The results of the American election have come as a surprise to many. As with other recent votes, the confident predictions of polls and commentators have been shown to be woefully out of touch with the reality of how the democratic majority of people actually feel.
It is no exaggeration to say that the American political system is broken, but this was true long before the votes were counted in favour of President Trump. No campaign in living memory has been so acrimonious, so deeply personal, not only between the candidates themselves but between their supporters. Perhaps the nadir of this campaign will come to be recognised as the moment Hillary Clinton labelled Trump’s supporters as “deplorables”; it is hard to gather a mandate when you directly insult what turns out to be 58 million people.
Some months ago, I wrote here that support for Donald Trump’s candidacy was far broader and deeper than people realised, but more importantly it was far less supportive of him personally than was understood. Most of the commentary on the US election has framed the possible result in terms of how many people would be “deplorable”, “ignorant”, “reactionary”, “bigoted”, or just plain “stupid” enough to back such an unqualified candidate. I argued at the time, and still believe today, that many, if not most, of Trump’s supporters voted for him not out of personal belief in his candidacy, but as their chosen malediction pronounced against a system that had long stopped caring about the things that matter to them. Hillary Clinton was perhaps the one candidate capable of pushing such a critical mass of people into making the ultimate protest vote.
Donald Trump’s victory speech was pock-marked with the usual political rhetoric about the nation needing to “come together” and how he would be a president for “the whole country”, yet the truth is: if you thought American society was divided before this election – you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Whatever the party listed next to his name, Donald Trump was not elected as a Republican president, and his support among congressional republicans is tenuous to say the very least. He will arrive in the White House as the leader of 58 million people who consider themselves to have had no voice in the wider socio-political debate in years. They will be eagerly waiting to see if Trump continues to speak to and for their priorities. On the other side, Clinton’s supporters, themselves containing a large number of people who would have preferred the far more radical Bernie Sanders, are well and truly weaponised – it is not unreasonable to predict some serious civil unrest in the coming weeks if anti-Brexit style protests become overheated.
Yet, for all this bad news, there is a real chance presented by this election. It is clear that neither political party speaks for the majority of Americans. It is equally clear that political leaders on both sides enjoy absolutely zero moral credibility across society at large. The failure of politicians to hear or speak for the people, and the collapse in confidence in the political system, could yet be turned into creative destruction.
The election of Donald Trump shows just how many people in the United States feel they have no public voice. Now is the time for the Church, and for other civil institutions, to speak up and fill the cratered centre of American public discourse. It has been done before. In his encyclical letter Rerum novarum, Leo XIII spoke of a great divorce between capital and labour. The “spirit of revolution” which was abroad in the western world at that time was one fomented by rapidly escalating economic disparity and a growing sense of political disenfranchisement. Leo held up the mutual and complimentary dignity of the person, the family, and of work as the true remedy for a fevered society, in contrast to the quack medicine of the radical politics and secularism emerging at the time.
Rerum novarum became the corner stone of Catholic social teaching, and, after a campaign of such vitriol and with the country so divided, it is blinding clear how urgently that message of charity and justice is needed.
The failure of both political parties presents Catholic and other civic leaders with a unique opportunity to speak to and for the concerns of a majority of Americans, and help shape the public debate, without the risk of appearing partisan. For too long the American episcopate has allowed itself to appear split between those in favour of life and family (supposedly Republicans) and those in favour of the poor and marginalised (supposedly Democrat); it is now up to them to show how radically united these two priorities have always been, and help reshape American civil debate in the process.