By Aaron Tannenbaum
To many Americans, Donald Trump’s declaration of his candidacy in the presidential race was a joke. Their laughter echoed from the pages of the New York Times to stages of late night talk shows, but morphed into nervous giggles as Trump’s popularity grew beyond expectation. Early in the morning of November 9th, the joke stopped being funny. For many Americans, the inconceivable became reality: Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States of America.
It’s needless to say that not all Americans were shocked by the results of this election, and that not all Clinton supporters saw her victory as inevitable. But lots of us were, and lots of them did. To many Democratic voters, particularly the relatively well-educated and affluent residents of coastal cities, this election posed a painfully obvious choice. These voters care deeply about social issues such as gender equality and inclusive immigration reform. Trump’s sexist, xenophobic character disqualifies him, in their eyes, from the presidency. The Republican’s résumé–laden with questionable business dealings rather than political acumen–was further proof that he was unfit to serve as president. These voters generally trusted the Democratic establishment and thought it foolish to hand our nation’s highest office to a neophyte. Trump’s rhetoric, experience, and policy proposals (or lack thereof) made him such an unelectable candidate that some even suspected Clinton of encouraging Trump to run so that she’d face no real competition in the general election. But for most Americans, the picture wasn’t so black and white. For others, it was clear-cut in the opposite direction.
Trump’s core voter base, the rural white working class, does not subscribe to Clinton supporters’ logic. In recent decades, these voters have seen their towns crumble as industrial jobs head overseas and young people flock to the more prosperous coasts. Rural communities were pummeled by the Great Recession, but the fruits of economic recovery have fallen almost exclusively to urbanites. The political establishment has not emphasized policies that meaningfully address these concerns. To add insult to injury, many leaders of liberal thought caricature poor rural whites as uneducated racists rather than legitimately struggling communities. In the eyes of many white working class voters, Clinton and her coastal ilk advocate self-serving and self-gratifying policies with no regard for the American heartland.
Trump told the rural working class that he cared about them. He promised to restore their middle class lifestyles. Regardless of whether he’ll deliver, his rhetoric energized a people who felt ignored by their leadership and easily overlooked or excused Trump’s lack of presidential qualifications. “The anti-establishment message works well with audiences that the establishment has failed,” said Eitan Hersh, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale. These voters were desperate for the acknowledgement that only Trump offered. Hence, for a large portion of Americans, Trump was the obvious choice on Election Day, even though many others couldn’t imagine why anyone would think that way.
America is a deeply fractured nation. This isn’t inherently problematic – no one expects our nation of 320 million to share political views nor elect presidents unanimously. But the cracks between us have grown so wide that we can longer see who’s standing on the other side. Too many Americans see one another as two-dimensional deplorable hillbillies or smug elitists, rather than as concerned, thinking, and perhaps misguided citizens. This fundamental lack of mutual understanding has polarized our country to the point that November 9 was part day of mourning, part day of ecstatic celebration.
Americans are not unique in their profound divisions and schismatic elections. British liberals were stunned at the results of this summer’s Brexit referendum, in which the UK’s populist movement proved to be more widespread and well-founded than many imagined. Similar political tides are turning in France, Belgium, and Italy. Though healing will be a slow process, it’s critical to narrow this chasm that divides the American people and spawned this fierce election cycle. To do so, we must stop seeing those who disagree with us as mere political opponents and resist the temptation to categorize them into neat, diminutive boxes. This dynamic might reinforce feelings of moral superiority, but it further separates the already divergent realities that Americans experience today.
Aaron Tannenbaum is a sophomore Applied Mathematics major in Jonathan Edwards. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.