Published November 10, 2016
The good news is that she lost.
The bad news is that he won.
I expect I’m not alone in having had that bifurcated reaction in the wee hours of November 9. It is certainly good news that the Clinton Machine has been brought low, in part by its own arrogant buy-in to the identity politics it promoted and then got burned by, and in part by Mrs. Clinton’s inability to project anything resembling warmth or sincerity. It’s certainly good news that able Republican senators were reelected, and that the odds are vastly improved on a new Supreme Court justice who will think more like the late, great Antonin Scalia and less like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s good news that, with Republicans firmly in control of the Senate and the House of Representatives and an inexperienced president about to be inaugurated, Congress has a real opportunity to reclaim its rightful role in the constitutional order. And it’s good news that so much of a grotesquely biased punditocracy and media were smitten hip and thigh on the night of November 8–9, struggling to comprehend what they deemed impossible and looking increasingly foolish as they did so.
The bad news remains: Donald J. Trump is president-elect of the United States. Like others who opposed his nomination and declined to vote for him, I hope he continues to show the magnanimity displayed in his victory speech, which was not, to put it gently, a hallmark of his campaign — even as I hope that he reconsiders some of his more bizarre positions while following through on his promises to pro-life and pro-religious-freedom-in-full voters. I hope Mr. Trump begins to know what he does not know, recognizes that he needs people around him with the wit and courage to tell him bluntly when he’s wrong, finds himself able advisers (rather than sycophants), and in general grows up under the burdens of the awesome office he sought and won.
As for more good news and bad news:
The good news is that some long-neglected issues — such as the condition of those who haven’t benefited from the economic dynamism of globalization and the transformations of economic life caused by the IT revolution — have been put on the national agenda as never before. The bad news is that no one, including Trump, has much of an idea of how to empower those who have fallen through the floorboards during globalization, and his promise of a trillion dollars of infrastructure spending doesn’t begin to address the question of those men who have willfully dropped out of the work force in what is one part of a larger moral-cultural crisis in America. Some serious, creative, innovative thinking is needed on this front, which is one where center-left and center-right might actually find some common ground.
The good news is that identity politics took a shellacking, a point Mrs. Clinton seemed not to have grasped in her delayed concession speech Wednesday morning. It was always absurd for her to claim the mantle of feminist heroine, given both her personal job history (almost entirely empowered by her husband and her connection to him) and the fact that we live in a world that has seen Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, and a host of other able, tough-minded women successfully run their respective countries. There is no “glass ceiling,” and there is no reason to think that Mrs. Clinton’s defeat was anything other than that: the voters’ not-irrational, and certainly not misogynistic, reaction to a candidate carrying an awful lot of baggage, lacking a coherent message, and deploying an unattractive personality.
The bad news on this front is that the American Left is now so beholden to identity politics that it’s not easy to see the Democratic party extricating itself from the coils of what I’ve come to think of as “ism-ism.” And the problem is not just feminist identity politics but racial identity politics. I flew out of Washington for a speaking engagement early Wednesday morning and was serenaded on the Beltway by the laments of an African-American novelist bemoaning on National Public Radio (of course!) the fact, or so she claimed, that the stunning results of the presidential election were a matter of “whitelash.” This does not bode well.
If, as seems likely, that will become the orthodoxy about 2016 in much of the African-American political leadership of the country, then there is little hope that there will be progress in our inner-urban areas. Rather, look for an intensification of agitations like Black Lives Matter, whose principal accomplishment to date, insofar as I can tell, has been to help create the circumstances in which even more innocent African Americans have been killed in our cities. There was a small glimmer of hope on this front in the scathing open letter to Mrs. Clinton organized by black Pentecostal ministers in the last weeks of the election cycle, which took a bold pro-life stand against her complicity in the abortion-driven decimation of the African-American community. Whether that bold initiative, energized by the Reverend Eugene Rivers and Dr. Jacqueline Rivers, has legs remains to be seen, but it certainly should.
The good news is that the impending retirement of President Obama affords the United States an opportunity to recalibrate its foreign policy after the serial disasters the Obama administration has concocted across the world stage. The bad news is that President-elect Trump’s occasional forays into foreign policy over the past year vacillated between the silly and the sinister. The claim in some quarters on the Morning After that Trump might calm down Vladimir Putin is ludicrous. Putin marches to his own dangerous drummer and is more likely to play Trump than Trump is to play him. The earliest possible statement from the president-elect that he regards NATO as the bedrock of Western security might help forestall further Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, the Baltics, Moldova, Georgia, and elsewhere, in what promises to be a very dangerous interregnum period between the feckless, outgoing Obama administration and the untried and untested Trump administration.
The good news is that the new administration is pledged to defend religious freedom in full, which includes the natural and constitutional right of religious institutions to be themselves in their charitable and educational work, as well as in their worship. The Little Sisters of the Poor and similar religious communities can look to the future with less foreboding on November 9 than they did on the morning of November 8. The bad news is that the cultural assault on religious freedom will continue. And the further bad news is that, in a country manifestly in need of a moral and cultural reawakening, far too many religious leaders in this election cycle proved more interested in maintaining or getting face-time with and access to power than in speaking truth to power.
The good news is that there seems to be no inclination on the part of the defeated to charge conspiracies, election-rigging, etc., although there will certainly be some of that in the commentariat, with FBI director James Comey looming large in the villain’s role. The bad news is that the vitriol of the campaign was not just cosmetic. Election 2016 tore the scabs off some very sore wounds in the body politic, and healing those wounds is not going to be easy. For we are, and have been since at least 2000 and arguably 1996, a country badly divided along what a philosopher or theologian would call “anthropological” lines — a country riven by two very different and likely incommensurable ideas of the human person.
One, which found what still strikes me as an unworthy vessel in Donald Trump, believes that there are truths built into the world and into us and that respecting those truths makes for happiness, civility, and human flourishing. The other believes that there are no such truths, that everything in the human condition is malleable and plastic, and that you are what you say you are or aspire to be, even if the elementary facts of biology beg to differ. The latter camp may have overreached recently in its quasi-fascist campus antics, its bathroom campaigns, and its determination to force lifestyle libertinism on the entire country through state power. But there is little indication that either political party, to date, has found either the will or the way to affirm the universality of human dignity while saying “Enough is enough” to the partisans of plastic human nature, who have weaponized “gender” ideology and confusions into a blunt instrument of intimidation and coercion.
A friend with a lot of sense texted me on the Morning After with the shrewd observation that while he was vastly enjoying the discomfiture of the commentariat, what had happened on November 8 was “reaction, not renewal.” He went on to note that a lot of what was being reacted against ought to be taken seriously, from the plight of those left behind to the plague of political correctness and its corrosive impact on democracy. But, he concluded, the reaction had found itself a dangerous vehicle in Mr. Trump. And that about sums up my good news/bad news view of things with Election 2016 mercifully in the rearview mirror. Looking ahead, we have to hope for the good news that Mr. Trump proves himself as adept a leader as he has been a demagogue, and that he brings men and women of talent, integrity, and imagination to Washington with him.
— George Weigel is the Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.