I fear for America in the wake of Donald Trump’s shocking victory over Hillary Clinton to become the 45th U.S. president.
I fear for America because Trump’s election, which most polls and pundits, including myself, failed to predict, has sharply divided America and signals a return to a sad, bigotry-filled time in U.S. history when it was seen by many as okay to get away with denigrating women, blacks, Latinos, Muslims and immigrants seeking political refuge.
It also signals a return to a mean-spirited era where tens of millions of Americans will have no health insurance with the repeal of Obamacare, where a woman’s right to abortion is challenged, where the environment is at risk again and where police are given free rein to “get tough” on crime even though crime rates are falling.
And I fear the world is now a more dangerous place, with a crude and rude man who is totally ill-suited to be president having the power to tear up international agreements on trade and security, to order U.S. troops to attack perceived enemies and to sit in a war room with his finger on the nuclear trigger.
These fears are fuelled by the understanding that Trump has unleashed fully all the anger and frustration among laid-off Rust Belt factory workers, Midwest farmers, poorer, less educated and less urban Americans toward the so-called “elites” they feel are running the country — and ruining their lives.
That anger and frustration isn’t new. Indeed, it has existed for decades.
I experienced it during the many years I lived and worked in the U.S., first as a student at the University of Nebraska, in one of the most Republican states in the nation, and later as a journalist in Kansas City, smack in the Republican heartland, and later still in Washington.
Ronald Reagan won over those same voters in 1980, as did George W. Bush in 2000. But it wasn’t until Trump came along with his blatant appeals to their fears, intolerance, bigotry and xenophobia that America became as nasty and divided as it is today.
I also fear for the future role of mainstream media in America, and what that could mean for established news outlets in Canada.
In this election, in which Trump smeared journalists working for traditional media as “scum,” it often seemed as if more people believed what they read and saw on Facebook and Twitter than what appeared in reputable media outlets.
For example, last weekend the Boston Globe interviewed voters in West Virginia who described an apocalyptic future of America if Trump lost. One man swore the government had ordered 30,000 guillotines to use on Trump supporters. “All you got to do is pull it up on the Internet,” he said.
Throughout the campaign major newspapers and television networks were criticized for creating Trump by spending so much time on him as a celebrity rather than focusing on informing voters about issues.
But one of the major legacies of Trump’s campaign “is in hastening the death of facts,” argues Doug Struck, a former journalist who now teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston.
“Trump’s political rise was built on a foundation of falsehood heaped upon exaggerated falsehood. Journalists underestimated him because we believed that facts mattered,” Struck says. “We thought that surely, exposed to the harsh glare of truth, Trump’s dishonesty would have him laughed off the stage. Quite the opposite happened. An amazing — alarming — number of people believed him.”
This occurred despite extensive fact-checking by top journalists. This is especially true for Daniel Dale, the Star’s Washington correspondent, who was named one of the breakout media stars of 2016 by Politico for his tracking of 560 false claims by Trump since last June.
Journalists operate on the theory that if they do their job properly and get honest information before the voters, the voters will eventually make the right decision.
But Struck says that doesn’t work when voters simply disregard truth.
“It doesn’t work in this splintered-information age when everyone listens to a loudspeaker of their choice, hearing only words that comfort their world-view, no matter how unsupported by reality,” he says.
“It doesn’t work if politicians know they can simply sidestep facts, ignore journalists and offer up their own versions of truth by Twitter, email, Facebook or a live rally.”
For Struck, the currency of professional journalists is facts and truth. Neither appears healthy after the abuse they have suffered during this campaign.
I hope that in the weeks leading up to his Jan. 20 inauguration Trump proves all my fears are unwarranted. I fear he won’t, though.