The unthinkable is now the reality, and the hard work for both those who supported Trump and for those who opposed him is now just beginning.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
The woman I love — who is much wiser than I will ever be — walked with me through the eerily quiet streets of Manhattan late Tuesday night. She has said all along that Donald Trump might well win the presidency, and she has argued that as much as she hated the idea of a Trump victory, it might be a good thing for America, the kind of shock to the system we need to wake up to the racism, sexism, and other chasms that divide our society. She emphasized, as she often does, that the first step in the wake of a development like this is not to analyze; it is to listen and really hear what the results are saying. As I said, she is wise.
We stepped into a local bar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to hear the latest from CNN. It was packed. And it was silent. Columbia University students stared at the screens dumbfounded and, in many cases, appeared heart-broken. Emails from my friends and colleagues trickled in. One very smart woman with whom I have the privilege of working wrote, “David, there are no words. I am so ashamed, and embarrassed, and fearful of this country right now.” My sister wrote asking for comfort for her young son. My daughters wrote asking me if I could make sense of what was happening. Sadly, I could not.
We at Foreign Policy co-hosted an event at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village for election night. It was packed with people who wanted some laughter along with insight into the political events of the night. But as the returns came in, broadcast on monitors, there was nothing anyone on stage could say to distract the audience from what was happening — an outcome that virtually all in the room had thought, a few hours before, was unthinkable.
When the evening in the comedy club drew to a close and as we later walked through the streets of New York and into that bar, it was that very unthinkability that appeared to be the central issue. Manhattan is, as one woman shouted in the audience earlier in the evening, an island. She meant we were isolated from reality. And in that sense, many of my friends and colleagues in Washington and on the West Coast were also on that island. To them, the red America voting for Trump (not to mention the majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives) was as alien as the dark side of the moon. The two sides had so lost touch with each other that perhaps the main reaction of my pro-Hillary friends was disorientation. The dawning reality that Trump was claiming victory seemed to defy the laws of logic and human nature.
After all, Trump was a racist and a misogynist, an incompetent, and a puppet of Vladimir Putin during the campaign. And indeed, he remains all those things now that he will soon occupy the White House. Hillary Clinton was exquisitely well trained for the presidency and is an extraordinarily capable individual. Electing her would have been a long awaited watershed and moment of justice for America’s majority population.
It was inconceivable that these facts could be overlooked. But they were. Or Clinton’s qualities and qualifications were overshadowed by the anger many people felt at Washington insiders, at a system that they view as corrupt and unfair to them. Or perhaps they felt threatened by shifting demographics or the consequences of hyper-productivity.
Now, those realities are being driven home. And the first job for the morning after this election will be trying to understand them. As my wise partner and I made our way home, she asked how I, a guy she views as an optimist, a guy who was unambiguously supporting Hillary Clinton, felt? We walked through the mostly deserted streets, and I thought about it. “Well,” I said, mulling what is the most heartbreaking and disturbing development in American politics in my lifetime, “I guess I am still an optimist.”
I said the president’s powers are limited and that, in fact, the U.S. system is designed to keep even a really bad apple from doing too much damage. I also said I felt the things that make America great — Trump’s declinist slogans aside — still do. We’re still the richest and most powerful country on earth because of our people, our entrepreneurs, our military, our scientists and technologists, our universities, and even because of the strengths of our admittedly deeply flawed political system.
But I will admit, I was shaken, and she could tell. She was, as ever, smart and kind and comforting and refocused the conversation. She underscored that the consequence of the election was not just that Trump had won but rather that it redefined the work each of us now had to do based on our beliefs.
The morning after the Trump victory will be the first morning at work fixing what is broken in America. It will be the first moment of building the firewalls that will contain Trump’s racism, misogyny, inexperience, deeply flawed temperament; the first day of taking steps toward counterbalancing his softness toward despots like Putin, his destructive policy views, and the vile nature of many of the extremist groups that support him. It is the first day of the next campaign — because that’s the way democracy works. And the first step in all these things will be to stop and spend some serious time thinking about what happened this election day and why, to hear those who seem so remote and try to understand them. Because divided as they appear to be, the red and the blue regions of America are still part of one country — indivisible.
My dear companion, also deeply saddened and shaken by the election results, walked a block or so in silence and then reminded me of a moment early this year when David Gergen stood up to a high-level foreign audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos and explained how Trump could win. It was January. There was palpable shock in the room, a collective sharp intake of breath, she remembered, and she wondered aloud what could these people possibly be thinking now. That, of course, underscored that part of the new reality of tomorrow will be that the world is going to have to adjust to the reality of a Trump-led America. We in our line of work will have the responsibility of helping our friends and allies and rivals around the world understand what has happened here and what it means … and of finding a way forward. I believe deeply that an important part of that responsibility will be for publications like FP to do what we have always done — to cast a light on the new administration, to help explain it, to help it understand the consequence of its actions around the world, and, in the end, to challenge it when such challenges are required.
The problems the world faced before this election we still face. I worry that this inexperienced leader and his dubious team may make some of them worse. I worry that there will, once again, be too much learning on the job. I worry that Trump’s victory along with developments in Europe and elsewhere will embolden the extreme, nationalist, populist right. We have seen in the past the dark consequences of similar political power shifts, and we will have to be especially vigilant and resolute to ensure it does not happen again there or here in the United States.
But all this will not be taking place in a void. Many other forces are at work beyond the president and his team. Checks and balances at home and abroad. They begin right here … with those of us who feel defeated and deflated and disturbed by the results of this election committing ourselves to work within the system to change the system, to engage even more to ensure that we influence outcomes. Because that’s how democracies work. Those who lose must recommit themselves to the system in which they lost, to be more successful in defeat than they were in the campaign just ended.
That’s tough on a morning like this one. That’s tough when the candidate in question is associated with such dangerous ideas and allies. That’s tough, but it is our responsibility, and it underscores that our responsibility within a democracy continues on between election days, the good ones and the bad ones and even those that are utterly incomprehensible.
Photo credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images