The Year of Tragical Thinking

The 2016 Election: what we knew, what we missed and what we can learn.

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BY RYAN BYRNES

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Photo Credit: Andres Kudacki/NY Magazine.

It started, as it often does, at a bar.

I had met my friend Brian for his birthday in Brooklyn on a windy Saturday afternoon in mid-February. We received the news via push-notification on an iPhone: Antonin Scalia had died. As law nerds, we were dismayed – one of the nation’s transformative legal minds had left us. As political junkies, we were concerned – a primary season already littered with unappealing presidential contenders now added the wrinkle of a crucial Supreme Court vacancy. As humans, we were sad – after all, a person was dead, and no man is an island.

It soon became apparent not everyone around us shared this seemingly natural reaction. “Did you hear?” a well-layered hipster asked us as he summoned the bartender for a round of shots. “Scalia is dead!” He was happy – elated even – yet was taken aback upon noticing that we did not share his excitement and found it far from an event worth celebrating. He responded with a condescending comment about Brian and I being Federalist Society members before retreating to a snarky, flannelled blur in the corner of the bar.

The exchange baffled me, but it shouldn’t have. It was a small but telling example of a disturbing trend I had noticed for months and would only see more of as Election Day neared: too many of us have become too dismissive of those who think differently than we do. I did not initially realize how significant this issue would be during the process of choosing the 45th president of the United States, but as the months passed, it became more clear. Too many of us convinced ourselves that this election was a predetermined battle between right and wrong, intelligence and ignorance, the future and the past. We knew who would win because to believe otherwise would mean our country was somehow a more dark and evil place than we could conceive it to be. We did not learn and/or did not care about the shades of gray between these two “sides,” middle grounds that often prove critical when the broad swath of people that is the American electorate partakes in the quirky popularity contest that is the presidential election.

This meant that the generation of people least prepared for and most unable to cope with not getting what they want might ultimately have to come to grips with an outcome they did not desire and certainly did not expect. That is precisely what occurred when a once-in-a-lifetime series of events – two heavily flawed, severely distrusted candidates; a smug, assured media and a dumbed down electorate; an overestimation of uber-progressivism; an underestimation of economic anxiety; the departure of identity politics in favor of individual choice; the abandonment of political parties in support of a change agent; the inevitable clash of political correctness versus “telling it like it is”; the delicate balance of moving forward without leaving others behind; rising premiums and missing emails; hacked messages and leaked tapes; midnight tweets and deplorable baskets; letters from Comey and pics from Weiner; Pence, Priebus, Conway, Kaepernick and Harambe – all resulted in this week’s seemingly shocking outcome: Donald J. Trump as the president-elect of the United States.

I. Why We Missed It.

We should have been more prepared for the impossible. After all, 2016 has seen its fair share of unthinkable events. Brexit occurred. Prince died. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. I got engaged. Yet the idea of a Trump presidency seemed beyond comprehension, a bridge too far in the realm of what we could fathom. There are several reasons for this. First, the media, or the channels through which we receive and process our news, generally presented us with imperfect information from which to develop a fully-formed perspective. Initially, Trump’s candidacy was presented as a form of entertainment; the head of CBS notoriously quipped that Trump’s presence “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” But after Trump won the GOP nomination, the press became more critical, rightly calling into question much of the rhetoric and methods he was using to appeal to some of his supporters.

It is no secret that most members of the mainstream press lean to the political left. By excoriating Trump, many surely sensed they were not only fulfilling their journalistic duty as government watchdogs, but also the important public service of boosting the chances of their preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton. The media’s views largely overlapped with those of Clinton, which meant many of those responsible for objectively covering the candidate tended to be blind to her flaws, ones that were more obvious to those who did not agree with or support her. Early signs like the real challenge posed by Bernie Sanders (and, by some measures, Sanders’ superior chances in a head-to-head battle with Trump) were too easily pushed aside; it would later be revealed the Democratic National Committee assisted in squashing Sanders’ candidacy in favor of Clinton. The media did not give enough credit to the middling enthusiasm minorities tended to have for Clinton and underestimated the role voter turnout could play when dealing with a nominee who lacked the charisma of a Barack Obama. They badly missed the mark on the actual effect Trump’s flawed but (to some) appealing personal image could have among a significant portion of the electorate that was desperate for anything other than more of the same.

