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What happened? Thoughts on the 2016 US Presidential Election

November 19, 2016
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(CNS photo: President-elect Donald Trump takes the stage at his post-election rally in New York early on Nov. 9)
The evening of Tuesday, November 8, 2016 is now one of those historic dates that millions of people will never forget. Putting aside any personal opinions or feelings, watching the election unfold was utterly confounding. Only one thing united Americans that evening; one penetrating question swelled in the minds of supporters of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump alike: what happened?
The evening was a tense and fascinating look inside the complex system of the American Electoral College. All the attention was on the swing states: first Florida, then North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania. The clock seemed to stop with Michigan and Wisconsin as votes were being tallied and it became clear that Clinton would have to sweep the Rust Belt in order to carry the election. Was this really happening?
The commentators began to reach: “Trump is leading, but Clinton’s people are telling us that the votes from the major population centers, like Detroit, are not in yet.” They never came. Late into the evening reality began to sink in, and it’s a feeling I will never forget.
I was on a university campus in central Minnesota in 2008 when Barack Obama, the young, charismatic conduit of hope won another historic election. I was in a dormitory at the center of St. John’s University campus as I witnessed an unforgettable moment of nationwide jubilation. On campus, rejoicing students poured onto the university grounds. It wasn’t your typical college party; no booze, pure elation. History had been made. The improbable happened. The moment drew people together. A bridge was crossed.
The atmosphere around the election of Donald Trump was strikingly different. I was not at St. John’s, but I cannot picture the students pouring out of the buildings exuding joy, hope and pride as a people united. This is not a matter of electing a Democrat or Republican. I sense that most Americans who voted for Donald Trump were not compelled to go out into the streets and celebrate that night. Of course there were a few rallies. But not the spontaneous nationwide euphoric eruption we saw in 2008.
I picture many Americans, especially those in the deciding swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin—all carried by Trump—watching the results roll in and soberly, almost expectedly, nodding their heads. Then they shut off the TV and went to bed. So many Americans who voted for Trump would have preferred not to. But they felt they had no other choice. They felt they had to make a statement. And so they did.
Then the analysis started. How could this have happened? No one wanted to believe it was possible. “Americans were fed-up with the establishment,” they said, “people didn’t trust Clinton.” “The abortion issue was vital to Evangelicals and Catholics, so Trump was the only morally feasible option.”
An insightful analysis from the Catholic perspective was offered by Austen Ivereigh, contributing editor at CRUX. Something bigger is going on here, he argued, likening the US election result to the Brexit earthquake earlier this year.  “What Brexit and Trump show,” he concluded, “is that the battles now…are no longer between left and right but between globalists and nationalists.”  Nationalism, according to Ivereigh, is what came through loud and clear on November 8: “Globalization—with its accompanying ethos of anything-goes tolerance, celebration of diversity, and contempt for local loyalism—weakens ties, breaks up community, and provokes resentment. It provokes an assertion of the value of belonging (flags, faith and family), and of local attachment: “taking back control” in the slogan of Brexit, or Trump’s “make American great again.””
There’s no doubt this question of globalism versus nationalism is a significant one, and will require much more analysis going forward. We’re only just beginning to wrap our heads around it. But I would like to reflect briefly on another factor that prompted millions of Americans to vote for Trump: economics. Ivereigh says that the election results were “not primarily about the economy.” That may be so, but it was certainly a contributing factor. The driving force behind globalization is not tolerance and the celebration of diversity, but money: the untapped and untold economic opportunities presented by a global economy. This is a factor that must be considered post-election, and one that the Catholic Church—particularly at this moment in history—can help to shed some necessary light upon.
The truth is that many Americans are suffering financially. They are jobless or stuck in low paying, part-time or contract work. Wage stagnation and amassing debt are brutal realities. The economy as a whole has grown since the 2008 crisis, but the ordinary American hasn’t benefited. Manufacturing jobs are shipped overseas. Politicians in Washington are ineffective and often accomplices to the money runners of Wall Street, who have built an impersonal economy, a “rigged system,” where the rich get richer and are indifferent to sufferings of the ninety-nine percent.
A good part of that ninety-nine percent voted for Donald Trump on November 8th. In 2012, President Obama won Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin—the Rust Belt—the manufacturing backbone of the country. What accounts for this sudden shift in support from Obama (and by association Clinton) to Trump? Pro-life voters don’t change allegiance so suddenly or dramatically. The economy is not working for the working-class.
Only a few years ago in 2013, when talk of electing Donald Trump would have elicited laughs across the political spectrum, a prophetic document was issued by another world leader, Pope Francis. Evangelii Gaudium is Pope Francis’s vision for the Catholic Church today, which he knows cannot shy away from the world of politics and economics. The Church in the world, with all its messiness, is a “field hospital,” a “mobile unit” rushing to heal the wounds of suffering, division and injustice here on earth.
Known for his strong down-to-earth and pastoral sensibility, Francis insists that “reality is greater than ideas,” and sets out to name the problems facing the human family. One of his primary targets: the prevailing economic system:
“Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
“To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”
“We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”
“While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.”
“To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”
“With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs”.”
“A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.”
It seems to me that many (not all!) Americans who voted for Donald Trump would agree with Pope Francis’s economic assessment. It’s not because the Pope is a Catholic or a Christian, per se.  It’s because he is able to look at reality and speak the truth about it.
Perhaps it’s a bit strange to think of Trump voters agreeing with Pope Francis. In February of this year, the Pope was asked about Trump’s campaign promises to deport undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the southern US border. Francis said that, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.”
There’s a great irony at the centre of all of this, and it might help to explain this unlikely convergence. Mr. Trump the businessman has benefited greatly from the trickle-down economic system that Francis rails against. One would think this would decrease his support from working class Americans. These folks—including the Rust Belt folks—have experienced the opposite effect of the same economic system. Nothing has gone their way. Just like Trump’s amassing wealth, their financial shortfalls are a product of an unjust economic system. Therefore, Mr. Trump the businessman is not guilty of anything other than taking advantage of a system that happens to be designed to work in his favor.
If Mr. Trump is a product of the system, Mrs. Clinton is a builder and promoter of it.  She’s been in politics for long time—a trait her campaign falsely believed to be an asset. She, and other members of the Democratic Party have thrived in Washington for decades, perpetuating a system that they could work to change if they wanted to, but didn’t. The people have spoken.
The election of Donald Trump was a complex event. There are no singular explanations for it. But certainly one of the contributing factors was the prevailing trickle-down economic system, “a new tyranny” as Francis calls it; a faceless, unaccountable and unjust reality which “imposes its own laws and rules,” as “masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
The November 8th election can be seen, in part, as a rejection of this economic system of exclusion. How President-elect Trump—a man who has never experienced real poverty or economic exclusion in his life—responds to the dissatisfaction and anguish of his compatriots remains to be seen.
For their part, the Democratic Party should pay close attention. One of their own, one-time Democratic nominee Senator Bernie Sanders was deeply inspired by Pope Francis’s bold and prophetic assessment of the economy. His popularity soared, but the Party turned their back on him, believing they could keep power by maintaining the status quo. Some have accused the Democratic Party, along with the media, of not paying attention to the reality on the ground and living in their own world of ideas. That’s a dangerous game to play, as Francis reminds us, “reality is greater than ideas.”
blog_1479516034(CNS photo: Pope Francis greets children at St. Maria's Meals Program of Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 24, 2015)
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