The hardest problem in the moment of this crushing defeat is what to tell our children — eager, idealistic, and patriotic kids who want to believe that democracy works and that America is kind and just. They have grown up under President Obama and now face the rise of a very different leader, whose sinister and depressing campaign has showed them, at a very young age, the worst side of politics.
How do you tell children that we face a catastrophe?
For the moment, I told them that Donald Trump, in his victory speech, promised to unite the country and be fair to everyone — to be nicer, in the vernacular of elementary school. And it is true that he offered those rote pledges when he took the stage in the early morning hours.
What I could not tell them was that I believed Trump, because there is no evidence that he will relinquish the divisive and angry politics that brought him to power or the rejection of religious and ethnic minorities — and women — that agitated so much of his base. It would be comforting to think that having won the presidency, he will suddenly fit himself to the responsibilities of that office, but knowing what we know about Trump, that seems beyond any reasonable hope.
Instead, we must prepare to cope with a series of crises at home and abroad that will test humanity. Even before the election was finally scored, we began to see the consequences of the destructive choice made by half of the American electorate, as world markets recoiled.
A plunge into economic recession seems highly likely, under a conservative regime whose policy nostrums are certain to make bad even worse. The white working class and rural voters who wanted to “blow things up” by voting Trump are going to find out that he cannot return them to the world in which they felt secure. It is troubling to ask where they will turn — and whom they may seek to scapegoat — when those false hopes are disappointed.
Under normal circumstances, an economic plunge is not a threat to democracy and constitutional freedom, but there are not normal circumstances — and a Trump presidency will be poised to curtail liberty, beginning with immigrants, Muslims and women, and extending to the press and his political adversaries. All that decent citizens can try to do in the face of the coming onslaught is to resist, to protect, and to support each other.
Recriminations over the Democratic defeat have begun already, and perhaps that is unavoidable. Hillary Clinton tried to adjust to the country’s populist mood, but her revisions of the political formula that once drove her husband’s presidency proved to be too little and much too late. She fought hard on the most progressive Democratic platform in decades, but the suspicions aroused against her and her family were disabling.
Now the Clinton era has passed, with all of its high and low points, and a new generation of leaders in the Democratic Party and on the liberal left must summon strength and purpose in this darkening time.
As for the children — all of our children — we will have to seek ways to protect them from the worst to come, and to build hope again for the future. Today, in the dawn of a darkening time, it isn’t easy to imagine how we will do that.