This answers common questions about the election, what happened, what it means for liberal democracy, concepts you need to know and what to do right now. It's concise. Entire books will be written about the election and this isn't one of them.
I voted for Clinton, but anyone concerned about a Trump presidency will find this valuable. This is a living document: I will update with improved links and references as I learn about them. The ambition is to keep it short: an absurd goal for sure but we are in an absurd world, so why not?
History books will likely describe it this way: two polarizing candidates (and one historically unpopular one) campaigned in one of the meanest and most surprising races in American history, involving class divisions, urban vs. rural tensions and the unintended consequences of new media. President-elect Trump was one of the most inexperienced victors in American presidential history.
2. Can you say something that makes makes me feel better?
If you voted for Clinton, nearly 64 million people agreed with you. This is a good thing. I'll take a divided country over one that has completely abandoned its ideals. I don't know if I'd have had the motivation to write this document if 90% of my fellow citizens voted against my sensibilities for what is best for our country given the choices we had.
We are living in historic times. Isn't history fun? Did you know in 1900 the average life expectancy was just 30 years? Or that unemployment was 25% in 1933? Would you rather be alive then? We've come a long way and it's useful to keep that in mind. The best way to feel better is to get some perspective (more on this in section 7), but not too much. There is much to be upset about too. But it's not the end of the world, not yet anyway.
Put simply, this is our generation's turn to live through a challenging era of the American story. I've never been asked to fight in a war or make large sacrifices for future generations, but I know I've benefited greatly from those that came before me. We will all be tested now, from citizens on all sides to those who represent us at every level. Where do we stand? What do we care about? And what are we willing to do about it?
3. What were the main factors in what happened?
[If you want to take action NOW, skip ahead. But at least skim this topic as it helps explain which actions matter]
An election is best understood as a trailing indicator, which means it reflects the population's feelings about the last few years, not just these last months. There were at least 12 forces important to understand. NOTE: these forces are not necessarily logical or based in fact, just as humans who vote aren't necessarily logical and don't always base their decisions on facts.
U.S. Economic divide 1990-2016: Many of the major economic gains of the last three decades went to an unprecedentedly small part of the U.S. population (See: America is the richest, and most unequal, country). Corporations gained more power and rights. The shift of the U.S. economy, in policy and action, was at least perceived as not benefitting many (working class) Americans. Complaints about "the system being rigged" or "feeling left behind" are fueled by this sense of a divide. One theory, of many, is that votes believed "all other things are equal, Trump has a better chance of changing things for me and Clinton offers none" Author Thomas Frank explains this argument well, in particular how decades ago the Democratic party left middle america and the working class behind, focusing on professionals and elites – this election may be the consequence.
Rural vs. Urban – The U.S. has always had a strong political divide between urban areas and rural ones but as the size of cities have grown the tension has increased. Rural economies and communities are struggling in a way most cities are not. The red state vs. blue state divide is less useful for understanding what is happening than an urban/rural one.
Decentralized and weak media – The rise of the internet over the last 20 years decimated the news industry in every way. Even without the rising problems of fake news (a profitable kind of spam) the web's disruption of major media had the unintended consequence of increasing the effort an average citizen needed to invest to understand what was going on, much less how to interpret meaning (media often tries to stay objective, as Kevin Cheng said, "…normalizing and equalizing things that are neither normal nor equal"). The media is often called the fourth estate, having the unique power to overlook the others, but if it is weak much is in jeopardy.
Racism – Trump used xenophobia, race and misogyny in his public comments to a degree never seen before in the modern era (See: dog whistling). While this divided the voting population it wasn't a sufficient barrier for many self proclaimed "non-racists" not to vote for him. Their belief (was likely) that he was the best chance for change they felt they needed. Additionally, Trump appealed to those who felt left behind and blamed various problems on "THE OTHER", even in a nation founded on immigration. Trump masterfully used this to his advantage, as well as the divisions and in-fighting it created. It was a surprise to the nation, both to his supporters and detractors, that he could say what he said and win.
