When my mother died back in 1979, I remember being surprised that the emotion that seized me first of all was not grief but amazement. I was a young man, but not a child. I understood how sick she was, and how long she had been suffering from the disease that finally took her. I knew she had been hospitalized repeatedly and that her curative options had been slowly exhausted as the years had passed. I knew all of that, yet when she actually breathed her last, my first response was to be amazed—stunned, actually—that this could possibly have happened. My friends, trying to be kind, attempted to nudge me along toward a more appropriate response. Eventually, of course, I accepted what had happened and I was able to grieve. But my first response—and it must have made quite an impression on me since I can still remember this all these years later—my first response was simply not to be able to believe that she had actually died. And that, despite every single reason I ought to have had to see the train barreling down the tracks towards my mother clearly and to understand what happens to people who get in the way of speeding trains.
For some reason, that memory surfaced in me earlier this week as I, in this like all Americans, began to adjust to the prospect of a Trump presidency: long before any other emotion seized me, I was simply amazed. And so too were the nation’s pundits and pollsters, almost all of whom—including some very conservative writers—had clearly considered a Clinton victory almost to be a foregone conclusion. Honestly, if a space ship from Neptune had landed on earth Tuesday and deposited at the polls some of the 1.8 million dead people the Pew Center reported last month are still registered to vote, some of the columnists I read on Wednesday couldn’t have sounded more surprised. (If you missed that Pew Center on the States study, chastening in its own right, click here.)
How can so many have been so wrong? That’s the question I’d like to explore today.
Sometimes, it’s just a result of willing yourself to see what you wish was there, of rank self-delusion. Of that, the Brexit vote is the best example. Last February, in a move he came to regret deeply, then-P.M. David Cameron announced a nation-wide referendum in which Britons would be asked to express themselves on the matter of continued membership in the European Union. He did this because he was certain, as were all his advisors and the rest of his cabinet, that Britons would vote overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in the E.U. and that the matter could finally be laid to rest with a nation-wide plebiscite. But they were completely wrong. It wasn’t an overwhelming vote to stay at all; indeed, 52% of those casting ballots voted to leave the E.U. The “go’s” had it. The P.M. resigned. There is at least a reasonable chance that the United Kingdom will be gone from E.U. by the end of March 2019.
But that model doesn’t quite work here. Wishful thinking is a powerful force, but many of those who were the most surprised by the outcome of the election were themselves firmly in the Trump camp. They too misread the mood of the nation, but not because they didn’t wish things to be otherwise than they imagined them to be. What actually happened is what they had hoped would happen…so the inability of so many to see a Trump victory as a distinct possibility, let alone as a probability, was not merely a function of the fanciful thinking of some. There was something else afoot here, something more ominous.
The phrase “two solitudes” was originally the title of a novel published in 1945 by Canadian author Hugh MacLennan in which he detailed the peculiar way that English and French Canadians manage to live in the same country without ever actually encountering each other. The expression is far more used these days in Canada, I believe, than the book itself is read. But the idea itself can serve as an answer to the question at hand.
That awareness that others do not see what we see when we look out at the world is disorienting. Canada has come simply to live with it. I lived in Canada for thirteen years without ever meeting or encountering, even in passing, a French Canadian. As many of you know, I speak French fluently. But I somehow managed to live all those years in Canada without ever reading a French-language bestseller, without ever seeing (not even once) a movie made in Quebec, without ever attending a play by a Quebec playwright. I suppose it must be similarly possible to live in Quebec and have no contact with the cultural trappings of Anglo-Canada. Two solitudes there were in Hugh MacLennan’s day and, for better or worse two solitudes was what I encountered during our years on the ground in Canada. I can’t imagine things have changed much since our return to the States in 1999.
The Canadian model feels more right than the British one in figuring out the answer to my question about how so many can have been so wrong.
We have a big country. Few of us have the time to spend months, let alone years, driving around and meeting our fellow citizens. When someone with real literary talent does undertake a journey like that—someone like a John Steinbeck, a Jack Kerouac, or a Robert Pirsig—they can turn the experience into a bestseller precisely because so few have the time or the means to undertake such a journey. And, perhaps as a result, we have settled into an American version of the two solitudes. Almost sixty million people voted for Donald Trump, only slightly fewer than those who cast their votes for Hillary Clinton. But the Trump supporters—scores of millions of people—were invisible to the pollsters and the pundits, to the columnists and commentators. They were out there. They weren’t hiding. There were a lot of them too. But they simply didn’t attract the attention of the people who were theoretically being paid to see them and to take the way they would most likely vote into account.
As an American, this blindness—this almost systemic inability to see the other half of the electorate clearly or even at all—is a distressing, counterproductive feature of our national culture. But for Jewish Americans, this inability to see the other crosses the line easily from counterproductive to sinister.
No one, I think, can have read more books about the Shoah than I myself have, but my personal predilection has always been for personal memoirs, for the stories of actual people who lived through the events they describe. Each memoir is, obviously, a personal story. But read together as a body of literature, they do have traits in common.
When, for example, I read the books written by German Jews who survived to tell their tales, I’m always struck by the way they answer the obvious question of why they didn’t leave when it was still possible. Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933. The Nazis hadn’t made any secret of their deep, visceral anti-Semitism. If anything, they had been vocal and public about the degree to which they loathed their own nation’s Jewish minority. Violent attacks against Jews had already begun, although obviously not on the unimaginable scale later to come. So why didn’t they just leave? It was legal to go. There wasn’t, at least not at first, a flood of would-be emigrants vying for visas for countries that could have provided safe havens. It was legal to transfer money out of the country. The Nazis, at least at first, encouraged Jews to flee.
So why didn’t they go? It’s a good question…and they all offer the same set of answers. They couldn’t imagine Hitler would win. They couldn’t imagine anyone at all would vote for him, let alone that well over a third of the nation would. They felt certain that their non-Jewish countrymen wouldn’t ever vote for a party that stood for racism, xenophobia, and, above all, anti-Semitism. But they were all wrong. And they were wrong because millions were invisible to them. And for the simple reason that they couldn’t see their neighbors, they failed to notice how many millions upon millions of them were miserable, felt ignored, and couldn’t get anyone truly to pay attention to their plight. By the time they revised their sense of how things were, it was—for most, at any rate—way too late.
The model isn’t precisely right. What we have in our country is not so much a large, restive, angry minority growing stealthily into a majority of the citizenry, but two halves of the electorate occupying the same ground but somehow nevertheless invisible to each other. No one saw Donald Trump getting almost half the votes cast because no one saw the almost sixty million people who voted for him. Not clearly. For some, not really at all. And that is the monitory lesson this year’s election should have for us now.
To live in peace in a nation devoted to the propagation of its national ideals requires being part of the citizenry not merely by virtue of having the right passport or having been born within the nation’s borders, but because you have come to think of yourself as part of a larger populace that you are prepared to see clearly in all its variegated variation. For a nation of hundreds of millions of people, this is not an easy thing to accomplish. Iceland is a nation with a third of a million citizens, more than 92% of whom are ethnic Icelanders. Fostering a sense of national unity in such a place can’t be that difficult. But we don’t live in Iceland. And the challenge inherent in that specific thought—that this isn’t Iceland and that we have fallen far short of the ideal of seeing our fellow citizens clearly and hearing when they speak—that is the lesson I suggest we all take away from Tuesdays’ election as we move into a new world of our own fashioning.