Among the many commotions in my mind following the American presidential election, I believe I am struggling with acute symptoms of information glut. Everywhere I turn, I find an explanation for Donald Trump’s victory; one graphic after another depicts voter demographics; uncountable columnists analyze the racial, social, and economic factors at play. Every time I check my newsfeed, I confront an endless barrage of opinion pieces — all of which tout headlines that claim to explain, once and for all, the outcome of November 8, 2016.
Every commentator has an angle: racism, demagoguery, xenophobia, political disenfranchisement, populism, “He just tells it like it is”, apathy, ideology, political correctness, a gutted education system — there is no shortage of explanations. In fact, there are about 60,638,012 reasons why people voted for Trump. But we are obsessed with identifying an aggregate trend. We need an answer: some explanation for the whole fiasco that encapsulates all sixty million voters into a single coherent narrative.
In other words, we need a myth. But once we have internalized our myth, it becomes increasingly difficult to second-guess our rationalization. And since our narrative lives in competition with other myths, we grow accusatory of conflicting opinions. If we believe that Trump won because of his racist overtures, does this mean that everyone who disagrees with us must be racist, too? Or if Trump won because of a systemic failure of the American intellect, is every dispute of our analysis ignorant as well? Commentary and analysis morph into rhetoric. Explaining politics is political.
Don’t get me wrong, Donald Trump’s racism, misogyny, and bigotry thoroughly disgust me — and the fact that they were not deal-breakers for so many people is deeply unsettling. But at a personal level, who am I to get up on a pedestal to proclaim that 60,638,012 other people just voted ‘immorally’? Is my ethical compass permanently above the tilt and tug of partisan allegiance? Do the clothes that I am wearing and the food that I am eating today clear me from every accusation of oppression and exploitation? Do I suppose that I somehow transcend all the cognitive biases that supposedly plague everyone else? Have I never embraced what I believed was the ‘lesser of two evils’ based on information and encouragement shared by the people around me? Have I never been hoodwinked by someone who tickled my fears?
Am I in a position of moral authority to stand in front of a throng of sixty million people and say, “I am better than every single one of you because I would never vote for that man!”?
My point is this: I cannot sit here and tell you why the United States just elected Trump. And being in this situation is psychologically debilitating. In 200 years from now, when historians write about the 2016 election, they will analyze the sources at their disposal, arrange their documentation in light of their imposed criteria for legitimacy, and then craft a gloriously concise overview. Undergraduates will probably study and memorize bullet point notes of the reconstructed story for exams. Future generations will “know” why sixty million Americans voted for Trump: it will be in the purview of respected scholars and history textbook writers to provide authoritative opinions on the matter.
But in the foray of the present, every explanation is just one among many. Today, it is a war of exposition. Under the reign of the algorithm, we live in an all-out race to bait search engines with new, snazzy opinions. It is virtually a global competition for the next original insight on the matter. (And yes, absolutely, this little essay is wholly implicated in very cacophony it holds in contempt.)
But damned if I am in a position to offer an objective history of last week.
Eking the honesty to write the last paragraph leaves me in a difficult place. I do not know why Trump won, which means, by extension, I do not understand what is happening in the world around me. (I can recite many theories — inequality, neoliberalism, globalization, colonization — but I do not know.) This uncertainty is existentially traumatic. And frankly, it is impossible to live with this ambiguity for long. Far easier, indeed, to adopt a ready-made story I can peel-and-stick on to sixty million people I have never met, who all live in another country.
On Sunday night I was sitting around a campfire with a few friends, discussing and debating the election. Yes, as just another armchair theorist, my highfalutin social and political criticism is probably utter nonsense. But while snuffing out the embers at the end of our chat, I had a sudden realization: I don’t “know” why Trump won, but I do have an acute and tangible sense of the impact that his victory is having on the lives of the people around me.
For me, this realization clarifies everything. It takes me out of the seat of judgment and invites me to sit in solidarity. It compresses all the international turmoil into an intensely local, tactile context.
What is the way forward? As the maxim goes, There are only two kinds of problems in the world: there are problems you can’t do anything about and there are problems that you can exert some influence to change. Categorically, I cannot do anything about a Trump presidency. But I can join hands with the people in my community who sense their identities, safety, and wellbeing jeopardized by the rhetoric of hate and intolerance. When someone threatens to build a wall between you and others, it’s time to start building better bridges. Local bridges. After all, the world is nothing more than a whole bunch of little “heres” that are growing evermore networked to one another.
I cannot imagine how we will ever nurture communities of greater understanding unless we intentionally reach out to one another in the places where we live. Beyond the paralyzing glut of commentary and analysis, each one of us can only respond to the American election from our present coordinates on the planet. Here. I no longer feel the need to purport to “know” why Trump won. Nor do I feel the need to comment on the personal motivations of the entire electorate, as if I were an omniscient pundit or self-appointed moral benchmark for the nation. I have no more need to justify nor condemn others. No, I’m free to act. I now have a clear understanding of what I need to do, and every moment I resign to resentment and ridicule is a moment subtracted from the cause of building bridges that “go high” over deepening divides.
To sum up the way ahead, I defer to the words of Squire Bill Widener: “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” And to this, I would add: “With the people who are around you.”