Last June I wrote a piece on Brexit (“The Insularity of Anger,” June 27, 2016) in Great Britain and how the voters for Brexit grew out of the disenfranchisement of many Britons who felt their country had failed to protect their jobs and economic security. At the time, I made the analogy to Trump supporters who felt robbed of their jobs in America. Fast forward to November 8th when those Americans made their point loudly at the polls, and won. With that result, we have entered a journey of not knowing far beyond anything any of us imagined would result from a presidential election.
The Sunday before our 2016 national election, CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a piece in which a pollster interviewed a group of 23 people representing a diverse cross-section of the American electorate. What the pollster noticed was that after doing this work for over 20 years, in previous elections, the people he gathered talked and also listened to each other. This year, he said, with a note of despair, the dramatic difference was that “everyone wanted to be heard. No one wanted to learn.” Indeed, they cut each other off, talked in high-pitched, emotional voices and with no acknowledgment of what each other was saying.
Come the dawning of November 9, 2016. We have President-Elect Donald J. Trump, expected by few and upsetting to so many. I would not presume to explain what all happened. There are many experienced political pundits who have deep life experience on which to draw to do their hypothesizing.
What I observed was the vast uncharted territory we have entered. Few saw Trump’s victory coming, including Trump himself. Even fewer have any idea what that really means for the future. Trump has never governed. His business background may help him as a “dealmaker,” as he prefers to see himself. It does not, however, prepare him for the world of policy, not to mention the political chess game required to put policies into place, domestically and internationally. Without a track record, we are at a loss to right size how a Trump administration will work, or even put into place.
Observing a long held family tradition, on election night I tuned in to watch a very nervous national PBS news reporting team as the first wave of returns came in, contradicting what they had expected to see as an early and winning night for Hillary Clinton. They remained professional. At the same time, any attempt at even-handed reporting went out the window, while they struggled to adjust to a different reality taking shape.
The next morning I read postmortems in many sectors from The New York Times Editorial Board to Garrison Keillor. What struck me was their perplexity, and the angst that it was causing. I believe that reaction is healthy. They also sounded angry and accusatory, which is less healthy. We are now facing much that is new: A new entry into politics at the most senior level, a new team that Trump will form, a new re-energized sector of the electorate, and a new perspective from political observers and voters who thought they understood where things were. Anxiety is everywhere from political writers to women at the gym the morning of November 9th with tears running down their cheeks while they watched Hillary Clinton’s brave concession speech.
The challenge we face in America is to not rush to organize reality and draw conclusions on what happened and how things should be. There is so much we don’t know, and we now have the humbling but important need to find out. How was Mr. Trump able to tap into an underlying anger of the American electorate? How were others able to distance themselves from the potential of that connection, what was being said, and, most of all, what lines of communication need to be opened, and among whom?
We are truly on a journey of not knowing, and honoring the extreme ambiguity of these times to discover what it means would be an essential step to our national healing and reuniting.
We have heard something, now what do we have to learn?
And to learn, can we dig deep enough into our own hearts and minds to surface what we know and need to know about ourselves, the world, and dreams for the future to give us the fortitude to hear others?
Most importantly, in the face of all this uncertainty, do we have the courage to endure our anxiety while getting there?
Julie Benezet, Author, The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None.