by David Purdy
In the days that followed Donald Trump’s election victory, protestors took to the streets of American cities chanting “Not My President”. Their angry defiance was understandable. Trump’s campaign had been a tissue of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, arrogance, bullying, lies and self-contradiction and his triumph was hailed with undisguised joy by the organised far right, from Breitbart bloggers to the Ku Klux Klan. The slogan was, nevertheless, ill judged.
It was one thing to argue that Trump was not fit to become Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, but quite another to disavow the President-elect once the votes were counted, and not just because it smacked of sour grapes. We might detest Trump’s character and conduct, deplore his demagoguery and despair of an electoral system that gave him the prize even though his main rival won more votes. But those were the rules of the game and for all his bigotry, it was undeniable that Trump had managed to channel the rage felt by many Americans against the “Washington establishment” and an economic system that showered largesse on the well endowed and well educated, but left millions of others floundering. As citizens, the protesters had a duty to observe democratic norms by respecting the verdict of the voters. In refusing to recognise Trump’s victory, they were staging a symbolic revolt of their own. They were also ceding the moral high ground, for this was precisely what Trump had threatened to do when asked during one of the televised presidential election debates whether he would accept the result if he lost the vote.
There is, of course, a big difference between wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and plotting to blow up parliament. And as street theatre goes, chanting “Not My President” is not in the same league as tearing up a draft card, setting fire to the Stars and Stripes or setting fire to oneself. All the same, symbols matter: they engage emotions, express values, shape attitudes and frame issues. And while the disowning of the President-elect is a relatively anodyne form of protest, it does raise important ethical questions.
The self-styled American public philosopher, Michael Sandel, notes that the dominant moral discourse in contemporary Western societies, which he calls moral individualism, recognises only two categories of moral duty: natural duties and voluntary obligations.1 The former are universal (i.e. we owe them to all humans without exception), and their moral force does not depend on our consent. Examples are the duty to treat everyone with respect and to condemn, or at least not condone, cruel or degrading acts and practices. Voluntary obligations, by contrast, are particular and do require our consent. I’m not obliged to help you out unless I promised to do so or perhaps owe you a favour in return for one you did me.
Sandel insists that there is a third category, which he calls obligations of solidarity. Unlike natural duties, these are particular: we owe them only to some specified sub-set of people with whom we have some significant social relationship: family members, friends, comrades, colleagues, fellow citizens and so on. (It is significant that trade unionists still address each other on public occasions as “brothers and sisters”. The same goes for members of oppressed racial and ethnic groups.) Yet ties of loyalty and solidarity bind us whether we acknowledge and consent to them or not. If this were not so, it would be impossible to explain why we sometimes experience divided or conflicting loyalties. The novelist E.M. Forster once famously said: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I would have the courage to betray my country.”
Such dilemmas can be agonising. Sandel cites the case of the man known as the Unabomber, a home-grown American terrorist responsible for a series of package bombs that killed three people and injured twenty-three others. On reading the 35,000-word anti-technology manifesto posted on-line by the Unabomber in 1996, the wife of David Kaczynski, a social worker in Schenectady, New York, drew it to her husband’s attention. He agreed with her that it contained phrases and opinions that sounded like his older brother, Ted, a Harvard-trained mathematician who despised industrial society and was living alone in a mountain cabin in Montana. David had not seen him for a decade. After much anguish, he informed the FBI of his suspicion that the Unabomber was his brother.
Ted was subsequently arrested, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, having escaped the death penalty only by dint of plea-bargaining. In court, he refused to acknowledge his brother and in a book manuscript written later in prison described him as “another Judas Iscariot”. For his part, David accepted the $1 million reward offered by the Justice Department for information leading to the apprehension of the Unabomber, but gave most of it away to the families of those killed and injured by his brother. He also became a spokesman for an anti-capital punishment group. “Brothers are supposed to protect each other,” he told one audience, “and here, perhaps, I was sending my brother to his death.”
As Sandel points out, whatever you think of the choice David made, his dilemma only makes sense as a moral dilemma if you acknowledge that the claims of fraternal loyalty can be weighed in the balance against other moral claims, including the duty of citizens to help bring criminals to justice. The protest against the President-elect involved a similar moral conflict, though it hardly qualifies as a dilemma. Trump’s opponents had to decide whether to put their duties as citizens of a democratic state above their political allegiances. Should they abide by the results of tolerably free and fair elections and support the peaceful transfer of power or carry on campaigning – whether for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party or causes such as free trade, open borders and liberal social values, which they cherished and Trump rejected? The choice was a no-brainer. Upholding democratic institutions and norms trumps partisan commitment and ideological conviction every time.
In this case, moreover, doing the right thing also made political sense. Trump’s election campaign was a disgrace and there was much to criticise in his policy platform. But on two key issues, he was right to highlight bipartisan policy failures: the prolonged stagnation in real wages and endemic job insecurity experienced by blue collar workers and by growing numbers of white collar workers too; and the misguided attempts of successive US administrations to export democracy by force of arms, with soldiers recruited disproportionately from de-industrialised regions and disadvantaged social groups. Trump’s stress on these issues was pivotal to his success in the swing states of the mid-west rustbelt. Conversely, in both cases, with her record of support for neo-liberal trade deals and her hawkish stance on foreign policy, Hillary Clinton was not only on the wrong side of the argument, but also lost votes. And it was both stupid and disrespectful of her to insult Trump’s supporters by calling half of them “a basket of deplorables”.
Clinton and Obama subsequently made up for this lapse by issuing statements conceding defeat and urging their followers to do likewise in the interests of healing the deep divisions in American society. To repeat, this was not just good form, but good politics. In over 200 counties where Trump won this time, Obama won in 2012. There is no reason why voters who deserted the Democrats cannot be brought back into the fold. But if the Democrats are to restore their fortunes, they need to understand why, to quote the title of a recent best-selling study, so many of their former core supporters have come to feel like “strangers in their own land”.2 Exactly the same problem confronts the Labour Party in Britain and its sister parties in continental Europe.
- Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to do? (Allen Lane, 2009).
2. Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press, 2016).