Yesterday, President Obama said “President-elect Trump” and I felt like I was going to throw up.
A man who I regard as a profound threat to our democracy is now our democratically-elected leader. A man who has clear authoritarian impulses and who plays on the lesser angels of our nature; who courts racists and misogynists, and xenophobes; who promised to deport millions of good, honest people from this country and bar more from ever entering our shores; who lies about giving money to children, threatens to sue the women he has allegedly sexually assaulted, and has shown neither compassion nor charity to those who are the worst off among us. He has not shown that he has the character or the competence to serve our country.
And yet: we did this to ourselves. We didn’t merely allow it to happen, we caused it to happen. And it happened.
In the past 24 hours, I’ve seen and heard a lot written about those who voted for President-elect Trump, much of which boils down to “who are these people?” It’s simple: they are our friends and our colleagues, our family members and our neighbors; they are our fellow Americans and our fellow patriots. They hope and they fear, they love and they hate; they want the best for their families and for themselves. They span every age group, ethnicity, gender, creed, and education level; they live on the coasts and in the Midwest, from sea to shining sea. (That they skew older and whiter and more nationalist is important, too, but it isn’t everything)
Trump supporters may have voted for him because of his racism, his misogyny, his penchant for authoritarianism, or his hate—or they may have voted for him in spite of all of those things. But they did vote for him. They are not all capital-b Bad people; most of them aren’t.
And so before we condemn them all for condemning us all to four years of anxiety and concern, it’s important to take a minute and question our biases and our judgments. It’s important that we ask what we need to do—to our policies and our politics, sure, but also to our relationships and our day-to-day lives—to do better the next go-around.
Here, I think Aeschylus was right: he who learns must suffer. We need to do a lot of each.
I don’t mean, like Catherine Rampell argued in a column yesterday, that we should hope voters get exactly what they asked for; the suffering that would cause would be sustained and immense.
I mean that we need to try harder to put ourselves in positions that make us uncomfortable and that make us hurt. This could be as simple as volunteering in an environment that causes us to reflect on our privilege and our undeserved luck. It could be having difficult conversations with folks we disagree with, searching for common ground and a better path forward for all of us. It could be exposing ourselves to cognitively dissonant media on a more consistent cadence. We need to suffer a bit to strengthen the empathy muscle.
So where does this all leave us? I don’t really know.
Yesterday was a good start. Secretary Clinton and President Obama were the pictures of grace and magnanimity in their respective speeches, and many in the #NeverTrump contingent—liberals and conservatives alike—offered support to the President-elect.
It all seemed easy. It’s astounding to think of this—the democratic transition of power between opposition parties after an unusually brutal election—as the easy part. But that is who we are.
What’s next is going to be a lot more difficult. I share with many a deep sense of anxiety about where we’re headed as a nation, as an ally, and as a world power. Contrary to popular belief, Presidents are actually pretty good at keeping their campaign promises, and President-elect Trump’s campaign promises are horrifying in their scope and in their scale. Any one promise—the deportation of millions living in America and the mistrust of millions more who merely do not share his faith; the abrogation of treaty alliances and trade pacts; massive tax cuts that will overwhelmingly harm the worst off among us, coupled with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act—would be a deep moral stain on our country. Taken together, these promises create a profoundly different America, one that strains pluralism to its breaking point and cuts down our moral standing in the world. American exceptionalism, but not the kind we want.
And yet soon Donald Trump will be my President and your President. We owe him our hope and our prayers—that he can surround himself with the most intelligent, thoughtful, principled people he can get; that he finds the humility to admit what he does not know and the grace to learn shame; that he can grow into the office and into the role. Ultimately, that he recognizes that the office is more than any one man or any one term, and that it comes with unimaginable responsibility.
We loathed the Republican Party when its leaders said that their signal achievement would be to deny President Obama a second term, by obstructing progress and grinding the government to a halt. I don’t want to be that person, and I don’t want our leaders to be, either. The Republican Party controls all of the branches of government, and we’re going to have to find a way to work with them to find common ground. I do not expect this to be easy, but I expect it to be important.
None of this means that we have to agree with President-elect Trump, or that we have to be quiet when he flouts norms or threatens our ideals. We will not and we cannot; principled, vigorous opposition requires obeisance but not obedience. But it does mean trying to find compromise and cooperation where we can; it means treating our intellectual opponents civilly, and extending good faith to whomever we can. It means trying to see things from the other side, and being comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Personally, I have always planned on going into public service; this election didn’t change that. I’ve always been conflicted about where to direct my attention, though; there is so much to do, and the desire to do the Greatest Good had previously led me to think more about global health and development than about America.
But our American experiment is much more fragile than I thought it was. And because of that, the world experiment—one of cooperation and mutual defense, of trade and of common cause—is more fragile than I thought it was, too. If we fail the world, the reverberations will be shockwaves cascading around the globe. Aid will disappear, wars will start, and a lot of people will die.
So maybe the Greatest Good is here, not there. It may be helping to create—or recreate—our health system for the next generation. It may be helping principled policy-focused leaders elected to higher office. It may be doing both, or something different. I don’t quite know yet.
What I do know is that the midterms are only two years away, the next presidential election only four. If you’re on the fence about public service, let this be your Road to Damascus moment.
Let’s talk. Let’s get involved. Let’s get to work.