This article was originally published on Huffington Post. You can read it here.
It seems so obvious. Doesn’t it?
There are a few colossal lessons to learn from the election of Donald Trump. We can talk all day about the problems on the right that led to this, but that isn’t going to resolve anything. Simply put, we have no control over any of that; thus, it is a waste of time and energy to discuss. Instead, we should focus on the changes we actually have the power to make, and the people we might be able to reach.
As enlightened and self aware individuals, we have a responsibility to dissect our own culpability in this outcome, learn from it, and hopefully avoid similar results in the future. Taking an honest inventory of the last 18 months is crucial. Doing so will help us learn what not to do next time. Moreover, it will allow us to understand at least some of what we need to do from here to minimize the potential for further damage, maximize our compassion, and reinvigorate the progressive movement.
I am guilty of making these missteps myself, as recently as my last article, in fact, so please know that I am not preaching at you. If anything, this is more of a confession and an appeal to others who acknowledge they made some of the same mistakes. Besides, when was the last time anyone responded positively to being preached at in a condescending tone?
There is, and has been, a whole lot of preaching going on by people who have been horrified by the notion, and now the reality, of a Donald Trump presidency. While it can be satisfying in the moment to inform his supporters of how abhorrent and irresponsible it was to vote for him, spelling out all of the negative connotations of the messages that dominated his campaign does no real good. They either agree with those hate riddled messages, in which case they are a lost cause, or they simply do not have the same perspective on it as we do, and we need to stop thinking they do. Some of them are legitimately racist, bigoted, xenophobic, misogynistic, and all the other deplorable descriptors that go along with belonging to a hate group, because they do; however, they weren’t even close to being his only supporters. I do not believe that roughly 60 million people in this country are that extreme. In my opinion, a decent percentage of them literally do not believe they voted for that part of his message. They are skilled at compartmentalization, and consequently, living in a state of cognitive dissonance. This may have led to a complete misinterpretation of the average Trump supporter’s real goals. I’m not excusing anything. Merely noting it.
Another contributing factor was condescension toward the right by people on the left. It isn’t difficult to go from preachy to condescending, and it continues to happen even now. Talking down to people has never been an effective way to encourage them to listen with an open mind. Not only that, but it has contributed to an overall sense of disenfranchisement of the working class voter from the left. It doesn’t help that the Democratic party became the party of the professional, leaving behind the working class and reinforcing those feelings of abandonment, especially considering it was once the party of the labor unions. Further, the working class voter was no longer being listened to or spoken to by those on the left. Instead, they were being mocked along with the candidate they ultimately chose to represent them. The mockery was widespread, too, which underscored their feeling of alienation, leading to the perception of left wing elitism. Said elitism gave way to perceived classism. Although, upon reflecting on certain behaviors and interactions I had or witnessed, it’s easy to recognize these perceptions were often grounded in reality.
- Perspective & Perception
There are two (or more) sides to every story. One person’s “pointing out uncomfortable truths” is another’s “name calling” and “bullying”. Under these circumstances, intention is insignificant. Depending upon your angle on a situation, it tends to look quite different, and a person’s perception is their reality. Plain and simple. Have you ever tried to argue “reality” with someone? I have and it’s utterly futile. For some people, no amount of logic, reason, or evidence will convince them of something that seems relatively clear to everyone else. If a person is delusional, their delusions are their reality, no matter how unreasonable it seems according to third party perspective.
Projection is not necessarily a uniquely negative trait. It’s a human trait, and we all do it from time to time. Projecting our own thoughts, feelings, knowledge, experiences, morals, values, perspective, perception, reality onto others is not uncommon, but that does not mean it is any less dangerous. We, on the left, projected our idea of what is acceptable in politics and morally correct onto other voters. Because his message was so obviously hateful and divisive to us, we thought others would see it that way, too. We thought the obvious connections between his message and that of the dictators from the past, and his endorsement by many of the world’s current dictators and hate groups, would somehow deter people from voting for him. This just wasn’t so. Apparently, many of his supporters were not taking what he was saying literally, while those of us on the left were. Therefore, we projected our perception and morality onto them, and never even considered they might have their own perspective.
