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America is not, it turns out, better than this

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests during a campaign rally at St. Norbert College on March 30, 2016 in De Pere, Wisconsin.
Donald Trump at a campaign rally in De Pere, Wisconsin.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

In 2010, President Barack Obama installed a new rug in the Oval Office, featuring five quotations along its perimeter. Four are from past presidents, the fifth a paraphrase by Martin Luther King Jr. of the 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker: “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Towards Justice.”

Today, Donald Trump won the presidential election. He did not necessarily disprove that adage. But he did remind us that there are kinks in the arc.

Parker and King had a point. Over the span of decades, centuries, the momentum in the US and the rest of the developed world is toward economic abundance, greater living standards, and gender and racial equality. One election, even one as momentous as this, cannot change that.

But lives are lived day to day and year to year, not century to century. The arc of history is of no comfort to the family, protected today by President Obama’s executive action, who will likely face deportation under President Trump. It’s of no comfort to the Muslim child who will face bullying and mockery from white Christian peers under the implicit encouragement of the president of the United States.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak to a campaign rally, Monday, Oct. 31, 2016, in Warren, Mich.
Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Warren, Mich.
Evan Vucci/AP Photo

It’s of no comfort to Jewish Americans bombarded by pro-Trump trolls telling them they belong in ovens. It’s of no comfort to the black teenager who knows that when New York boys who look like him were wrongly accused of rape, Donald Trump demanded New York state kill them.

It’s of no comfort to the innocent Muslims abroad whom Trump has promised to torture, and against whom he’s promised to inflict collective punishment, killing anyone who’s so much as a familial relation to a terror suspect. It’s of no comfort to American allies in Europe, who, whatever else happened — even during the Bush administration — knew that they could count on us to fulfill our NATO obligations, and now have no idea if they can.

It’s easy to treat election results as abstract, as sports matches where the red team won and the blue team lost but they shake hands at the end and we all get along. It’s never true, but it’s tempting. It relieves us of the enormous weight of being responsible, as an electorate, for our own governance.

That is a tremendous burden made weightier by the fact that the stakes really are extraordinarily high. People will see their lives changed forever. People will be ripped from their homes. People will be made to feel like strangers in their own country. Trump’s election is a promise of irreparable harm to the most vulnerable communities in our nation.

It didn’t have to be like this

The sharpest pain of the Trump victory comes from its suddenness. No one, not even Nate Silver or the Republican-favoring RealClearPolitics, saw this coming. Everyone projected a map where Clinton won. If there’d been a split in the models, or if the polls had suggested Trump was actually the favorite, America would’ve had time to prepare. It wouldn’t mitigate the horror of his election at all, but it would have made emotionally processing it less wrenching.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton holds a Latino organizing event on April 9, 2016 while campaigning in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City
A Latino organizing event for Hillary Clinton in Brooklyn on April, 9, 2016.
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

But the call for Trump is painful, too, because we were supposed to be past this — and for the last eight years we were past it.

From 2009 to 2016, things were not perfect, but the bent was decidedly for justice, at least justice as conceived of by Obama and the majorities that elected him. Since Obama took office, LGBTQ Americans have won the right to serve in the military and marry the people they (we) love. Some 20 million people have gained health insurance from the Affordable Care Act, and more than 91 percent of Americans have coverage. The number of US ground troops in Iraq has plummeted from nearly 150,000 to about 5,000. After a deplorable uptick in deportations early in his presidency, Obama pivoted and issued executive orders protected millions of undocumented immigrants.

Things weren’t perfect. The economic recovery was too slow. Too many were still in poverty, still uninsured. And, lord knows, law enforcement in this country remains appallingly indifferent to the lives of black Americans, young men especially. And, forebodingly, much of this agenda was liable to repeal should Republicans take the presidency. As they just did.

But little by little, some great inequities were being chipped away at. Hell, economic inequality even started to fall as Obama raised taxes on the rich and, through Obamacare, launched a major new redistribution program for the lower and lower middle classes.

Moreover, the demographic future of America held the promise of keeping this momentum going. The coalition that elected Obama, underpinned by massive support from black and Latino communities, was only going to keep growing. Even as the white share of the population fell, college attainment would continue to rise, so more Democratic-leaning college grads would be around.

This wouldn’t guarantee endless wins, but it would, many hoped, force the Republican party to seriously compete for Hispanic and black votes so that the parties could again reach equilibrium with roughly equal bases. If they didn’t do that, their white base would continue to fade and the party would be obsolete.

