What Donald Trump taught us about ourselves
(CNN) — Welcome to Donald Trump’s America.
In the aftermath of his improbable victory and on the cusp of a presidency fueled by a movement that could signal a generational realignment in American politics, the country emerges deeply divided — and with so many feeling that there are further reckonings to come.
As sure as the last 16 months put a relentless focus on the candidates, the 2016 election also held up a mirror to society at large. For all his idiosyncrasies, Trump had one thing very much in common with other outsized cultural figures: the ability to provoke and elicit emphatic, emotional reactions to his every utterance.
In awarding Trump the presidency, Americans revealed themselves. Here are a few things we learned.
1. The U.S. is part of the global community, like it or not
When Trump called himself “Mr. Brexit,” too many of us laughed.
But whether or not he truly saw his triumph coming — reporting suggests even his closest aides were surprised — the reality is that a rising tide of resurgent nationalism from Western Europe, triggered in part by economic stagnation, has reached our shores.
It was apparent throughout the campaign. British right wing leader Nigel Farage campaigned in the US and his ideological allies in France, Germany, Hungary and Greece all applauded the election results.
So when the electoral wave crashed on Tuesday, it delivered a new president-elect and, perhaps more instructively, a lesson that this country is as susceptible to the broader sweep of history as any other.
The result: an unprecedented ending to a familiar story.
In the 1930s, Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh peddled the right-wing extremism and xenophobia that was metastasizing overseas. George Wallace turned backlash to the Civil Rights movement into political profit in the 1960s. Decades later, Trump seized on the anger of a troubled electorate, telling them as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination, “I alone can fix it.”
On Tuesday, tens of millions of voters decided to give him the chance.
2. Our politics are messier than we thought
Left and right, red and blue — some of our most fundamental understandings about American political life were smashed by Trump and his winning campaign.
In viewing the election through the usual prism, with many analysts mourning about the absence of “serious” issues, we largely missed out on one of the most elemental debates in modern political history.
This campaign was flush with serious, sweeping clashes over the future. Americans wrestled for nearly two years over how they envisioned our society as it moves deeper into the 21st century. Whites, in particular, were asked to contend with an ebbing majority.
From Trump, we learned that on this new, high stakes table, the transgressions that sunk so many past political hopefuls have lost their perceived currency.
He showed us this over and again, breaking taboos gutting sacred cows at a breakneck pace. He told Republicans that President George W. Bush did not “keep us safe,” as Jeb Bush insisted. And, though his lie about opposing it was quickly exposed, he argued openly that invading Iraq in 2003 was a terrible mistake.
On abortion? Trump hemmed and hawed. On entitlement reforms? Nope! Trump dumped on Paul Ryan, not for the last time, when he pledged not to mess with social security or Medicare.
Often though, his conservative heresies and challenges to policy norms were conflated with darker claims, which often took the form of attacks on broader cultural norms. As his primary rivals fell by the wayside, Trump racked up higher percentages of support — breaking any supposed “ceiling.” By Election Day, he had alienated and scorned most of the establishment leaders in his party.
It didn’t matter.
Politics are messy. It’s a deeply personal business. No one is promised anything and if voters don’t believe that candidates or officials or party bigwigs have their back in a fundamental way, the facade of deference will fall away — and fast.
3. We don’t know one another well
In the weeks ahead of Election Day, Trump allies and staff insisted that their candidate would be bolstered by “hidden” and “undercover” voters.
For reporters who spent the better part of two years traveling the country, meeting with Trump supporters at campaign events and often in more private settings, the argument felt like weak spin. This was not a shy group. To Americans who viewed Trump primarily in the context of televised rallies, the idea of his laying claim to a “silent” majority seemed to border on the absurd.
But the misunderstanding runs much deeper — and traces back much further.
Whether or not Trump supporters actually feared sharing their loyalties with pollsters — or even friends and family — the fact remains: division in America, in 2016, is not limited to simple policy disagreements.
Social media is the easy scapegoat. The loudest voices prevail. People retreat into bias-confirming bubbles. We know this. Americans have insulated themselves from their neighbors’ ideas for hundreds of years — from the partisan press to cable news, in gated communities and through decades of diminished civic engagement.
After President Obama first took office in 2009, his new attorney general, Eric Holder, called us a “nation of cowards.”
Holder was talking about race relations, and while he conceded that the issue was common fodder in high-handed political debate, “we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.”
As the Trump presidency approaches, it’s hard not to think of all things that make headlines, but not conversation.
4. By choice or by design, millions of Americans never cast a vote
More than 80 million people watched the first presidential debate between Clinton and Trump. Add in the millions who viewed it online and at bars or parties, and the number might have reached nine digits.
