Humility is a virtue but fake humility is a sin, or ought to be. So let me begin the new year with full-throated praise of some people and institutions that supposedly got their comeuppance in November: the mainstream media, so-called “coastal elites,” share-the-wealth liberals, pointy-headed intellectuals and others said to be hopelessly out of touch with the “real America.”
In what too quickly became the consensus view, all of the above were put in their place by Donald Trump’s narrow electoral victory. We unreal Americans were demonstrated to be clueless, the conventional wisdom has ruled, and now are obliged to slink away and repent.
All of this is pure rubbish. It’s time to stop all the self-flagellation and raise our voices to insist that things like knowledge, experience, qualifications and respect for objective fact still matter — now, perhaps, more than ever.
Let me start with a much-maligned sector that is near and dear to my heart: the news media. We have been accused of causing the whole Trump phenomenon, failing to notice said phenomenon was happening, or both.
We did neither. Trump’s campaign was initially covered as nothing more than a publicity-seeking stunt, for good reason: He had a long history of publicity-seeking stunts. His outrageous and inflammatory statements were reported because they were newsworthy. His raucous and unscripted rallies were, let’s face it, a lot more interesting to watch than Jeb Bush’s or Marco Rubio’s. The fact that Trump received a lot of exposure did not compel a single voter to support him; many, in fact, were motivated in the other direction, to oppose him any way they could.
Did we fail to recognize and understand the grievances of white, working-class Trump voters? Not for lack of trying. We interviewed Trump supporters at the rallies, sent reporters to bereft Rust Belt cities, profiled individual voters to understand their personal travails. The one thing that definitely would have made media coverage better is more October polling in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Do urban, coast-dwelling “elites” really have such haughty disdain for the heartland? That’s an odd way to look at a country in which, according to the Census Bureau, more than 70 percent of the population lives in “urbanized areas” and more than half lives in “coastal watershed” counties, generally within 50 miles of one of the oceans or the Great Lakes.
Americans have been moving from rural areas and small towns into cities for decades because that’s where they find economic opportunity — and because, well, big cities are interesting places to live, full of diversity and cultural attractions and good restaurants. Yes, this is still a nation of purple mountains’ majesty and fruited plains. But that’s not where most Americans live.
Should liberals be hanging their heads in shame? No way, as the conservative majorities in the House and Senate will soon find out. Trump promised during the campaign to improve and even expand the social safety net, not rip it to shreds. He also pledged to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure projects and cut everyone’s taxes.
To read Trump’s win as some kind of sweeping victory for conservatism would be absurd. Progressive voices, loud ones, will be needed to hold him accountable. One thing we learned during the campaign is that Trump’s voters — unlike many congressional Republicans — do not necessarily see big government as oppressive. They rely on its help.
And another thing: Despite Trump’s general lack of knowledge about how the government works, and despite the lack of relevant experience of some of his Cabinet picks, knowledge and expertise really do matter. Scientists who have spent their entire careers studying the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans know more about climate change than politicians who base policy positions on the fact that it gets cold in the winter.
Remember that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. I point that out not to delegitimize Trump’s election, but to refute the notion that Trump’s America is somehow more “real” than mine or yours or anyone else’s. The America that supports progressive policies, rejects racism and sexism in all their forms and believes that what critics call “political correctness” is actually just common courtesy — that America is real, too, and needs to make itself heard.
Let’s begin the new year with the realization that an election was lost, but not the country — and not our rights as full participants in the American experiment. Donald Trump is our newly hired employee. Let’s not hesitate to tell him what to do.
Eugene Robinson is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.