October 19, 2019

Trump, racism, sexism — and hope

The Trump inauguration approaches just as many people are emerging from their post-election funk. Many of us seem poised to enter a new depression as “the Donald” actually becomes our commander in chief, tweets and all.

It is no challenge to find statements, tweets, actions and appointments of the president-elect that could justify retreat to a fetal position in a dark room. The future does look bleak for those who are concerned about the disadvantaged, access to affordable health care, childhood vaccinations and a respect for science — to say nothing about the makeup of the Supreme Court. Most of the new administration’s policy prescriptions are troubling.

To compound the general anxiety, there is emerging research that suggests that a critical portion of Trump’s electoral success can be ascribed more to racism and sexism than the economic dislocation and fear that has been the staple of most media analyses over the past two months.

Three political scientists (Brian Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams and Tatishe Nteta) authored a paper published earlier this month that found “racism and sexism were much more important [than economic dissatisfaction]” in explaining the yawning gap in support between Hillary Clinton and Trump among whites without a college degree.

Their statistical analysis indicates that “sexism and racism were strongly associated with presidential vote choice in 2016” and, most importantly, those views were likely the main driver of the huge gap between support for Clinton and Trump among non-college-educated white voters.

Of course, they warn that “it would be misguided to seek an understanding of Trump’s success through any single lens.”

For one who has spent the past four decades in the civil rights field convinced that America was making inexorable progress toward a “more perfect union,” this is not heartwarming news. The notion that crass appeals to our baser instincts could bear electoral fruit and vault someone into the presidency is depressing.

Despite what has occurred, the good news still outweighs the bad. The presence of bigotry in the electoral motivations of some does not negate the progress that has been made among the many.

In a recent post-election interview, Harvard’s Steven Pinker (author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” among others) warns about getting too concerned with the headlines of the day and the media’s “given wisdom.” The fact is that well-established trends and attitudes transcend the vagaries of one election.

He discourses on the major societal trends that prevail, no matter what happened on Nov. 8:

“More generally, the worldwide, decades-long current toward racial tolerance is too strong to be undone by one man … more importantly for the future … younger cohorts are less prejudiced than older ones. As my own cohort of baby boomers (who helped elect Trump) dies off and is replaced by millennials (who rejected him in droves), the world will become more tolerant”(emphasis added).

In his farewell address last week, President Obama perceptively made the same point:

“And that’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans, it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe that you can make a difference, to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.

“Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America… You are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber all of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands” (emphasis added).

Pinker’s analysis goes beyond rising tolerance to an assessment of several other metrics of progress “… in just about every way. Extreme poverty, child mortality, illiteracy, and global inequality are at historic lows; vaccinations, basic education, including girls, and democracy are at all-time highs (emphasis added).

“War deaths have risen since 2011 because of the Syrian civil war, but are a fraction of the levels of the 1950s through the early 1990s, when mega-death wars and genocides raged all over the world. … Homicide rates in the world are falling, and the rate in the United States is lower than at any time between 1966 and 2009. Outside of war zones, terrorist deaths are far lower than they were in the heyday of the Weathermen, IRA, and Red Brigades” (emphasis added).

If one wants to see the dark clouds on the horizon, there are plenty; the next four years may be very rocky — the nightly news will stream awful stories and troubling facts. Yet, the barrage of bad news is rarely contextualized and set in its historic context. By most measures, we and the world are doing better than we ever have, if not as well as we might.

How far off of this trajectory we can be driven is today’s critical question. Will our institutions be resilient enough to withstand the onslaught and will the attitudes of young people remain as positive and forward-looking as they are today? We will see and we can hope.

DAVID A. LEHRER, is the president of Community Advocates, Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations organization chaired by former Mayor Richard Riordan. For 27 years, he served locally with the Anti-Defamation League as counsel and regional director.