This is a victory built on racial demagoguery

After the 2012 election, the conservative-leaning analyst Sean Trende raised one potent counterargument. Obama won, he claimed, in large part because a lot of white voters simply didn’t show up. If a Republican nominee could mobilize them and get them to turn out, the party could wage a comeback without fixing its problems with black and Latino voters.

Trende did not get into this — and certainly did not endorse it as an option — but one way to mobilize white voters, and turn them toward the right, is to stoke fear of nonwhites. Research by Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos suggests that when confronted with different racial groups, even liberal white voters turn rightward. In one study, Enos sent pairs of native Spanish-speaking Latino men to ride commuter trains in Boston, surveyed their fellow riders' political views both before and after, and also surveyed riders on trains not used in the experiment as a control.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets the crowd at a rally for his campaign on April 10, 2016 in Rochester, New York.
Donald Trump greets the crowd at a rally in Rochester, New York.
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

"The results were clear," Enos wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. "After coming into contact, for just minutes each day, with two more Latinos than they would otherwise see or interact with, the riders, who were mostly white and liberal, were sharply more opposed to allowing more immigrants into the country and favored returning the children of illegal immigrants to their parents’ home country. It was a stark shift from their pre-experiment interviews, during which they expressed more neutral attitudes."

Enos’s commuter train experiment is Trump’s electoral strategy in a nutshell. Trump turned off Latino voters to an unprecedented degree. But he also mobilized a shocking number of white voters, particularly less-educated white voters. And that was enough to overcome his extreme unpopularity among black and brown Americans. He turned the electorate a whiter shade of pale than anyone expected, and then reaped the dividends.

I don’t know the way out. I don’t know that anyone does.

The blatant white nationalist demagoguery of the election has startled even lifelong Republicans. “Where do you go,” writer Ben Howe asked FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone, “when the only people who seem to agree with you on taxes hate black people?”

This is indeed the question for all non-racist conservatives in America. And all Americans should be asking: What do you do when a plurality of the electorate is willing to support a candidate like this?

The crowd reacts to Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump during a Donald Trump Rally at Toyota of Portsmouth in Portsmouth, NH on Oct. 15, 2016.
The Donald Trump supporters at a rally in Portsmouth, N.H.
Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

There is going to be a lot of “now-more-than-ever”ism in the coming days, just as there has been among commentators trying to explain how Trump was even nominated in the first place. There will be reform conservatives talking about how a sensible family policy would ease the white working class’s concerns and prevent them from turning to a racist charlatan. There will be leftists talking about how a real Scandinavian-style welfare state (or more!) could channel populist energies in a non-racist or even anti-racist direction.

I wish it were that easy — but my read of the evidence, and that of my colleague Zack Beauchamp, who has dived deep into this literature, suggests it’s not. Internationally, economic deprivation doesn’t seem to be the dominant factor in the rise of far-right movements. The AfD party is rising in Germany despite the country’s low unemployment and export-led growth. A party founded by former neo-Nazis holds the third most seats in Swedish parliament. And those countries’ party-list electoral systems give extremists a lower chance of winning than they have in the US — as Trump’s election itself proves.

Could redistribution help some of these people? Absolutely. We should do it. But we need something more to end this threat for good.

And I genuinely don’t know what that is. Beauchamp argues that pro-multiculturalism education programs in Canada have had brightened sentiments toward immigration and racial difference there. That’s fantastic, and policymakers in the US should pursue those. But with most governorships and state legislatures in Republican hands, and a totally Republican-dominated federal government, it’s hard to see that happening.

Donald Trump during an interview with Fox Business in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Donald Trump during an interview with Fox Business in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Can the media do more? Maybe — but it pushed against Trump in a genuinely unprecedented way. Not making hay from Clinton’s bogus email “scandal” would have reduced Trump’s odds, but now that he’s here, it’d take a Watergate for the media to bring him down.

Can business? Maybe on specific issues; corporate pressure did force Vice President-elect Mike Pence to cave on a religious liberty bill. And the markets and finance and tech and entertainment all hate Trump. But they also like money, and will make decisions accordingly in a country that voted for Trump.

I don’t know how to address this — both Trump himself and the phenomenon that birthed him. I don’t know the best way to tame it. I don’t think anyone does. But if the arc of the moral universe is to start bending toward justice anytime soon, we need to figure out a way forward.

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