I dislike commenting on politics. I think it's difficult to contribute any novel thought - and in today's hyper-polarized world, stating an unpopular or half-baked opinion is a recipe for losing friends or worse. Still, with many of my colleagues expressing horror and disbelief over what happened on Tuesday night, I reluctantly decided to jot down my thoughts.
I think that in trying to explain away the meteoric rise of Mr. Trump, many of the mainstream commentators have focused on two phenomena. Firstly, they singled out the emergence of "filter bubbles" - a mechanism that allows people to reinforce their own biases and shields them from opposing views. Secondly, they implicated the dark undercurrents of racism, misogynism, or xenophobia that still permeate some corners of our society. From that ugly place, the connection to Mr. Trump's foul-mouthed populism was not hard to make; his despicable bragging about women aside, to his foes, even an accidental hand gesture or an inane 4chan frog meme was proof enough. Once we crossed this line, the election was no longer about economic policy, the environment, or the like; it was an existential battle for equality and inclusiveness against the forces of evil that lurk in our midst. Not a day went by without a comparison between Mr. Trump and Adolf Hitler in the press. As for the moderate voters, the pundits had an explanation, too: the right-wing filter bubble must have clouded their judgment and created a false sense of equivalency between a horrid, conspiracy-peddling madman and our cozy, liberal status quo.
Now, before I offer my take, let me be clear that I do not wish to dismiss the legitimate concerns about the overtones of Mr. Trump's campaign. Nor do I desire to downplay the scale of discrimination and hatred that the societies around the world are still grappling with, or the potential that the new administration could make it worse. But I found the aforementioned explanation of Mr. Trump's unexpected victory to be unsatisfying in many ways. Ultimately, we all live in bubbles and we all have biases; in that regard, not much sets CNN apart from Fox News, Vox from National Review, or The Huffington Post from Breitbart. The reason why most of us would trust one and despise the other is that we instinctively recognize our own biases as more benign. After all, in the progressive world, we are fighting for an inclusive society that gives all people a fair chance to succeed. As for the other side? They seem like a bizarre, cartoonishly evil coalition of dimwits, racists, homophobes, and the ultra-rich. We even have serious scientific studies to back that up; their authors breathlessly proclaim that the conservative brain is inferior to the progressive brain. Unlike the conservatives, we believe in science, so we hit the "like" button and retweet the news.
But here's the thing: I know quite a few conservatives, many of whom have probably voted for Mr. Trump - and they are about as smart, as informed, and as compassionate as my progressive friends. I think that the disconnect between the worldviews stems from something else: if you are a well-off person in a coastal city, you know people who are immigrants or who belong to other minorities, making you acutely attuned to their plight; but you may lack the same, deeply personal connection to - say - the situation of the lower middle class in the Midwest. You might have seen surprising charts or read a touching story in Mother Jones few years back, but it's hard to think of them as individuals; they are more of a socioeconomic obstacle, a problem to be solved. The same goes for our understanding of immigration or globalization: these phenomena make our high-tech hubs more prosperous and more open; the externalities of our policies, if any, are just an abstract price that somebody else ought to bear for doing what's morally right. And so, when Mr. Trump promises to temporarily ban travel from Muslim countries linked to terrorism or anti-American sentiments, we (rightly) gasp in disbelief; but when Mr. Obama paints an insulting caricature of rural voters as simpletons who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them", we smile and praise him for his wit, not understanding how the other side could be so offended by the truth. Similarly, when Mrs. Clinton chuckles while saying "we are going to put a lot of coal miners out of business" to a cheering crowd, the scene does not strike us as a thoughtless, offensive, or in poor taste. Maybe we will read a story about the miners in Mother Jones some day?
