No matter your worldview, November 8, 2016, will for generations be marked as a day the world changed. One year later, the question becomes whether such change – or restoration – will become ingrained – or re-implanted – in American culture and politics, or will, on the contrary, spark a backlash from elite and progressive forces the likes of which this nation has rarely witnessed since the Civil War.
Or perhaps, 11/8/16 and all it represents will simply tip back to the center; a cultural and political see-saw that had tipped so dramatically to one side.
THE 1960’S: MORE TURMOIL THAN NOW
For those of us old enough to remember, we have seen this movie before – but it was even more threatening than the bitter divisiveness we are witnessing today. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and then, five years later, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, together with an utterly disastrous war in Southeast Asia, produced explosive divisions and seismic cultural upheaval that ripped the country apart from limb to limb. Violent protests, racial unrest, and burning cities became the new normal. We had lost our way, the center had not held, and everything we once cherished was challenged.
But then came the election of Richard Nixon by the “silent majority” and then the 1970’s “me generation,” when the exhausted protesters came of age and started benefitting from – and embracing – the system they fought to tear down a decade earlier. The center had ultimately reestablished its grip.
If a return to relative normalcy could happen after the trial by fire of the 1960’s, there seems to be a legitimate basis to believe it can happen again in the years ahead. In fact, this turn back to the center should be even more possible today, given that the stranglehold of the political and media establishment has been loosened by the advent of the internet and social media. The 2016 election was a singular case in point.
As always, the nation will eventually move beyond the current president in either 2020 or 2024, but will his undeniably unique place in American history as the first true outsider to reach the oval office- and the first president to openly challenge the entire global order – signal a sea change, or simply a temporary market correction?
While the country is so different now than it was in those tumultuous days of the 1960’s, the enduring issue is whether the fundamental character of the American people has changed over the course of our history. Do we still embrace the same values as in days of old? The answer to that question on 11/8/16 seemed to be a resounding yes. For some, that meant a fresh embrace of American greatness, for others a reversion to the days of white supremacy.
HOW DID IT HAPPEN?
Some scholars and analysts have argued that Trump’s election was the last gasp of a dwindling white majority. Of course, that same argument was presented as one of the many reasons Trump could never win the presidency in an ever more diverse republic.
Others will counter by minimizing the diversity argument and identifying America as a permanently center-right nation which embraced its first black president but ultimately rejected his collectivist worldview.
Whether this becomes a sea change instead of an aberration depends on whether the ordinary Americans who came out of the woodwork to elect Trump remain on the grid or revert back to the disinterest expressed by their refusal to participate in the political process for so many years. At the same time, the diversity theorists will ultimately be proven right – the nation is headed for a majority of minorities – so a durable governing majority must include people of various races, cultures, and beliefs.
Donald Trump has never been an ideologue. He has never hewed to a singular political philosophy beyond making America great again, which can be interpreted in an almost infinite number of ways. In this sense, there is an enormous opportunity to build a durable movement. But how can it be achieved?
ECONOMY AND CULTURE
The first and most obvious way is to build an economy which no longer gasps for air as it did over the eight years of Barack Obama. We have seen early signs of more robust growth, with the GDP increasing by over three percent in the last two quarters – a mark previously considered average, but given the sluggish economy these last years, now thought to be excellent. History has demonstrated repeatedly – witness Kennedy and Reagan – that serious-minded tax reform creates growth that leads to a steady flow of jobs, which in turn leads to economic stability. A striking contrast between not the appearances, but the economies, of Obama and Trump, will ultimately be what matters to American voters. Whether a strong economy can then be sustained will determine whether this revolution we witnessed one year ago takes hold, or fades into the history books.
But the more difficult proposition for the long term is reversing the cultural upheaval we have witnessed since last year’s election. Is such a reversal even possible? Well, the goal of unifying the country is at once strikingly simple and extremely difficult. The key is a restoration of a once-defining but lost American ideal: E Pluribus Unum, translated, out of many, one. Our future does not rest in multiculturalism, but rather in a unicultural, multi-racial society, one in which beliefs are no longer defined by race, creed or color, but by a common commitment to shared ideals.
We must recapture the same common ethos the nation began to develop during the years of mass migration surrounding the turn of the 20th century, that whether we are black or white, Christian or Muslim, were born here or migrated from overseas, our common bond as Americans is far more valuable than our skin color, gender or religious differences.
This may all sound overly idealistic, but on the night of November 8, 2016, the haunting lyrics from that famous Buffalo Springfield song from the 1960’s should have been ringing in our ears: There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear. For Donald Trump’s election to be more than just an isolated moment of celebration or outrage, we must grapple with what that something is, and decide if 11/8/16 ultimately represents a schism in the country so deep it can never be healed, or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those on both sides of the divide to think more deeply than ever about the many things that unite us rather than the few that divide us.