Backlash behavior – The swings of liberalism/conservatism in America over the last 100 years are well documented. Most elections are referendums on the previous term, and we collectively average out of the course of decades to define what the nation is or is not (See: the shifting prohibition of alcohol, voting rights or civil liberties). One 2016 theory is that 8 years with a socially liberal black president, where gay marriage and state recreational marijuana became legal, and the possibility of the first woman president, provoked a backlash from many towards a more moderate and conservative America.
ISIS / Fear of Terrorism – For 15 years the U.S. has been involved in a "war on terror" where fear of terrorism is far out of scale from the actuality of it on U.S. soil. Living in a state of promoted fear reinforces distrust and validates wasted expenditures like the TSA. American confidence of its place in the world with a series of failed, and endless wars, has been rocky for some time.
Obamacare Premium hikes – elections are sensitive to recent news and the months leading up to the election included several announcements of cost increases and declining insurance participation in Obama's signature legislation.
Third party protest votes – American elections are often decided by narrow margins, and the existence of two third party candidates likely contributed. There is no way to know for certain if the lack of a third candidate would have changed the outcome or simply resulted in more people not voting at all.
Polling "failures" – both candidates were surprised by the outcome, a reflection not only ofoverconfidence in polling, and the filter bubble effects of social media, but a gap between perception of America and the reality. Additionally there is ignorance about probability itself. Probability models can't tell you much about any one outcome: an 80% chance of victory is strong, but by definition it means that 2 times out of 10 the candidate will lose. Most people don't understand, or don't want to understand, the speculative nature of all predictions (as evidenced by the popularity of lotteries). Some claim that had Clinton known it was a closer race she would have campaigned differently, but this is a level of speculation I don't care to entertain here.
Liberal democracy itself may be struggling – Brexit and events in other countries may suggest there is a wider global trend towards more autocratic systems of government, or more nationalistic views among large groups of democratic nations.
The best place to start is to frame the problem in a useful way. Which THING do you want to protect? What freedom or policy do you feel is most important? As best we can tell, the election was fair and Trump won. To dismantle/undo/reject the outcome requires grounds more potent than the fact that half the electorate didn't vote for him.
The election itself is over. While it's true that the electoral college was designed in part to provide a failsafe and there is some bipartisan support to act against Trump, it has never been used in this way and it's not well designed for this purpose (for example, individual state laws are different, and often the electors are designated by political parties making them unlikely to rebel especially if their candidate won). I have mixed feelings about the system but changing it will take a long time and be hard to do.
Meanwhile there are ABSOLUTELY things to be done to protect what is important, but they have less to do with the outcome of the election and more to do with using the system, as designed, to our advantage.
The U.S. government, and the election process, is a massively large and heavy wheel that moves slowly, by design, turning once every few years. The absolutely annoying but frustratingly true lesson is we need to be involved in our own democracy on a regular basis, rather than presuming we can wait every 1460 days and just fill out a two page multiple choice form. I take this to heart personally and painfully. There was much I took for granted.
5. What action can I take NOW?
There are many things we can do. The best high level advice is to think about leveraged action. Instead of making a single phone call, organize with your friends and family and work together. Use money or volunteer your time to enable people and organizations that are already skilled and experienced with the tasks at hand. They can do far more good with their time towards some of these efforts than you can.
Support the Free Press. Jefferson himself believed it was the freedom of the press that had the greatest power to keep a government in check and a population informed. Subscribe or give money to the strongest investigative journalism organizations we have. I'd recommend:
The NY Times – they set the tone for many other news organizations, and despite valid criticisms about their coverage during the campaign, they remain a powerful source of influence for all American media.
The Atlantic – A high quality magazine that does investigative reporting.
Mother Jones – Less well known and younger, but they have been the first to break stories on campaign finance, Mitt Romney's 47% private speech, and other news resulting from committed investigative journalism.
