Americans are optimistic about the communities they live in—but not their nation. Why?
I have been alive for a long time. I remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when I was a 10th-grader, and then watching with my family through the grim following days as newscasters said that something had changed forever. The next dozen years were nearly nonstop trauma for the country. More assassinations. Riots in most major cities. All the pain and waste and tragedy of the Vietnam War, and then the public sense of heading into the utterly unknown as, for the first time ever, a president was forced to resign. Americans of my children’s generation can remember the modern wave of shocks and dislocations that started but did not end with the 9/11 attacks.
Through all this time, I have been personally and professionally, and increasingly, an American optimist. The long years I have spent living and working outside the United States have not simply made me more aware of my own strong identity as an American. They have also sharpened my appreciation for the practical ramifications of the American idea. For me this is the belief that through its cycle of struggle and renewal, the United States is in a continual process of becoming a better version of itself. What I have seen directly over the past decade, roughly half in China and much of the rest in reporting trips around the United States, has reinforced my sense that our current era has been another one of painful but remarkable reinvention, in which the United States is doing more than most other societies to position itself, despite technological and economic challenges, for a new era of prosperity, opportunity, and hope.
And now we have Donald Trump. We have small-town inland America—the culture I think of myself as being from—being credited or blamed for making a man like this the 45th in a sequence that includes Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. I view Trump’s election as the most grievous blow that the American idea has suffered in my lifetime. The Kennedy and King assassinations and the 9/11 attacks were crimes and tragedies. The wars in Vietnam and Iraq were disastrous mistakes. But the country recovered. For a democratic process to elevate a man expressing total disregard for democratic norms and institutions is worse. The American republic is based on rules but has always depended for its survival on norms—standards of behavior, conduct toward fellow citizens and especially critics and opponents that is decent beyond what the letter of the law dictates. Trump disdains them all. The American leaders I revere are sure enough of themselves to be modest, strong enough to entertain self-doubt. When I think of Republican Party civic virtues, I think of Eisenhower. But voters, or enough of them, have chosen Trump.
how could this have happened? No one can know for sure, and with an event this complex and contingent—why not more visits to Wisconsin? what about Comey? and the Russians?—there will be no single explanation. But I disagree with two elements of instant analysis: that this was a sweeping “change” election, and that it reflected a pent-up desperation and fury that would have been evident if anyone had bothered to check with Americans “out there,” away from the coasts.
In its calamitous effects—for climate change, in what might happen in a nuclear standoff, for race relations—this could indeed be as consequential a “change” election as the United States has had since 1860. But nothing about the voting patterns suggests that much of the population intended upheaval on this scale. “Change” elections drive waves of incumbents from office. This time only two senators, both Republicans, lost their seats. Of the nearly 400 representatives running for reelection to the House, only eight lost, six of them Republicans and two Democrats. In change elections, the incumbent president and his party are out of favor, even reviled: Hoover after the start of the Great Depression, George W. Bush after the financial crash. Through 2016, Barack Obama’s popularity kept rising, and if he could have run again, he would have been a favorite for reelection. But even the much less popular candidate from his same party comfortably won the popular vote, and the Democrats gained seats in both the Senate and the House. This is not what 1932 looked like, or 1980, or 2008.