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Bending the Long Arc

The proper response to Donald J. Trump’s election to the office of the President of the United States of America is grief. After eight years of Obama, many, including myself, believed that America would soon pave itself a path towards a better future, in line with the cosmopolitan and liberal ideas of my youth: that diversity is a strength, openness a virtue, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That we were moving towards a world of justice, based not on any loose interpretation of the word, but “fairness;” a world where, truly, the position you were born into, the color of your skin, the bank account of your father, your gender, your sexuality; none of these could detract from your value as a human being.

Is it any wonder, then, that people were grieving, openly sobbing? Many on the Right ask, “Why are you protesting? Why are you crying?” Why indeed. What makes this election any different? We all sense it. We all know, or we should.


Donald Trump is an anathema to our creed. He is the reincarnation of all we could ever fear. His strength derives from ignorance. It derives from the beliefs that heterogeneity is strength, that walls are safety, that not all humans can be people; that not all lives are equal, or deserving of liberty even their own pursuit of happiness. His strength is derived not from a sense of justice as fairness, but a justice of retribution against those who would deny the superiority of those who are white. There is a reason Nazis are cheering Trump.

Let me say that I am not unsympathetic to the cries of Trump supporters. I believe that they have been abandoned by the elites. I understand, viscerally, the demands for the removal of the old order. I have seen the realities against which they cry out, and I have lived them myself. I can say, with honesty and fear, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” This is the important and salient point; the pain of the middle country is real. It comes in vile forms which cannot be defended — racism, sexism, xenophobia — yet I have to believe that no one wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and says “Today, I become a racist; a bad man.” No! To themselves, all people are heroes.

This is the great mistake of the current liberal response. Because the first instinct of the left, after grief, was anger. Obstinate anger. A refusal to understand, and a willingness to blame. Those who voted for Trump are often considered, as I said, ignorant racist sexist misanthropes who have a passionate hatred for progress and rights. And yet, many people with a college education voted for Trump. A majority of white women did. Many who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 went with Trump. People of religious and charitable dispositions voted for Trump in great numbers; even people who support the expansion of equal rights to all members of society supported Trump. Indeed, enough of these people supported Trump that he won the election.

There are people who believe, for a variety of reasons and coming from a variety of backgrounds (even if highly concentrated in some demographics like the famous “white, low-educated male”), that Trump was the better choice. The central problem with the election cannot be Clinton’s poor viability as a candidate, or her strategy, or the Electoral College. It is not that people are, somehow, on average, less intelligent now than in previous elections, or that people are willingly ignorant and subscribe to evil notions. We cannot subscribe to these easy explanations and hope for a real reprieve.

A more real problem is that we, the coastal, liberal, cosmopolitan elite, refuse to engage with the middle country and the right using their own languages. We are somehow unable to articulate the value of our principles: diversity, rule of law, liberty. Instead, we harangue our opposition, we stereotype them, we reduce them to an isolated demographic, a rogue minority who has upset the balance of power in the country. We refuse to do the hard, long, and dirty work of attempting to convince a Trump supporter of the validity of our principles in their conception of the world.

A concrete example is “Black Lives matter.” This is often misunderstood or misrepresented as “Black people matter to the exclusion of others.” Thus, we receive in return “All lives matter” or “White lives matter too.” The misunderstanding is that we are somehow overvaluing black lives. A dogmatic repetition that “Black lives are important” or verbatim that “Black lives matter” is unconvincing and tone-deaf. You have to delve into the underlying sentiment that we understand but some do not: the point isn’t that black lives matter more; rather that they are disproportionately less valued.


We, in our universities, cities, and corporations, require diversity. We argue its benefits to a set of people who have never had to value it. We try to sell the status quo to a group of people whose status is deteriorating under it. Why do we expect those with different beliefs to fall in line after no more than lecturing them that we are right and they are wrong? Would that work with us?

Donald Trump is a threat to the country and everything our country should stand for. Our republic is fragile. That such an overwhelming swath of the country – literally almost any state that does not touch a major coast – would be willing to risk that republic for any change to their circumstances is an important fact that must be acknowledged and dealt with. We must oppose Donald Trump and his allies on every front; the political front, the legal front. But most importantly, we must oppose the Trumpian coalition on the ideological front. We must be willing, for the sake of our principles, to defend those principles in a language that makes sense to the people we are defending them to. We will gain no ground by the repetition of the old arguments in their old forms. We must be understanding and thoughtful of the important facts and perspectives of those who voted for Trump, so that we may acknowledge their problems, address real flaws, and in so doing, grind out of existence the evils of what he stands for. What I am arguing, then, is a matter of tactics. We should not misunderstand this setback as a refutation of our morality.

I firmly believe that our stand for rights, liberties, and the dignity of all people is on the right side of history. We know, as Martin Luther King Jr. knew, paraphrasing the abolitionist Theodore Parker, that the long arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. We are the ones who must make it bend.

Ryan Born is a sophomore from Washington, MI. He can be reached at rcborn@princeton.edu

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