Slate – Among other reporting efforts, they ran (and still run) the Trumpcast podcastthroughout the campaign, scrutinizing his candidacy and rise to power.
The Economist and the Wall Street Journal – the list above is heavily weighted towards liberal views and filter bubbles are part of the problem. The WSJ and The Economist have a more centrist/conservative posture, but also do excellent investigative work.
Protect the Constitution and our rights. One of the greatest threats of a Trump presidency is the decay or destruction of the fundamental protections provided to citizens by our most important document. I'd recommend:
ACLU. Founded in 1920 to protect our Constitutional Freedoms, they are the most experienced organization we have for bringing crimes and violations against the Constitution to the courts. They will be a primary source of appeal to the Judicial branch to reign in presidential abuses of power.
SPLC. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been for decades a leading source of protecting civil rights for all americans and using the legal system to fight for what is best in the public interest of a diverse America.
EFF. The electronic frontier foundation. The battleground over citizen's rights are often fought now through technology. The threats of surveillance and infringements on privacy by own our government are real and this is one organization working to protect us.
Engage with your representatives. You do have a representative who is your delegate to Congress. Do you know their name? How to contact them? It's time to make sure they know how you feel about what's going on.
2018 Midterm elections. We will get to decide the balance of Congress in just two years, and Congress has great powers to keep the executive branch in check. Senators will start their election campaigns many months before that: This is just 12-14 months away. There is hope here although the landscape isn't great, but depending on what happens more opportunities may arise. Many states have governor elections in 2018 and that may be the best opportunity for the Democratic party.
Support efforts to reduce fake news. It's hard to know how much this mattered, but it certainly contributed weakened power and reputation the U.S. Media has. Finding ways to both identify, reduce and make illegal (or punishable) the deliberate creation and propagation of false stories. (Need links to specific groups to support or fund).
(What is the best group to support that is centered on this problem? Leave a comment)
Support the Arts. In times of unrest and confusion it's often stories, in movies, paintings and music that have the greatest ability to break through the noise and help someone rethink their assumptions, on all sides. We need to support writers, musicians, poets and filmmakers who have timely stories to tell as they can get people to listen in ways logical arguments cannot.
(Need link for how to find art projects or art groups to fund – suggestions? Leave a comment please)
Take care of yourself and loved ones. This is going to be more of a marathon than a sprint. Pace yourself. Don't obsess. Be active but patient. Find people to partner with on the actions you want to take.
6. Which people and policies are most vulnerable?
We know from the rise in hate crimes since the election that Trump's racism and xenophobia was noticed and people with those beliefs are emboldened. This will continue. He has rarely spoken out against it, despite the many trivial things he complains about on Twitter.
Groups who are more likely to be targeted include:
Immigrants, Muslims, Minorities, Women, Jews, People living near or at the poverty line, LGBTQ folks, journalists who challenge those in power, and anyone who is easily perceived as being "the other"
If things get worse in 2017 for America, these groups will increasingly become the target of blame and will need the most protection. The SPLC is an excellent organization with a long history of both preventing, and prosecuting, hate crimes and protecting all of our citizens.
We really don't know what to expect. Even for a qualified candidate, it takes months or longer for an administration to find their footing, learn how to work together, and how to partner with the other branches of government. During the campaign he offered this list for his first 100 days, but he has conflicting opinions on so many things it's hard to know where he truly stands, but we have to prepare for the worst.
We do know that he craves attention and power, two dangerous personality traits that if unchecked can have profound effects. Narcissists have an endless obsession with attention: they can never get enough. This is a personality disorder (NPD) that includes the skill of providing false signals of normality, and telling people what they want to hear, but underneath it all there is something very dysfunctional at work in their psychology.
Believe the Autocrat. "He means what he says… in the 1930s the NYTimes assured its readers that Hitler's anti-semitism was all posture." In the case of Trump who uses disinformation, we have to take him seriously but not always literally. Often he uses Twitter purely for attention or to distract us away from something else.The media is finally figuring out how to report on him.
