US Election: Concerns, Coping and Consolidating My Thoughts

I think that much of the planet woke up in shock this morning.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then someone must have printed out this blog post and carried it to you on camel-back to the middle of the Sahara Desert where you have been living a hermit lifestyle. Any contact with the internet, television, radio or human beings over the last 24 hours would have revealed to you the fact that a man whose key policy is a continent-sized construction project to restrict immigration has been elected to the highest office in the United States of America.

For the most part, I try to conceal my political preferences when in the public domain. Of course, I always try to objectively present fact and evidence. Working out my persuasion is possible based on how I frame certain topics, my demographics (white, affluent, educated youth) or who I spend my time forming connections with. But here, I feel I can unashamedly say that I was rooting for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. I want to use this blog post to dissect how I have reacted over the last 24 hours.

Election Night

Leading into election night, I was bouyed and optimistic. The polls showed Clinton ahead, there were positive signs in early voting, and the narrative since June had been odds-on for a Clinton victory, at least in the circles I was reading. Throughout the day, I was checking how things were progressing, and receiving back positive stories that spurred on my optimism. I had an uplifting and optimistic conversation about Clinton’s chances over dinner. I went to football training calm and relaxed. Approaching 11pm, I was gearing myself in for what seemed to be a great night of election coverage. I decided I needed some snacks, so rode in to Sainsbury’s to get some chips and a new toaster (because who doesn’t want toast on election night?). By the time I got back, the coverage geared up towards polls closing. I was watching the BBC, and the conversation was very much geared to introspection on the part of the Republicans: how do they recover the Hispanic vote; what happens if/when Texas goes blue in the near future; and so on. I had the FiveThirtyEight blog and the Real Clear Politics results sheet loaded on my computer, so when the polls closed, I was following the results closely.

Over the next three hours, the mood shifted remarkably. I went from thinking about how Clinton could win in North Carolina to refreshing every three minutes to see how much her deficit was decreasing in Virginia (which she won) and Florida (which she didn’t). My confidence here can be correlated to my snacking: early on, I was slowly making my way through my chips, but later I had discarded them and sat solemnly in bed.

One thing I noticed here, at around 3 in the morning, was ideas that I normally disassociate myself with lingering in my mind. As news came through that some counties that had voted heavily for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 were now voting heavily for Donald Trump, I found myself calling into question the legitimacy of the result. Surely this has been rigged? Did the Russians hack the American voting machines (which we know are vulnerable)? The logical part of me dismissed these ideas as conspiratorial, but I gained a glimpse as to how one might reconcile voting for Donald Trump.

I went to bed at around 3:30 am, deeply concerned as at that point it appeared that Hillary had no chance of victory. Again, at this point, I found myself justifying reasons that it was not true: If she does win Michigan and Iowa and Nevada, I reasoned, then it won’t end up with Trump. But at this point, I was just denying the inevitable. I knew it was inevitable. I just didn’t want to admit it.

The Morning After

I woke up at 7:30 am and turned the television back on in time to see the lead-up to and presentation of Donald Trump’s victory speech. Defeat, now, was inevitable. I found myself coming up with scenarios by which it could all be unwound: maybe the Electoral College wouldn’t vote as prescribed (after all, wasn’t that what it was intended for?). But this defeated an underlying principle: everyone had complained so bitterly when he didn’t declare he would accept the election result. So what gives me the right to not accept the election result?

One thing I noted during his speech was how rambling it sounded. It didn’t seem at all prepared or well thought out. It felt like he was listing names of people which popped into his head and thanking them. The moment where he called the RNC chair Reince Priebus onto the stage was so shocking, for two reasons. First, what kind of victory speech involves calling onto stage to the microphone someone who most people have never heard of mid-speech? Second, it struck home that, yes, Donald Trump would be the next President of the United States of America.

