In the wee small hours of Donald Trump’s election victory last week, as shocked and sleepless liberals began to discuss the once-unthinkable, a curious dynamic began to play out: One person would note the basis of their outrage and fear, and their interlocutor would mumble something like, Oh right, sure, I just didn’t think that was the worst thing about him.
Every four years, of course, liberals or conservatives, one or the other, stand around glumly on election night and prepare for the needle of American politics to creep a little left or a little right. And for the most part, they are united in their reason for dejection: They wanted, in a mostly general way, for the needle to move in their direction.
The array of reasons people found for opposing the Republican candidate this year, however, was not only broad but individualized and personal in a way perhaps not seen in modern history. Trump’s stunning upset over Hillary Clinton was taken by many as something not unlike a direct threat, the precise nature of which might depend on your race, gender, faith or sexual orientation. By the time election day arrived, one couldn't be blamed for worrying about the right to free assembly and speech.
A week later, Trump has rolled back some of his most divisive proposals — saying parts of his threatened wall between the U.S. and Mexico, for example, might be just a fence — but has also begun stocking his White House with climate-change deniers and right-wing nationalists, among other lunatics, which, if nothing else, has given his diverse opposition a new focus.
“I think [right-wing nationalist Stephen Bannon’s] appointment reinforced what all the protestors are protesting about — making it more personal to all the groups that took it personal,” said Columbia University political scientist Robert Y. Shapiro.
The head of far-right clickbait website Breitbart News, Bannon — a hate-monger of such venom that right-wing fearmonger Glenn Beck called him a “terrifying man” — is to become chief White House strategist, one of the most influential posts in a Trump administration.
Like many liberals, Connecticut writer Sharbari Zohra Ahmed opposed Trump for a host of reasons. But as Bangladesh-born Muslim American, she faced a very specific kind of menace with the election of a man who had pledged to ban people of her faith from entering the U.S. and deport some already here. “I didn’t only oppose him for his racism, but I had to immediately, practically think what [his election] meant for me,” said Ahmed, who has lived in the U.S. since she was three weeks old. “What effect would this have on me and my son as Muslim Americans?”
Ahmed does not wear a veil or hijab but has relatives in Florida who do, and they have already had conversations about possibly changing the way they dress. “One must adjust immediately to direct threats,” she said. Trump “seems to have unleashed a maelstrom of intolerance and hate.”
The once-widely held notion that voters cast their ballots in national elections based primarily on self-interest has been disproven repeatedly.
“Fifty years of research shows that that style of thinking is extraordinarily rare in American politics,” said Stanford University’s Jon Krosnick, who studies the psychology of political behavior. “Most Americans think about what impact the election will have on the country as a whole and on groups that they care about.”
Krosnick and others in his field are only now beginning to comb through the data from this election, since much of it is still being collected. But Trump made a host of threats — including banning Muslims and deporting undocumented residents by the millions, among others, that targeted well-defined groups. And “when he’s very specific you can imagine that there’s a community of people that would not have a hard time seeing a connection with with their own community and personal experience,” Krosnick said.
As an African-American woman, Yasmine Cadet found, like Ahmed, plenty of reasons to oppose Trump. But she figured that almost any American could find some threat or embarrassment they simply could not abide when evaluating a reality television star who boasted about not paying taxes and settled multi-million dollar prosecutions for educational fraud rather than go to trial.
“We were supposed to be united and this was this great opportunity to stand against — I don’t want to say a villain, but somebody who doesn’t respect our values, our morals,” said the New York University student. “You walk around with some sort of armor anyway as a person of color, as a woman. And I thought maybe we were making strides with race and with equality on all these levels. And it just wasn’t true. It wasn’t true.”
The varied, individualized reactions to Trump’s win have likely been in part a predictable result of the campaign. “This election was striking in terms of how so many things were personal,” Columbia’s Shapiro said. What has heightened some people's sense of personal danger, he said, is the fact that it was Trump’s most venomous attacks against Clinton and appalling behavior toward others that fueled his campaign — his taped boasting of grabbing women “by the pussy,” his public demeaning of the parents of dead Muslim-American soldier.
“If there were no lewd tape, if he didn’t make statements about Mr. Khan and his wife, if he didn’t make statements about African-Americans, he wouldn’t have won the election,” Shapiro said.
White men, of course, were largely spared in Trump’s xenophobic, misogynistic campaign, which perhaps gave them more freedom than some others to simply stand back and marvel at the most astounding fact of all: We elected Donald Trump president of the United States. Donald Trump.
“It wasn't any one or two positions that appalled me; I'm old enough to remember Trump as the ’80's and ’90's thief, hoax and punchline … turned reality TV star,” Ken Sanzel, a television director and former police officer, said in an email. “People didn't take him seriously because he was a cartoon. The fact that a cartoon can become president was a real kick in the balls; it erased any wishful thinking about the innate wisdom or decency of the American people as a mass.”