For as long as humans have existed, we have used stories to make sense of our world. In our earliest times, this practice emerged in what is now called ‘mythology’ and ‘superstition.’ Later, after human settlements became more permanent and urbanized and society became institutionalized, stories coalesced into the ordered world we call ‘religion.’ Yet, since the reification of science and rationality during the Enlightenment, a perceived divide has occurred between the ‘stories’ of religion and the ‘reality’ of secular society. Humans, apparently, no longer needed stories to make perfect sense of the world: science and rationality could explain and understand everything if applied correctly. This election has shown that belief to be false, once and for all. Donald Trump won because he gave America the best story; Hillary Clinton lost because she was that story’s villain.
The persistent media focus on Trump’s character obscured the fact that most people weren’t voting primarily for Donald J. Trump the person – rather, they were voting to ‘Make America Great Again.’ Through scandal after scandal, Trump’s popularity shockingly never wavered much. Even after many thought Trump’s ‘grab her by the pussy’ comments had sunk his campaign, Trump supporters rallied behind their man. Though it may seem incredible – and it is – it must be remembered that most of these supporters were rallying around Trump’s message, which continued to stand firm regardless of the corruptness of the person it issued from. As Arlie Russell Hochschild discovered during her sociological study of deeply-conservative white Americans living in Louisiana’s bayou country, many of Trump’s supporters “didn’t call for Donald Trump; Donald Trump came to them.” Many of them were uncomfortable with much of Trump’s actions and statements and expressed marked ambivalence towards the man. Of course, there are also many Trump supporters – who have enjoyed considerable coverage throughout this election – who supported his offensive statements, his disregard for ‘PC culture,’ his flamboyance, his oppressive policy points. But many people who voted for Obama in 2012 voted for Trump in 2016. These are people who voted for Obama’s “promise of hope and change.” Obama was a relative unknown on the political scene, a perceived newcomer, just like Trump. Clinton didn’t carry the promise of change. Clinton asserted that “America has never stopped being great” in an election where the majority of voters disagreed.
None of this excuses Trump’s vitriolic campaign and the disastrous presidency that will most likely follow. Instead, this result is a wake-up call to the American left and particularly the Democratic Party that they need to change their narrative. The Democratic Party was already given a taste of this realization through the campaign of Bernie Sanders, who now stands as the most-liked politician in America. The neoliberal Democratic platform failed to connect with the disillusioned populace of modern-day America. The fact that Sanders’ campaign was funded by small donations from the American people demonstrates this. While the Obama campaign “encouraged donors to break up their contributions into smaller amounts to create the appearance of a mass movement,” Clinton, with her widely publicized Wall Street connections, could not hide behind such a façade. Her unwillingness to release the transcripts of her Goldman Sachs talks only strengthened the belief in ‘Crooked Hillary,’ regardless of the talks’ content. The American people want control of their country back. Sanders offered to wrestle it back for them from the hands of big corporations. Trump offered to return to an idealized America focused on its ‘own’ people – those people not being immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ+ individuals, environmental agencies, etc. The Democratic Party’s escalated war on Sanders played no small part in ensuring which of these messages made it to November 8.
It is very unclear how to proceed from here. After the shock for many of Trump’s victory, Americans are trying to figure out how to keep moving forward within this brave new world. There are no easy answers, but perhaps before impeaching the new president we should concern ourselves with impeaching the Democratic Party. Messages of ‘coming together’ have been issuing from the mouths of Democrats ever since Clinton’s concession speech, yet who are Americans supposed to come together behind? What message will they support? The same message that got us here? We can no longer ‘come together’ only in America’s urban centers, either: the American Left needs to move beyond the urban-rural divide that sits at the heart of this election. (Predominantly white) ‘progressives’ have sat for far too long in the rotten cores of our Big Apples, sneering down at the ‘country hicks’ who grew our apples in the first place. Let us not point our fingers at the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia in ‘flyover’ country and forget the continued existence of these phenomena in our own, much more comfortable lives. We have become ‘twenty-first century Victorians,’ flouting our urban-based class dominance through perceived moral superiority. The Left – a movement traditionally based upon lifting up abject workers of all shapes and sizes – has not won the cultural war: America’s cities have. Rural working-class communities are dying. They are. The lack of coverage of this in our middle-to-upper class, urban-dominated media only further marginalizes those suffering the poison.
The American left needs a new message – and it already has one. While Sanders’ ‘political revolution’ remains frustratingly dependent upon Sanders the individual, it has the potential for tremendous growth that could unite those in America who want change but don’t want that change to be predicated upon the suffering of millions of marginalized peoples. Trump ended up winning Kansas in the presidential elections, yet during the primaries more Kansans caucused for Sanders than for the president-elect. While third parties were a great subject of debate throughout this election, particularly after the two presidential candidates were decided, perhaps this is an option that the Independent Sanders can explore. There are many options for how such a party could overcome the bipartisan minefield of American politics. Or perhaps the Democratic Party will finally wake up and smell the blood-red roses. I doubt it.
Let us end with a particularly poignant analogy Hochschild came upon during her research in Louisiana:
Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they’d worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls].
Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. And even an oil-drenched brown pelican getting priority. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly. And then in this narrative, there is Barack Obama, to the side, the line supervisor who seems to be waving these people (and the pelican) ahead. So the government seemed to be on the side of the people who were cutting in line and pushing the people in line back.
The American Left cannot continue to leave people at the back of the line. If Leftism is to be truly realized, there cannot be a line to begin with. We need a better formation, a better structure, a better connection. We need a new mythology.
Adrian Jennings is a sophomore at Wheaton College, studying Chinese and Mathematics.