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Reflections on Trump’s election: Taking the long view

Lots of people – including me, I confess – never saw it coming. Lots of people are shocked, emotions raw, dismayed about what the election says about a divided America and the uncertain moral basis for a society knit together by more than ideology.

Part of this is because this election represents the overturn of a worldview that has been generally accepted as the global settlement since the end of World War II. That’s a long, long time for a set of interconnected assumptions about the way things work to last. In a sense it’s unusual they have endured as long as they have.

Climate Change: The scientific consensus has been that global warming is caused by the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that has been caused largely by man-made activity – and has led to worldwide increases in temperature and drastic changes in climate. It looks as though the election has hardened the political will to ignore this and end efforts to slow down climate change.

International Trade: Economists have taught for decades that national economies prosper by concentrating on their particular comparative advantages which are best expressed by free trade among nations. Though evidence is mixed, many believe lots of American workers have lost their jobs as a result of poorly negotiated international trade agreements that have disadvantaged America. Renegotiating (or withdrawing from) trade agreements could jeopardize global – and national -- economic growth.

Human Rights: The moral case for treating women and minorities as equal and full-fledged citizens has spread from the U.S. throughout the world, while the movement for equal rights for gays and others of differing gender is growing. Much political rhetoric spouted during the election has made it increasingly acceptable to say nasty things about various minority groups in our society.

Reproductive Rights: Contraception is widespread among American women, while the right to an abortion is fiercely defended by many women, including many who might never want to have one themselves. The election is very likely to lead to attempts to end government funding of groups like Planned Parenthood.

Immigration: America is a nation of immigrants, and the general consensus has been that the signature vigor, entrepreneurship and energy of our society stems in large part from the immigrants among us. Moreover, many native-born Americans will not do the kind of work immigrants do for low wages, while employers uniformly complain of needing to turn to immigrants to find the skilled and knowledge-rich workers they need.

Yet “Brexit” – the decision by British voters in June to pull out of the European Union – and stiffening resistance across Europe and the Middle East to new arrivals from the Middle East has signaled a weakening of sympathy for newcomers; ditto Donald Trump’s idea of building a wall between the US and Mexico.

Government: The economist John Maynard Keynes showed that government policy could reverse or at least lessen the bad effects of economic recessions. Since then, the idea that government action can help achieve social ends has gained general acceptance. But this election raised questions as to whether that is valid.

Two other factors weigh heavily on my mind as I try to understand how this election worked:

  • One, Hillary Clinton is an incrementalist who got caught in a “change” election and couldn’t change gears.
  • Two, vision matters, and the slogan “Make America Great Again” was a brilliant stroke.

There is a one-to-one correlation between voter enthusiasm and turnout, and there is often a direct relationship between a candidate having a compelling vision for our society and the enthusiasm of the voters. Many people who voted for Clinton were voting mainly against Trump, not for her vision for our society.

Over this weekend, I spent some time reading and re-reading Bridge Magazine’s pre- and post-election coverage, paying particular attention to those articles that explored those parts of our society that were less well covered or understood by the media. In doing that, I was particularly struck by these quotes as reflecting the energy of the pro-Trump vote and therefore deserve close consideration:

“We have lost our way as Americans.”

“I don’t agree with everything Trump says or does. But the man has balls. That’s all there is to it.”

“We need someone to stand up for this nation.”

Here’s a last thought in these post-election reflections. The worst curse you can place on an opponent is, “May you win an overwhelming majority in the election.” Overwhelming victories very often end up with overreaching and voter backlash.

Whether it was Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964 or Republican Richard Nixon in 1972, both landslide victories ended in catastrophe for the victor.

This year’s race was anything but a landslide, and indeed Donald Trump lost the popular vote. But it was a huge upset, and there’s a tendency for the winners to feel smug and the losers distraught.

Those celebrating in triumph today, as well as those who can hardly endure the result, should keep the lessons of history firmly in mind.

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