Much has changed, and much has stayed the same, in presidential politics since May. Over the course of the summer, primaries came to a close, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were officially nominated at their party’s convention and both candidates announced vice presidential running mates. Trump continued to make inflammatory statements, questionable promises, and expose divisions within the Republican party; while Clinton worked to win the progressive left and defend her record.
As we approach Labor Day, we enter the home stretch of the general election (70 days as of today, for those counting). Both campaigns and American voters are growing increasingly ready – whether excited to vote for their candidate or simply to end the campaign news cycle and while we do not know the outcome or what events and controversies may transpire before then, one thing is certain: it is time to start talking about what happens after November 8th.
Elections are always about the future, and while Americans have always been asked to chose between two paths forward, few elections have asked voters in such a dramatic and introspective way. Regardless of which candidate wins, the forces that have shaped this presidential election will not end on November 8th, just as they began building far before either candidate announced. This election creates an inability for everyday Americans to ignore them any longer, and responsibility to think about where we go from here and how. Perhaps the most good that can come out of this election is demanding a higher standard and sense of character from both ourselves and our elected leaders in answering these questions, after seeing a preview of what we risk otherwise.
Firstly, is the legitimacy the Donald Trump campaign has given extreme alt-right groups, a point hit on by Hillary Clinton in a speech in Reno, Nevada last week. The speech was largely a response to Trump’s recent hire of Stephen Bannon as campaign Chief Executive Officer Bannon is now the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, a right-wing website with headlines such as “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?” and “Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage.” His casual and remorseless reliance on anti-Muslim, anti-women and anti-immigrant language, the peddling of conspiracy theories and claims of corruption are far from innocent, especially when done by a potential president. Additionally, he has attacked the credibility of the FBI after not indicting Hillary Clinton, stoking fear of mass voter fraud has implications for the balance of power, trust and stability of our institutions.
Americans relationships with their political leaders has changed throughout history as the political process has become more democratic. However, the words and images portrayed by our leaders retain immense power; especially with a 24-hour news cycle coverage, candidates have an great ability to direct narratives and normalize behaviors and ways of thinking. America’s most influential leaders have led by example; when faced with two paths, they have not only rejected the easier, but have tried to demonstrate that a new, better one, is possible, whether FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’S War on Poverty or Reagan’s “Morning in America.” Donald Trump is advocating for the literal opposite: to make us go backwards, and “Make America Great Again.”
We want our leaders to make us believe that path is possible and that all of us can live our best lives. Donald Trump portrays success in America as zero-sum, and to those certain Americans he is trying to sell success to, he is selling a false promise. As a result, Trump supporters are only going to be more disillusioned if he wins, and more indignant if he loses.
As for the question of where and how we go from here and past November 8th, there’s no one or easy answer. But it would be remiss to think that the anger and resentment Donald Trump has baited will go away, as it may in fact get worse before it gets better – which is exactly why we need to all begin engaging in such conversations. Donald Trump has set a low standard for himself as a leader, but also low standard for all of us, from how we engage in civil discourse to how to we simply treat other people. We are better than that. And the decisions we make after Election Day will continue to be definitive and essential to our path forward just as the decision voters will make at the ballot box.