Many on the Left are frightened by the looming prospect of a Trump presidency, which makes this a good time for some clearheaded reminders about the politics of quiescence and backlash.
Presidential elections are not normal. As anyone who passed through the last six months knows full well, the frenzy that exists during an election season is not—thank goodness—our normal state of affairs. It can’t be. Most people have far better things to do with their lives than to pay agonizingly close attention to the goings on of a political class.
Not everyone is disengaged, of course; a minority is closely attuned to political developments, and studies them at the granular level. But for the majority of people, politics is distant and remote, while their day-to-day life is immediate and pressing.
Presidential elections require that candidates overcome this indifference and mobilize a great mass of people whose concerns are typically personal and parochial. To achieve this, politicians have long since learned an important lesson. Nothing rouses people like fear. To instill in an audience a sense of dread, a terrifying sense that their world is coming to an end, is to make them exquisitely attentive to the exhortation that follows.
Naturally, political communication must do much more than terrify. It does no good merely to produce a sense of frightened desperation. A politician must also attribute the crisis to an enemy that can be easily grasped—liberalism, socialism, globalism, cronyism, conservatism, etc. In addition, they must show that the problem is not insoluble. Rescue from the abyss is possible, so long as the voters support him over his opponent.
In this environment, the solutions are secondary. That, at least in part, is why facts play such a small role in contemporary campaigns. Once a candidate has created a sense of dread, his supporters want to be reassured, not educated. Without fear, a candidate cannot transform an indifferent mass into an organized movement. With fear, a candidate has wide latitude to fudge the facts.
But what about after an election? Once a candidate achieves what he sought, what then? No one wants to stay terrified forever, and living in a fevered pitch is exhausting. Besides, people who are normally disengaged from politics are not apt to remain engaged once their candidate has carried the day. They want and need to go back to their lives, to the day-to-day worries and pleasures that occupied and entertained them before the election became a ubiquitous presence in their lives.
The energy that swept a victorious candidate into office dissipates quickly. It does not disappear; it just fades into the background. His supporters breathe a sigh of relief and return to their daily affairs. They are content to let the candidate turn his attention from campaigning to governing, and to make good on the promises that launched him into office. Perhaps they are hopeful, or buoyed by a vague sense that they have dodged a bullet. But it is a hope that does not rely for its fulfillment on their continued involvement in the struggle. They have done their part. It is time for others to carry the day. For them, a sense of quiescence settles in.
But what about those whose candidate lost? For them, the feeling is very different. Because the two candidates have just spent an entire campaign painting each other as the devil incarnate, their champion’s loss produces much more than the sort of wistful sadness one might feel by the loss of a local sports team. The sense is not so much disappointment as desperation. This is particularly apt to be true when partisanship runs high and the outcome was unexpected. It is a cold shock to the system, a wake-up call that warns against complacency.
To those who lost, quiescence is a luxury they cannot afford. Indeed, they are apt to believe it is why they lost. We were too smug, they might say. We did not appreciate the threat. We did not take our opponent seriously. Now our backs are against the wall. The call to arms is a summons to action. Organize! Mobilize! Our way of life is at stake! Show your support. Take to the streets. Write your Representative. Call your Senator.
Most of the people who backed the losing candidate cannot answer this call. They simply cannot sustain the energy and the sense of dread they felt throughout the election. They will not volunteer for a group that shares their worldview or participate in protests. Some may, but most will not.
But they can speak with their checkbook. And they will have plenty of opportunities. Instantly, special interest organizations will bombard them with pleas for support, and accompany these pleas with frightening language that predicts dire consequences that can be averted only if the organization has sufficient resources to mount an aggressive campaign. Indeed, it is already happening. I started to receive these solicitations within hours of the election. Send money today!
It is vitally important to understand that these solicitations are not, as a rule, merely opportunistic. The organizations now mobilizing against a Trump presidency sincerely believe that the future holds unimaginable threats. And they may be right. But in any case, they put the infusion of new resources to effective use, communicating their message to a wide audience, building institutional capacity, and planning strategies.
An opposition takes shape, poised to resist with renewed vigor the policies of the new administration. At the first tentative sign of a disfavored move—say, for instance, a retreat from Roe v. Wade—these organizations instantly and loudly protest, denouncing the move as proof that the dangers are every bit as real as they had predicted. Support for this opposition continues to gather strength, and manifests itself in all the ways a voice can be heard in this country. The roar is surprising, deafening. The administration retreats; it cannot fight every battle.
As this process repeats itself, those whose candidate won travel the familiar road from quiescence to resignation. Those whose candidate lost travel the exuberant path from shock to engagement. A backlash is born, and the policies promised during the campaign—policies feared by half the country—are gradually forgotten. Guantanamo stays open. Obamacare remains the law. More often than not, the future is continuity, not change.
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A final word. Nothing I have said depends on the fact that Trump won the election. On the contrary, I could’ve written the exact same column had Secretary Clinton prevailed. Just as when President Obama was elected in 2008, a sense of quiescence would have settled in among her supporters, while the Right would sound the alarm. The behavior is bi-partisan.
Nor am I making any observation about the reality of the perceived threats. It is entirely possible that Trump will be able to implement policies that I find personally reprehensible. I am simply making a statement about political behavior in the United States, which tends in this hyper-polarized and closely divided time to follow patterns of backlash and quiescence. These tendencies impose stability and diminish the range of actions available to elected officials.
Whether all of this is a good or bad thing is a separate question. But those who fear for what might happen during the next four years should bear this pattern in mind. Support the organizations in which you believe, build the backlash, and what you dread may never come to pass.