I watched on for a little longer, my mind now running through the direct and indirect implications for the result. What would this mean for minority communities? For the Supreme Court? For LGBTIQ+ Americans? For the tone of political discourse? What would happen on climate change (a big issue that affects me very intimately and deeply)? You can insert many more issues here. I found myself coming up with more and more as the day progressed. It was highlighted even more with news of a shooting at a polling place in California. How safe are we?

I still had things to do during the day, so I rode in to the department for a lab group meeting, which was happily devoid of election talk. This was followed by group lunch, were we first began to discuss the (literal) elephant in the room. It was obvious we all knew about the result, but how to discuss it? Comments here revolved largely about what it meant for science and physics in particular. Would we see science budgets cut? Would we opt for more space travel? Who knows?

Over the afternoon, I was in a strange position where I wanted to follow what was going on but also wanted to remove myself as far as possible from the situation. One of the most bizarre things was reading a news story about a tram derailment in London that had killed five people. Whilst being an absolute tragedy, I wanted to read the story because it was something that wasn’t a reminder about what was going on across the Atlantic. And yet, I felt compelled to read more election based stories. I had to mark some practical books through the afternoon. I found myself listening to a non-political conversational podcast from deep into last year, which was just an excuse to get away (the podcast was Hello Internet, in case anyone was wondering). But I was also chatting to people back home who I had followed much of the election with to share in my frustration. I found it soothing to scroll through my Facebook feed and see all of the other people who were reacting in a similar way. It felt like my concerns were not unique, and there were people out there who were going through the same introspective processes.

Once the books were marked, I went home and curled into bed. I needed to nap, I was tired. When I got there, the news was that Clinton was going to make a concession speech soon. But I quickly fell asleep before it started, given how tired I was. I was awoken by the fire alarm, from someone cooking rice upstairs, and congregated in bare feet outside Gwen Raverat House with other residents while we waited for maintenance to come and turn it off. There was only one topic we could feasibly talk about, especially since there was an American among us. I found it useful to share what I was feeling, as I reflected on how long the next 4 years are. As a side note, by the time the next election campaign starts, I will (hopefully) be concluding my PhD. So I had some perspective on how long my PhD was at least.

I was back inside in time for Clinton’s concession speech. I found it a difficult but inspiring speech, in fact, probably the best I’ve heard her speak. It was exactly the speech I needed to hear, especially as a young person with liberal values. I was so moved that I broke down. It was a mix of the weight of fear of the next four years, the not-quite-so-optimistic-yet-not-pessimistic inspiration that Clinton portrayed and the anxiety that I was feeling. When I gathered myself, I headed to the Gates Scholar’s room across the river for what was termed a ‘debrief’.

Debriefing with Gates Scholars

One of the statutes of the Gates scholarship is that approximately 40% of scholars are picked from the United States every year. That meant that a large proportion of scholars were now having to deal with the day’s news. Given that we are almost all very highly educated, young people who are willing to travel away from our home country for our post-graduate studies, it should come at no surprise that a very large proportion of the community were backing Clinton. A number had even campaigned for Clinton from Cambridge. After the call for a debriefing chat had gone up on Facebook, about 25 scholars, myself included, went to the scholar’s room to try and process what had happened, a kind of group therapy session. We talked about, among other things, how we deal with the increasing echo chamber effect in political discourse, what it means to be in a democracy, how do we fit this in with our world view, what is the outlook for America and how do we try and engage and prevent racist, sexist and abusive politics.

One thing that struck me here, was the emotion showed especially when it came to peoples families. A number of scholars shared stories about parents, grandparents or extended families that were Trump supporters, and how they were struggling to face up to or reconcile with them today. These stories were very emotional and it was clear that there were deep divisions here that would not be dealt with overnight. Other emotive themes were how do we help our sisters, and our future daughters overcome the sexist and misogynist attitudes that have been pedalled in this election, and would we feel safe in America. A harrowing point was made that, for the rest of history, we now have to contend with the fact that the 45th President of the United States is on record as having said that you can “grab [girls] by the p****”.  A number of the girls in the group shared how the election made themselves feel disempowered as women seeking promotions to high-ranking positions, fearing attitudes towards such moves changing for the worse.

