Through electing Donald Trump, I see the American people as having rejected the formerly popular strategy of using insults as a form of argument.
It’s been a couple of weeks since the results of the Presidential Election were revealed. I, like many Americans, was shocked to hear that Donald Trump, the controversial and loud-mouthed political novice, had actually won the presidency. I currently live in Berlin, Germany, so I had a wonderful opportunity to, along with several German students, attend an election party hosted by a local university. Given the time zone difference, watching the election live turned into an all-night event, making the emotional ups and downs of this monumental night only more exacerbated by exhaustion.
It’s only every 4 years that we have the opportunity to watch the transition of power within the most influential nation in the history of human civilization occur before our very eyes. It’s a wonderful privilege we have, and watching it all unfold in a foreign country came with a few added interesting elements.
I arrived to the election party before the first polls closed, so I had an opportunity to talk with a few German students about what they anticipated the outcome would be, who they supported, and what they thought of the entire spectacle. Through my passable understanding of the German language (and occasional clarifications in English), I learned that nearly all of the students I talked to both expected and wanted Hillary Clinton to win. In fact, throughout the entire night, I met only 3 students who told me they were pulling for Donald Trump, and even these students were skeptical of his chances. As the night went on, the general mood of the party turned to surprise. And I imagine this mood would have been the same at nearly every election party happening across the world. Whether you were elated or devastated with the results, chances are you did not expect Donald Trump to win.
We’ve seen examples of it in the media, where panels of political pundits wouldn’t even entertain the notion that Donald Trump might be a good person, or have good ideas.
But should we have been surprised?
We all know what the polls said. Even the predictions most generous to our now President-elect gave him less than a 30% chance of victory with some giving him as low as 1%. But have we learned nothing from the Brexit referendum?
The Brexit vote taught us something about how people respond to condescension
This article is not an attack on the systems of polling. Clearly something went wrong with whatever methods and algorithms political scientists and statisticians use to guess the winner, but such an investigation of polling errors is a task for another essay. Beyond polling, the Brexit vote taught us something about how people respond to condescension. During the campaign season we witnessed opponents of the movement for the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union decry the “Leave” Campaign as fundamentally rooted in racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and a host of other horrific titles.
But we all know how that turned out.
If you followed the American Presidential Campaign this year at all, you’re well aware that the same accusations lobbed at the “Leave” Campaign were lobbed at Trump’s movement. I imagine that these insults were thrown at Trump and his supporters at least in part to deter undecided voters from pulling the lever for the GOP nominee. The result? Same thing we saw in Brexit.
Should we be surprised?
My problem with many of the criticisms of Trump in this election cycle is not with their existence, but the regrettably prolific argument that a highly critical perspective of Trump is the only legitimate perspective of him to have.
Forget what the polls said. Let’s talk about human behavior. Do you like it when people call you names? Would you like it if somebody called you a racist, a xenophobe, or a bigot? Do you enjoy being talked down to? Unfortunately, many criticisms of Donald Trump throughout this past election cycle have taken on such a pedantic tone. Let me be clear: there are a lot of legitimate criticisms of Donald Trump. I encourage a healthy criticism of the policies of all people who wish to ascend to the highest office in the United States. My problem with many of the criticisms of Trump in this election cycle is not with their existence, but the regrettably prolific argument that a highly critical perspective of Trump is the only legitimate perspective of him to have.
We all have come into contact with someone who, when presented with an argument that challenges their beliefs, will roll his/her eyes and walk away. This dismissive (lack-of) argumentative attitude is in no way unique to this election cycle, but I’ve found such sentiment particularly exacerbated during the Brexit and Trump campaigns. We’ve seen examples of it in the media, where panels of political pundits wouldn’t even entertain the notion that Donald Trump might be a good person, or have good ideas. Take your personal opinions of the man aside and ask yourself: is the lack of willingness to engage in discourse the kind of political society you want to live in? Is it a good thing to approach political conversations believing that your opinion is the only opinion a reasonable person can have?
Many have described Trump’s historic victory as “a blow to the political elite.” I think, in many ways, this is true. Through electing Donald Trump, I see the American people as having rejected the formerly popular strategy of using insults as a form of argument. As with Brexit, the results of the 2016 Presidential election were further evidence that calling people racist, xenophobic bigots actually doesn’t win anyone over. This should not surprise us. If you want to engage people, if you want to convince people, and more importantly, if you want to understand people, don’t insult them for being different. I learned this principle when I was 4 years old; it shouldn’t be that hard to implement it into our political discourse.
Hunter Michielson is an undergraduate studying philosophy and German at Duke University. He is currently living in Berlin studying abroad.