There was a moment in the 2008 election when, at a town hall, John McCain heard a supporter tell him, “We’re scared of an Obama presidency.” The man was worried that Obama associated with terrorists.
McCain stopped the supporter and said, while he, McCain, thought he was the better candidate, Obama was “a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.”
The crowd booed, but McCain held firm. And everyone calmed down.
We can learn some things from that. One, this isn’t the first time citizens have been scared of a new presidency. Two, a calming word from the other side can go a long way.
Hillary Clinton tried to do that with her graceful concession speech. President Barack Obama tried to do it, too, meeting with President-elect Donald Trump and saying, before the cameras, “If you succeed, the country succeeds.”
But most everyone else who didn’t want Trump as president — especially in the media — has severely gone in the other direction. Dire predictions. Tears. Declarations that the nation as we know it is over and that we are on the verge of “a covert form of Jim Crow” (the New York Times) and “white supremacy’s last stand” (a CBC commentator).
Well, first, I sure hope they are wrong. But second, I’d like to pose a question to the “experts” in our business:
Why, after getting this whole election so colossally wrong, after misreading voters, misinterpreting polls, misjudging what people thought and how seriously Americans took certain words and actions — why do we rush right back out and declare, with such certainty, what’s going to happen next?
Are we in the media even listening to ourselves? Are we learning from our mistakes? Or are we so bent on making memorable statements, on being on what we think is the “right side of history,” that we threaten to mold that actual history before it even happens?
Someone once said of the new president, “I am scared that if (he) gets into office, we are going to see more of the Ku Klux Klan and a resurgence of the Nazi Party.”
Perhaps you’re nodding in agreement? You’re saying, “Yes, Trump will do that!”
Except the person who said it was Coretta Scott King, in 1980, and the man she was talking about was Ronald Reagan.
History didn’t begin yesterday. And unpopular presidents are not new.
So can we all slow down? Please?
Hold off on assumptions
I will state right here that I have no idea what will happen with a Trump presidency. I wrote one column about him 16 months ago, saying when the time came, he would not end up being the president, and I was wrong. Wrong. One column. That’s enough to teach me a lesson.
But after months of stating their opinions as near facts, only to be proven massively incorrect, pundits everywhere — particularly on cable TV news — went right back to their declarations.
The same people who foresaw an inevitable Hillary Clinton victory were, within minutes, explaining the new results as anger, racism, misogyny, or in one case “whitelash.”
My first question would be “How do you know?” It was only minutes after Trump’s win. Without even an interview, these experts determined it must be this, that or the other ugly thing.
And in the two days that followed, I heard an unusual number of respected journalists telling us what the nation thought by saying, “I’ve had phone calls …” and “people have been stopping me and saying …” (something, ironically, Trump does all the time). While a personal anecdote can be powerful, it is not a national sampling.
Shouldn’t the numbers be thoughtfully examined before we resume screaming? Take this suddenly popular theme of “whitelash” or “white supremacy.’’ Maybe people forget that 70% of the voters in this election were white. They voted in huge numbers for both candidates. So to tag the results as a “white’’ way of thinking is not only every bit as insulting as suggesting a black or brown way of thinking, but also it doesn’t make sense. When President Obama won his first election with 96% of the African-American vote, nobody called it a “blacklash.” Yet despite nearly 40% of white voters casting for Clinton, her defeat was a “whitelash?”
Same skepticism goes for the oft-repeated notion that this was uneducated white people lashing out. A comfortable theory, perhaps. But the numbers show that Trump actually won big with college-educated white men, 54% to Clinton’s 39%.
And if the next argument is, “Well, yeah, but that’s men,” Trump also earned 45% of the vote from college-educated white women, who fall in the same demographic as Hillary Clinton.
Now, I’m not smart enough to explain that. But I’m responsible enough to know I can’t ignore it. Any more than I can ignore the fact that, despite the insulting, denigrating way Trump has spoken about women — something that turned my stomach — 42% of American women voters, of all races and ethnicities, chose him. Or that nearly 30% of Latinos did as well, in spite of Trump’s string of insults against Mexicans.
“How could they?” many in our business scream. Well, we need to remind ourselves that just because something is the most important issue for us, it may not be for someone else. And one vote is one vote. It’s no more right to label voters bigots because they didn’t reject Trump then to label voters baby killers because they didn’t reject a pro-choice Clinton. It’s more complicated than that.
There was so much echo chamber in the news media this election, that over time, to many it became white noise. As Paul Simon once sang, “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
So some voters heard Trump’s offensive remarks about women and minorities and said, “That’s who he is.” Others heard him say he wants to bring back jobs and cut taxes and said, “That’s who he is.” Just as some heard Clinton say, “We are stronger together” while some heard her reference “a basket of deplorables.”
