Harry Nelson

Moving On: Getting Over the Shock of the Trump Win and Finding a Path Forward

While I am not shy about sharing my opinions and thoughts about many topics – the future of the healthcare industry, leadership and governance, and addiction treatment  – I am generally ambivalent about sharing my political opinions other than in private with close friends and family.  I’ll explain why below, but, after the last 36 hours, I feel compelled to make an exception.

Before getting to the Presidential election, I wanted to explain the source of my reluctance about talking politically publicly and in a work context.  I’ve generally avoided posting anything political on Facebook or elsewhere.  It dates back to a formative, negative experience at the beginning of my career.  When I was in college, I spent the summer of 1988 in Washington, D.C. interning for a Michigan Congressman, Sandy Levin.  It was an exciting time to see the political system up close, particularly with a presidential election (George H.W. Bush versus Michael Dukakis) just months away.  In those days, long before 9/11, I spent the summer like a free range chicken on Capitol Hill, taking it all in, bumping into senators and congressmen in the tunnels and hallways, schmoozing with lobbyists and Hill staffers over free drinks and food at various events.  It was all exciting.  I lived with a bunch of recent Indiana grads, one working for Ted Kennedy, another for Newt Gingrich.  The conversation was never boring. There were conversations about the next rising political star (both Bill Clinton and Newt that summer) and the latest political controversy (Jim Wright’s selling books to political supporters as an end run around fundraising limits).  I took it in like a sponge. I got to hear from politicians across the spectrum from Strom Thurmond to Barney Frank, to chat with Al Gore, and to talk with the astronaut, Senator John Glenn, during a ride on the underground tram from the Senate office buildings to Capitol Hill.

When I think back about how I got to be a healthcare regulatory lawyer, it began with my fascination that summer about the complex interplay between industry and federal agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, with all of the rulemaking, regulations, and winners and losers emerging.  When I started law school two summers later, I took almost every regulatory and administrative law class available.  Looking back, Washington, D.C. had an enormous impact on the path of my work.  I thought seriously about moving there.

Back on campus and then in law school, I found myself going through a political evolution after my time in D.C.  I had grown up in a liberal home, but was jolted by the radical politics of Ann Arbor’s progressive community.  The Democrats had been in control of the House of Representatives for over four decades at that point, and I found myself turned off by the deadlock and interested in what seemed like transformative politics of the Right. I was inspired by Jack Kemp’s combination of conservatism with a big, inclusive vision.  I was attracted to a libertarian  “live and let live” ethos of a government that respected people’s choices in their private lives, both social and economic.

When I got to law school, this political interest led me to join the Federalist Society, a student group associated with conservative and libertarian legal reform,  resonating with its contrarian sensibilities.  I even ran for and served the Law School on the Michigan Student Assembly, serving as Vice-Chair of the Student Rights Commission.

But as much as I enjoyed political debate, I learned that it was playing with fire when it came to employment.  As a second year law student, I listed the Federalist Society membership on my resume.  I quickly figured out that this inclusion was not helping my job prospects.  Lawyers interviewing me for summer jobs were curious and asked questions about the group and what my personal beliefs were.  More than a few were liberal and were turned off by the Group’s right wing politics.  I kept having way more political conversations than I wanted to have in job interviews.  After the first couple weeks, despite a strong resume and being on the Law Review, I had about a 50/50 rate of converting on-campus interviews to “flybacks” to law firms around the country and a similar rate of converting fly-backs to summer job offers.  After a few weeks of this, I decided to revise my resume and took off the reference to the Federalist Society, making my profile much more “vanilla”.  It worked.  I stopped talking politics in job interviews.  Immediately, my success rate on both getting flybacks and summer job offers shot up pretty close to 100%.  At 23 years old, I’d learned a valuable lesson not only about having great job interviews, but about connecting with people:  Be personal and not political.  People want to find things to connect over, and political differences are risky territory that are almost guaranteed to be polarizing territory.

I took this lesson into my early jobs, both over the summers in law school and then clerking for a judge.  Wearing my politics on my sleeve was just plain dumb.  It turned people off and allowed other people to put me in a box.  For me, as someone who was trying out different ideas all the time and a contrarian by nature, there was no reason to take that risk.

Leaving campus for the workforce, I also found that saying goodbye to the intensity of campus politics was a relief and moderated my own political views.  In contrast to the divisive and polarizing politics of Ann Arbor, Michigan, I thrived in the more non-ideological environment at my first big law firm job, in a judge’s chambers, and at the law firm where I ultimately became a partner before starting my own firm.  I connected with different kinds of people and developed a non-judgmental and open approach to different kinds of people with different perspectives. Looking back, these were good skills to develop that have come in handy, making me good at finding common ground with people in all kinds of settings.

