While many did not predict the outcome of this election, everyone knew one thing: half of the country would be devastated.
For some, Trump was a straight-shooting outsider, standing up to the party elites and fighting for those who felt left behind. For others, he was an offensive liar who pitted Americans against each other.
Clinton had a similarly divisive quality. For some, she was building on Obama’s legacy of inclusiveness, emphasizing that we’re — as we know from her campaign slogan — “Stronger Together.” For others, she was a corrupt insider who played by her own rules and got away with it.
Those on each side saw the stakes as dire. On the Republican side, many feared that Clinton was going to rig the election and then allow dangerous immigrants to enter the US, siphoning benefits from taxpayers and potentially harming Americans, all while her foreign policy continued to destabilize the world.
On the Democratic side, there was a barrage of attacks from politicians, late-night talk shows, the Hollywood elite, and victims of Trump’s past actions, all saying with a unified voice that this man lacks the character and knowledge to be our leader.
Making sense of the divide
How did we get to this point? Why do people on each side of this issue feel as if they have been robbed of their place in the country?
I think one of the best answers to these important questions comes from a political scientist named Rogers Smith. His prescient diagnosis of how rights protections expand and contract dates back to the mid-1990s.
He explains that over the course of US history, 3 different political traditions have clashed and combined to produce recurring conflicts. He calls these three traditions liberalism, republicanism, and ascriptive Americanism.
The liberal (aka classical-liberal) tradition in America focuses on individual rights, representative government, and limited political participation. The Declaration of Independence embodies these ideals.
The republican or Whig tradition, conversely, focuses on civic virtue, civic education, and substantial political participation. It was represented by the Antifederalists, who saw the Constitution as a betrayal of those ideals.
Finally, there is ascriptive Americanism. This tradition is rooted in a racial, historical, religious identity — that of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority. This is the American tradition that originally limited political rights and participation to white men.
The conflict in 2016
This theory can help us better understand what occurred in the hearts of the electorate on November 8th and on all of our social media accounts since then. Many people are trying to understand Trump as a racist who either hoodwinked uneducated people or tapped into the deep racism that bubbles under the surface in the United States.
Smith’s multiple-traditions theory can help us see and articulate the reasons for a Trump vote more clearly and with greater nuance.
- Classical Liberalism: Over the past 16 years, Americans have experienced an expansion of rights protections. Homosexual couples can marry; many of the most invasive elements of the Patriot Act expired in 2015; there is freer and more globalized trade; and immigrants from an increasingly diverse set of countries have come to the United States to live the American dream.
It is this expansion, lauded for the most part among those on the Left, that has caused the other two elements to create certain forms of pushback.
- Republicanism: Due to 9/11 there was a dramatic surge in individuals who signed up for the military, a run on American flags, and a rally ‘round the flag’ effect that shot George Bush’s approval rating into the 90s. There was a sense of coming together to fight a common enemy and a desire to engage in self-sacrifice in order to do so.These warm feelings were crushed by the disappointments of the Iraq war, the lack of clear success in Afghanistan, and the continued security threat posed by individuals bent on the destruction of the Western way of life. Voters in this tradition continue to see terrorism as a meaningful threat that Obama’s administration failed to address.
This is coupled with a concern over the erosion of the moral core of the country. Many religious individuals see gay marriage as a sin, and a mere 6 years ago the majority of Americans opposed it. Moreover, while adjusting to this lightning-speed change, evangelicals are lambasted as bigots for their deeply held (and previously widely accepted) beliefs.
- Ascriptive Americanism: People in rural areas and small towns often see our increasingly interconnected world as a net loss. There is more diversity and more acceptance of women and minorities in positions of power. This massive demographic transformation has occurred during a time of slow economic growth, compounded by the creative destruction our global economy leaves in its wake.
Moreover, as they lose power, they are told that they are at the back of the line behind minorities, and they are also called bigots if they find this unfair.
Put together, these 3 elements help better explain the concerns of those who voted for Trump and the prism through which they view the United States.
Smith explains that it’s typical for Americans to hold strikingly inconsistent beliefs. For example, evangelicals can simultaneously advocate voting for Trump while viewing infidelity as a sin. This occurs because they think he will restore or create a hierarchy with their principles and beliefs at the top.
He claims he will appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court, and this causes them to see him as the most viable way to protect the beliefs that make up their identity and diminish the attacks on that identity. They feel this way because, as the US has expanded rights to a variety of groups, their principles have been sidelined. Those on the sidelines feel like they used to have power and respect. That is why they want to “Make America Great Again.”