People are used to lies and exaggerations. They ignore words and make choices for a myriad of reasons. We cannot assume we know what is in someone else’s heart. But after so clumsily bumbling our “expert’ analysis of the 2016 voter, even trying should give us pause, don’t you think?
A voter’s choice: It’s all relative
Now, look. I have ears. I heard the insults Trump leveled over the last 18 months. They repulsed me. Do I believe some Trump voters are racist? Sure. But I imagine some Clinton voters are as well. Are some Trump voters misogynistic? Quite likely. But if they all are, then some roughly 25 million women must hate themselves.
So we can’t claim any sweeping, unassailable knowledge. Yet we do. We declare. We preach. We take the worst things Trump has said and slap them on the foreheads of all those who voted for him.
This is irresponsible journalism. It reflects something an Atlantic Monthly writer penned a few months ago about Trump: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
Which is why, I guess (guess, but don’t know for sure) that some good, smart, decent people could still somehow vote for Trump, perhaps begrudgingly, over a candidate they disliked even more. For some, it was all relative.
Take the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump suggested his fame gave him sexual power and the leeway to grab women. We went crazy when that came out. Some called it the death knell. Said Trump should just quit. So how did he not only survive that, but win? Because all his voters are equally perverse?
Or is it because, while we publicly claim to be about morals and upstanding behavior, we watch bad behavior every chance we get: reality shows, TV series, movies where people cheat, lie and kill with abandon. Not to mention pornography.
And while Trump’s behavior was disgusting, the other candidate was, undeniably, married to a former president who didn’t just talk about power and sex, but engaged in it in the White House.
Did you know that Bill Clinton’s approval ratings sunk after the Monica Lewinsky affair, but before his term was finished they rose to higher levels than before the scandal broke? And this was for a sitting president who acted shamefully, not a thrice-married private businessman who once posed on Playboy’s cover.
Let’s wait before making judgments
So why are we acting so shocked? And why are we acting like we know what’s next for America? People thought Obama was a socialist who would follow the rants of a controversial pastor. They thought John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, would make America subservient to the Vatican. They thought Reagan was a cowboy and a dolt. They were shocked that George W. Bush took the White House (or stole it, as some suggested) claiming he was a frat-boy baseball executive who couldn’t get through a sentence.
Yet nine months into his term, Bush was tested and became a different kind of president. He eventually won a second term — as did Reagan, and as did Obama, in case critics who think we are a Jim Crow nation have forgotten.
The presidency does things to people. We can hope it matures Trump, tempers his offensive edges, makes him think before he casts his crude asides. We have to hope for that, don’t we?
And yes, while Trump has set a new low in offensive, crude and bigoted comments for a president-elect, let’s be honest, we’ve done the same as a country. The comments we post now, the vitriol we spit, the racism we cast back and forth, it’s all meaner than ever before. Why be surprised that a candidate has lowered the bar as well?
I understand why marginalized groups feel slapped in the face by the election outcome. I admit, it almost seems, at times, surreal. But instead of declaring the world is over, we might remember that we didn’t elect a king. Trump will not have the sole power to do the majority of things people so direly predict he will. Rounding up every undocumented immigrant in America or demanding Mexico build a wall across the border, if he even pushed for such things, requires money, manpower and approvals that he is highly unlikely to get.
Nor do 51 Republicans in the Senate assure him a rubber stamp on crazy ideas. Many Republicans repudiated Trump, and if he goes rogue, they will be protecting their seats in upcoming elections more than they will protect him. It’s worth noting our suddenly “intolerant” nation also just elected California’s first African-American/American-Indian female senator, Nevada’s first Latina senator, and an Illinois senator who lost both her legs fighting in Iraq.
Trump will soon be criticized, as most presidents are, by all sides, not just half the country. His power will be more in check than it was as a CEO. And should he still prove to be all the awful things our pundits are predicting, in two years, we can vote in a Congress that will thwart his every move, and in four years, he can be swept out.
So despite the embarrassment, shock and anger that his critics understandably feel, and the pain that some are expressing, we in the media should learn from our still-fresh mistake in generalizing about what America — a wonderfully diverse, 320 million-person nation — is and isn’t.
I understand fear. I understand resentment. I also understand that our job in these pages — and on the airwaves — is not firstly to stoke those fires but to perhaps, if possible, calmly urge patience until we can at least measure the flames. Could we, dare we say it, show President Obama’s “audacity of hope,” and hope things are better — or at least not as bad — as this ugly election cycle has portended?
And then we can do what history demands. Not predict. Wait and see. Because like it or not, we’re going to have to.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. Read recent columns at freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.