Do not be taken by small signs of normality. "Confronted with political volatility, the markets become suckers for calming rhetoric from authority figures" (also read this excellent essay: This Is Not Normal)
Institutions will not save you. "It took Putin a year to take over the Russian media and four years to dismantle its electoral system; the judiciary collapsed unnoticed. The capture of institutions in Turkey has been carried out even faster, by a man once celebrated as the democrat to lead Turkey into the EU". American democratic Institutions are stronger than many other nations, but if attacked from inside its hard to know how long they will protect us, or themselves.
Be Outraged. "in the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one's capacity for shock. This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting." But be smart about expressing that outrage. Use the energy productively if you can and separate venting from work on the cause. It's hard to change anyone's mind if you start by calling them a racist, stupid or anti-american (see changing hearts and minds).
Remember the Future. "Nothing lasts forever. Donald Trump certainly will not, and Trumpism, to the extent that it is centered on Trump's persona, will not either. Failure to imagine the future may have lost the Democrats this election"
In broad strokes here are behaviors and choices to watch:
Hostile relationship with free press / 1st amendment – Trump continually challenges the press, using Twitter to issue his own commentary directly to citizens. Other presidents have of course tried to issue their own views directly to citizens, but none to the inflammatory, trolling, and baiting extents that he has. The less the public looks to the press to understand what is happening, the more power the president has.
Cabinet appointments – these are the people who have the power to enact policies in major departments of government and to represent the president to the nation and the world. Congress has the power to approve/reject many of them, and will be an early test of how Congress will work with Trump, and how effective his cabinet is at working together.
Kleptocracy – a classic move among soon to be dictators is to use their powers to steal as much wealth from the existing government as possible, and to hide it (through disinformation) as they do it. This includes directing government contracts towards existing businesses, asking for favors from local and foreign officials in return for preferential treatment, and on it goes. Unchecked, entire government can be decimated from inside.
Trade and Foreign Policy – This might be the scariest domain of all, as the American economy is deeply intertwined with the economies of other nations. From China, to the Middle East, to our NATO relationships, there are too many question marks to even guess what will happen and how things will go.
8. Has this happened before?
America has had some very difficult years, including some that were true existential crises. It's healthy to recall those events to put what is happening now in relief and to find examples and tactics that have been useful in tough times in the past. (For a full historic inoculation that will deflate romance about past eras of civilization and make you happy to be alive now and in this country, try The Great Big Book of Horrible Things).
USA – darkest times:
1778 – Two years into the American revolutionary war nothing was stable. Half the country didn't even want the war. There was no Constitution at all.
1862 – One year in the Civil War the nation was literally divided, with two armies literally trying to kill each other. The fate of the nation has arguably never been in greater peril.
During times of crisis we have had authoritarian presidents – their reasons and qualifications may have been different, but we have had more power centric presidents before.
FDR (great Depression, WWII)
Lincoln (Civil War)
Washington (Revolutionary War)
Case studies to consider: Modern Hungary, Nazi Germany / Italy 1929-1945, Modern Russia / Turkey (shift from democracy to authoritarianism)
9. Are the comparisons to Nazi Germany appropriate?
Godwin's Law states that you lose any argument by comparing anything or anyone to the Nazis. What is happening in America has enough parallels to history and Trump's endorsement of people affiliated with neo-nazi groups, merits suspending the restriction.
Here is the short summary every American should know:
In the 1920s, Germany had a vibrant free press and film industry.
The Great Depression (1929) divided the country and citizens wanted a simple answer.
Hitler used propaganda to simultaneously promise renewed prosperity and blame outsiders for the cause of the problems.
When the parliament building (Reichstag) was set on fire in an act of arson, Hitler, and others, called it a terrorist act by the Communist party. The government agreed to grant the president wartime powers (UsingArticle 48), suspending most civil liberties and protections for citizens.
When Hitler was elected the next year he used those powers to eliminate other parties, arrest their members and intimidate various factions.