At the same time, news coverage was too often incapable of or unwilling to give a real portrayal of what many between the coasts were thinking. Much of this coverage often carried a subtext of a media at a loss with this difference of opinion, flummoxed by those who somehow were not seeing the proverbial Hillary light. We were told which of Trump’s actions and words were offensive, even though the nation has a wider acceptance than the media of what views should and should not be tolerated. We were told that Trump was a racist and a fascist, even though just about every Republican nominee has been depicted as such during recent campaigns. The mistake too many made was not necessarily spending too much time conveying why not to vote for Trump, but too little time actually exploring why anyone would. There were token Trump supporters on the evening news, late night television or your social media feed, but how often were you really given the opportunity to listen to what they were saying, outside of a quick sound bite that was followed by a grin or a joke? You very likely saw Trump supporters mocked or made fun of – some perhaps deservedly so – but how often did you read a thorough report of their reasonings? What has become apparent in the days since the election is how out of touch the media – mostly liberal, mostly based in big cities – was with many of the issues that proved critical in the election: rural disenfranchisement, economic anxiety and the strong desire for change. Reporters filed their dispatches from Trump country, columnists and pundits took plenty of shots, and television hosts and celebrities made plenty of jokes, but ultimately, many of the people and perspectives the media missed ended up having the last laugh.

Ultimately, for those of us shocked by Tuesday’s outcome, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Too many of us made the mistake of being so confident in the rightness of our view, so dismissive of thinking about the election from any perspective other than our own, all the while not taking the time to ask a crucial question: what if we’re wrong? This is certainly not to suggest that voting for Trump was the right choice, but instead, that we should have at least considered that there may have been more people than we realized who might disagree with us and for reasons that maybe were not so unreasonable.

If you are reading this, you are probably a millennial, you are probably college-educated and you probably live in or around a big city. The data suggests you probably voted for Clinton, and your friends, neighbors and co-workers probably did too. I am by no means telling you that you voted for the wrong candidate. What I am telling you is that you very likely live in a Clinton-favoring bubble that is not entirely reflective of our nation as a whole. You are probably smart enough to know that, but if you are like me, you probably are not smart or aware enough to realize how true it really is. As Kanye West opined, “Some people graduate, but we still stupid.”

Many of the places where we tend to cluster – cities, campuses, younger-leaning workplaces – tend to be perceived as liberal and diverse havens. To a degree, this is true: these places are generally very accepting of diverse skin colors, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations and religions. Unfortunately, these places have tended to become less accepting of and place less of an importance on the diversity of thought, and in doing so, have in effect become some of the least diverse places in our country. When we surround ourselves with only those who agree with us, we fail to achieve actual diversity. When we create environments where opposing views are immediately discredited or made to feel unwelcome, we miss the opportunity to learn something from those views, even if we do not subscribe to them. When the presumably liberal, educated, open-minded members of society reject these views from the marketplace of ideas, we perpetuate a dangerous groupthink and feel a false sense of certainty that is made worse by dissuading those who disagree with us from sharing their views. When so many of us receive our news from the same online sources, cable networks and late night satire, we feel sufficiently informed yet are only seeing part of the picture. 

There are at least two reasons to worry that this problem may very well get worse before it gets better, beginning with the central role social media plays in how we form and solidify our positions. Many use social media not only to feel connected, but also for affirmation and confirmation, to receive digital fist bumps and pats on the back, to know that – as Don Draper once said – “you are OK.” Most of your Facebook friends likely share your political alignments, and many of us tend to share “news” and “articles” that reinforce our preconceived beliefs. It creates a pleasant bubble where it is easy to engage with those we agree and easy to avoid engaging with those we don’t. This can become problematic when we mistake these feeds as being representative of more than what they are, as necessarily representative of a majority or correct opinion. This creates the risk that some of us can become uncomfortable with or startled by the eventual realization that there are other ways of thinking.

