10 simple questions with thoughtful answers

Version 1.1, 12/1/2016, By Scott Berkun (@berkun) [originally posted here, where updates will occur]

This article answers common questions about the election, what happened, what it means for liberal democracy, concepts you need to know and what to do right now. It’s concise. Entire books will be written about the election and this isn’t one of them.

I voted for Clinton, but anyone concerned about a Trump presidency will find this valuable. This is a living document: I will update with improved links and references as I learn about them. The ambition is to keep it short: an absurd goal for sure but we are in an absurd world, so why not?

  1. What just happened?

1. What just happened?

One of the strangest presidential races in U.S. History. Trump won the electoral college 306 to 232, but Clinton won the popular vote 48.1% to 46.4%. This was a close election as they often are in the U.S. But this is only the 4th time in history a candidate won the popular vote but lost.

History books will likely describe it this way: two polarizing candidates (and one historically unpopular one) campaigned in one of the meanest and most surprising races in American history, involving class divisions, urban vs. rural tensions and the unintended consequences of new media. President-elect Trump was one of the most inexperienced victors in American presidential history.

2. Can you say something that makes makes me feel better?

If you voted for Clinton, nearly 64 million people agreed with you. This is a good thing. I’ll take a divided country over one that has completely abandoned its ideals. I don’t know if I’d have had the motivation to write this document if 90% of my fellow citizens voted against my sensibilities for what is best for our country given the choices we had.

We are living in historic times. Isn’t history fun? Did you know in 1900 the average life expectancy was just 30 years? Or that unemployment was 25% in 1933? Would you rather be alive then? We’ve come a long way and it’s useful to keep that in mind. The best way to feel better is to get some perspective (more on this in section 7), but not too much. There is much to be upset about too. But it’s not the end of the world, not yet anyway.

Put simply, this is our generation’s turn to live through a challenging era of the American story. I’ve never been asked to fight in a war or make large sacrifices for future generations, but I know I’ve benefited greatly from those that came before me. We will all be tested now, from citizens on all sides to those who represent us at every level. Where do we stand? What do we care about? And what are we willing to do about it?

3. What were the main factors in what happened?

[If you want to take action NOW, skip ahead. But at least skim this topic as it helps explain which actions matter]

An election is best understood as a trailing indicator, which means it reflects the population’s feelings about the last few years, not just these last months. There were at least 12 forces important to understand. NOTE: these forces are not necessarily logical or based in fact, just as humans who vote aren’t necessarily logical and don’t always base their decisions on facts.

  1. U.S. Economic divide 1990–2016: Many of the major economic gains of the last three decades went to an unprecedentedly small part of the U.S. population (See: America is the richest, and most unequal, country). Corporations gained more power and rights. The shift of the U.S. economy, in policy and action, was at least perceived as not benefitting many (working class) Americans. Complaints about “the system being rigged” or “feeling left behind” are fueled by this sense of a divide. One theory, of many, is that votes believed “all other things are equal, Trump has a better chance of changing things for me and Clinton offers none” Author Thomas Frank explains this argument well, in particular how decades ago the Democratic party left middle america and the working class behind, focusing on professionals and elites — this election may be the consequence.

In summary, this is an astonishingly long list. Any one theory trying to explain what happened will be incomplete. And in in the short and mid term the reasons why this happened don’t change what our options for action are. The best single essay I’ve seen explaining what happened in the election is this one, and it includes a rundown of commonly heard theories with commentary.

4.What can I do NOW to fix it?

The best place to start is to frame the problem in a useful way. Which THING do you want to protect? What freedom or policy do you feel is most important? As best we can tell, the election was fair and Trump won. To dismantle/undo/reject the outcome requires grounds more potent than the fact that half the electorate didn’t vote for him.

The election itself is over. While it’s true that the electoral college was designed in part to provide a failsafe and there is some bipartisan support to act against Trump, it has never been used in this way and it’s not well designed for this purpose (for example, individual state laws are different, and often the electors are designated by political parties making them unlikely to rebel especially if their candidate won). I have mixed feelings about the system but changing it will take a long time and be hard to do.

Meanwhile there are ABSOLUTELY things to be done to protect what is important, but they have less to do with the outcome of the election and more to do with using the system, as designed, to our advantage.

The U.S. government, and the election process, is a massively large and heavy wheel that moves slowly, by design, turning once every few years. The absolutely annoying but frustratingly true lesson is we need to be involved in our own democracy on a regular basis, rather than presuming we can wait every 1460 days and just fill out a two page multiple choice form. I take this to heart personally and painfully. There was much I took for granted.

