Eight years ago, unprecedented throngs of Americans rushed into the streets in the middle of the night. People cried, hugged strangers, kissed cops, shared champagne. The country had just elected its first black president, and it felt as if liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, were on the same team, if only for a rousing moment, and that team had just won the World Series.
Of course, it quickly became clear that Barack Obama had won office in a divided nation hungry for change but also mistrustful of authority, suspicious of nearly everything. Donald Trump’s victory Tuesday night seemed unlikely to provoke any such unifying surge of goodwill and pride.
Americans on election night of 2016 had the blues — anxious about the future, miffed about the lousy choices they faced, insecure about the nation’s place in the world, bothered by each other.
A presidential election is a reflection of the national culture and mood, and if the Obama election was a statement of optimism about the radical demographic, technological and social changes of recent decades, then what did Americans’ choice of Trump really mean? It is, some voters said, an admission of exhaustion, a collective settling for the lesser of two evils in a country where people increasingly choose not to live near, associate with or listen to those who hold opposing political views. Not quite, other voters said. With or without Trump’s extraordinary appeal, Americans were determined this year to send the politicians a message about the pain caused by a decades-long collapse of certainties about what America looks like, what constitutes a family and how we earn a living.
Through traditional news media and new social media, an unusually captivated audience saw this campaign as a disorienting kaleidoscope of bloodcurdling anger at raucous rallies, waves of investigation and suspicion, and torrents of insults traded by candidates and their supporters. Tuesday’s vote left unresolved whether the ugly narrative of unprincipled demagogue vs. dishonest harridan really reflects a country that has fallen into coarse, raw hatred — or if the 2016 campaign was instead a symptom of the newly pervasive power of Facebook, Twitter and other social media. The line between public and private blurred so thoroughly that nasty, hurtful comments that people once made only to their closest family members and friends were now broadcast to the world at large.
Trump is “like that doctor with the horrible bedside manner,” said Chris Love, 50, a Trump supporter and firearms academy owner who was voting in Davie, Fla.
“He tells you 90 percent of your arteries are clogged. By being blunt, he’s saving your life.”
Across the ideological divide, some see this year’s surly, sour campaign as a reflection of sentiments that have been plainly visible on the Internet for a long time but that just this year exploded into open expression.
“Fear and anger and misogyny and xenophobia don’t change — they were always out there, but now those people can find each other so much more easily,” said Chip Franklin, a radio talk show host in San Francisco who built his career as a conservative, then shifted his politics to the left. “This year’s anger is the same as any year’s anger, but what’s different now is that there are 30 different ways to express that anger and share it with people who would never have seen it before. Then along came Donald Trump, willing to say whatever people wanted him to say.”
Even if he had lost, this would have been the year of Trump, a wholesale rejection of politics as usual. The thin enthusiasm for Clinton, the revival of the 1990s narrative painting her as dishonest and arrogant, and the dramatically rougher language deployed against her combined with Trump’s ability to give voice to the nation’s id. The result was a cavalcade of insults, threats and unchecked assertions flying under the flag of anti-political correctness.
The candidates took body blows from all sides, a level of vitriol that was commonplace in America’s first century but had calmed considerably during the decades when the three major TV networks set the nation’s political tone. This year, it was almost remarkable that no candidate got challenged to a duel.
Congress, the news media and politicians overall — the usual basement dwellers in any accounting of the nation’s least-trusted institutions — fell to new lows. But the biggest shift seemed to take place on the smallest stages.
‘Devolving into tribes’
As Jane Beard waited for her prescription at the Walgreens in Edgewater, Md., a baby in a stroller caught her eye. She played a quick bit of peek-a-boo, looked up and caught the boy’s father’s eye. He smiled and leaned in: “Listen, I want to ask you something. Are you a Hillary voter? You look like a Hillary voter.”
For an instant, Beard — in yoga pants, a sweatshirt and little Ecco shoes — thought the man had sensed a kindred spirit. “You bet I am!” she replied.
Suddenly, the man unleashed a river of invective: “It’s c—s like you who are helping that c— win. She’s a murderer.” He went on, and it didn’t get any nicer.
Rattled, Beard asked: “Why did you even come up to me? I never said a word to you. All I did was exist in the world in this store . . .”
“You exist!” the man hissed. “B—–s like you exist and you’re f—ing up the country — our country.”
Beard searched for the best retort. “It’s my country, too,” she blurted. She quickly left the store, sat down in her car, caught her breath and posted about the incident on Facebook.
Within minutes, a virtual community embraced Beard, a former actress who coaches executives on public speaking. They bemoaned the loss of civility in so many places. They told stories of angry confrontations launched from both sides of the divide. They said they’d refrained from putting out yard signs this year because people have gotten so riled up.
“Truly sadly, I feel just about the same way as this nut — albeit in reverse,” one of Beard’s friends wrote. “I hate that this election has brought out these feelings in me.”
