It was around noon when the President addressed the bewildered nation. On that day it was most evident that Barack Obama would not be America’s president for much longer.
Earlier that morning, a new man, Donald Trump, was elected by Americans to become the next president. A man who, to many, personifies an America that many before us fought so hard to never see again. A man who, by example, reminds us that even America’s founding documents are vulnerable enough to be stained with a contradiction as threatening as its original sin of slavery and illiberalism.
Yet President Obama also, by example, reminds us of the same stain on America’s cherished founding documents, and their endurance. As the sun emerged from behind the clouds at high noon, the President stood tall with his calm, brown face juxtaposed against the White House and said:
“The path that this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back, and that’s OK…The point though is that we all go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy. That’s how this country has moved forward for 240 years…It’s how we have come this far.”
Those 240 years gave rise to Joe McMcarthy and the Red Scare along with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Voting Rights Act. They endured a period of great transformation and a Great Depression. They reversed extreme income inequality and saw it rise again. They witnessed burning crosses, segregation, the first black President and now, in the midst of another period of great transformation, the first President-elect without a single day of experience in public office. The President is right that these 240 years have not followed a straight line.
The President is also right that in these 240 years, we have moved our democracy forward when we presumed good faith in our fellow citizens. Yet our good faith in each other has been eroding, paving a divisive path for a man like Donald Trump to reach the White House. From 1994 to 2016, the percent of Democrats with a very unfavorable attitude about Republicans grew from 17 to 55 percent (a similar trend for Republicans). Meanwhile, 70 percent of Democrats say that Republicans are closed-minded and only 2 percent of Republicans can say that Democrats are honest.
Beyond political affiliation, divides across all kinds of demographic lines – race, age, gender, income, education – are growing amidst a diversity explosion in America. It is not a surprise that many voters vote against their economic interests: they feel neglected by “the establishment”. Yes, many who voted for Mr. Trump are xenophobic and racist, but many others are former Obama voters who do not trust that the “establishment” cares about them. Hillary Clinton’s unapologetic claim that half of Mr. Trump’s supporters are a “basket of deplorables” is perhaps the most symbolic example of the perceived lack of good faith from “the establishment”.
It comes as a shock to many that a man who can be sexist, racist, bigoted and authoritarian can become President of the United States. Mr. Trump’s dangerous irreverence toward the rule of law was overshadowed by the anxiety of millions of Americans who felt neglected and ridiculed by the establishment that Hillary Clinton was seen to represent. It remains that public opinion can be far more important than even the rule of law. As referenced by David Remnick, George Orwell once wrote:
“The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”
It is with this in mind that we must extend a presumption of good faith to Trump voters and avoid characterizing them as inherently bad, closed-minded people. Public opinion is power and we must shape it such that we erode the type of divisiveness that is the source of Donald Trump’s power. This type of divisiveness is one that views the other with suspicion and bad faith, it is not a divisiveness on issues which now demand urgent citizenship.
Fight loudly for a woman’s right to choose, for same-sex marriage, for universal health insurance, for black lives, for Muslim immigrants, for a clean planet, for equal pay. These are divides any Republican government would exacerbate, but they are not the divides that propelled Mr. Trump to the White House. Wisconsin, a state that has voted blue since 1984, shocked the nation by voting for Mr. Trump and deciding the election. Hillary Clinton did not visit Wisconsin once in the general election. Donald Trump did not exploit divisiveness in ideology to gain power, he exploited neglect.
Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at a time when black Americans were “battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality” to proclaim that our destinies are tied up with each other, inextricably bound to our freedom. America’s 240 years has in it the most visible example. Surely we can see this truth today, in good faith.
President Obama rose to power with a unifying message: “We are not red states, or blue states, we are the united states of America”. President-elect Trump, by contrast, rose to power with a divisive message. The best check we can have on a Trump administration is to reject that type of division, and that means good faith to Trump voters while taking to the streets to defend our freedoms. In the words of Langston Hughes, let America be America again, zig-zagging along to a better future.