For Stanford, this election was an apocalyptic showdown between good and evil. When Donald Trump emerged as the Republican nominee, students proclaimed that our country has “a reservoir of racist energy”. But surely, Stanford students consoled themselves, the American people had too much decency in their hearts to let Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton. Time and again, as election day neared, they claimed that “the 2016 election is over”, awaiting an inevitable Clinton victory. A Trump triumph was unthinkable, impossible even. How could it be possible, when only 3.9% of campus supports Trump?
But on November 8, 2016, Stanford students felt like strangers in their own country. The American people elected Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States. For anyone with a large contingent of Bay Area friends, social media feeds have transformed into makeshift mental health clinics.
Stanford students are now confronted with a challenging question: If Donald Trump really is a racist bigot who ignores the struggles of minorities across America, how could half of the United States vote for him? The answer, though perhaps painful to accept, is simple: President Trump speaks to a class of voters that have felt like strangers in their country for years.
An entire demographic of Americans went unnoticed. They weren’t immigrants from foreign countries, they didn’t march in protest against institutional racism, and they weren’t historically repressed. The white working and middle classes nonetheless deservedly felt they had been left behind.
Stanford has come to embrace a particularly narrow definition of identity politics – one that almost exclusively focuses on the struggles faced by racial minorities and that refuses to acknowledge the plight of any group that does not fit in this reductionist narrative.
This blindness, of course, ran counter to reality, and Stanford was not alone. Establishment politicians, business leaders, and mainstream media treated millions of Americans like they simply didn’t exist. Senior Mitt Romney strategist Stuart Stevens derided attempts to win over disillusioned white voters as a “Lost Tribes of the Amazon theory, where if you paddle far enough, you’ll find all these white voters who have never voted before.” But Donald Trump took this advice, ignoring the mockery behind it. He paddled up the river of broken white communities and the detritus left by globalization – and find them he did.
These blue-collar workers have been hit hard by the same globalization and multiculturalism Stanford students tend to equate with progress. Though the country’s manufacturing output as a percentage of GDP has stayed roughly constant at 15% for the past twenty years, the number of Americans employed in this sector has plummeted. As factories gave way to datacenters and startups, the workers who suddenly found themselves without jobs could not reposition their careers. In every presidential election, these individuals heard exhortations that a rising tide would lift all boats – that, once the institutional barriers to the workplace were removed, the American dream could be shared by everyone.
These promises never translated into reality.
Unemployment rose, marriage rates plummeted, and intellectual talent was sucked out of suburban and rural communities into urban centers. Working class white America imploded. Disillusioned, it became the least likely demographic to vote in a presidential election. That is, until Donald J. Trump.
Silicon Valley – and, more specifically, Stanford – took no notice. No bridges were blocked for these Americans. No rallies were staged. No sit-ins were organized. If anything, this group was demonized as complicit in a “racist” and “sexist” system of “white privilege”. Regardless of the truth of such claims, they undoubtedly rung false for voters who saw and felt their economic and social prospects recede irreversibly.
Elite institutions like Stanford mistakenly believed that multiculturalism would, after some growth pains, transform America into a cosmopolitan paradise. But the white working class has lost everything in the wake of this ideal.So they rejected global citizenship and embraced the view that, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Walls, not sweeping free trade agreements, were needed. A more tribalist definition of American identity – one that Trump voters could actually embrace – supplanted cosmopolitanism. A promise to “Make America Great Again” became a rallying cry against oblivion.
The votes of nearly 60,000,000 Americans will carry President Trump from the doors of Trump Tower on June 16, 2015 to the Oval Office on January 20, 2017. In the words of Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, “Even as we maintain our focus on education and research in service to the world, we must reaffirm our bedrock values of free expression, diversity and inclusion. This includes promoting a culture where all opinions can be heard and respected.”
The Facebook posts we have seen litter our newsfeeds overnight only emphasize Stanford’s own ignorance: they claim every Trump voter is a bigot, that white people have no right to vote differently than others, that America is doomed, and that our great country is permanently compromised and unacceptable. If Appalachians had called Hillary Clinton a hazard to their mental well-being after her victory and demanded Electoral College reform, Stanford would rightly have condemned them. But today, Stanford offers counselling sessions for people incapable of comprehending that Republicans sometimes win elections.
If Stanford students wish to stop feeling like strangers in their own country, they need to take these thoughts to heart and try to understand the half of America they have ignored for far too long. The country has spoken. It is time for Stanford to listen.
Photo credit: SAM GIRVIN/The Stanford Daily