I spent Wednesday morning and afternoon in disbelief – like a lot of people in the United States and across the world. Most polls had predicted a Hillary Clinton victory. Beyond polls, the behaviour from not just the Clinton camp but also the Trump campaign indicated that Trump was about to lose. The New York Times reported that Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, had been reluctant to promote a pro-Trump advertisement too aggressively for fear of harming her businesses after the election. Let’s take that in: the candidate’s own daughter wanted to cut her losses and move on with life after what seemed bound to be an imminent loss.
And yet, the results are in and Trump has won.
After more than a year of frantic conversation with friends and family about how dangerous a Trump presidency would be for the US and the world, his victory leaves me with sobering thoughts. For though Trump’s rise and victory have been surprising, we are now going to have to live with a Trump presidency. So we may as well try and get a better sense of how we got here, and find healthy, engaged ways of moving forward.
Much has been written on the reasons for Trump’s rise, and no doubt many tomes will be written going forward. One overarching contextual force that has not sufficiently been emphasised is what can be called adventurous fatalism. Since the start of his campaign, many voters were tickled by the prospect of a Trump presidency. They recognised his ridiculousness: his racism, sexism, his lack of seriousness. They recognised his ludicrous proposals: building a wall along the Mexican border and making Mexico pay for it, banning Muslims entry into the US, keeping nuclear weapons on the table. Some of these voters were scared. Others were excited by the prospect of a phenomenon they had never seen before. Of course, many Trump supporters were motivated by serious issues such as trade and globalisation (no matter Trump’s unserious ideas for allaying their concerns). Yet, at a broader level his candidacy, at least for some, became something of an adventurous abstraction. His disqualifying shortcomings were plain for all to see and yet, too many voters it seems didn’t pause and consider the real human dangers of his prospective presidency; the audacity of his potential victory was just too tantalizing. Well, now the excitement of the unseen will become the horror of the everyday.
A second broad, related factor that bled into all the other reasons for Trump’s victory, I suspect, is the “entertainment-isation” of our political culture. In an age of 140 characters, short attention and memory spans and the normalisation of the outrageous, Trump the Entertainer won over not just the cerebral and the analytical modes of communication but also the plain thoughtful. In his rallies, he would take even his supporters for suckers. And, weirdly, some seemed to have liked it. They rejoiced at the thought of Mexico paying for “the wall.” They rejoiced at the prospect of “locking up” Hillary Clinton. In the frenzy of entertainment, the seriousness of reality was lost. No doubt some excellent journalism has been done on the Trump campaign but perhaps it all came too late. Akin to many of his supporters, sections of the media, too, at least until the final few months, got sucked into the entertainment-behavioural aspects of Trump and the relatively minor scandals of Clinton, rather than being focused on public policy.
For all of those who opposed his candidacy and are looking for ways of moving forward, personally and politically, in a way that would be healthy and still engaged, I offer three suggestions.
The first lesson is to remember the perils of over-attachment to a political campaign. It is one thing to be deeply passionate about a candidate or a party or a cause. It’s another to be unhealthily hooked, so much so that disappointment can become overwhelming. I confess that my concern for this election became an obsession. That was, of course, partly because of the bizarreness of the Republican nominee, and the imperative of stopping him. Still, reading various news websites and polls five times a day was probably not wise. A lesson for me, therefore, is to not get too attached to political outcomes. Follow keenly. Try your best. Put in everything you can. But you have limited influence beyond the entirety of your energies to determine how others will vote – and what will happen.
A second lesson – more a reminder – is about the primacy and beauty of family and friends. That’s the realm of your day-to-day interaction. That’s the local space you actually have significant agency over – both for your own well-being and for making a positive difference in others’ lives. It’s amazing to be in conversation with friends at this troubling time. I am seeing friends reach out as access points on Facebook to anyone so distraught as to be contemplating hurting themselves. That kind of outreach is community. And it’s beautiful.
A third lesson is that while, clearly, we each have limited control over national and global forces, this occasion of massive setback is the moment for being more not less engaged. It is understandable why a lot of people would like to back off in the face of this alarming outcome and give up on democracy and public life and politics. But instead of sitting back, now is the time to sit up and engage like never before: sharply, and relentlessly. Trump cannot be given a free hand.
So these are some thoughts from an American in Varanasi – on why we are seeing the results that we are, and what we can do going forward: for our personal and political wellbeing. Some might say that this piece is an embodiment of the kind of elitism that Trump’s victory is meant to expose and destroy. I disagree. Calling for intellectual rigour, community and a sustainable and responsible involvement in politics, as well as facts and reason is not elitist. Muslims, African-Americans, Hispanics, and women, it seems absurd yet necessary at such a time to note, are human beings, worthy of respect just like all other human beings. Climate change is a real thing, not a Chinese hoax as Trump claims it is. Invoking the “elite” bogeyman is no argument at all.
Trump may have had no respect for the peaceful transfer of power but anyone who takes the constitution seriously must. So let us respect the result, painful as it is. But let us also be clear-eyed: Trump’s presidency will have real, human consequences – and from what we know about him and his coterie, they won’t be good. So this is a good time to pause and look at the big picture: to understand how we got here and identify what amends can be made, and to see how to move forward with our personal and political lives without buckling under this tectonic defeat.
Abhimanyu Chandra is a United States citizen. Currently, he is a consultant at Banaras Hindu University.