Q: I’m very curious about your original reaction to the election results. Were you surprised?
A: I was surprised. I never thought it was an impossibility that Donald Trump could win. And I put limited faith in polls. So I was not as surprised as some people were, but I was still quite surprised by it.
Q: What do you make of the results? What do you think it says about the state of the country right now?
A: For me there are two things to be thinking about. One is Trump himself, and why his message was able to mobilize people in the way that it was. There I think it’s fairly obvious what’s going on: Race is playing a big role, the reaction against the Obama Administration is playing a role and then the real economic turmoil of the country is playing a major role. All of those pieces together combined with other things that people have been pointing to: the Internet, the rise of alt-right culture, Twitter.
I have also been thinking about structural factors a lot. The future of the Electoral College seems to be under greater challenge than it has been in the past. However, I find the possibility of the Electoral College going away extremely unlikely, because the bar for that to happen is extremely high.
So I have also been thinking about long-term structural factors that made the rise of someone like Donald Trump possible. A lot of those began in the 1970s. For example, the parties restructured their primary systems to make their primary system more responsive to popular attitudes and popular votes. You could argue that Trump proves that this popular primary system worked, because the party establishment did not want an outsider to actually become the candidate and then win. But you could also make an argument — one which I find more persuasive — that the popular primary system makes it possible for a more extreme message and a more extreme candidate to come to the floor. I’ve been thinking about those structural issues, as well as about the fact that we are operating in a system of ideologically divided parties.
One of the things people have been talking about is why it seems so hard to talk across the divide at the moment, and why people on either side seem unable to imagine the worldview of the people on the opposite side. There are a lot of things going on there, but one of them is that we are in a different party system than we’ve seen before in American history. We also now live in an age of close elections. I am teaching a seminar on liberalism and conservatism this semester. We were just studying [Ronald] Reagan. You look at the electoral map in 1984, and he won every state except for Minnesota and the District of Columbia. For people of your age, that kind of an election, that kind of a blowout or consensus or landslide seems unthinkable. I guess my own thoughts are going in the direction of these long-term structural changes, though obviously there is a lot to say about Trump and Clinton as individual candidates as well.
Q: What do you think are some actions that we can take? What are some actions that you might take?
A: I’ve been thinking a lot about the period in American history, starting from 1917, when the United States entered the first World War, as an example of an extreme version of what we might be facing right now in terms of civil liberties, immigration, speech laws, press restriction — the kinds of things Trump has been suggesting that he wants to do. At that time, the United States was mobilizing for the First World War, but these forms of suppression went on for quite a while after that. There were internment camps within the United States for Germans, though this wasn’t mass internment as we would later see with Japanese Americans during the Second World War. There were speech laws enacted, leftist dissidents thrown in jail, lots of fairly extreme racial violence, vigilante attacks on immigrants and non-white people in particular and on political dissidents. There were pretty serious political consequences. The 1920s produced expansive immigration restriction, and the Ku Klux Klan emerged as a major force in the Democratic Party.
In terms of what do people do during those situations: A lot of the people being targeted were pretty constrained in what they could do to resist, especially if they were non-citizens. In some cases, though, professionals and lawyers and other activists were able to stand up at that moment and make a real difference. This was the moment when the ACLU was founded — and the ACLU is of course having a big surge in membership in the last couple of weeks. One of the things they could do was not only to intervene in the courts in a significant way but also to stand up and protest, offer a different narrative of what was going on and really take on the obligation to speak for people who were being victimized and who were not in positions to speak for themselves. New ways of thinking about the First Amendment came out of that moment.
Q: What are some concerns you have for the future?
A: I have a lot of concerns. I have concerns about political discourse, and how to both critique and object to, for liberals, what is bound to be a very problematic administration. At the same time, as a matter of political strategy and as a matter of citizenship, people on both sides of the aisle need to think about ways to actually have conversations about what’s going on in this country that are outside of simply being in your own echo chamber. I don’t think I have a great solution to that, but that seems to be one of the biggest challenges.