The election of Donald Trump: the long view
With the benefits of hindsight, commentators (including yours truly) will now tell you precisely how President-elect Trump managed to win the 2016 presidential election. They will cite income inequality, racism, sexism, social anxiety, and even emails to explain the outcome of the election.
In my view the seeds of the 2016 presidential election result were planted in our founding document, the Constitution. Although it begins with “We, the people”, we have yet to come anywhere close to realizing the full meaning of this phrase. The soaring ideals of our democracy were interwoven with a series of political compromises that haunt us to this day. For the second time in five presidential elections, the candidate with the largest number of votes will not be our President. In order to form our union and placate the smaller states, the founders agreed to the original gerrymander, the Electoral College, which we haven’t managed to discard. The Electoral College system has given us President-elect Trump.
Our founders were silent on voting rights. Thus, the states were allowed to decide that “we, the people” meant white male property owners, and in some states, wealthy merchants and professionals. It sounds a lot like the current power structure in this country, including one Donald J. Trump. “We, the people” did not include the right to vote for women, African-Americans, other minorities, or the masses of white tenant farmers and servants. These are the very groups who were at the heart of the deep divisions manifested in the 2016 election.
Although the constitution only had a few references to slavery, those provisions had devastating consequences for our democracy. Our founders, in order to make a nation, gave slave-owners disproportionate political power by counting slaves as 3/5ths of a person for purposes of the census and by allowing the importation of slaves for another 25 years. Blacks were chattel except for two purposes that served the interests of southern states: determining the number of Congressmen and Electoral Delegates for each state. These provisions institutionalized racism and helped to deepen the rift between the white working poor and African-Americans. The candidacy of President-elect Trump re-infected this ugly American wound.
The election of Donald Trump isn’t the result of some new development in American politics. While establishing this country on noble principles, our founders intentionally (and from their perspectives necessarily) infected America’s DNA with some very toxic mutations. Despite progress in our laws and culture, those mutations are far from dead. This election is proof.
As a candidate, Donald Trump was unfamiliar with the nobler provisions of our Constitution, but he was well acquainted with its weaknesses. His campaign exploited them. If he is going to be my President, he will need to aspire to the most virtuous aspirations of our Constitution, instead of continuing to exploit its weaknesses.