Coping and concerns

A number of themes have been playing around in my head all day. They range from concerns to points of introspection. I’m going to discuss them here in no particular order. I will point out that the views I present hear are liable to change given conversations I may have over the coming days, weeks and months. They are very raw and may not be completely thought through. They also aren’t necessarily rational viewpoints, but ones that I jump to instinctively without thought and analysis.

One of the things I found myself doing is dreaming about 2020. In a way, this seems like a ray of hope, knowing that it can change and these decisions can be reversed. I found myself looking up who might run in four years time: do we see the likes of Elizabeth Warren or a pre-eminent Berniecrat (or Bernie himself) or someone new coming out of the woodwork? It seemed like such a temptation to say “it’ll be okay, just give it four years”, or maybe “the Democrats can win back Congress in the mid-terms”. But I don’t want to do that. I think it would be wrong to deflect and dream of the future again. The consequences are going to be felt now. And we have to deal with the present now. The pain and shock is an important part of the process of self-improvement. I believe we must all look inward now and reflect, before we look to the future again.

I think it is incredibly scary that the Trump-led Republicans will now control all three branches of government. Trump now runs the executive. The legislature has Republican majorities in both houses. The judiciary now gets appointed directly by Trump. I don’t yet know how this plays out in the future. As far as the judiciary goes, it remains a fact that whoever Trump chooses to replace Antonin Scalia will replace Antonin Scalia. By that I mean will occupy the arch-conservative wing. That means that the court balance won’t empirically change just now, and relatively progressive decisions are still plausible. But any future appointments or appointments to lower-level judiciaries will now be highly biased. As for the legislature, I think it will be interesting to see how checks and balances are performed on the Trump legislative agenda. Will congressional Republicans grant Trump a platform to advance his own policies, will there be push back from elements within the Republican party that don’t support Trump and may cross the floor, will Congress try to force their own legislative agenda, given the policy items for Trump are so light? Only time here will tell, but authoritarian rule is always disconcerting. At least in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland and much of continental Europe (I’m not informed enough to comment on other political systems), one or both houses of parliament operate without a majority, meaning negotiation and compromise is an essential part of legislating. In the UK, Canada and Ireland, the upper houses review and are appointed or elected as experts, providing more checks and balances. And curiously enough, the House of Commons here in the UK seems to provide checks and balances to itself, even though the Conservatives can pass things through without consultation if they wanted to. But for the US, I have doubts about whether these checks and balances will be performed, and how effective they are.

I have had many ponderings on what I would like to happen over the next term. Some of them are not rational. For example, following the train of thought “what circumstances lead to Trump not taking office” leads to the conclusion “somebody should assassinate him” which should not be condoned at all and has many far-reaching consequences. It is not a path I advocate for at all. There is another train of thought that stems from some rather anti-American views that resonated and grew through my late childhood growing up with George W Bush as President. They were reinforced by a number of other reasons I have mistrusted American society, including the prevalence of firearms, the deep connection between politics and religion, an anger over the Iraq war, the dominance of America as a global power, bravadoism about war, America’s role on the UN security council and the confluence of hate speech and free speech, but also more mundane things as the continued use of an electoral college and the imperial system of measurements. I must stress that this is not my current views on America, but something that was with me in my childhood. This line of anti-American thought suggests “let Trump do what he likes, let him ruin the country, send everything into a recession and refocus the world’s attention on Europe or the Far East, so we can forget about America as a superpower”. Of course, this is a poor course of action, and not one that I would implement. There are many innocent people in America who shouldn’t be punished and are now extremely vulnerable and will likely suffer. The way I interpret this thought is that it is a way of accepting the result of the election and deflecting any negative effects on me onto somebody else. This isn’t right, but is part of the way that I’ve tried to wrap my head about the result.