The perils of social media bias are particularly dangerous when coupled with the millennial generation’s growing inability to accept thoughts, actions or outcomes that we don’t tend to agree with. It has too often resulted in the use of social media as a platform of outrage over the latest comment or outburst deemed “offensive” or the place to assign blame for an unfortunate event, regardless of actual causation. College campuses have embraced a “safe space” culture that ironically makes them as dangerous a place as any to put forth a perspective not accepted by the progressive majority. Students face disciplinary action for using the wrong pronoun or wearing the wrong Halloween costume. Institutions have made punishable the acts of appropriating culture or failing to check privilege. This has created a system that is the antithesis of liberalism. It results in the restricting of speech, the demonizing of dissent and promotes the false idea that a free society is a place where everyone else will and should agree with you.

Though I was not a Trump supporter, I was also one who struggled to board the Clinton hype train. In most of my social circles, it almost went without saying that Trump was not a viable candidate for president. As a result, I tended to be more interested in challenging Clinton supporters regarding their candidate’s potential weaknesses. These were conversations with people whose intellect and opinion I respect, but sadly, the reactions and responses I most frequently heard were rather hollow. “She’s the lesser of two evils” or “It’s a binary choice” suggested that because Trump was so unfit, any and all of Clinton’s flaws were irrelevant and not really worth discussing. “You’re too smart for that” or “Wake up, sheeple!” tended to follow any attempt at giving validity to a Clinton-related controversy or credit to any component of Trump’s campaign. “What would you tell your daughter?” was a valid question, but ignored the idea that one might be willing to vote for Trump in spite – not because – of his treatment of women and rejected the possibility that the presidential choice could be made based on anything other than gender. Drawing a “false equivalency” was a cardinal sin; backing a third party was “a waste” of a vote; abstaining from voting was “un-American.” Clinton scandals – questionable practices by the DNC, messages divulged by Wikileaks, ongoing FBI investigations – were quickly shooed away with a nothing-to-see-here-folks smugness. Very well then.

And so election week arrived. Lines had been drawn, sides had been solidified and the result appeared predictable. After a late October surge, Trump was again falling behind in the polls. He was wasting precious time and resources in states the media and experts believed to be out of play. He was booed at his own voting precinct. It was not a matter of if he would lose, but only a question of by how much. Meanwhile, Clinton stood on the precipice of #herstory. On Election Eve, she gathered the masses in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. She was backed by Bill and Barack, Michelle and Gaga, Bruce and Bon Jovi. She had fanatics cheering in Philly and fireworks prepared to explode over the Hudson. Even more, she had destiny, and the backing of all of us. We were not only voting to shatter the “glass ceiling,” we were going to defeat evil and save the country: as one voter ahead of me boasted, “We’re voting against the Apocalypse!” We were Hashtag With Her and Hashtag Stronger Together. Love trumps hate, we were told, and we so proudly shared on social media not only our civic duty of voting but our sincerest belief that we were right.

Except we were wrong. The Apocalypse had happened.

II. What We Missed.

How could we have been so wrong? The signs were there, though it usually required us to leave our comfort zone and maybe squint a little to see them. Some were more obvious than others. First, the GOP entered the race with some very basic advantages, namely the inherent benefit of being the challenger to a party that had spent two terms in the Oval Office. It is very difficult for any political party to win a third consecutive presidential term and this was a very real obstacle for Clinton from the beginning. In fact, the 2016 presidential election was merely the latest (albeit loudest) contest in an era of frequent GOP success. Obama’s filibuster-proof majority following 2008 was followed by Republican backlash in both 2010 and 2014. Nationwide under Obama, Democratic governorships have dropped from 29 to 15; more than 900 Democratic state legislators have been defeated. In addition to the presidency, the GOP on Tuesday also maintained control of both chambers of Congress. Many believed that Trump – new to the Republican party and a major disruptor to the GOP – was such an outlier and Clinton such a candidate of destiny that these basic party trends could be overcome. Neither proved to be true.

