Like any election night, November 8, 2016 was a powerful time. But as we saw, tensions were running high throughout 2016 between the sides of the aisle, and November 8 was the climax of all that fighting. To some people, it was the end of the world; to others, it was the most important political victory possibly ever.
In the weeks that followed the election, analysts and journalists took to the Internet trying to understand how things played out the way they did. Democrats (and some Republicans alike) wondered: how did we lose? Wasn’t it a shoe-in? Where did all these Trump supporters come from? Many finally turned their minds to the question of who these people were that they voted this way, though it was certainly not the first time anyone had bothered to ask. The idea of liberal elitism is and was vital to this conversation, this conversation that was portended by so many authors so many months before.
Jaja Liao, writing for Huffington Post, provides a good segue into this line of thought with her piece “The Hypocrisy Of The Liberal Elite,” published a week after the election. She describes herself and her friends as as “the epitome of the ‘liberal elites’ that Trump supporters hate so much” and talks about the shock and anger she observed among her peers the night of the election, as “the map turned redder and redder.” But over the next few days, she notes, the tune of her social media changed: “People were still posting links to petitions and protest events, but they also started posting statuses that were hopeful, ones along the lines of ‘it will be ok.’ By the time the weekend rolled around, my newsfeed had evolved into a third phase— Hillary supporters urging everyone to ‘engage in conversations with the other side’ in order to ‘understand Trump supporters.’”
“I found this third wave of posts ironic,” Liao says. She goes on to tell of how she spent time prior to the election trying to understand the mindset of Trump’s supporters, trying to figure out why they were rallying around this man. She calls for her liberal peers to “walk out of our echo chambers” and try to engage in constructive dialogue with the people they disagree with, to try to bust down the presently constricting role of ‘liberal elite’ and move towards an understanding of the opposition.
At the same time, several people writing in to The Atlantic engaged in a dialogue moderated by Chris Bodenner; reader Jon, for one, speaks of his time growing up in “the boonies” of New Jersey. He conceptualizes the Trump voter as looking for “a collective middle finger to The City [and the urban liberalism lying within]” and sympathizing, to a degree. But he also says that “part of me wants to respond with a middle finger of my own. And I’m afraid it feeds right into the narrative of urban snobbery and elitism we’ve been hearing about.” In so many words, Jon outlines his frustration with this idea of a Trump voter who is looking for a way to get back at the system that has supposedly been neglecting them and their needs. Essentially, he says, I did what you’re supposed to—work hard, make it big, live the good life. I didn’t have connections or rich parents or anything. I made the American Dream happen. Why can’t you, who claim to prostrate yourselves before it? Reader Susan replies, raising several issues with Jon’s perspective—first and foremost, why should success only be possible in the city? She also questions whether ‘making it’ is possible for most people, citing rising college and healthcare costs and a lack of retirement pensions as major blows against the lower middle class Jon claims to be speaking to. Other readers go on to dispute Susan’s evidence while acknowledging her frustrations as valid, but she gets the final word, saying: “I understand why people voted for Trump; they are hoping that maybe, just maybe, he won’t be a politician.”
This hints at the greater picture of liberal elitism, or at least the real tensions at play. On one side, as Emmett Rensin said all the way back in April 2016, you have the smug liberal, who sees their position as the natural and inevitable conclusion of accepting a series of natural, inevitable, independently verifiable facts. There is no discussion to be had. On the other side, you have the righteously angry…populist? Conservative? Trump voter? It’s hard to say—who sees the change and asks what their place is in the new order, or else sees the place they’ve been given as lacking. They look towards Washington and ask how we’re all still putting up with the ‘swamp’ that needs to be ‘drained,’ as Trump has put it.
The problem here, it seems to me, is that these two imaginary people aren’t talking or thinking about even remotely the same thing. They’re speaking fundamentally different languages that have just enough in common to come across to the other as completely backwards. So now I wonder—how do we get people talking about the same thing and in the same way? Alternatively, does this model of the political conversation hold any merit? Is it too biased in one direction or another? Too forgiving, or too damning?