The narrow election of Donald Trump as our 45th president has come as a shock to many Americans. This is partly because of the faith put into the polls and the tealeaf reading abilities of people like Nate Silver who suggested a comfortable victory for Secretary Clinton. It is also partly because many could not imagine a man with Mr. Trump’s inflaming rhetoric and utter lack of policy detail securing the votes of enough people. A large amount of Americans would also blame the usual suspects of coastal elites, establishment politicians, and corporate media for creating and taking permanent residence in a ‘bubble’, leaving them blind to the broader concerns of flyover America.
There is some truth to all of these points of course, but what has also become clear from this election is that there are two distinct, insulated bubbles in this country. As I have discussed in previous blogs, economic and cultural forces have conspired to gradually divide America into two countries largely unknown and unrecognizable to each other. Never before in the modern era has an American election been so easily parsed along a cultural fault-line – the city vs. the country.
Though geographically this divide has been self-evident through recent election cycles, the demographics that make up these two (admittedly broad) categories have increasingly parted ways with each other. Glancing at the exit polls and election results, it is easy to see that diverse counties in and around urban cores overwhelmingly supported Secretary Clinton while white-majority counties along the exurbs and further in to rural areas overwhelmingly supported Mr. Trump.
You can point to various explanations as to why this particular election tipped towards Mr. Trump: Republican-leaning white women came home to the party; Black turnout in some key swing states didn’t match previous elections featuring President Obama; the Latino vote proved to be less hostile to Republicans than anticipated; (less convincingly) Gary Johnson and Jill Stein took just enough votes away in other key swing states.
You can also point to the candidates themselves and specifically how Secretary Clinton’s perceived flaws seemed to harm her more than Mr. Trump’s. How much was that due to anger towards the establishment? How much of this was fueled by sexism (or racism or xenophobia for that matter)? If this election boiled down to a referendum on the former, the result might be less disheartening, even understandable, but if it was a referendum on the latter, we have revealed something about our country that is deeply disturbing. A person inclined to outright dismiss one of those narratives shouldn’t be so quick to do so.
No doubt this election will be studied for generations, but the immediate point of concern is how evenly divided these two ‘countries’ are - a tiny change in any one of those previously mentioned variables and the electoral college tips back decisively for Secretary Clinton. How does either candidate declare a mandate in that environment?
What has been painfully clear is how little contact each of these countries has with each other, despite close geographical proximity. This has left supporters of both candidates fearful and resentful of each other, prone to believe the worst not only of the other candidate, but also of the other group of supporters. A supporter of one simply cannot understand how a supporter of the other could do so, how he or she could not see what was so clearly true.
As many others have commented on, there is also no national media serving as a gatekeeper to public discourse. In the interest of ratings and clicks, elements of new and old media alike have devolved, whether consciously or unconsciously, into echo chambers for each worldview, leaving little overlap or exposure to the other. The media has a lot to answer for going forward.
There are few, if any, other national institutions that inspire trust in the majority of Americans. This leaves the country with no shared source of information trusted by both constituencies to serve as a jumping off point for policy debates. The Post-Truth Age has arrived. This makes it nearly impossible for anyone representing one of these countries to govern the other, let alone both collectively.
However, despite the vast gulf between the two, it is clear that they agree on one thing: the neo-liberal consensus of the past 30 years has failed. Both party establishments have long accepted the core principles of neo-liberalism – privatization, deregulation, financial austerity, increased global trade – while using the culture war to differentiate themselves to the American electorate. Voters have repudiated both parties and Mr. Trump has laid waste to most of the political assumptions both relied on.
But who is President Trump? We have never known less about an elected candidate – his personal qualifications or his policy positions. On the surface he is undeniably an agent of change, but will he form a new, coherent political ideology beyond neo-liberalism? Or once he inevitably faces the obligations and limitations of his office will he fall back into a generic Republican role (maybe with some continued nationalist rhetoric)? How much has the slow bi-partisan emergence of an imperial presidency laid the groundwork for those limitations to fall away? No one knows, least of all his supporters.
This is a trying time for America and, in truth, our institutions have never seen the type of stress test that could come with a President Trump. Will they stand up against the worst authoritarian instincts of Mr. Trump or will they buckle as much of the Republican Party already has?
And what of the two countries Mr. Trump is assuming power over? Can he effectively bridge the gap between both of these distinct countries and forge common ground? Does he think he even needs to try? In such a deeply divided political and cultural environment, can our institutions even function with or without someone like Mr. Trump as president?
In the wake of such a bitter election, it is hard to see the appetite for rapprochement from either country within America. There are many structural obstacles to overcome even if one emerges. But there must be a coming together. As other countries in the west experience the same type of backlash against neo-liberalism, the very idea of liberal democracy is under siege for the first time in a century. History has warned us what turning inward from the world and turning against one another can lead to. America must serve as a source of hope in a troubled world and offer a way forward based on honoring its basic ideals. One America can survive a President Trump or even help a President Trump succeed. One America can serve yet again as a beacon of stability and prosperity that the world can look to. Two Americas cannot.