And yet, when the time came for choosing, turnout at the polls was unimpressive — its lowest since 1996.
An estimated 55% of voting age Americans cast a ballot in 2016. Though some tabulations have yet to come in, that’s nearly 10 points lower than in 2008, a deficit of approximately 18 million votes. Trump’s total was not only less than Clinton’s, but looks like a 20-year low for election winners.
How is it possible?
To start, a number of states made it more difficult to vote or vote early. In North Carolina, where the state legislature openly sought ways to drive down minority turnout, raw totals crept up a bit from 2012 but basically flatlined as a percentage of the voting population.
In October, a Trump campaign official told Bloomberg that operatives had made “voter suppression” a focus of their late-stage efforts, using online ads to target Clinton’s base. The goal was not win them over but to keep them home on Election Day.
But as many progressive activists and liberals will tell you — along with a growing number of establishment Democrats — Clinton too made some fundamental miscalculations. Her campaign failed to activate the coalition that twice delivered Obama resounding electoral victories. African Americans did not turnout for her in the same numbers as for the president, and white women ultimately broke for Trump.
The siren song of change, which had inspired so many Democrats to the polls in 2008 and 2012, played on 2016, but this time its tune drew a different cohort.
In the final telling, this historic and deeply consequential election might be remembered as much for those who voted as those who did not — by choice or design.
And in their silence, they spoke volumes.
5. We’re not in a ‘post-truth era’ — but it’s on the horizon
Trump will enter the White House as one of the most prolific prevaricators in American political history.
Fact-checkers routinely called out his unending stream of distortions, falsehoods and bogus provocations. In most cases, their work shouldn’t have been necessary. But Trump made an art of shamelessness.
He assailed entire races and ethnic groups, then turned around and said they loved him.
When the backlash grew to a point of concern? Trump denied it ever happened.
But the most prevalent defense, at least at the start, was that Trump simply “told it like it is.” If you couldn’t deal with that, then the onus was on you.
By the time he introduced his plan to ban Muslim immigration into the US in early December, the Trump train had left the station. Trump that night told a certain group of people a particular thing they desperately wanted to hear — that it was not their fault, that complex issues had a simple problem.
And that it would cost them next to nothing to have him fix it.
6. Social media can trump big donor money
When the early GOP favorites were pre-campaigning for big donors’ affections and Clinton was filling her own war chest, two candidates were busy building something else: movements.
And they did it, primarily, on social media.
Bernie Sanders supporters organized around a now famous hashtag, #feelthebern, and made use of forums and tools like reddit, WhatsApp and Slack to bring the grassroots together.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Twitter account emerged as the season’s most potent communications platform — more influential than Jeb Bush’s Super Pac “shock and awe” millions or anything the Koch Brothers’ could offer, or threaten to withhold.
“The fact that I have such power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et cetera, I think it helped me win all of these races where (my opponents were) spending much more money than I spent,” the president-elect said in a post-election interview with 60 Minutes. “I think that social media has more power than the money they spent, and I think maybe to a certain extent, I proved that.”
The influence of money in politics remains very real, especially as you look further down the ballot, but in the presidential and national political game, the traditional powers must now contend with a new reality — that simply engaging online and via social networks is not enough.
In the coming years, winning candidates and movements will need to make persuasive, eye-catching cases to voters. The asymmetric tactics of 2016’s big winners could soon be the norm.
7. The fundamentals of US democratic pluralism are strong — but not invulnerable
He refused to say he would accept the results of the election even his own campaign expected him to lose. He told his supporters the vote would be rigged and urged them to “go down to certain areas” in Pennsylvania to keep an eye on voters.
And that was Trump’s idea of subtlety.
More often, the Republican presidential nominee, openly dismissed any pretense of respect for some very basic pluralistic ideals. Mexicans were “rapists” and Muslims weren’t doing enough to police the would-be terrorists in their communities.
He attacked women in sexist terms and strained to condemn anti-Semitic behavior by his more radical supporters.
It was jarring, but in the final account, instructive. Trump voters are not, as some opponents would suggest, a band of racists. But to vote for him, one had to look past the elements of racism, misogyny and Islamophobia that flared up in his campaign.
Trump largely dispensed with the traditional dog whistles of the right. For most of the campaign, he seemed to revel in a kind of freedom and iconoclasm. “Political correctness” and “identity politics” were profanities, not complex questions about how we speak to one another.
This feeds into the big question that confronts us now — and the next lesson to be learned.
If political campaigns are the enemy of nuance, then governing must be its friend. Trump has signaled an interest in forging unity from historic division. Now is his chance.
Will he take it?