It has also become evident that Clinton did herself few favors in overcoming these odds. Carrying with her the political baggage accumulated over 30 years in the public eye, Clinton called on Obama – who she had feuded with so fiercely just eight years earlier – to rally the Democratic base and help shake off the apathy that some felt toward another Clinton taking the White House. By doing so, she limited her ability to run as anything other than a third term of the Obama presidency, for better and for worse. This meant another four or eight years of big government and progressivism. To many of us, that seemed appealing. The post-Great Recession economy has been largely kind to those in the coastal cities, and hey, the Obamas are popular and cool people. Clinton bet – and bet big – that groups like minorities, environmentalists and urban elites would be enough to carry the day.

But to many Americans, a third term of Obama was the last thing they wanted. To vote for such would mean a vote for a Democratic party that many felt ignored by during recent years and especially so during election season. It meant another four or eight years of watching their families, neighbors and towns falling further behind, their lives continuing to be worse with their opportunities for advancement more fleeting. It meant helping pass the baton from a president who characterized them as ones who “cling to guns or religion” to one who placed at least a portion of them into what she called “the basket of deplorables.” It meant another era of not only no jobs, no value and no dignity, but – made more glaringly clear during the campaign – no attention. There was a segment of the country that wanted a smaller government, but regardless of that government’s size, it wanted one that made its people at least some sort of priority. Too often, Clinton ignored this part of the nation. And into that ignored America stepped Trump.

The voters who are largely believed to have been the deciding factors in this election have a few characteristics in common. Yes, many were white (Trump won the white vote, 58-37), but it is more complex than just race. Many of the pivotal states – Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin – are home to voters who live in areas of economic and drug-stricken decline, who lack a strict allegiance to either political party and who have demonstrated a growing detachment from big-money, big-government Washington, D.C. To many of these voters, Trump offered some appeal as a self-described outsider promising to change the political game. He promised to return their jobs, to shake up a “rigged” system and – not insignificant in an era of safe spaces and political correctness – to “tell it like it is.” He may not have shared their rural background, but he spoke directly to them in a voice that sounded like how they spoke and channeled a populist message they wanted to hear. While many of these voters were commonly depicted as racists and the like, their anger seemed less toward any particular ethnic group and more toward an economy that ignored them, a pop culture that laughed at them and an elitist culture that seemed to want to tell them how to think and what they could and could not say without offering them any type of help. As a result, many of these voters embraced Trump, warts and all. However flawed or hollow his offer was, it was something. Clinton and the Democrats – purposefully or not – ran a campaign that at least wrote off – even derided – half the country and still expected to win. That half of the country begged to differ.

It is easy for city-dwelling, non-Trump voters to cast aside his supporters as the caricatures our media often depicts them as, but many of their motives seem to have been driven less by evil, racist urges and more by basic self-interest. When one candidate promised to save their job or return their town’s factory while the other told them “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” they tended to choose the person who was more likely to help them keep food on their table and make sure their children could find work. When one candidate demonstrated to them at least the appearance of respect while the other appeared to cast them off as a lost cause, they tended to choose the person who gave them the time of day. Most simply, when presented with the imperfect choice between placing a high-risk bet on changing their lives for the better or doubling down on continuing what they believed to be the road to economic doom, they weighed their options and tended to vote for Trump. When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.

It became apparent that Trump supporters are a more diverse group than commonly given credit for. They included Rust Belt union workers who voted for Obama twice, but failed to see any change they could continue to believe in. They included suburban women who were willing to vote for Trump in spite of the “Access Hollywood” tape because they just could not bring themselves to vote for Clinton. They were Evangelicals and Latinos and Independents. They were a collection of individuals who made up their own minds, departing from the easy-to-classify boxes of identity politics to make a choice that they believed to be most in-line with how they wanted to live and how they wanted our government to operate. 

I don’t agree with some of the reasons offered for voting for Trump, but I respect each person’s ability and willingness to vote their own conscience and to choose the candidate they believe is the best for them. I am disappointed that I did not give more thought and credibility to the chances of Trump winning the election. I am as guilty as any of allowing the predominant perspectives within my privileged bubble to shape what I perceived to be within the range of possible outcomes. There are plenty of reasons to believe our country is on the right track, but there are plenty of indications that might explain why some people might think otherwise. Town after town of decimation while driving through upstate and Western New York. Heroin addiction treatment advertisements at train stations just outside urban hubs. I can also understand how some voters chose to ignore the personality flaws of the candidates that so many of us focused on and instead voted on a particular issue – a Supreme Court candidacy, rising Obamacare premiums – and decided that Trump was the superior candidate to Clinton. I was pretty shocked as the clock struck midnight on Tuesday, but I really wish I wouldn’t have been.