Of course, liberals take pride in caring for the common folk, but I suspect that their leaders' attempts to reach out to the underprivileged workers in the "flyover states" often come across as ham-fisted and insincere. The establishment schools the voters about the inevitability of globalization, as if it were some cosmic imperative; they are told that to reject the premise would not just be wrong - but that it'd be a product of a diseased, nativist mind. They hear that the factories simply had to go to China or Mexico, and the goods just have to come back duty-free - all so that our complex, interconnected world can be a happier place. The workers are promised entitlements, but it stands to reason that they want dignity and hope for their children, not a lifetime on food stamps. The idle, academic debates about automation, post-scarcity societies, and Universal Basic Income probably come across as far-fetched and self-congratulatory, too.
The discourse is poisoned by cognitive biases in many other ways. The liberal media keeps writing about the unaccountable right-wing oligarchs who bankroll the conservative movement and supposedly poison people's minds - but they offer nothing but praise when progressive causes are being bankrolled by Mr. Soros or Mr. Bloomberg. They claim that the conservatives represent "post-truth" politics - but their fact-checkers shoot down conservative claims over fairly inconsequential mistakes, while giving their favored politicians a pass on half-true platitudes about immigration, gun control, crime, or the sources of inequality. Mr. Obama sneers at the conservative bias of Fox News, but has no concern with the striking tilt to the left in the academia or in the mainstream press. The Economist finds it appropriate to refer to Trump supporters as "trumpkins" in print - but it would be unthinkable for them to refer to the fans of Mrs. Clinton using any sort of a mocking term. The pundits ponder the bold artistic statement made by the nude statues of the Republican nominee - but they would be disgusted if a conservative sculptor portrayed the Democratic counterpart in a similarly unflattering light. The commentators on MSNBC read into every violent incident at Trump rallies - but when a a random group of BLM protesters starts chanting about killing police officers, we all agree it would not be fair to cast the entire movement in a negative light.
Most progressives are either oblivious to these biases, or dismiss them as a harmless casualty of fighting the good fight. Perhaps so - and it is not my intent to imply equivalency between the causes of the left and of the right. But in the end, I suspect that the liberal echo chamber contributed to the election of Mr. Trump far more than anything that ever transpired on the right. It marginalized and excluded legitimate but alien socioeconomic concerns from the mainstream political discourse, binning them with truly bigoted and unintelligent speech - and leaving the "flyover underclass" no option other than to revolt. And it wasn't just a revolt of the awful fringes. On the right, we had Mr. Trump - a clumsy outsider who eschews many of the core tenets of the conservative platform, and who does not convincingly represent neither the neoconservative establishment of the Bush era, nor the Bible-thumping religious right of the Tea Party. On the left, we had Mr. Sanders - an unaccomplished Senator who offered simplistic but moving slogans, who painted the accumulation of wealth as the source of our ills, and who promised to mold the United States into an idyllic version of the social democracies of Europe - supposedly governed by the workers, and not by the exploitative elites.
I think that people rallied behind Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump not because they particularly loved the candidates or took all their promises seriously - but because they had no other credible herald for their cause. When the mainstream media derided their rebellion and the left simply laughed it off, it only served as a battle cry. When tens of millions of Trump supporters were labeled as xenophobic and sexist deplorables who deserved no place in politics, it only pushed more moderates toward the fringe. Suddenly, rational people could see themselves voting for a politically inexperienced and brash billionaire - a guy who talks about cutting taxes for the rich, who wants to cozy up to Russia, and whose VP pick previously wasn't so sure about LGBT rights. I think it all happened not because of Mr. Trump's character traits or thoughtful political positions, and not because half of the country hates women and minorities. He won because he was the only one to promise to "drain the swamp" - and to promise hope, not handouts, to the lower middle class.
There is a risk that this election will prove to be a step back for civil rights, or that Mr. Trump's bold but completely untested economic policies will leave the world worse off; while not certain, it pains me to even contemplate this possibility. When we see injustice, we should fight tooth and nail. But for now, I am not swayed by the preemptively apocalyptic narrative on the left. Perhaps naively, I have faith in the benevolence of our compatriots and the strength of the institutions of - as cheesy as it sounds - one of the great nations of the world.