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Where from here?

| Monday, November 9, 2020

The 2020 presidential election confirmed what we knew all along; American society is as polarized as ever. After everything that has characterized the evening of the Trump presidency, one could be forgiven for having hoped for a landslide. Yet, the fact that the election was that close, defying polls and mainstream expectations brought to the forefront once again America’s deep-seated divisions. Therefore, key amongst the tasks at hand for the next U.S. president is to heal and bring together a sharply divided, bruised and hurting nation. To do so, the starting point for the next president ought to be careful and correct study of the source of this polarization.

Leaders are a reflection of what society is or has become. We cannot ask leaders to be radically different from us, yet they come from amongst us. In fact, we should not act surprised when leaders act in questionable ways; their conduct is most likely a reflection of what society practices and what society has groomed them into them into. This is the context in which we must understand Donald Trump. There are two ways to understand Trump; Trump the person and Trump the spokesperson. Trump the person, like all of us, is far from perfect. The difference between him and most leaders, be it in America or elsewhere, is that other leaders understand the weight and significance of the presidency and therefore choose to restrain their conduct. Trump, on the other hand, does not bother to restrain himself; and the media does not hesitate to keep his misgivings in the spotlight and rightly so. Yet, despite all this, more than 70 million Americans wanted Trump to continue on as the American president. Surely, there must be something more to it. It cannot be that 70 million Americans simply enjoyed Trump’s antics and voted to continue seeing more of those. Indeed, to make Trump the person the main and only issue of this analysis is to grossly miss the point. A question must be asked; why is it that despite his conduct, a non-trivial number of Americans wanted him to stay on as president? This fact should not be taken for granted, which brings us to an understanding of Trump the spokesperson. 

As a spokesperson for a significant segment of the American population, Trump has been unapologetic in his defense of the values that he purports to represent; whether he lives by those values is a different question. Thus, in Trump, very many Americans, and indeed very many people around the world found a voice for their values, perhaps in reaction to the progressive forces representing a whole different set of values and ideas. It seems to me that majority of those who voted against Trump did so primarily in opposition to the values that he represents and those for whom he speaks. Yet, Trump the spokesperson not only spoke for the values of very many Americans and very many people around the world. Beyond the values that have been a source of contention in the American polity, Trump also spoke to the socioeconomic reality of millions of Americans; genuine and legitimate concerns. It is on this basis that very many Americans saw in Trump a viable alternative for their present condition. Therefore, it will be a great mistake for progressive forces of change to simply lump Trump’s voters into a narrow, undifferentiated category of those who profess values that they think have no place in the public realm, while ignoring the more genuine and legitimate concerns that them to vote for Trump in the first place.

Ignoring the genuine, legitimate concerns only serve to further polarize the American polity. Progressives, who see themselves as accomplishing a historical mission of transforming society in fundamental ways will seek to double down on their positions, even moving to entrench these constitutionally so as to protect them against political attrition for when conservatives take power again. And so the cycle of political polarization in the American polity would be perpetuated as those who voted for Trump will be driven to desperation for a lack of redress for their genuine concerns; when another opportunity arises, when another Trump comes around, they will not hesitate to vote for another spokesperson for their concerns, since they would have been largely ignored by the other side. 

For America’s experiment in self-government to continue to work, the next president ought to bring America together. In the current circumstances, this will require consensus rather than unanimity. According to French sociologist Philippe Urfalino, unanimity is formed when everyone votes for the same option. That may not be possible even in heaven. On the other hand, Margaret Gilbert (1987) describes consensus as allowing something to stand as the view of the group. It seems to me that those who opposed president Trump disagreed completely with the values he stands for and represents. They also seem to be baffled by how it is possible that their fellow citizens were willing to vote someone who represents values that are in direct contradiction with their very existence. But as I have said, it is mistaken to think that those who voted for Trump did so only because of his values. Some of Trump’s less controversially spoken policies resonated deeply with a large section of the American population. Surely, for some of the seventy million Americans who voted for Trump, there must be something else that made then willing to vote for Trump not because of but in spite of the values he represents. And whereas these genuine concerns maybe correlated with the values, the true are not reducible to each other. The next U.S. president ought to identify and respond to these concerns as a starting point to establishing some consensus in this country.

Trevor Lwere is a junior at Notre Dame majoring in economics, with a PPE minor. He hails from Kampala, Uganda and lives off campus. He is a dee-jay in his other life and can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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