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KLICE Comment November 2016

Concern, empathy and hope: responding to the US election

Dr Judd Birdsall is Managing Director of the Cambridge Institute on Religion and International Studies (CIRIS) and a former US diplomat.

On the eve of the US election I gave a talk at Clare College, Cambridge where I surveyed the damage done by Trump’s campaign but then offered two hopeful predictions: 1) Trump will lose the election; and 2) American white evangelicals will reject his message of division and exclusion.

I was completely wrong on both counts. Trump easily won the election (at least the decisive Electoral College vote) with the help of an historically high 81% of white evangelical votes.

I’m left disappointed by my erroneous prognostication, dismayed by the choice my fellow Americans have made, and distressed by the political trajectory of the United States. Like many Americans who took a vocal #NeverTrump stand during the election, I have experienced a swirl of emotions since learning the result.

Now that the initial shock has passed, three dominant sentiments are beginning to emerge in my heart and mind: concern, empathy, and hope. Here I will reflect on these sentiments and explore the types of constructive post-election action they can inspire.

First, I’m concerned. This is perhaps the easiest feeling to feel right now. Trump’s words and actions throughout his campaign — and, indeed, throughout his life — are cause for great concern. His treatment of women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, journalists, political opponents, and his glaring lack of knowledge of governance and global affairs are deeply concerning.

I’m not alone in saying so. Exit polls show that a majority of voters believe Trump is dishonest, unqualified, lacks the temperament to be president, and they overwhelmingly disapprove of his campaign promise to build a wall on the Mexican border. Even a quarter of Trump’s voters believed their candidate was unqualified and temperamentally ill-suited for America’s highest office.

Concern compels vigilance. Following the election, conservative columnist for the New York Times Ross Douthat said,

For the next four years, the most important check on what we’ve seen of Trump’s worst impulses — his hair-trigger temper, his rampant insecurity, his personal cruelty — won’t come from Congress or the courts or the opposition party. It will come from the people charged with executing the basic responsibilities of government within his administration.

As a former US civil servant I agree with Douthat. But I think his point can be extended to the entire international community. People everywhere can provide a check on Trumpism by remaining vigilant and calling out any untruthful statements and unjust policies coming out of the White House. If it’s any encouragement, Trump has shown repeatedly that he is highly sensitive to popular pressure.

My fellow Christians have, I believe, a special duty to be vigilant during the Trump era. After all, we seek to practice and preach a message of the equal dignity of all mankind and of love of neighbor, foreigner, and enemy. The incoming president of the United States claims to be a Christian but his commitment to this message is, at best, highly suspect. Our commitment will be suspect too if we don’t call him out when he speaks or acts in ways contrary to Christian virtue or if we remain silent about the sharp rise in hate crimes and racist incidents following Trump’s victory.

Second, I’m trying to empathise with the concerns of Trump supporters, especially the economic insecurity and loss of dignity felt by the white working class. (Note: many Trump voters are solidly middle class, but much of his most avid supporters are economically less well off.) Even as globalisation benefits economies in general, it decimates certain sectors — particularly those vulnerable to outsourcing and automation.

Millions of working-class Americans previously relied on industrial and agricultural jobs that are now gone for good. Every time I drive across the American Midwest to visit family in Indiana and Illinois, I see countless small towns with boarded-up shops and homes, where family breakdown, opioid abuse, and suicide are alarmingly and increasingly common.

Empathy for the white working class compels a posture of solidarity. Their plight requires serious and sustained attention — not Trump’s scapegoating of Mexicans and Muslims nor the liberal elite’s demonising of blue-collar conservatives. Just because Trump has said so many deplorable things doesn’t mean Trump voters are all, to use Clinton’s phrase, a 'basket of deplorables'.

At a very basic level, solidarity with Trump supporters in Middle America entails avoiding epithets — 'redneck', 'white trash', 'flyover country' — that America’s coastal elites too often use in reference to disadvantaged whites.

At a policy level, such solidarity means pursuing initiatives that help mitigate the adverse impacts of globalisation. And we need policies that foster social mobility by providing more equitable access to quality education, healthcare, and infrastructure.

Last and least — at least for me — is a feeling of hope. I am trying to feel hopeful, even as President-elect Trump’s transition to the White House raises my level of concern with each passing day.

I am clinging to hope in America’s liberal democratic (small l, small d) institutions, which have developed over centuries and weathered numerous political and cultural storms. I’m comforted, for example, by the fact that the election went very smoothly — despite all of Trump’s bogus and racism-tinged warnings that the election would be rigged.

And it may sound unnecessary to even mention, but as an American I’m grateful that virtually no one is seriously calling for a military coup against Trump. Such is the pervasive and deeply engrained commitment to republican government, that a coup — an all too common temptation in much of the world — is completely off the table in the United States, even though Trump is deeply despised and a majority of voters voted against him.

Hope in American’s abiding democratic ideals and institutions can inspire a constructive engagement with the Trump administration. With America still in the position of global superpower, the United States government impacts the lives of billions around the world in countless ways. People everywhere can, I think, engage the Trump administration, with vigilance and empathy, in the hope that America’s institutions will endure and America’s better angels will prevail.

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