Within 6 months the entire democracy was demolished. Free Press was illegal. Political parties were illegal. A person's race was used to decide who could own newspapers or property, or work, or live.
Germany was in the midsts of the Great Depression. The U.S. economy is currently in far better shape.
Our democratic institutions are 200+ years old and in theory stronger and better protected when compared to the 12 year old democracy Germany had at the time.
The key takeaway: if a leader has the desire to consolidate their power, one classic tactic from history is to use an external threat to justify it, and once unilateral power is obtained, never let it go. The worse the populace believes things are, the easier it is to blame minorities (even if leaders are responsible), and continue the justification for power. Therefore a leader seeking to gain more power through corrupting a system wants things to get worse, not better.
10. How bad can this really get?
It's hard to predict. There are many variables at work and it will take time to see how they are sorted out. Will Trump's cabinet be approved? Will they be effective in their goals? Will their goals change? Where and how will Congress partner with, or resist, Trump's desires? How will he respond to world or local events? What leaders in Congress and in our nation will step up and inspire us? There are always unintended consequences to choices powerful people make, and some may surprise us in good ways. Here are some things to consider.
We know very little of what Trump's ideology is. Or if he has one at all beyond benefitting himself. His cabinet appointments do have clearer ideologies (and in some cases troubling histories) and a major question is how much they will influence him. He has a short fuse, obsesses about petty issues and most of all is a narcissist with a compulsive desire to "win" and be popular. His personality may be more dangerous than his beliefs or ideas.
Trade wars, as well as real ones, can have major economic consequences. And as unemployment rises, already high tensions between groups will escalate, especially if that is the goal all along. Hard to know how his campaign rhetoric will translate into foreign relations, or just about anything.
Trump and his inner circle are master manipulators of media, especially using confusion and distraction tactics. The goal of confusing the media is well explained here in terrifying terms: in uncertainty those with the most power are the only ones who know what is truly going on. Trump's masterful use of TV and Twitter have already established his power to minimize the potency of reality, which hinders checks against his power.
His party, until his victory, largely disliked him. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and many other prominent Republicans were outspoken critics of his candidacy. As we've seen since his victory, politicians are professional masters at spin and changing direction to go with the prevailing winds. At the moment it's hard to predict how will the Republican Congress will work with, or against, Trump. A simple heuristic might be that where Paul Ryan and Trump's policies overlap, there will be change. Elsewhere, there will be little. It is possible the administration is ineffective in many ways rendering their agendas irrelevant.
11. What To Do Now
Thanks for reading this far: it was not a fun read, I know. Try to convert your fear, sadness or anger into useful action. Here is a simple list summarizing what you can do:
Act on Supporting the Free Press, organizations that defend the Constitution and protect civil rights (see full list of actions above). They are experts, they are at the front lines every day and need our support and recognition when they do good work. Get behind them.
If you found this document insightful, share it with friends and start a conversation. Invite them to coffee or beers to discuss are make commitments to action together. There is much to digest – don't try to do it alone. Let me know what you come up with from these discussions.
Join the re:act newsletter for weekly updates on actions you can take. This new newsletter is aimed at keeping us connected and informed. We are just getting started and have to keep paying attention and staying involved.
Can I improve this guide? Do you have a better link or reference for something I mentioned? Another guide out there that compliments this one well? Did I get a fact wrong and you can teach me? Let me know. I'm@berkun on Twitter. Thanks for reading.
Thanks to Bryan Zug, Chad McDaniel, Phillip Hunter, Jill Stutzman, Steve Portigal, Sam Greenfield, Heather Bussing, Ramez Naam, Kevin Cheng, Justin Martinstein, Tony Stubblebine, Will Little,Tim Cigelske, Elisabeth Robson, Andrew Maier and many others for feedback and suggestions
v 1.1 – removed reference to electoral college being about urban vs. rural in section 3. One intention was to help protect small states, but I conflated this with the urban vs rural divide.