But one man assured Beard that “you met an outlier. The vast majority of people are good and kind.” Another urged her to “look at the support you have catalyzed with this post. Look at the love that holds you and everyone woven into this tapestry. That is what is real.”
Beard, who lives in Churchton, Md., near the Chesapeake Bay, had already had three Hillary signs stolen from her yard. On Halloween, she took down her latest sign, just for the evening, “because we didn’t want people not to come to our house.”
But in the week after the drugstore confrontation, Beard, 60, found support from neighbors, including Trump supporters, one of whom ran into her at the Baltimore airport, hugged her, and said, “Oh my gosh, Jane, we can still be friends.”
Still, she struggled with the meaning of her moment in Walgreens. “People are scared,” she concluded. “That man is raising a kid that will hear that language and spout that language. Yet I was soothed by all the outpouring. What makes me sad is that we’re devolving into tribes. I thought we were all the American tribe.”
‘Why are we enemies?’
Deep divisions and despairing dissatisfaction over politics and the nation’s direction are nothing new. “America never was America to me,” Langston Hughes wrote in “Let America Be America,” his 1935 poem. “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart. I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. . . . I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek — and finding only the same old stupid plan of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
Hughes concluded that the people, not the politicians, could “bring back our mighty dream again. . . . I swear this oath — America will be!”
That essentially American optimism has not disappeared. Many Trump supporters, drawn by their candidate’s dark vision of a lost and failing country that “I alone can fix,” thought of themselves as a movement to restore greatness.
“More than anything else, Trump picked up on a growing sense that elections don’t have much impact on the direction of the country, that power is increasingly distant from the people,” said Chris Buskirk, publisher of American Greatness, a pro-Trump blog. Buskirk saw Trump connecting with voters on messages that had more in common with Democrats Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren than with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.): border security, a “pro-worker” trade policy aimed at “bringing Wall Street to heel” and a foreign policy skeptical of military intervention.
That message — American jobs, America First, Fortress America — hit home with millions of people who have felt disconnected from, and disdained by, the elites for decades. In 1996, James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family, one of the country’s largest and most influential evangelical Christian organizations, said: “People inside the Beltway are not aware of the multiple millions of Americans out there who believe things differently than is perceived in Washington. They’re very concerned about . . . a moral meltdown in this country. They’re waiting for some political figure to articulate those views. And no one does.”
Then came Trump. His unique blend of celebrity, ego and a mischievous delight in outraging the elites — as well as his confidence that he would be judged by the lax standards applied to Hollywood and sports figures rather than the unforgiving rules that govern politicians — enabled him to win over millions who heard in his message clear echoes of their late-night grumbles to friends on Facebook.
Trump’s rhetoric and character liberated some Americans to open an ugly vein of animosity. “This year has revealed our underbelly, and a lot of people don’t like what we see,” said Jim Daly, Focus on the Family’s current president. America, Daly said, has morphed into “a post-Christian society,” a “depraved culture” in which the more conservative party chose a nominee who boasted of his sexual assaults.
Clinton’s decades in politics, her emotionally distanced and guarded presentation, and her legalistic language nearly smothered the revolutionary nature of her own candidacy — oddly, the possibility of electing the first female president was rarely mentioned through most of the campaign. (When some in the campaign sought to go big with the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy, they were told by those in charge that many Americans just didn’t want to hear it.)
Was the Trump victory a statement condoning sexism, boorish behavior and coarse aggression? Would President Obama still insist, as he did last summer, that “America is not as divided as some have suggested”?
In recent days, many Americans expressed a palpable desire to relieve the tension of division that is evident in the 56 percent of Americans who, according to The Washington Post-ABC poll, were anxious about Clinton becoming president and the 61 percent who felt that way about Trump winning.
“Everybody is against everybody. Why?” Mary White asked in Des Moines last week after two police officers were shot and killed. She brought her son to a makeshift memorial, where she found a morsel of hope, and a question: “Look how this community has come together, people who don’t know each other. Why can’t our nation come together? What happened between 9/11 and now? Why are we enemies?”
Every chapter in the American story so far has resolved into hope. The Civil War birthed Reconstruction. The riots and generational strife of the 1960s settled into sweeping social and cultural change.
Before the vote, the University of Virginia’s president, Teresa Sullivan, appealed to students to be civil to one another after the vote. She taught them about the bitter election of 1800, when a pro-John Adams newspaper warned that Thomas Jefferson would create a nation in which “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.” Jefferson won and set about trying to get people to “unite with one heart and one mind,” to restore “that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things . . .”
Daly, the evangelical leader, said he intends to reach out to gay activists and abortion rights advocates “to build bridges, just trying to create discussions and friendships. I don’t know if it will work. When you try to do that, you get killed by the extremes on both sides. The uncorking of incivility makes it hard: Discussions that used to die among friends now become unbridled castigating of other people. I’m hopeful that this election is a blip. We’re now at a point where we cannot say that civility is a shared value, and I don’t see how we can keep our democracy together without being able to talk to each other.”