- Over Confidence & Arrogance
The projection of our own morality and values onto others paved the way for over confidence, and at times arrogance, to contaminate our message and efforts. This was another major contributor to the outcome of this election. As I said, many of us neglected to consider that Trump’s supporters might have their own perspective. We did not even entertain the idea that they might be able to overlook the dominating themes of his message. What’s worse, we automatically assumed they must agree with that message just because we were unable to overlook it. (There’s that nasty projection again.) Furthermore, Trump and his supporters were relentlessly mocked from the beginning of his campaign, contributing to their feeling of disenfranchisement. Additionally, the media reported on the election as if the outcome was a forgone conclusion for months — get ready for your first female president and the first ever first-dude, America! But it wasn’t only our media that perpetuated this illusion which bred complacency. There was a worldwide consensus on Hillary Clinton winning. Take this article in the Guardian from June 2016, for instance. Or better yet, reflect back on all of those polls from within and outside the US. They provided us with a false sense of security.
I mentioned above misunderstanding why people would want to vote for Donald Trump was detrimental to Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the election. Unfortunately, a lot of us generalized all Trump supporters as being racist, sexist, xenophobic, and so on. And while that is certainly true of some of them, I think we underestimated the role of cognitive dissonance in others, as they were genuinely able to separate the message that resonated with them from the one that resonated with the hate groups. Don’t get me wrong. Acceptance of, or even indifference to racism and prejudice, is beyond problematic. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped those who were able to completely separate themselves from the hateful, divisive message of his campaign and focus solely on the issues important to them, particularly those who would have voted for Bernie Sanders, will begin to realize the severity of our present circumstances on their own.
- The Hype
If you were like me, you bought into the hype, and there was an awful lot of it floating around. First, you had the polls. Then, the possible facade of Trump’s lack of intelligence. I’ve since realized he was purposely using specific language to target a particular voter. And it worked. As a matter of fact, it’s rather evident when you listen to parts of his acceptance speech. His language is different, and he appears to have taken a few cues from the Sanders movement and incorporated it into his own message.
- Righteous Indignation
It’s safe to say the reaction to the election results ranged from shock, dismay, and disgust; to righteous indignation and rage; to straight-up fear, on the left. I’ll admit to feeling my fair share of fear and outrage. After all, they “won” with a message of hatred and division in my view. However, those feelings lend themselves well to a general sense of superiority, which could lead right back to preaching and condescension; thus, jeopardizing our message of inclusion. Righteous indignation, in and of itself, can have consequences like, giving into internet trolls and wasting your time on pointless arguments, or worse. Likewise, it takes away from time spent on positive and productive activities.
What can we do now?
- Be Humble
Our collective over confidence was directly at fault for losing the election. The time for righteous indignation, preaching, and condescension is over. Aside from being a waste of time and energy, it looks fairly elitist, and there is no room for elitism in a truly inclusive society. I’m not suggesting we should tolerate intolerance in any way; rather, we should not jump to the conclusion that a person is intolerant based purely on who they voted for in this election. We are all human and equally capable of being flawed and shortsighted at times. Instead of telling Trump supporters what their vote meant to you, try asking them what it meant to them, and not in a condescending way, as that only makes people feel defensive. Ask them sincerely, and show an interest in their reasons. If their answer is at all bigoted, hateful, or otherwise divisive, there’s no point in engaging with them. You’re only going to be sucked into an asinine argument full of rhetoric, gaslighting, deflection, baiting and switching, projection, denial, lying, and an entire host of other abusive tactics exploited by the alt-right. We must stop trying to shove our message down the throats of those who believe the opposite, and concentrate on people who can think critically, consider another point of view, and change their opinion when presented with new, compelling information and evidence.
- Be Honest
Brutal honesty is painful, but entirely necessary for personal growth, and our movement is in desperate need of that right now. A sincere, objective evaluation and autopsy of the last 18 months will give us the tools to learn from everything that happened on both sides. Although, I would argue we need to travel back even further and study certain historical events. When you examine the past, the cycle is unmistakable. Looking for patterns, not only in the behavior on the left, but also in the reactions on the right, is integral to discerning what mistakes keep being repeated. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, when we know better, we can do better.
