In search of release.

Photographer: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

A Letter to the Protesters

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Dear Protesters:

I'm glad you were able to march. It's empowering and cathartic and washes away some of the anxiety that the election has generated.

I understand why you are upset. You thought your nation was moving in your direction, toward the kind of multiracial, culturally laissez-faire pluralism that you take for granted. And it was heading that way! It even elected that Obama guy! And though it doesn't count for much, Hillary Clinton still won the popular vote.

But every action has a reaction. And the blowback this time is exceptionally fierce.

People who feel they are losing status, and losing their hold on American culture, want to "Make America Great Again" in a way that you think is not so great. We all knew the Trump voters were really, really angry; they've been telling us so through the entire Obama presidency.

We just didn't know they were willing to wreck the party and burn down the house rather than let liberals be in charge of the black-and-white-and-brown birthday cake with rainbow sparkles. When four in five evangelical or "born again" Christians vote for a shameless pagan like Trump, they are not doing so because they are hypocrites or idiots. They are doing so because they are terrified.

Their fear, through the twisted magic of the Electoral College, has now been transferred to you. (Already you have something in common with the Tea Party.)

But as new and scary as it is to see a demagogue on his way to the White House, blocking traffic won't block his agenda, or halt the erosion of democratic norms and civility that paved his way. It won't persuade Republicans to hold their new president in check. The raw material for Trump's authoritarianism -- the broken norms, a propagandistic partisan media -- was in place before he ever descended that gaudy escalator.

Democracy for my generation has been a steady context, the firm ground on which we walk. Democracy, for you, may not be a situation. It may be more of a struggle. (By the way, did all of you on the streets vote for Clinton? Ah, I thought so.)

It will be hard for institutions, like Congress or the news media or the courts, to keep all of Trump's demagogic impulses in check. There is no chance that he will abandon his winning formula. To help him, Trump has surrounded himself with men who cut corners. When necessary, they will run over their opposition in ways that shock us.

And the public? According to exit polls, many of his supporters realize he is ill-suited to high office. But they are eager for fireworks, an explosive comeuppance for classes of people they don't like; they'll take their chances that someone else, not them, gets burned.

So, yes, we are entering dangerous times. By all means spend a few days protesting. Just realize that's no substitute for vigilance and organization.

Keep your eyes open for people with leadership qualities. Avoid the shouters, follow the organizers. Share your contact information: There will be important news that needs to be shared. There will be people, newly defined as outsiders, alarmed and anxious like you, who would find comfort, and purpose, in a group. There will be local political candidates who need help.

There is nothing to do but work slowly, steadily against the tide, and uphold the principles you care about. When you win, be gracious in victory and look for compromises that can take the sting out of your opponents' defeat. (You know how it feels.) Democracy has long traditions here: Repeat them, venerate them, ritualize them.  

This election's over. A lot of your friends and neighbors failed to vote, or failed to vote as if something real was at stake. They have discovered it was. Freedom was pretty free for my cohort -- educated, cosmopolitan, with no compulsory military service, wide access to a globalizing world, delighted by a diversifying country. The reaction is here. It's going to be more costly for you.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net