I didn’t stop having political opinions, but I became much more detached about them and also more moderate.  The whole political process seemed a lot less interesting from the business world – even boring, with predictable and almost never ending lines of conflict:  a liberal Democratic president fired up the frustration of conservative Republicans who take back the White House or one of the chambers of Congress. The process repeats.  The Republican is voted out by Democrats, with the only question whether the displacement happens every four or eight years, or during the mid-term elections.  I was eight when Carter beat Ford and twelve when Reagan beat Carter.  The only exception to the back-and-forth cycling was George H.W. Bush as a third Republican term following Reagan’s eight years, but since then we’ve had eight years of Clinton, eight years of George W. Bush, and eight years of Barack Obama.  More or less the same back-and-forth fights on taxes and spending, on social issues, playing out in these cycles the last forty years.  This cycle can be criticized six ways to Sunday but at least there has been a stability to it.

I had mixed feelings about all three of the last presidents – things I liked and things I didn’t.  Each earned my respect on some level.  I find positive and negative lessons from their leadership.  Most recently, I was not a fan of Obama when he was elected, but I have come around to admire his integrity.  I’m with those who find his foreign policy to have been disastrous, but I deeply respect his steadfastness in the face of unrelenting opposition more focused on preventing his reelection than working with him to address political challenges.  He was a statesman.  They have all been.

Until now.  For the first time, I feel something new:  a genuine fear of the person that we elected.  For the first time, I find myself genuinely afraid of what will happen when power is invested in the hands of a person who, more than once, has appeared mentally unstable, rash, and lacking in decency and good judgment.  We have elected the opposite of a statesman – a narcissist with a  penchant for ugliness, lacking the attention span to take on anything seriously. Statesmanship has given way to nastiness.  I think Donald Trump represents a low that American politics has not seen before. I find myself feeling ashamed of the choice of my fellow Americans.  How did so many millions of my fellow Americans look past all of his flaws?

In retrospect, I think part of what has led to this is that we’ve tolerated a decreasing level of civility and respect in our politics throughout these last 24+ years and an incessant level of partisan fighting.  There was no “coming together” when the last three presidents were elected.  Everything turned into a battlefield.  Trump joins George W. Bush as only the third president in U.S. history to lose the popular vote while winning the electoral college.

I worry that, as bad as the situation was, it has now given way to something much darker.  I could accept a broad range of imperfect candidates, but Donald Trump?! It is still hard to fathom how it is possible that a person like him could possibly have been elected President of the United States.  He seems to have paid no price whatsoever for his unapologetic hateful comments and for the meanness and cruelty towards so many individuals and groups of people.  His disregard for the truth and repeated repetition of false information seems to have been a non-issue.  His flagrant disrespect for American heroes like Senator John McCain made me sick.  I had to answer my 9-year-old daughter on the meaning of ugly words coming out of his mouth that she wouldn’t otherwise know.

It turns out that Trump was not joking when he bragged that he could shoot an innocent person on Fifth Avenue and not have it affect his popularity.   His moral bankruptcy and emotional instability make him a leader only in the most negative sense, a demagogue and stoker of fear and anxiety, who is unfit to hold the office once held by Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. How did this possibly happen?

In the last 36 hours, I have, for the first time, felt a deep sense of alienation from my fellow Americans who voted for this man.  I was far from an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton, and recognized her deep flaws as well, but do not see how they were comparable to his.  In many ways like her husband, Hillary seemed to me to combine both great talent and great weaknesses:  a fundamental competence and steady leadership, coupled with a self-serving arrogance that made her blind:  her failure to be forthright and taking responsibility for her mistakes, misusing her position and foundation to pursue personal wealth and peddle influence, and other mistakes.  But, from my perspective, they were of a different order than Donald Trump’s deficits.  She was, to me, by far the lesser of two evils.  Even with all of her flaws, she seemed fundamentally a safe choice and had a steady team around her.  The hatred of her seems to have flowed from a campaign of “villainization” rooted in falsehoods that goes back to the early 1990s and the claims around Whitewater, Vince Foster, and other conspiracy theories.  From that time until today, Hillary has been a flashpoint in the culture wars and a magnet for antipathy that feels excessive and misplaced.  I wished before the election that the Democrats had put up a more inspiring candidate without all of her baggage, but, left with the choice of her or Trump, I saw no choice.  As a father of daughters, I saw a silver lining in the powerful positive role model  of our first female president, even one with hubris.

I worry not only about the consequences of her loss and Trump’s victory, but about what is portends for the future.  There seems to be no political center any more.  How do you reconcile the competing political visions out there?  It feels like both poles – the populist Right that elected Trump and the populist Left that drove Bernie Sanders now out protesting in the street – are gaining steam at the expense of the center.

So why I am I departing from my traditional avoidance of politics to share all of this?  I am speaking openly and took the time to write this because I have struggled with how to speak to my children.  I have struggled to find a positive message and I needed to organize my thoughts and offer some positive vision for moving forward.  This is my best effort at leadership in the face of despair.