5. What action can I take NOW?

There are many things we can do. The best high level advice is to think about leveraged action. Instead of making a single phone call, organize with your friends and family and work together. Use money or volunteer your time to enable people and organizations that are already skilled and experienced with the tasks at hand. They can do far more good with their time towards some of these efforts than you can.

Support the Free Press. Jefferson himself believed it was the freedom of the press that had the greatest power to keep a government in check and a population informed. Subscribe or give money to the strongest investigative journalism organizations we have. I’d recommend:

  1. The NY Times — they set the tone for many other news organizations, and despite valid criticisms about their coverage during the campaign, they remain a powerful source of influence for all American media.

Protect the Constitution and our rights. One of the greatest threats of a Trump presidency is the decay or destruction of the fundamental protections provided to citizens by our most important document. I’d recommend:

  1. ACLU. Founded in 1920 to protect our Constitutional Freedoms, they are the most experienced organization we have for bringing crimes and violations against the Constitution to the courts. They will be a primary source of appeal to the Judicial branch to reign in presidential abuses of power.

Engage with your representatives. You do have a representative who is your delegate to Congress. Do you know their name? How to contact them? It’s time to make sure they know how you feel about what’s going on.

  1. This spreadsheet will help you identify who to call and what to say

Activate sleepers: Nearly 42% of eligible Americans didn’t vote. Of those that voted, many were under informed. To initiate change we need as many (sensible) people to participate and take action. Who do you know that fits into these categories? Reach out, perhaps with a link to this page (for how to talk with friends who voted for Trump, this is a good start).

  1. The scared: those too afraid to speak up, or who don’t know anyone who shares their opinions.

Understand the other point of view. There are real problems in America and while I doubt Trump will solve them, some of those who voted for him have grounds for dissent. I’d recommend reading Listen Liberal by Thomas Frank (interview) and Hillbilly Elegy (interview).

2018 Midterm elections. We will get to decide the balance of Congress in just two years, and Congress has great powers to keep the executive branch in check. Senators will start their election campaigns many months before that: This is just 12–14 months away. There is hope here although the landscape isn’t great, but depending on what happens more opportunities may arise. Many states have governor elections in 2018 and that may be the best opportunity for the Democratic party.

Support efforts to reduce fake news. It’s hard to know how much this mattered, but it certainly contributed weakened power and reputation the U.S. Media has. Finding ways to both identify, reduce and make illegal (or punishable) the deliberate creation and propagation of false stories. (Need links to specific groups to support or fund).

  1. Toolkit for helping teach media literacy

Support the Arts. In times of unrest and confusion it’s often stories, in movies, paintings and music that have the greatest ability to break through the noise and help someone rethink their assumptions, on all sides. We need to support writers, musicians, poets and filmmakers who have timely stories to tell as they can get people to listen in ways logical arguments cannot.

  1. (Need link for how to find art projects or art groups to fund — suggestions? Leave a comment please

Take care of yourself and loved ones. This is going to be more of a marathon than a sprint. Pace yourself. Don’t obsess. Be active but patient. Find people to partner with on the actions you want to take.

6. Which people and policies are most vulnerable?

We know from the rise in hate crimes since the election that Trump’s racism and xenophobia was noticed and people with those beliefs are emboldened. This will continue. He has rarely spoken out against it, despite the many trivial things he complains about on Twitter.

Groups who are more likely to be targeted include:

  • Immigrants, Muslims, Minorities, Women, Jews, People living near or at the poverty line, LGBTQ folks, journalists who challenge those in power, and anyone who is easily perceived as being “the other”

If things get worse in 2017 for America, these groups will increasingly become the target of blame and will need the most protection. The SPLC is an excellent organization with a long history of both preventing, and prosecuting, hate crimes and protecting all of our citizens.

Important policies most under threat:

7. How to observe Trump with our eyes open?

We really don’t know what to expect. Even for a qualified candidate, it takes months or longer for an administration to find their footing, learn how to work together, and how to partner with the other branches of government. During the campaign he offered this list for his first 100 days, but he has conflicting opinions on so many things it’s hard to know where he truly stands, but we have to prepare for the worst.

We do know that he craves attention and power, two dangerous personality traits that if unchecked can have profound effects. Narcissists have an endless obsession with attention: they can never get enough. This is a personality disorder (NPD) that includes the skill of providing false signals of normality, and telling people what they want to hear, but underneath it all there is something very dysfunctional at work in their psychology.

