A nation at war with itself

Understanding the 2016 United States election

William Chafe

Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | The World

6 December 2016

Following the 2016 US Presidential election, America faces a challenge as profound as any it has encountered in the last 150 years, William H Chafe writes.

Not since the Civil War in 1860 has the American nation been so divided. In many ways – as in the Civil War – race is at the core of the division. A decisive majority of white voters, women as well as men, voted for Donald Trump. Over 90 per cent of African Americans, by contrast, voted for Clinton. But the election was about more than race. Attitudes toward immigrants, Muslims and women also highlighted the degree to which we have become separate. We fail to understand each other, and we subscribe to values that appear to come from two different nations and cultures.

In some respects, the best way to understand the election – and the divide – is to realise that there were two Donalds and two Hillarys running against each other. But each side saw only one of the two, failing completely to understand the “other” Donald and the “other” Hillary.

Most people in the news media, and virtually all Democrats, saw Trump as bombastic, egomaniacal, racist, xenophobic and sexist. They viewed the videotape where he boasted of “groping” women, heard him call Mexican immigrants “rapists” and criminals, describe all blacks as swamped by poverty, and demand a ban on the migration of Muslims to America. Seeing only the Trump captured in these statements, they concluded that no decent American could ever vote for someone so bigoted and oppressive.

More on this: The Paranoid-Jacksonian: History and tradition have the answers to understanding Donald

What the media and Democrats failed to see was the “other” Donald. This was the Trump who outspokenly condemned the “Establishment,” denounced the privilege of those in power and called attention to the plight of white working and middle-class Americans who had seen their incomes plummet, their job opportunities shrink, and their desire for representation in Washington ignored. Those Americans who saw this second Trump blast the Establishment each day viewed him as their voice, their defender. Paying little if any heed to the Trump who bragged about sexually assaulting women, they chose to listen to the Trump who resonated with their pain and spoke for their redemption.

These angry, primarily white voters who chose to support Trump also saw only one Hillary. This was the woman who embodied the Establishment, held and exercised power for nearly thirty years, never revealed her deep emotions and seemed repeatedly to convey the message that now it was “her” turn to be in charge of the country. She came across as someone who sought to perpetuate the “system” and values that Trump supporters saw as the source of their despair.  This was the Hillary who received hundreds of thousands of dollars for giving a speech to the leading firm on Wall Street, then refused to divulge what she had said; the Hillary whose life revolved around the rich and powerful – precisely the people who Trump was attacking and who Hillary came to symbolise.

Virtually no one saw the “other” Hillary. This was the young woman whose mother insisted that she attend the Methodist Youth Fellowship at her church, who then became a convert to the “Social Gospel” – the belief that Christians should commit their lives to achieving the justice, equality, and fairness that Jesus preached – and who then devoted her college and post-graduate life to volunteering in ghettoes, to fighting for women’s and children’s rights and to achieving economic and racial equality. That Hillary was never seen during the campaign. The woman who was religiously inspired to work on behalf of those who were treated unequally never appeared in the lead up to the election. All voters saw was the woman who personified the Establishment, and sought to perpetuate it.

So America now faces a challenge as profound as any we have encountered in the last 150 years. How can we learn to listen to each other? Is it possible to overcome our bitterness and reach out to those so seemingly different than ourselves? Is it conceivable that we can rediscover the values that our schools taught all of us – a belief that every person in our society has the same right to demonstrate their abilities, get a fair hearing and work for the betterment of the entire community. After all, we are a nation of immigrants, from countries and religious faiths all over the world, of different races and with different backgrounds – but still deserving an equal right to be as good and successful as we can be.

It is as great a challenge as we have ever faced. If we fail to meet it, the country we love will disappear.

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Citation

Chafe, William. 2017. "A Nation At War With Itself - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/a-nation-at-war-with-itself/.

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