So what do I want to offer in this dark moment?  First, one thing that I think we need to do is understand the anger that led us here and appreciate the pain of the people who elected Trump.  It seems to have different strands.  I grew up in Michigan, watching good-paying auto industry jobs leave the state, destroying Detroit, Flint, and other parts of the State.  I myself left Michigan when I finished school 24 years ago precisely because I saw a contracting economy with less opportunity ahead. I understand the feeling that the interests of the working class have been subordinated by free trade agreements, that the political establishment on both sides have not had their interests at heart, that a focus on the broader world has taken attention away from attending to the welfare of people here at home. I understand the hopes of the Michiganders and other Midwesterners who flipped these states from Democrat to Republican this election cycle to send a message.  There are others who saw Hillary as a much more profoundly troubling representation of the status quo than I did.  I think we need to acknowledge the righteous traction that Trump’s campaign found and the legitimate frustration at having gotten the short end of the stick.  We need to work harder to understand each other across the silos we all live in.

Second, I also think that those of us who are doing OK need to appreciate the privilege that we have. In a time of deep currents of economic anxiety and insecurity across America, I don’t have to worry about how my family will fare over the next four or eight years.  We will do just fine.  I say that not to boast, but to make the point that, having been blessed to be part of a thriving company comes with responsibility,   I think that means reaching out and doing more to improve the lives of other people for whom it isn’t so.

Third, we need to speak up about the line where economic frustration crosses into hate.  We’ll have to see whether President Trump will be as opportunistic as candidate Trump in sowing the seeds of racial, religious, or ethnic bigotry to connect with the dispossessed.  Even though we are economically privileged, I identify with the marginalized — as both part of a religious minority (Jewish) and as a naturalized citizen born south of the border (Brazil) – and I want to raise kids who share that perspective.  I hope my children will join me in worrying about other people’s civil rights.  I may be a straight, white man, but I am broken inside when I see LGBT people’s love relationships devalued, when I see the lives of African-American men endangered, when I see a generation of immigrants dreaming of a better life threatened, when I see the patriotism of American Muslims questioned, and when I see women’s freedom under assault.  We need to make it clear that, no matter how angry you are, there’s no place to trample on other people’s hopes and aspirations.

Fourth, we need to look at what’s ahead.  We know what’s next.  Trump’s election is just the latest swing of the see-saw between two diametrically opposed camps.  Whether in 2020 or 2024, it is a safe bet that the Trump promises to “make America great again” will have been shown to have been hollow.  I suspect that many of the people who hope he will be an iconoclastic break from the status quo in which the elite thrive and regular people get the short end of the stick will be sorely disappointed. Free trade may have accelerated the process of job loss overseas, but the underlying issue is structural:  technology has eliminated high-paying industrial jobs and is going to eliminate many more.  Robotics are eliminating jobs.  This problem is going to get worse globally, not better.  The next wave of people to see their jobs disappear will be the middle managers, who aren’t needed in a world of more artificial intelligence, data analytics, and online marketplaces.  We are heading towards previously unheard of rates of unemployment.  The people who voted for Trump thinking that jobs were coming back are inevitably going to wind up disillusioned.  If we really do start a trade war, there will be even more damage.  So the disappointed voters who drove this election victory will turn out in lower numbers, while the Democrats feeling the urgency to respond to the the rightward turn will  rally and win back the White House.  And the cycle will repeat.  The best thing we can do is level with people about the future and have a real conversation about what we are going to do when unemployment doubles and maybe even quadruples from where it stands today.

I don’t know if it’s possible to break this destructive cycle.  But I think we need to start trying.  I have the sick feeling that we are witnessing the accelerating decline of America and a dramatic shrinking of our role as a force for good in the world.  Part of me fantasizes about just picking up and moving to someplace free of these tensions.  But this is a time for courage, not for giving up. I think this means not letting politicians get away with fuzzy promises to make things better and being open and honest about the enormous challenges ahead. I think we need to do our best to open and foster a new kind of dialogue that is compassionate and not siloed in communities of the like-minded (and economically aligned) but across the lines of people who see things differently.  I think we need to try to rebuild a new center.  We need political leaders who care about broad appeal and avoid extreme positions.  We need a movement that crosses party lines, that abandons the cynicism for a hopeful vision of inclusion and coexistence, and that calls out the garbage that goes on everywhere.

Don’t look for more political pieces from me.  I apologize if this strikes you as condescending to Trump supporters or if  I’ve given offense in this post to anyone who feels strongly that I am demonizing Trump or belittling Hillary or otherwise off-base.  I wrote this for my kids, but I am sharing this to try to find a positive path forward.  I’m still worried, but as I wrote this, the sick feeling I have over our next President gave way to a sense of purpose.  It’s going to be a tough four years until we have another chance to put someone in the White House who is deserving of being our President. Until then, I’m glad to talk – offline — about how to rebuild the center.

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