By Marshall Manson, UK CEO at Ogilvy PR
Donald Trump is going to be President of the United States, and the sun still came up today. I’m pretty sure it will come up tomorrow. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten.
As an American, I’ve always been proud of my native land, and I’ve embraced President Reagan’s vision of America: ‘The shining city on the hill.’ Through the cold war, it was the American ideal of democracy, freedom, and liberty that attracted people, especially in contrast to the oppression of the communist world.
That ideal is based on a group of human truths, set down by some extraordinary people more than 200 years ago: We hold these truths self-evident. They were then, and they are now.
Since then, we’ve evolved a number of mostly-unspoken standards for how candidates for the Presidency should behave, what’s acceptable, and what isn’t. These norms have helped ensure that the men who have occupied the White House have, more often than not, followed in the best traditions of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the other giants who help shape America and bring the American ideal to life.
From every indication we have thus far, President-elect Trump is a sharp departure from those norms. Through words or action, he’s overtly rejected almost all of them. He’s also led us to believe that he rejects many of the principles that are at the core of the American ideal: free speech and freedom of the press are at the top of the list. He’s repudiated the concepts of equality and openness. And there has been a disturbing threat of authoritarianism apparent in his campaign.
But he’s going to be President of the United States, and that realisation has me feeling sad and embarrassed, just as it’s affected many others who share my reverence for that American ideal, in the U.S. and beyond.
That makes this moment a good one to stop and reflect, and to recognise that perhaps there is some hope, if we look hard enough for it. So, a few reflections:
As if Brexit hadn’t been a clear enough signal, this election demonstrates the yawing chasm between metropolitan elites and society beyond big cities. You can read more on that here, and see some Ogilvy proprietary data that shows just how big that gap is in the UK.
To address this gap, we all need to find more empathy and understanding, especially for people and perspectives that are different from our own. We need to search for common ground, rather than accentuating everything that divides us.
So instead of labelling Trumpers and Brexiteers as idiots – or worse – we need to understand what’s motivating them. We need to dig into their concerns. And we need to either address them or engage in a productive debate that changes their view.
A more meaningful debate requires that we are all more interested in nuance. Trump came to the fore relying on the ten-word answer—the perfect tweet – the idea that could be perfectly summarised in a something far less than even a soundbite. But Josiah Bartlett, a fictional U.S. President, running for reelection against an opponent who was having huge impact with ten-word answers, explains why this isn’t sustainable during his one and only debate. So we should celebrate nuance. Demand it. Insist that our politicians go beyond the tweet and articulate complete thoughts and ideas that can be debated, dissected, and improved. It worked for Socrates. And as long as we choose politics over war and anarchy, it has to remain at the heart of everything.
The need to find common ground and explore nuance also underscores the need for a strong middle. It’s only through the middle that people on the extremes can find common ground and progress. We need to look for smart, moderate people keen on public service and ensure that they are front and center.
We must also find a way to break the destructive influence of self-selecting echo chambers, reinforced by algorithmic content served from social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. We have to challenge ourselves to listen to contrary views and learn from them.
Finding common ground requires a common starting point. We should get back to first principles. Too many people – especially young people – have forgotten why Enlightenment principles like free speech, freedom of the press, and other individual liberties like privacy and protecting the rights of criminal defendants are so critical to thriving democracies. Too often, people would rather surrender these freedoms for greater security or certainty or whatever. But once we give them up, these rights never, ever come back. We should guard them zealously, and help others understand why they are so important.
And we must continue to condemn hatred and violence. Mr. Trump’s campaign was marked by too much of this. I hope we’ve seen the last of it. Hatred doesn’t belong in the Oval Office, and we should hold the President accountable if we continue to see it.
And yet, there is cause for hope. Presidents have recounted many times the awe that they feel on entering the Oval Office for the first time, or that moment when they realised the responsibility that was suddenly theirs and theirs alone. And in spite of the madness of his campaign, the utterances from President Trump since the election have generally reflected the kind of modesty that might follow such a road-to-Damascus moment. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking, but maybe we will discover a moderate, sober and responsible President lurking below the campaign caricature.
As an American, and someone who believes in the American ideal, I really have to believe that this is the case, and to root for the President elect to be successful – to do what’s right for the country, and build a better future for the U.S. and the wider world. Perhaps this sense of duty is a bit old fashioned, but I don’t really care. We must respect the office if not the man, and rooting for failure just isn’t something that I’m ever inclined to do.
For this hope to become reality, President-elect Trump must surround himself with smart, capable aids – both in his cabinet and his White House staff. So his choices in this regard will be key to watch in the coming weeks. Press leaks may raise the hopes of his base for choices like Sarah Palin, but his promise to populate his cabinet with smart, experienced business leaders holds some reassurance for the rest of us. If he surrounds himself with know-nothing, partisan ninnies, we’ll have our first indication of what we can expect once he takes office. And our fears will, I suspect, take on new dimensions.
The other big test is going to come in the area of foreign policy. America has been at the centre of a system of alliances and relationships that have broadly kept the world at peace since the end of World War II more than 70 years ago. Mr. Trump has repeatedly questioned the value of that whole system, and made sympathetic noises about more authoritarian regimes in China and Russia. If we’re being optimistic, we might suggest that the system of alliances is in need of refresh to reflect a more modern landscape. The U.N. and Breton Woods organisations, set up after World War II, seem particularly ripe for a radical update or even reboot. Maybe something good can come from a re-ordering. But a more fearful perspective might worry that going back to the nationalist model of old will only make a catastrophic global war more likely. Hopefully, Mr. Trump’s exposure to more information, more insights, and more expert advice will inform his view and keep him away from dangerous ground. But we should watch this carefully.
Finally, there’s the big question: What comes next? Elections are on the horizon in France and Germany. Will we finally see the Le Pen agenda reign supreme in France? Will Merkel survive in Germany? It’s impossible to say. But on the basis of the landscape, anti-establishment movements must certainly be regarded the favourite in any election.
So, what should businesses and communications professionals take from all of this? For me, there’s one big lesson: We have to listen better. The Remain campaign and Secretary Clinton were both surprised because they were disconnected. We must ensure that we are never that disconnected again. We must also insist that the media listens better, and delivers a more complete picture.
But in the end, there’s hope. The sun will come up tomorrow. And as long as we celebrate democracy and refuse to give into authoritarianism, the future is in our hands.