After getting humble and honest, comes education and reeducation. In the end, you cannot correct what you refuse to acknowledge; therefore, we should become comfortable scrutinizing ourselves for the greater good. It’s easy to blame other people, but it takes real strength to look inward and own your actions, as well as their consequences. The reward is not having to live through the same trials and tribulations over and over again, and it’s worth the pain. History is rife with the oversights, missteps, miscalculations, misjudgments, blunders, and catastrophes of the past, so let’s take a walk back through time and discover what we can learn from other people’s errors, too. Furthermore, read everything — even articles from periodicals you know you won’t agree with. The point isn’t to change your own mind, but to help interpret the opposing perspective. If nothing else, you will be better equipped to defend your position against their arguments, but it’s possible you might even gain an invaluable understanding of your opponent that changes your perception of them or their position on the issue at hand. We must always be willing to learn, but more importantly, to change accordingly.
The liberal movement needs to be rebranded in an enormous way, but first, we must determine the policy that will shape our message. To do so, it is necessary to reevaluate everything we believe the movement does and should stand for, along with how to communicate it. Becoming more progressive is critical. As more Americans are obviously ready for a revolution than much of the left realized, caution is overrated. The “safe” establishment choice was Hillary Clinton. Americans are over the establishment, and our new message should reflect that we understand their plight and passion. After we have a direction and a strong message, speak it out loudly and proudly. Watch the tone, though, so it is accessible to everyone. Let’s unite people who care about others with those who feel left behind.
Reach out to those who feel abandoned. Liberal representation of the working class voter is long overdue, and we need to make amends to those who have felt abandoned and disenfranchised. Admit our mistakes, sincerely apologize, and let them know we are listening now. Assure them that we are genuinely interested in what they need and want, and committed to advocating for them. Promote real inclusion of everyone, including white working class voters. If we want to be the party of inclusion, it means including everyone who wants to be included.
- Get Organized & Be Vigilant
There are countless progressive activist groups that gather like-minds together to discuss what’s going on in their communities, our country, and around the world. Try to find one in your area and become involved. If you live in a remote location, consider finding an internet group. Never underestimate the value and necessity of community. Confer with one another, plan, and implement strategies to ensure our message and movement survive the next four years (or however long Trump’s presidency is). In that time, there will be much to rally for and against, so get organized and be ready. Use critical thinking to navigate the propaganda we will no doubt be inundated with during the impending presidency. Members of hate groups have already begun ramping up their rhetoric, and the inauguration is still approximately two months away. It will get worse before it gets better, and it will likely be necessary for us to fight to protect the rights of every American during this time, so be prepared. Do not stand by and watch injustice to occur.
Now, more than ever, we must communicate. Communication is always essential to any movement, but it will be especially crucial to this one. Not only must we communicate with each other, but with people who have opposing viewpoints. It will also be vital to connect with like-minded individuals in other areas of the country and the world. There has been a resurgence of far-right, or alt-right, politics nearly everywhere. For progress to have a chance to flourish in the future, we must, too, come together with our international counterparts.
- Walk the Walk
Talk the talk, and walk the walk. Speaking out on social media, or writing articles, editorials, and open letters is not enough. To create real change, we have no choice but to go out and do what we talk about doing. Lead by example. Show others what it means to get involved, and promote equality and unity whenever possible. If we want to be the party of progress and inclusion, as well as champions of the disenfranchised, we need to be truly inclusive.
The election of Donald Trump exposed the depths of division in America today, and the duration of his presidency, no matter how long, will be a true test of this nation. No doubt, we are about to step onto the longest roller coaster ride of most of our lives, and none of us lined up for it. Nonetheless, this is our reality now. All that is left to do is deal with it.
Innumerable issues have led to the current political climate here and around the world. The only behavior we can control, however, is our own. Communication and education are key to advancing the progressive movement. Together, we can learn to do better. In fact, we must. The future depends on it.