted, the nation remains divided. The candidates nearly split the popular vote down the middle. “Battleground” states aside, Trump won 12 states with about 60 percent of the votes or more, Clinton six by that same margin. It’s hard to imagine those 18 states, more than a third of the country, salute the same flag. How do we bring them together again?
Since Election Day, we have seen Americans reacting at their best and worst. Even as leaders spoke of the peaceful transition, ugly scenes emerged. Sick souls emboldened by their outspoken victor resorted to hateful verbal attacks, gloating with epithets and spray paint. Anti-Trump protesters took to city streets, their anger spilling over in a need to express frustration, fear and denial.
This is more disturbing than who will occupy the Oval Office. We can’t let an election, however divisive, unravel the civil society so many worked to create. In the past, Americans followed the tone set by their president. Considering the scorched-earth nature of this campaign, maybe it’s time the people created a more tolerant society on their own.
That begins by listening to each other, seeking to understand even when we disagree. The white male Trump voter in North Georgia may struggled to relate to the young black woman marching in Atlanta, or a Latino neighbor two doors down, and vice versa. Yet if we can climb out of our silos to acknowledge each other, walk around in each other’s skin, the healing could begin. The same emotions Trump’s foes feel now mirror those of his backers going into Election Day. Though expressed differently, they bubble up from the same inner spring of hopelessness, a feeling no one is listening, no one cares. If we can somehow meet at that crossroads, we can start down the right path.
It’s worth remembering as well, on Veterans Day weekend, that the men and women who wear the uniform and protect our freedoms, past and present, represent every race, religion and background, most from working class communities. We can look to them as an example to follow as they shield our rights both to vote and to protest.
Victory is fleeting in politics, the White House and Congress bouncing from one party’s control to the other every few years. Whichever is in power falls out of favor, leaving voters eager to grab Washington and shake it like a snow globe. U.S. elections embody Isaac Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If Trump’s administration doesn’t deliver, he’ll face a harsh reckoning in four years.
American democracy isn’t a narrative drawn on a straight line but a wild ride with more twists and turns than a roller coaster. How the latest leg of the journey plays out is unknown, but if history is any indication, we’ll learn something about ourselves and add another tile to the mosaic.
Soon enough, the rain and wind will clear away the haze, leaving us better able to see what awaits on the horizon.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.