From Masha Gessen’s terrifying essay Autocracy — Rules for Survival:

  • Believe the Autocrat. He means what he says… in the 1930s the NYTimes assured its readers that Hitler’s anti-semitism was all posture.” In the case of Trump who uses disinformation, we have to take him seriously but not always literally. Often he uses Twitter purely for attention or to distract us away from something else.The media is finally figuring out how to report on him.

Some experts on the decline of democracies and the rise of authoritarian regimes see the worst ahead. We’ve simply never had as unstable and inexperienced a person as Trump in the White House before. The burden of keeping him in check falls heavily to Congress and the courts. Congress is dominated by Republicans and this is an opportunity for power they’ve been waiting for much of their careers so they may not be as much help as we’d hope. The Judicial system is where many of our hopes likely rest.

In broad strokes here are behaviors and choices to watch:

  • Hostile relationship with free press / 1st amendment — Trump continually challenges the press, using Twitter to issue his own commentary directly to citizens. Other presidents have of course tried to issue their own views directly to citizens, but none to the inflammatory, trolling, and baiting extents that he has. The less the public looks to the press to understand what is happening, the more power the president has.

8. Has this happened before?

America has had some very difficult years, including some that were true existential crises. It’s healthy to recall those events to put what is happening now in relief and to find examples and tactics that have been useful in tough times in the past. (For a full historic inoculation that will deflate romance about past eras of civilization and make you happy to be alive now and in this country, try The Great Big Book of Horrible Things).

USA — darkest times:

  • 1778 — Two years into the American revolutionary war nothing was stable. Half the country didn’t even want the war. There was no Constitution at all.

At least four presidents had major scandals during their presidencies

Four presidents were assassinated:

  • Abraham Lincoln, 1865

During times of crisis we have had authoritarian presidents — their reasons and qualifications may have been different, but we have had more power centric presidents before.

  • FDR (great Depression, WWII)

Case studies to consider: Modern Hungary, Nazi Germany / Italy 1929–1945, Modern Russia / Turkey (shift from democracy to authoritarianism)

9. Are the comparisons to Nazi Germany appropriate?

Godwin’s Law states that you lose any argument by comparing anything or anyone to the Nazis. What is happening in America has enough parallels to history and Trump’s endorsement of people affiliated with neo-nazi groups, merits suspending the restriction.

Here is the short summary every American should know:

  1. In the 1920s, Germany had a vibrant free press and film industry.

Major contrasts to U.S. in 2016 are:

  1. We have no single equivalent to Article 48

The key takeaway: if a leader has the desire to consolidate their power, one classic tactic from history is to use an external threat to justify it, and once unilateral power is obtained, never let it go. The worse the populace believes things are, the easier it is to blame minorities (even if leaders are responsible), and continue the justification for power. Therefore a leader seeking to gain more power through corrupting a system wants things to get worse, not better.

10. How bad can this really get?

It’s hard to predict. There are many variables at work and it will take time to see how they are sorted out. Will Trump’s cabinet be approved? Will they be effective in their goals? Will their goals change? Where and how will Congress partner with, or resist, Trump’s desires? How will he respond to world or local events? What leaders in Congress and in our nation will step up and inspire us? There are always unintended consequences to choices powerful people make, and some may surprise us in good ways.

Here are some things to consider.

  • We know very little of what Trump’s ideology is. Or if he has one at all beyond benefitting himself. His cabinet appointments do have clearer ideologies (and in some cases troubling histories) and a major question is how much they will influence him. He has a short fuse, obsesses about petty issues and most of all is a narcissist with a compulsive desire to “win” and be popular. His personality may be more dangerous than his beliefs or ideas.

11. What To Do Now

Thanks for reading this far: it was not a fun read, I know. Try to convert your fear, sadness or anger into useful action. Here is a simple list summarizing what you can do:

  1. Act on Supporting the Free Press, organizations that defend the Constitution and protect civil rights (see full list of actions above). They are experts, they are at the front lines every day and need our support and recognition when they do good work. Get behind them.



Thanks to Bryan Zug, Chad McDaniel, Phillip Hunter, Jill Stutzman, Steve Portigal, Sam Greenfield, Heather Bussing, Ramez Naam, Kevin Cheng, Justin Martinstein, Tony Stubblebine, Will Little,Tim Cigelske, Elisabeth Robson, Andrew Maier and many others for feedback and suggestions


  • v 1.1 — removed reference to electoral college being about urban vs. rural in section 3. One intention was to help protect small states, but I conflated this with the urban vs rural divide.

Bestselling Author of The Myths of Innovation, Making things Happen, Confessions of a Public Speaker and other fine books

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