No surprise that I was surprised by the election outcome last week. I had been following Sam Wang’s public appearances in the month before the election and I had been impressed by the dispassion with which he managed his online Princeton Election Consortium (election.princeton.edu). He only relied on the more accurate state polls rather than national polls; his program weeded out the outliers; he didn’t factor in the social and economic factors that some pollsters use (things like improving unemployment rate and gas prices that this year would have favored Hillary); and he didn’t even watch television. All that drama about the Access Hollywood videotape and FBI “investigations” didn’t move Wang at all.
The only slippage that I saw in Wang’s polling came the Saturday before the election, when he noted that a slight modification might have been in order that would have reduced his prediction of a Clinton victory from 99 to 91 or 92 percent.
So, no surprise, I was shocked.
And then I was surprised again the very next day when I realized the extent of the despair that had fallen over our mostly liberal community.
On the Wednesday morning after the election a colleague reported that at least one person at her gym that morning cried openly when discussing the outcome. During the day I got an E-mail from my mayor, Princeton’s Liz Lempert:
“In the aftermath of one of the most divisive elections in our country’s history, it is important for us to come together as a town and recommit ourselves to the values of inclusion, diversity, and opportunity. Much can happen at the local level, and we all have a role to play in shaping our community as a place of welcome and support for neighbors in need. If you have concerns, questions, or are looking for resources to help you, your family, or someone you know, you can contact our local Human Services Department . . . We would like to help you get connected to any assistance possible.”
The letter also announced a community gathering the next night to discuss how we can “work together to reassure our community of our commitment to maintaining and building a unified Princeton.” The room was packed.
An organization called Faith in Public Life announced “A Prayer to Heal the Nation” that same night. “After this traumatic campaign, everyone must unite around the values of love, grace, compassion, and inclusion.”
A schoolteacher tweeted that she had put together a packet of poems to help her students cope with the day’s news. Later that night some Princeton undergraduates offered free hugs to anyone who needed one. “Sharing is caring,” they said. We were told to wear safety pins to identify ourselves as part of an informal safety net for people who felt threatened by the president-elect’s policies.
That was just day one. The handwringing continued in the following days. I saw some posts on my son’s Facebook page from concerned young people who normally don’t seem all that interested in political issues. While I don’t often engage in Facebook banter, I was suddenly moved to comment: “I’m trying to think back to Reagan’s election. It wasn’t unexpected but a lot of people were still bummed out that a movie star and TV huckster could become president. But we all survived,” I wrote.
My brother chimed in on the Facebook exchange. In 1980 he was a senior at the ultra-liberal State University of New York at Binghamton. “We all thought Reagan was EVIL. We literally thought it was the end of the world as we knew it and that World War III was inevitable. The rest as they say is history. Certainly a lot of parallels to the current climate.”
I did a little Google sleuthing and came across a New York Times op-ed by Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University and the author of “Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s.” As Troy wrote:
“I am scared that if Ronald Reagan gets into office, we are going to see more of the Ku Klux Klan and a resurgence of the Nazi Party,” Coretta Scott King said in November, 1980. “I’m afraid things are going to blow sky high during this next term,” a nursing student said. He’s a “nitwit,” added a Democrat. “He’s shallow, superficial, and frightening,” one of that year’s historic numbers of “undecideds” insisted.
Ronald Reagan “seems not to relish complexity and subtlety,” the New York Times editorial endorsing President Jimmy Carter’s re-election proclaimed. “The problem is not a loose lip but the simple answer.” While fearing what Reagan’s own running mate, George H.W. Bush, had dismissed as Reagan’s “voodoo economics” during their primary fight, the editorial board feared “voodoo diplomacy,” too.
From coast to coast, half of a divided nation abhorred — and underestimated — the president-elect. “The American people,” Hamilton Jordan, a key Carter aide, said, “are not going to elect a 70-year-old, right-wing, ex-movie actor to be president.”
There are other similarities as well. In the 2016 campaign both candidates had high unfavorable ratings. Ditto in 1980. In the 2016 campaign Hillary Clinton campaigned with the cloud of the E-mail controversy hanging over her head. In 1980 Jimmy Carter campaigned with the American hostages in Iran always in the public consciousness.
So if you look at the Trump election through an historic prism, you might be heartened. The Reagan years turned out okay, didn’t they?
Well, yes, sort of. Reagan was a decent person, to be sure, and an honest man — as honest as you would expect from a politician. As my son pointed out in our Facebook repartee: “I do appreciate the historical perspective. I’m also concerned, considering the last celebrity president’s handling of the AIDS epidemic, social safety nets, and environmental policy, not to mention kicking off the War On Drugs. Although, he did appoint the first female supreme court justice [Sandra Day O’Connor], so there’s something.”
I would add that Reagan also spread a wide net to surround himself with competent, well meaning people. Take his chiefs of staff:
First there was the Princeton man, James Baker, Class of 1952, an attorney who had managed the presidential campaigns of Gerald Ford in 1976 and George Bush in 1980 (both opposing Reagan in the primaries); followed by the former Merrill Lynch CEO and Secretary of the Treasury Don Regan; former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker; and then Kenneth Duberstein, a Washington lobbyist who had been a staffer in the Ford administration and who became the first Jew to hold the position of White House Chief of Staff.
So now we have Trump, entering office with zero experience in government and foreign affairs. Who are the people closest to him?
Well Reince Priebus, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, a lawyer who has never held elective office, will serve as chief of staff. And his “co-equal” as “chief strategist:” Steve Bannon.
Bannon of Breitbart? That Bannon. I won’t begin to recite his “credentials,” but will say only that right-wing commentator and occasionally over-the-edge Glenn Beck calls Bannon a “terrifying man.”
My solace in all this: First, staffers in these positions rarely last more than a year or two. And second, many of our friends who voted for Trump did not really vote for Trump. They voted against Clinton and the Washington establishment. They took Trump seriously but not literally. We may have to do the same. Are those Princeton students still giving away hugs?