There is a strong sense amongst people I have spoken to today that this marks a major shift in the world. I grew up in the late 1990s and the 2000s. Everything I’ve experienced about politics has been presented to me in a lens of corporatism and globalisation. I’ve grown up knowing that economic growth is good, competition is good, privatisation is (mostly) good and democracy is good. Given the events of 2016, and the rise and success of right-wing figures like Donald Trump in the US, Pauline Hanson in Australia, UKIP and Brexit in the UK, Norbert Hofer in Austria, Marie le Pen in France, Rodrigo Duterte in the Phillipines and Vladimir Putin in Russia. Plus we have left-wing protectionists, though with lesser support, including Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Nick Xenophon in South Australia. Combined with the increased threat of terrorism and mass immigration, there is good reason to believe that there is a massive shift coming or happening in the world order. The last time this happened was the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disillusion of the Soviet Union. That was a major event in World History; a massive paradigm shift that changed the way the world was viewed. Before that, World War II, the Great Depression, Imperialism and so on. I’ve read all of this history, but that’s all it’s been. History. All I’ve known is neo-liberalism and it is very interesting that all of this may change soon. I don’t know to what, and that’s the scary part.

As I think more about the future, I wonder what happens if/when the famed border wall is built and mass deportation occurs and the underlying economic problems aren’t solved. What next? I think the same about Brexit. Once the UK is out, and things settle down, what happens? Immigrants have been used as the bogeymen in both cases. Do extremist politicians continue to peddle the same stories? Do we find new bogeymen, if so, who? Does the population reflect and notice that things haven’t changed despite the solutions? Then what? There remain many unanswered questions here.

Perhaps my biggest personal concern is that of climate change. Naturally, I’m not an American so I don’t have a direct stake in many of the things that Donald Trump might do (but I may have an indirect stake). But climate change is different. It effects everybody, now and for decades and centuries into the future. My biggest fear is that this election derails the move to action on climate change. I understand it is only one of many countries, but given the lack of support given to climate science, and the large number of emissions arising from the US, I sincerely hope that this doesn’t derail our efforts to reduce global warming. I want to live in a future with animals and plants that haven’t gone extinct, sustainable food sources that aren’t wiped out by high-frequency natural disasters, large numbers of refugees from rising sea levels, inhospitable cities and countries and the sheer prospect of run-away climate change. I get hope by the strong signals coming from Europe and East Asia especially: Europe because it is generally progressive and desires taking action and East Asia because they understand there that smog from pollution causes severe direct health problems (it’s amazing how keen people are to react when directly affected).

One thing that has come into stark relief is just how much we are each living in echo chambers. I have not met one person who has openly claimed that they’ll be voting for Donald Trump, even with the sheer amount of people I’ve met over the past two months. I read my news from sources which regularly and consistently comment on the allegations of sexual assault, misogyny, racism and so on. I, and many of the people I know, have been living in an echo chamber where everything gets amplified. But I, and others, have neglected to realise how many people there are who have a different view, and not one I would be comfortable agreeing with. It is part of the introspection process that I feel that I need to work out how I combat this echo chamber effect. This is something that was discussed at length amongst the Gates Scholars tonight, and I am no closer to coming up with an answer.

As a point of personal reflection, I follow elections rather closely, but the causes I support haven’t done too well. I became politically aware during and after the 2012 US Presidential Election, and especially so for the 2013 Australian Federal Election. Since then, I have followed 19 election, referenda or primary campaigns, of which 10 I consider myself to have had a stake in (spanning three countries), but I have only backed the winning side once in those 10 campaigns (I only voted in one of them). It would be greatly refreshing to be back on the side of the popular mood, but I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon.

CGP Grey

When looking forward, three YouTube videos by CGP Grey help me contemplate what is happening.

The first focuses on how ideas propagate, and especially, echo chambers

The second helps with thinking about how Donald Trump should (in theory) set up his new administration.

The third summarises both the frustration with the electoral college and the result in general (Listen for the tone in the updated parts. It is perfect).

Light Side

On the light side, Maine approved their ballot measure to introduce preferential voting to all state-based elections. Maybe there is hope for electoral reform?



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