On the night after the election, I joined a crowd of protesters opposite Trump Tower on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Trump Tower is an odd site for a protest. It occupies the middle of a block, bookended by Tiffany’s to its north and Gucci’s to its south. Anything but high-end shopping is out of place on this stretch of Fifth Avenue.
The demonstrators I fell in with weren’t intimidated by the luxury around them or the heavy police presence. “Racist, Sexist, Antigay, Donald Trump Go Away,” was the chant most often voiced, but whenever there was a lull in the night, “Fuck Donald Trump” got things going.
Trump has chastised the media for encouraging post-election protests. It’s the reverse of his strategy for chastising the media for not giving him enough coverage during his campaign. But this time around, it’s hard to imagine Trump’s strategy bearing fruit.
What was encouraging about the protesters, most of them college age, opposite Trump Tower was their determined anger. It points to our political hopes for the future.
This determined anger was the very opposite of the emotions I witnessed the day before when I taught my American literature class at Sarah Lawrence in nearby Bronxville, New York. On November 9, my students were stunned the way they were fifteen years earlier on the morning after 9/11. Some skipped classes. Others gathered before televisions to watch Hillary Clinton’s concession speech.
The difference is that on 9/11 students were shocked by the loss of life they saw. With Trump’s electoral victory, students were shocked by what they imagine their futures to be.
In an eloquent and much-quoted post-election essay, “An American Tragedy,” New Yorker editor David Remnick has provided us with a long list of the “miseries” to come with a Trump presidency. Remnick’s predictions rest on solid ground, but his post-election mourning is the kind the left would be wise not to dwell on for long.
Far more important is a rethinking of the future that acknowledges what the left did wrong in the election and where victories and compromises—even small ones—can be gained over the next four years.
Self-examination, including a look at why Clinton lost 53 percent of white women voters, may be the most difficult challenge the left faces in the wake of Trump’s victory. Such self-examination has the potential for making reality out of the old political joke, “How do liberals form a firing line? They get in a circle.”
During the election Hillary Clinton got a raw deal from the media (“We shouldn’t have put on as many [Trump] rallies as we did,” the president of CNN recently confessed). Clinton fared even worse at the hands of Republicans. Through investigation after investigation, they made her use of a private server for her State Department emails and her role in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi seem like the actions of a politician who was cavalier about her responsibilities.
But the left needs to acknowledge that Clinton—in many ways so sound and well-prepared—was a weak candidate. She never appeared to have a solution for the economic woes of so many working-class Americans.
Even more important, the left needs to acknowledge that from Bill Clinton’s defense of the NAFTA trade pact to Barack Obama’s pursuit of fast-track trade authority with China and his current championing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Democrats have appeared almost indifferent to the loss of factory jobs as a result of globalization.
The workers who are victims of this job loss certainly knew that Donald Trump was a lout, but they saw in his anger with the system a politician who acknowledged, and thereby dignified, their hurt.
Voting for a man you wouldn’t want near your daughter but who held out the possibility of creating an economy in which you had a place was an easy tradeoff to make for many in the Rust Belt. And it was a tradeoff made still easier by Hillary Clinton’s willingness to make herself rich as she collected over $4 million in speaking fees from banks after leaving the State Department.
What the left does next is it big test. The Supreme Court appointment that would have gone to Merrick Garland and given the court a 5-4 liberal balance is now out of reach, and so are many of Obama’s initiatives on climate control. But there are a host of other areas that are open for negotiation.
When it comes to trade agreements, Trump should be encouraged to do as much as possible to bring back American businesses that have gone overseas. He should also be supported in any efforts he makes to put those who voted for him to work with infrastructure jobs.
If Trump wants to ditch Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the left is in a position to demand an alternative, and with an estimated 16.4 million getting health care they would not have had before the Affordable Care Act passed Congress, liberals have a huge constituency they can appeal to.
As for bills that liberals in Congress might sponsor, one of the clearest and most appealing left over from the campaign is Hillary Clinton’s call for free tuition at state universities for the sons and daughters of families making up to $125,000 a year. Here is a constituency that Trump won’t want to alienate, and putting the onus on him and Republicans to negotiate how the states and the federal government might implement such a plan creates a win-win situation for both parties.
At the protests in front of Trump Tower, nobody was talking specifics when the chanting died down. But what’s to be savored, I believe, is how young the crowd was. I was reminded of the way Occupy Wall Street looked five years ago. Hillary Clinton never got the support from millennials that Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012. Donald Trump, without realizing it, has politicized them as no other politician could have.
Nicolaus Mills chairs the Sarah Lawrence literature department and is author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.
This is part of an ongoing series of responses to the election results.