The Election

I’m still reeling from the election of Donald Trump. I’m saddened, disillusioned, angry, and, most of all, scared. I don’t think it will lead to direct harm for me or my family, at least immediately, but I fear for America and the world. That sounds like hyperbole, but elections have consequences and this one looks all bad to me.

It’s hard to draw too many big conclusions from such a close election – especially one so close that popular vote likely disagreed with the electoral college – but there are two which come to mind.

First, the divisions in this country – between urban and rural, between feminism and traditional views of women, between the embrace and rejection of diversity – are both starker and more evenly balanced than I had ever thought. That I can’t imagine anyone actually thinking Trump would be a good President shows how far on one side of the divide I am. Of course, the country has been very divided before, but the worst previous period of division, the Civil War, is not a hopeful example of healing. (That today’s fault lines still largely follow those of the Civil War is not surprising.)

Second, celebrity and charisma are probably more important than political scientists have ever acknowledged. Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger were harbingers of the power of celebrity in elections – and, of course, Ronald Reagan started his career with his celebrity, before working his way up. But Trump’s rapid rise from a TV show to President-elect shows how powerful celebrity can be.

Charisma and celebrity are tightly intertwined. I don’t see Trump’s charisma. Every video of his rallies made me wince; I saw narcissism, vacuous promises, and incitement of hatred. But anyone who can carry a successful TV show for a decade clearly is attractive to a large number of people. And his rallies inspired throngs. It may be the charisma of a demagogue, but it is charisma.

Thinking about presidential elections, you probably have to go back to 1972 to find one where the less charismatic candidate won. The political scientists and insiders who believed that policy matters, that money matters, that Get Out The Vote matters, that endorsements matter were wrong, at least in a presidential election. At most, those can be proxies. Emotional connection to a large group of voters matters; charisma may be the most direct way for that to happen.

In the days leading up to the election, I was a mixture of complacent and panicked. I thought the complacency was rational, given both the polling and my belief that voters couldn’t really fall for Trump, and the panic was irrational, based more on the fear of a Trump presidency than its likelihood. I was wrong – panic was rational, complacency was irrational.

What now? First, family and friends. My whole community seems to be despairing. We need to strengthen and support each other.

But, also, I need to find ways to make the world a better place. I’m privileged in that my job lets me feel like I am doing good things – and I believe that I am. But it’s not sufficient now. I don’t know what else it will be, but I need to do more.