The Cost of Complacency

11/11/2016 08:05 am ET

I woke up the morning after Election Day feeling ashamed of my country. But I also felt ashamed of myself. As if this outcome were partly my fault. As if I had not worked hard enough, not spoken out enough, not been smart enough to prevent it. As if I had been complacent and idle. Of course, if the Clintons, the Obamas, even the Republican, not to mention Beyoncé, Madonna and the vast army of celebrities, journalists, activists, writers and intellectuals all working alongside my paltry efforts couldn’t change the mind of American voters, why should I blame myself?

I grew up in New York City and have lived in Europe for almost twenty years. That combination gives me a certain world view that I like to consider especially broad and informed. It was late—much too late—in the election that I noticed the stories of people in places like West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio, whose world and way of life are under attack by a disrupting, accelerating, pluralizing society. And it is not just farmers, miners and factory workers in poor, rural areas being deprived of opportunities by globalization and technological change. It is also taxi drivers, construction workers and municipal service workers in rich, big cities like New York, who cannot compete with the beneficiaries of the new economy.

The rich and enterprising stigmatize the poor for their poverty and laziness. And the intellectually rich and cosmopolitan stigmatize the provincial for their ignorance and prejudice. But in doing so, we overlook their fragile humanity; their suffering.

Yes, they are largely white in a world increasingly multicolored. Yes, they are largely male in a world increasingly multi-gendered. Yes, they are largely laborers in a world that increasingly values thinkers. But their fears and their problems are real even if their solutions to reverse time and stop progress are a fantasy. Even if they prefer to blame others rather than confront their own unpreparedness to handle a changing world. Even if they are willing to trust a man who will promise anybody anything to win, but has demonstrated a life-long interest only in his personal glory.

The core of the great social revolutions a century ago was not inequality itself; it was the perceived indifference to inequality by the elites and others to whom people look for leadership. And this is where America’s enlightened, humanist intellectuals have failed. We read each other’s words, agree with one another, smug in our worldliness, and decide that that’s all there is.

Filmmaker Michael Moore posted on Facebook the day after the election: “Everyone must stop saying they are ‘stunned’ and ‘shocked’. What you mean to say is that you were in a bubble and weren't paying attention to your fellow Americans and their despair. YEARS of being neglected by both parties, the anger and the need for revenge against the system only grew.”

It reverses the assumption of oppressed and oppressor. It reminds us that progress to leave nobody behind, must leave nobody behind. Not even the slowest to change.

So Donald Trump’s victory is a revolution in the true sense. But as with Robespierre, Lenin and Khomeini, do the revolutionaries fully understand what they are unleashing? As journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan wrote in 1793, “Revolutions devour their children.”

It is tempting to torture oneself with doomsday scenarios. In fact, there is no point predicting what the Trump presidency will bring because Donald Trump has no ideology that extends beyond himself. Racist, sexist, homophobe: he is all of these things and none of them, depending on the moment. But his campaign and his victory have legitimized a type of uncivil behavior that was publicly and politically unacceptable until very recently. That should worry you a lot. Beyond that, people are tools to use for his own purposes. How he will do that from day to day—Machiavellian tyrant or enlightened despot—nobody knows. The only thing consistent about Trump is inconsistency.

His victory speech was surprisingly gracious, even conciliatory. Famous for refusing to speak from a script, he carefully read his lines from a teleprompter, occasionally in the bored tone of someone checking a contract. Do they come from the heart? Does he believe them? Or was this a concession to his political advisors—the kind he's made before, but never maintained for more than a few days? It is easy to be gracious in the euphoria of victory. Trump’s problems start when he faces an adversary. In politics that happens a lot.

He said to his critics, “I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.” But is this unity behind a shared vision, or acquiescence to Trump’s?

He said, “we will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us.” But what conditions define that willingness “to get along with us”?

He pledged to “rebuild our infrastructure, which will … put millions of our people to work.” This is a welcome measure, long overdue. But there is not a single thing Trump said during the campaign that he himself did not contradict. So how can we believe this one?

There is reason to believe the Trump presidency will accomplish nothing. He elevates himself by throwing everyone else off balance. He has left the Republican Party in disarray and will have to watch for knives in his back. Even with control of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and soon the Supreme Court, there is no guarantee that Republicans will function as a united front. Combine that with the chaotic way Trump ran his campaign and does business, and with a large, loud and organized Democratic and popular opposition, and it is quite possible that the next four years will be a period of paralysis.

The upside is there will be no more business as usual. Donald Trump has finally broken the unholy alliance between faith and finance in the Republican camp. And he has forced Democrats to admit that they are not the pluralists they thought they were. I wrote before the primaries that, regardless who wins, the next administration will be a time of fierce debate and complete inaction. It’s sad that fear rather than hope will set the tone, but America is too divided for anything else.

(A version of this article originally appeared in Portuguese at VER: Valores, Ética e Responsabilidade.)

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