I have been alive for a long time. I remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when I was a 10th-grader, and then watching with my family through the grim following days as newscasters said that something had changed forever. The next dozen years were nearly nonstop trauma for the country. More assassinations. Riots in most major cities. All the pain and waste and tragedy of the Vietnam War, and then the public sense of heading into the utterly unknown as, for the first time ever, a president was forced to resign. Americans of my children’s generation can remember the modern wave of shocks and dislocations that started but did not end with the 9/11 attacks.
Through all this time, I have been personally and professionally, and increasingly, an American optimist. The long years I have spent living and working outside the United States have not simply made me more aware of my own strong identity as an American. They have also sharpened my appreciation for the practical ramifications of the American idea. For me this is the belief that through its cycle of struggle and renewal, the United States is in a continual process of becoming a better version of itself. What I have seen directly over the past decade, roughly half in China and much of the rest in reporting trips around the United States, has reinforced my sense that our current era has been another one of painful but remarkable reinvention, in which the United States is doing more than most other societies to position itself, despite technological and economic challenges, for a new era of prosperity, opportunity, and hope.
And now we have Donald Trump. We have small-town inland America—the culture I think of myself as being from—being credited or blamed for making a man like this the 45th in a sequence that includes Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. I view Trump’s election as the most grievous blow that the American idea has suffered in my lifetime. The Kennedy and King assassinations and the 9/11 attacks were crimes and tragedies. The wars in Vietnam and Iraq were disastrous mistakes. But the country recovered. For a democratic process to elevate a man expressing total disregard for democratic norms and institutions is worse. The American republic is based on rules but has always depended for its survival on norms—standards of behavior, conduct toward fellow citizens and especially critics and opponents that is decent beyond what the letter of the law dictates. Trump disdains them all. The American leaders I revere are sure enough of themselves to be modest, strong enough to entertain self-doubt. When I think of Republican Party civic virtues, I think of Eisenhower. But voters, or enough of them, have chosen Trump.
How could this have happened? No one can know for sure, and with an event this complex and contingent—why not more visits to Wisconsin? what about Comey? and the Russians?—there will be no single explanation. But I disagree with two elements of instant analysis: that this was a sweeping “change” election, and that it reflected a pent-up desperation and fury that would have been evident if anyone had bothered to check with Americans “out there,” away from the coasts.
In its calamitous effects—for climate change, in what might happen in a nuclear standoff, for race relations—this could indeed be as consequential a “change” election as the United States has had since 1860. But nothing about the voting patterns suggests that much of the population intended upheaval on this scale. “Change” elections drive waves of incumbents from office. This time only two senators, both Republicans, lost their seats. Of the nearly 400 representatives running for reelection to the House, only eight lost, six of them Republicans and two Democrats. In change elections, the incumbent president and his party are out of favor, even reviled: Hoover after the start of the Great Depression, George W. Bush after the financial crash. Through 2016, Barack Obama’s popularity kept rising, and if he could have run again, he would have been a favorite for reelection. But even the much less popular candidate from his same party comfortably won the popular vote, and the Democrats gained seats in both the Senate and the House. This is not what 1932 looked like, or 1980, or 2008.
The “fury out there” argument was expressed by, among others, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who was trying to rebut criticisms that his site’s tolerance for serving up popular, profitable, and wholly fictitious reports as “news” had skewed voters’ perceptions of reality, mainly toward the right. It didn’t matter that people were learning online that Hillary Clinton was about to die of Parkinson’s disease, or that violent crime was very high by historic standards when it was in fact very low. In the end, Zuckerberg said, voters “made decisions based on their lived experience.” Of course people must have been furious about their lived experiences. How else could they have voted for a man many of them viewed negatively, according to exit polls, and even as unqualified for the job? To paraphrase Trump’s famous campaign appeal to African American voters: With their lives and communities in such ruin, what the hell did they have to lose?
But just as Trump’s appeal seemed grossly out of touch with modern African American life, so does the heartland-rage theory miss the optimism and determination that are intertwined with desolation and decay in the real “out there.” I can say that because I have been out there, reporting with my wife, Deb, in smaller-town America for much of the past four years. Erie, Pennsylvania, has a landscape of abandoned factory buildings and a generation of laid-off blue-collar workers who know that their children will never enjoy the security they did at the once-mighty GE locomotive plant. (Those GE jobs, by the way, are moving not to China or Mexico but instead to Fort Worth, Texas.) But Erie also has as active a civic-reform movement as you will find anywhere in the country, led by people in their 20s and 30s who believe they can create new businesses for themselves and new life for their town. Erie is worse off in most ways than it was 50 years ago—but better off than five years ago, and headed toward better prospects five years from now, in the view of most people there. That’s also what my wife and I found in places as poor and crime-ridden as San Bernardino, California; as historically downcast as Columbus, Mississippi; as removed from the glamour of the coastal metropolises as Laramie, Wyoming, or Duluth, Minnesota, or Dodge City, Kansas.
Are these impressions incomplete and anecdotal? Of course. But systematic surveys show the same thing. A Pew study in 2014 found that only 25 percent of respondents were satisfied with the direction of national policy, but 60 percent were satisfied with events in their own communities. According to a Heartland Monitor report in 2016, two in three Americans said that good ideas for dealing with national social and economic challenges were coming from their towns. Fewer than one in three felt that good ideas were coming from national institutions. These results also underscore the sense my wife and I took unmistakably from our visits: that city by city, and at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms. As I argued in a cover story last year, most American communities still manage to compromise, invest and innovate, make long-term plans. They even manage to cope with the ethnic change and racial tension that Donald Trump so crudely exploited in his campaign, with more flexibility and harmony than anything about the campaign might indicate. Yes, residential and educational segregation are evident across the country. Yes, police violence is more visible than ever before. But people in Michigan and Mississippi and Kansas were more willing to start confronting these injustices locally than nationally. The same was true of immigration. In our travels we observed what polls also indicate: The more a community is exposed to recent immigrants and refugees, the less fearful its people are about an immigrant menace. We heard no lusty “Build a wall” cheers in California or Texas or other places where large numbers of outsiders had arrived.
Yet Donald Trump has won. How could his message of despair and anger about the American prospect, and disrespect for the norms that made us great, have prevailed in a nation that still believes in itself at the local level? How can Americans have remained so confident and practical-minded in their daily civic dealings, and so suspicious, fearful, and tribally resentful about the nation as a whole?
Nearly a century ago, Walter Lippmann wrote that the challenge for democracies is that citizens necessarily base decisions on the “pictures in our heads,” the images of reality we construct for ourselves. The American public has just made a decision of the gravest consequence, largely based on distorted, frightening, and bigoted caricatures of reality that we all would recognize as caricature if applied to our own communities. Given the atrophy of old-line media with their quaint regard for truth, the addictive strength of social media and their unprecedented capacity to spread lies, and the cynicism of modern politics, will we ever be able to accurately match image with reality? The answer to that question will determine the answer to another: whether this election will be a dire but survivable challenge to American institutions or an irreversible step toward something else.