III. What We Can Learn.

In late October, “Saturday Night Live” staged the latest installment of its “Black Jeopardy” sketch, featuring Tom Hanks as the white, rural caricature that many believed Trump supporters to be, competing on an otherwise African-American game show. In addition to being sharply-written, well-executed and quite funny, the sketch also deftly identified just how many shared characteristics – a distrust of big government, a feeling of disenfranchisement – there are among people of different skin colors that were too often assumed to be diametrically opposed during a racially charged calendar year and presidential campaign. The sketch received critical praise and was heavily-shared on social media; I would not have blamed you for sharing the clip with a quick text or tweet and a simple endorsement along the lines of “Tom Hanks FTW!” But we then retreated all too easily back to our ardently held positions; after all, the election was just weeks away. In the days that followed, we’d have all been better off keeping that sketch in mind – not for its butt jokes or for Hanks’ hat, but for the message it really sent: our common ground.

I joked with friends that Election Day would be the worst day in the history of social media, and for a brief time, that proved to be the case. Then Tuesday night happened and the hours and days that followed revealed the worst in too many of us. We were “horrified” by the result. It was “Armageddon.” Comparisons were made to 9/11 and Hitler. Blame was, of course, assigned, but to mysterious places: third parties (“Dear Gary Johnson voters: F*** YOU!” read a status on my timeline. Classy.); social media; “whitelash”; sexism; voter suppression; even – again – Harambe. In cities, protests filled the streets and property was destroyed. On campuses, classes were canceled and support sessions were offered. At the Javits Center, Clinton never arrived, the champagne never left the ice and the “It’s a Girl!” balloons never released. Tragically, Lena Dunham had trouble breathing and broke out in hives. Anecdotes indicate many spent Wednesday crying at their desks, if they made it to work at all. Implausibly, we were wrong. Worse, our generation proved mentally and emotionally incapable of dealing with the reality that an imperfect process like a democratic election could produce any result other than the one we wanted.

This election was a contest between Trump and Clinton, but it was just as much an assessment of ourselves: how we speak, how we listen, how we think. It revealed some harsh realities that are more true than we would like to admit. We have never had so much information, yet so little knowledge. We have never been so worldly, yet had such poor grasp of our own country. We have never been so connected, yet so detached to what is going on around us. We seek affirmation and shy away from disagreement. We struggle to civilly disagree; maybe some of us never learned.

Some of our reactions to Trump’s victory have been more justifiable than others. Campaigns are projects of passion. Elections get emotional. Candidates use fiery rhetoric and divisive strategies to stir up their base and achieve power. But when the race is over, there really is no need for sides; after all, as “Black Jeopardy” suggested, there is much common ground between us. We want to feel safe. We want jobs, or the opportunity to get better ones. We want to leave this country in better shape for our children and grandchildren. We may differ on how we reach those goals, but we really just want to achieve them. So if your reaction to this election was a fear that the country is more racist than you realized, or more sexist than you realized, or that there are more of “them” than there are of “us,” you’re really missing the point. Take a break from your fourth protest march up 5th Avenue or your latest apoplectic Facebook status. Take a ferry to Staten Island (where Trump won 57% of the vote) or Breezy Point (58%) or the Jersey Shore (virtually entirely red on the electoral map) or visit a state you otherwise only fly over to attend weddings and bachelorette parties. Have an actual discussion about how and why a person there may have voted differently from you. You’d be shocked at just how much you have in common.

Or maybe just take a breath. The election has ended. Clinton has conceded. Markets have rebounded. The sun still rises and sets. Concern yourself with what you can control. Spend less time inside of your bubble and more time in critical thought. Subscribe to a newspaper or podcast that challenges your positions rather than reaffirms them. Devote time and resources to issues and causes you can impact. Vote in midterm and local elections. Rely less on your government and more on yourself. Respect your peers as well as their thoughts.

And then relax. The next time the world ends, you will be so much better prepared.