Section: Opinion

In the election’s wake, we must rethink political engagement

How becoming complacent about democracy directly affected Trump’s rise to presidency.

I spent most of Election Day feeling like a giddy child waiting to go to Disneyland — bursting with energy, and excited for what was ahead. Sitting down in front of my TV that evening, I felt like America would be “the happiest place on earth” if Hillary Clinton took the presidency. But by the time Donald Trump seized enough electoral votes, I felt like I was on a ride gone wrong, and I needed to get off. I became nauseous and sweaty, and my heart began to beat fast. Tuesday night was not a fantasy. It was a nightmare, and I couldn’t wake up.
Like many other Americans, I began looking for answers after the results. “How did we let this happen?” I wondered. I didn’t want to admit it, but I had underestimated the sheer power that Trump held over so many disgruntled Americans. I wanted to believe that someone who was misogynistic, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and bigoted couldn’t possibly win over our country. In a small-minded way, though, I didn’t realize that so many Americans would vote for Trump — not because they were racists or homophobes, but because they genuinely thought that he could fix problems in the country. As technology billionaire Peter Thiel said, the Trump voters took Trump seriously, but not literally. The media, he said, took Trump literally but not seriously. It is in this distinction that we can partially come to understand how Trump was not held accountable.
In the days following the election, reporters have received a lot of flak for not treating Trump’s presidency as a legitimate possibility. As media columnist Michael Wolff said in USA Today, “[the media] found itself telling the stories its audience wanted to hear, a problem compounded by the fact that these were the stories the people in the media most wanted to hear.” The media often assured voters that Clinton was bound to win — a claim that may have dissuaded voters from going to the polls in the first place. Media sources, including social networks like Facebook, have been criticized for treating Trump as ratings-worthy entertainment, or for airing Trump’s speeches in their entirety. While I understand this argument, I think there is another possibility we must entertain.
The hard truth is that we as a culture did not act early enough to prevent Trump’s presidency. Yes, the media should have started communicating and dissecting Trump’s offensive platform as soon as he announced he was running for president. But we also can’t rely on the media for everything. If we see someone robbing a bank, we do not need to be told by a professional journalist that it is wrong. We simply know. Likewise, we do not need to hear from the media that Trump’s comments are bigoted or hurtful or life-threatening to many groups in this country. The media helps us contextualize information, but we must do some of the work, too.
We shouldn’t have waited until Trump became president-elect to feel worried. The average American should have taken action as early as 2015. We should have gone door-to-door, phone-banked, talked to people, donated money to other campaigns, anything. That was the time to act. We can still band together in the days following Election Day — and we should — but we also must recognize that in many ways, anti-Trump forces as a whole acted too late. We didn’t push hard enough, we weren’t politically engaged enough, and we didn’t feel enough fear until reality set in. Our attitude, not just that of the media or Trump supporters, is also to blame in this election.
I am the first to admit that I thought Clinton had the election in the bag. I donated money and canvassed and went phone-banking, and for that I am proud. But I also was guilty of not taking Trump seriously enough. I hope this election shows us that it is important to be politically engaged early on and all the time.
We cannot wait for other people to do work for us. We cannot hold off until something happens to us or someone we love to be concerned. As Tim Kaine said when visiting Kenyon, “We cannot take anything for granted.” I hope we remember that now, but also in the next four years and in many elections to come.
Julia Waldow ’17 is an English major from Los Angeles, Calif. She can be reached at


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