As I’m sure all of you are feeling, there is no question this is a catastrophe, as much for what it reveals about so many white people’s attitudes as in terms of the potentially devastating environmental, social and geopolitical consequences that are likely to follow.
There is no doubt that economic factors played a large role in the rage of white working class voters, and their gripes have merit. They are increasingly marginalized in the global economy, their situation ever more precarious. They also feel invisible, unheard and abandoned by the elites whom they see as defending minority rights but not theirs. That said, they tend to focus on the wrong culprits, the wrong solutions, and the worst possible candidates to remedy their situation, and it is race that has long been used to divert their rage from more logical targets.
Racism (or at least xenophobic nativism) has always been an incredibly potent force in American (and global) life, and periods of reaction have always followed periods of gains for inclusivity, but this is new territory. We have never, at least since the Civil War, been this completely polarized by geography, race and class. This type of populist authoritarianism seems to be sweeping the world (Putin, Erdogan, Sisi, Duterte, all of Central Asia, China, much of Africa, India, Hungary, Poland, Malaysia, etc., etc.). We are obviously facing a global phenomenon.
We have to hope that this is some sort of last hurrah for mass ignorance, and that it will be a short-lived interval, an experiment that fails miserably. Certainly the long term demographic trends in the U.S. will ultimately change the political map, but there is still quite a ways until we get there (the electorate is still close to 70% white), and there will be many unknowns even beyond that point.
So just clinging to that hope as a cure-all may be wishful thinking, at least in the medium term, because I don’t see anyone with real (i.e. politically achievable) solutions to the hollowing out of the middle and working classes in the developed parts of the global economy (the main driver of this current political instability), and the damage done even in a few short years could be enormous, perhaps even cataclysmic, as regards global climate, social justice, mass migration, and geopolitical flashpoints. There is also very real risk that the authoritarian impulses of so many FBI and other police, intelligence, and military rank-and-file (though not necessarily all their leadership) could be given free rein, potentially putting many more activists and opponents of the regime at risk, as well of course as ramping up mass deportations of undocumented folks.
It is an open question as to whether classic Republican business elites and neo-cons will be able to step in and run the show, given Trump and his entourage’s complete lack of sophisitication, or whether he will actually attempt to carry through on the most frightening of his authoritarian impulses. I suspect it will be some mix of the two. The terrible irony here is that we have to hope that cynical, greedy, but pragmatic and savvy center-right elites manage to contain at least the worst instincts of this president. But the judicial appointments alone will help bake in terrible injustices in our legal system for a generation. The trends toward greener energy will not be completely derailed, but they are likely to be radically slowed, at a time when time is a crucial element in the risks to global climatic integrity.
Still, all that said, we here survived Nixon, Reagan and Bush, and the world ultimately survived the far more terrifying Hitler, Stalin and Mao (granted after epochal mayhem), so we have to keep our wits about us, because one way or another, we have to go on living as productively as we can, and we will all need to put on our thinking caps and figure out how best to move forward in our personal and collective lives. We have to believe that the arc of history ever so slowly bends toward some sort of more enlightened worldview, even if there are a lot of scary detours along the way. That idea seems hard to defend today, but I personally see no other option than to act as though it were true, other than seeking ultimately unsatisfying refuge in some form of escapism…or suicide.
But I also think a turn to the personal realm, to cultivating deep friendships and family relations and the aesthetic and spiritual domains of life, can be a critically important way to stay sane, despite the apparent madness of the external world. This is a strategy intellectuals and other free-thinkers have adopted when living under oppressive regimes throughout history, sometimes creating masterpieces that emerged later on.
We should by all means all continue to work in whatever ways we can to nudge the external world in more positive directions, despite these now massive headwinds, so I’m not at all advocating withdrawal from collective affairs, but I think moving one’s center of gravity a little bit more inwards, in a quest for whatever long-lived, time-tested beauty, meaning and truths one can find, can bring some solace in hard times, and can actually help us in the very challenging struggles we are bound to be facing in the next few years.