By Brigitte L. Nacos
Unlike some of my colleagues at Columbia University and other places of higher education I did not cancel my seminar on media in American politics yesterday, the day after Election Day. Instead, although tired from a long night without or with little sleep, my students and I discussed the outcome of the presidential race which for many was not merely a shocking surprise and nightmare but greatly upsetting as well.
We talked about the fears in immigrant communities, the anxieties among women, the apprehension s in LGBT circles, the distress of veterans still in reserve units and suddenly perceiving a growing threat to be once again activated, and the tears of millions faced with the loss of health insurance.
Some students felt that they, their families, or communities were directly threatened and disadvantaged in the coming Trump presidency based on the president-elect’s dark and divisive and vengeful demagoguery during debates and stump speeches. It was of little comfort that Republicans will have the majority on both congressional chambers and might not merely fill Anthony Scalia’s empty seat in the next four years.
But we also talked about the values and rules of the game in democracies, especially the American model, that stipulate a peaceful transfer of power however deplorable and dangerous the incoming leader and his circle might be considered by those on the losing and soon out of power side. We agreed on this.
We talked about the ability and responsibility of citizens and voters in democracies to participate in the political process—not merely in terms of voting—and that this is particularly important for young people. Such an engagement is the only chance to have an impact on the selection of future candidates, politics and policies.
We discussed the need for citizens to be informed about the whole spectrum of political views—not merely those one agrees with—and how difficult this is based on the proliferation of traditional and new online media. Given the uncivil debates of this year’s presidential race, we recognized the need for civility and mutual respect in discussions that include opinions of “the other side.”
To be sure, there were concerns about an incoming president with a core of supporters of the Ku Klux Klan, White Supremacy organizations and nativist online sites, and Neo-Nazis—all the more because Trump’s campaign included top people sharing these views. What if they move with the new president to Washington, into the White House?
But we also recognized that Mr. Trump won rust belt states not because he received the votes of bigoted people. Instead, in states like Ohio or Pennsylvania he got the votes of many rural or small town voters who were—and are fed up with Republican and Democratic Party politics and decision making. Many voted for Barack Obama in the two previous elections. They live in areas devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs that once allowed them a comfortable middle class life but were never replaced by other good job opportunities.
Trump did not win as a Republican candidate; he won because he attacked both party elites and sold himself as an agent of change. He won because he acknowledged the predicament of the predominantly white rust belters and similarly situated people elsewhere, and he promised them a better future.
It is an irony, then, that the man whose resorts have recruited illegal immigrants (albeit not from Latin America but Eastern Europe) and whose clothing lines are produced in the Far East and, yes, Mexico, has promised to punish companies that outsource jobs to cheap overseas facilities.
But with the campaign over, perhaps we see a metamorphosis of an ill-prepared president-elect whose biggest asset might be that he does not have a well-formed ideology and has moved back and forth between more liberal and more conservative positions. Perhaps he is willing to learn; perhaps he selects for his cabinet and as White House advisors real experts—not alt-right ideologues from his inner circle.
My students and I know that fear and hope are the most prevalent emotions in politics. Today, Mr. Trump’s supporters are full of hope whereas many of his opponents are full of fear and even anger—another important emotion in politics.
But there is only one president at one time and, after all, we all are Americans.
So, as I told my students yesterday, the world still turns around and the sun will come out tomorrow again—and the day after.
As long as we are vigilant, civil, and involved in our democracy.