For reactionary populism to win, it needs to tell stories about a golden past and about a future that can be great if old values are recovered and given strength. For liberty and tolerance to win, we need to tell a better story than our opponents. Against those throwing out truth and reason for comforting lies and destructiveness, we find strength in our convictions, tell the truth, and embrace the project of creating a better future. To defeat a regime, you must point out what is wrong with the regime, but you should highlight people resisting it and the world they embody.
Let’s look at the facts: Donald Trump is pursuing the agenda of a minority of a minority.
He lost the popular vote by millions.
The maps that show stark divisions between red and blue states or counties are obscuring the numerous shades of purple that stretch across the country.
Non-voters remain the largest share of the American electorate. Their dissatisfaction with electoral politics was apparently not changed by Donald Trump.
Many of the people who voted for Donald Trump did not do so because they were excited about his agenda: they were either frightened by the Clintons or they were willing to look the other way when Trump said repugnant things. Whether or not they feel bad about their decision is up to them – I just want them to help mitigate the harm that a Trump administration would do.
Trump in power is dangerous. The numerous people who are excited about what he promised to do to minorities are frightening. The numerous people who are celebrating his election as a victory in the race war are disgusting. The lack of concern that many show for this is disheartening. Yet we can take heart, be excited, and celebrate the fact that people are rejecting the divisions assigned to them and are embracing liberty and tolerance.
Donald Trump’s behavior is not the norm. It is merely one norm among many struggling for greater acceptance.
Negativity is enticing. We can throw up our arms and say that the world is generally a terrible place with only a few nice breaks here and there. Negativity allows us to feel superior to those who don’t get it, and it gives us an excuse to not try to improve the world. It is a comforting story. But there are better stories.
We can find precedents for a lot of things in the past if we look for them. History is full of war and oppression. It is also a story of change. When it comes down to it, the tribal loyalties of humanity have taken many forms in the past. While the historical record will show much prejudice and fear of outsiders, it will also show episodes of assimilation, cultural exchange, and awe of people and things from far away.
The ethnic nation state is only one of the kinds of tribalism humanity has seen. The ethnic nation state has only been around in its familiar form for a couple of centuries, and until the last few years it has arguably become more cosmopolitan.
The United States of America was founded on a lot of assumptions, but also upon great principles. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” These are words upon which colonies in rebellion declared themselves to be a new nation. Revolutionaries like Lafayette and Kosciuszko came to these shores to fight for a new world. International revolutionary Thomas Paine stirred reason and emotion with his pen. “Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that every lived.” The revolution of 1776 could not fully overcome its flaws and another revolution was needed to unseat the slave aristocracy from power. Since then these lands have hosted smaller, less bloody rebellions: the Lawrence Strike, Civil Rights, Stonewall, etc. They have also been host to numerous quieter attempts to expand human liberty and dignity, including even the people who were left out from the beginning.
If tribalism is to be an inescapable part of the human experience, that does not mean we have to let other people assign us to a tribe. I will make my own village based on how people treat me, and not on whether the villages of our forgotten ancestors were in the same general area of the world. I will embrace a heritage of reason and rebellion, and leave the prejudices of the past to study from a distance. I embrace the strength of self-improvement that comes from examining my own shortcomings and trying to understand the experiences of other individuals. I want liberty, I want compassion, I want tolerance, and I will live my life accordingly.
If they try to insult me by calling me a special snowflake, I say that millions of special snowflakes will bury the old world in the cold. The story of humanity should be a story of liberation.
In practical matters, there are numerous men and women resisting oppression and building a better world, and their stories should be told to whatever extent they are comfortable with. Yes, we need to talk about the horrible things happening in the world, but every chapter should point the way to a solution.
The idea that Trump was “saying what we’re all thinking” gained him some popularity among people who want to say things that make them feel good and make other people feel bad. Here’s some plain talking for you: Trump is a far worse liar than career politicians, his idea of truth is little more than whatever feels good to shout at a rally or rant on social media, he has no moral compass whatsoever, and the ideas that he does adhere to are either factually incorrect, morally repugnant, or fatally corrupted by his consuming need for personal gain and glory. He represents boastful ignorance and an arrogant sense of entitlement that can and should be destroyed.
“Saying what we’re all thinking” is a statement without a precise meaning, but it is powerful. Giving voice to thoughts gives them greater power. Presenting your ideas as commonly accepted imparts a standard of legitimacy. The idea that we should quietly and meekly express a bit of displeasure to avoid offending people who are playing by a completely different set of rules and thrive on creating offense is self-defeating. An underdog story may be compelling but the heroes should win in the end. Humanity’s drive for freedom may be messy, it may be full of unresolved contradictions, and it may stumble often, but it is a path that we should show our pride for walking.
As Thomas Paine wrote in 1776: “O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!”