by John Creed
[On 14 November, the College of Charleston’s Political Science department held an election post-mortem featuring professors Jordan Ragusa, Kendra Stewart, Gibbs Knotts, Karyn Amira, and John Creed. Most of those in attendance were students. After short presentations by the first four, who expertly analyzed the surprising election from several angles, Dr. Creed delivered these inspiring remarks.]
You’ve heard four sobering and professionally restrained assessments of the recent election from my colleagues – my comments are also likely to be sobering, if perhaps a bit less professionally restrained at times (and hence, these are my comments alone – not attributable to my colleagues on the panel or the department as a whole).
My ostensible purpose on the panel is to set out the international reaction to America’s elections on Tuesday. That is easily and quickly accomplished.
If you lead a state that is transitioning to authoritarianism, like the “democratically elected” leader of Egypt who has imprisoned 60,000 of his citizens without due process and authorizes the torture of many in his nineteen new prisons, or the democratically elected president of the Philippines with vigilante blood proudly dripping from his hands, you were surprised and are now guardedly optimistic that this is an administration you will be able to work with, free from the constraints of respecting human rights or worrying about maintaining anything that resembles democracy domestically.
If you lead a genuinely authoritarian state like Russia or Syria with designs on oppressing others long into the future, you have reacted with barely restrained satisfaction, believing the new administration will be populated by fools from the top down, men who possess “the twisted mentality of an empire moving downhill” and who will be easily manipulated as a result.
If you lead a state that is genuinely democratic, say a close ally like Germany or a more distant friend like Australia, you have reacted with shock and foreboding, not only for the unwelcome shifts in America’s policies and positions overseas that you anticipate, but for the inspirational effects a hyper-nationalist, xenophobic America could have on similar anti-democratic movements in your own countries, movements often set on destroying existing political norms.
And if you are one of the millions throughout the world who have looked to the example of United States democracy for political hope, or simply have had its model of democracy shoved down your throat as the only way legitimate politics should be conducted, you were reconsidering your perspective on America and its politics even before Tuesday’s results: in the words of one “America always spoke to Arab countries as if they had so much to learn. And now we see American democracy involves choosing between a woman from a dynasty and a man who says the system is manipulated. If that’s democracy, then we don’t want it.”
All of these reactions are carefully calibrated and in their own ways, measured. For what the entire international community awaits are America’s actions under a new Trump administration. They have heard the language and made what sense of it they can – now they await what it means in terms of what America begins to do. Will America truly tear up its trade agreements with Asia (as many Asian states doubt will be done) or will America recalibrate its security commitments to Europe (as many European states have started preparing for)? Will America implement more hostile immigration policies? Is there a secret plan to defeat ISIS that markedly diverges from what is already underway?
But Americans have neither the luxury of waiting to see what a new Trump administration begins to do — nor do they have the need to wait – for unlike the rest of the world, we have been present for the last eighteen months of his campaign and we have heard its appeals – and we know the man and what he has done over his lifetime – none of us should claim that the fundamentals of what is to come are unknown. Soon too, we will know the men (and they will be predominantly men) Trump will surround himself with and who will carry out his wishes — and they too come with histories one should not ignore.
And though these times are genuinely different – we have never had a new President quite like Mr. Trump, nor have we had such a vision for the country articulated as he has – these moments are not completely unknown to all of us either. I vividly recall the distress many felt in the 1980’s after we elected a president who celebrated his ignorance, created his own realities and was likewise certain of his rightness — and I was politically socialized at a time when America was led by a man with his own issues of paranoia, megalomania and vindictiveness. In light of that history, it is tempting to say that “the system held then and just as it prevailed in those years, there is little to worry about today – we will be fine and there is no need for me to be engaged.”
But that ignores the social costs of those times for all of us – the secret plan to end a war that stretched another eight years and cost the lives of more men than had been killed before the “plan” was enacted – and it ignores the damning legacies those years left behind that we still deal with today – Islamic extremism, burdening debt, environmental obstructionism to only start a longer list. And it ignores the institutional reality of today – that a President Trump wields executive authority far greater than any previous president in post-World War II history, thanks in no small part to the precedents his predecessors have set. Approach Trump with an open mind if you must, but do not approach him with an empty mind, for he has left you many important cues to follow over the next months and beyond.
And so, as I have heard many ask since Wednesday morning, what is one to do? How is one to respond? Where does one find hope?
I have two initial suggestions: first, TALK – CIVILLY. 59 million Americans disagreed with 59 million other Americans last Tuesday (while millions more sat out the process altogether) and too many of us assume we know what all that is about without having ever meaningfully engaged one another in conversation. Instead, we presume to know what others were thinking, why they made the choices they did. But the reality is we do not know – and we do not know in large part because we lack the skill we most need to meaningfully engage one another – civil discourse. Years of media exposure to people debating issues like rabid howling wolves, together with the power of social media to self-select who we engage with and who we ignore (and the technology’s overwhelming power to create such distance among us that we will “say” anything, no matter how cruel or thoughtless) – all that has helped to drive us away from the very capacities we need to engage one another fruitfully – honesty; modesty; patience, compassion; a commitment to listen and hear the voices of others; thoughtful, considered dialogue based on mutual respect.
Today, too often we are afraid to engage one another, fearful of being judged harshly or unfairly if we disagree – and what this means is that not only do we fail to understand and appreciate one another, but we often do not see the different pathways we are on actually lead to the desire for reaching compatible goals. We are stymied by the divergent paths we walk and we are misguidedly convinced the only way forward is to pull someone off their path and onto ours. There are people in this room who can help teach you how to dialogue in civil terms – but you must be committed to the task in order to build the skills.
Second, ACTIVISM – EFFECTIVE ACTIVISM – not mindlessly blocking a highway and only enraging the already angry for no tangible, attainable purpose – real activism that is deliberate and thoughtful, goal oriented, grounded in facts, driven by vision, and collectively pursued. It is hard work – the greatest activists and the most important movements are populated by names you do not recognize and faces you have never seen, people who have often toiled for years in pursuit of meaningful change. Much of what has emerged that is good in this country has come from the efforts of activism – and much of what has not emerged has been prevented by activism — and much of what has not been lost has been protected by activism. Effective activism, like civil discourse, is based on skills you can learn at the College – skills that you should learn while at the College – and these will never be more important than they are today.
The rest of the world knows, in many respects, how important Tuesday’s results were – but there are limits as to what it can do to influence the future direction of events here. They will largely deal with the results. The core responsibility rests with us.
We can avert our gaze and claim that our job is done or that we did not get our wish – that whatever happens now – good or bad — is someone else’s doing. If we respond that way, we will likely be “surprised” again – and I fear in the most damaging and tragic of ways.
Or we can engage – with others who we do not normally seek to understand — and with those who value what we hold dear. If we do, we may find to our surprise that sometimes they are one and the same — that we are not always so intractably divided as “the experts” claim us to be. But divided or not, we must ensure that what comes next does not resemble what we have seen for too long.
Because we know what is coming in the next weeks and months ahead, for good or for ill. And we know the dangers that are a part of the agenda. We cannot ask structures to protect us from ourselves any longer – for those structures were built and maintained by people, by some portion of us, and this is what they have now produced. We must engage – to hold those with enormous power accountable for the authority they wield in our names – and to begin to repair and rebuild the structures — and the human relationships — we have neglected for too long.