On a warm Texas morning on Wednesday, November 3, 1948, I remember my mom, Sue Mulkey, a life-long Democrat, gleefully asking our next-door neighbor, “Well, how do you like our new president?” Defying the predictions of almost every pundit and pollster, President Harry Truman, who had succeeded to the presidency when FDR died, had won a full term, defeating Republican challenger Thomas Dewey in what some considered one of the greatest political upsets in American history. It was especially astounding when you consider that two Democratic factions split from the party: Henry Wallace, former vice president under FDR, ran as the Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, and Strom Thurman, governor of South Carolina, headed the Dixiecrat ticket. Sixty-eight years later, an electoral shockwave that would dwarf Truman’s surprising victory was unfolding before my eyes.
As I watched the returns start to trickle in on election night with Shonnie and our friend Carolyn, I kept saying, “The votes in the Democratic strongholds obviously haven’t come in yet. It’s just a matter of time before Hillary takes the lead in Florida.” But she didn’t. Not in Florida, nor in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, or Wisconsin. Given the almost all the polls had consistently shown Clinton leading, it was difficult to believe what was happening.
Disconsolate, I went to bed around midnight after it was clear that Donald Trump was on his way to becoming our next president. I woke up around 3:00 a.m. and fumbled around with my Kindle to see if a miracle had taken place, if some of the battleground states had flipped to the Democratic column. They hadn’t.
Let me be clear. I voted for Bernie Sanders in the North Carolina primary when hope was still alive that he could capture the Democratic nomination for president. I supported Sanders because I believed (and still believe) that he understood the necessity of addressing issues such as income inequality, lack of a living wage for many, our two-tiered justice system, institutional racism, the militarization of our police departments, world-wide militarism (800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad), government surveillance of U.S. citizens, and climate change.
In contrast, it’s evident to me that, over the past several decades, the Democratic establishment has tilted considerably to the right, and their chosen candidate, Hillary Clinton, qualified as she might be, epitomized that position on the political spectrum. Nowhere near the Republicans’ shift to the far right, but to the right of center nonetheless. Furthermore, Clinton’s sense of entitlement (It’s my turn.), the Clinton dynasty (So, now Chelsea is being groomed to run for Congress.), the Clinton’s relentless pursuit of the almighty dollar (current net worth estimated at over $100 million), and the DNC’s manipulations before and during the Democratic primaries to deliver the nomination to Clinton all made it challenging for me to get behind the Democratic candidate.
Nonetheless, I refrained from criticizing Hillary during the general election campaign and voted for her during early voting in North Carolina, though to be honest, mine was more a vote against Trump than a vote for Clinton. But what the hell, I thought, let’s elect a woman. We’re way past due. In addition, of course, I voted for the down-ticket Democrats, including Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s Governor-elect, and our local candidates for the state house and senate, Buncombe County Commission, and Register of Deeds, all of whom won.
Since Trump was declared the winner, my world has seemed surreal. I keep waking in the morning and remembering the election (“Holy shit, we really elected Trump?”) much as, a few decades ago, I’d wake up after an evening of serious drinking: (“Damn, I didn’t really say that, did I?”) I remembered Sinclair Lewis’s book It Can’t Happen Here, a novel written during the Great Depression about the tenuousness of democracy and how fascism could rear its ugly head in America. I fell into a funk from which I still haven’t fully recovered.
I’m amazed at how many folks believe that President-elect Donald Trump is brimming with high self-esteem. He is not. What Donald Trump demonstrates is pseudo-self-esteem. He unconsciously hides his fears, insecurities, and self-doubt behind a façade of hyper-masculinity, aggressiveness, belligerence, and hostility. If one were to strip away his macho mask, you’d find a scared little boy, albeit in the body of a man, who is unable to hear any thoughts that run counter to his, who meets resistance by striking back, who judges others as unworthy or less than him in order to conceal his deep fear that he himself is unworthy, incompetent, or even unlovable. Anyone or any action that might reveal his vulnerability will be met with ridicule, contempt, or even violence.
Of course, at his core, Trump is neither the blustering demagogue nor the frightened child. He is human. He is one of us. And while it may be easy to castigate Trump for his extremes, we can nonetheless acknowledge his humanity, while standing with people of color, women, LGBT people, Muslims, immigrants, the disabled, and other minorities.
Nonetheless, in the midst of all of this, I sometimes find myself wondering if it really matters who the president of the United States is. Yes, the president has the bully pulpit, and beginning in 2017 a bona fide bully will occupy that pulpit, but much of what goes on in this nation does so despite who the president is.
A 2014 Princeton study that reviewed more than twenty years of data (that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues) indicates that political leaders of both major political parties listen to the economic elites, business interests, and people who can afford lobbyists (all entities that fund their re-election campaigns) rather than the citizens who elected them. According to the study:
The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.
We live in an oligarchy, a country run by the economic elite. No matter how popular a measure might be with the bottom ninety-percent of income earners in America, no matter which party holds the presidency or a majority in Congress, issues that are popular with the public—such as federally-funded healthcare insurance for all Americans, regulating the prices of life-saving drugs, job creation, and effectively dealing with global warming, among others—never see the light of day. Our government apparently doesn’t care what you think. Not unless you are willing to contribute excessive amounts of money to a politician’s campaign, an action that is tantamount to legalized bribery.
In such a system, do you really think Congress, regardless of which political party holds a majority, will take action to deal with income inequality? To eliminate institutional racism? To provide our schools with the resources necessary to give our children a first-rate education? To support parents, especially during their children’s early years? To rein in military spending and our overseas misadventures? To effectively deal with climate change?
The 2016 election has exposed the impotence of our two major political parties—one which nominated a reality TV star, a man-child who would be king, the natural consequence of the Republicans’ decades-long practice of using bigotry and intolerance to court their adherents, and by doing so, exposed the dark underbelly of America—the racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and Islamophobia—long denied. The other party refused to discern the mood of the electorate and nominated a candidate out of tune with the times primarily because she was next in line. The election also revealed the mainstream media, which covered Trump’s every move no matter how disgusting and wrote off Sanders early on as a kooky old socialist with wild hair, as a tentacle of the ruling elite that values stockholder profits over true journalism.
Perhaps this is the wake-up call many of us needed to awaken from our trance-like state, to disavow the bread and circuses, to abandon our quest for the next new shiny thing, to finally grasp that the ruling elite keeps us fighting among ourselves over table scraps while they make out like bandits. Perhaps it’s time to comprehend that no one on the white horse is coming to save us (no, not even Bernie), that we’re all in this together, that we must take responsibility for our lives and our communities, that it’s time for decisive action, to take to the streets in numbers that cannot be ignored, perhaps even to put our lives on the line . . . before it’s too late.