Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
After the intense and interminable 2016 election we are all high on moral outrage. Of course, nasty presidential campaigns are nothing new. Spiteful partisan politics evolved right alongside the birth of the two-party system. As historian Joanne Freeman has written, the election of 1800 was a bitter partisan battle between Federalist John Adams and Republican Thomas Jefferson. At the time, political parties were a nascent concept, the constitution was a fledgling 11-year-old document with serious electoral issues that needed ironing out, many people feared the republic was at risk of dissolving or breaking out into civil war, and mistrust between the different regions was so profound that it often trumped fledgling party affiliations.
Vice President Jefferson went so far as to hire a hatchet man, the journalist James Callendar who accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams considered himself above the hiring of third parties (the nineteenth-century version of “going high” when the other party “goes low”), but this did not prevent him from having surrogates call Jefferson “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Callendar went to jail for his libelous activities against Adams, and when Jefferson failed to help him, Callendar broke the story—until then only a rumor—of how Jefferson had fathered children with his slave, Sally Hemmings. The Jackson–Adams campaign of 1828 was similarly hostile, containing much of the populist resentments that are present in our politics today.
Echoing the ugliest campaigns of early American history, the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump seems to have divided the United States more deeply than any political event since Vietnam. “So how did our politics get so poisonous,” the comedian Stephen Colbert asked on election night, answering, “I think it’s because we overdosed, especially this year. We drank too much of the poison. You take a little bit of it so you can hate the other side and it tastes kind of good, and you like how it feels, and there’s a gentle high to the condemnation.”
The “gentle high” of moral outrage shows no sign of abating now that Trump has been declared the president-elect. Social media feeds remain chock-full of examples of the latest ethical horrors from the other side’s candidate and their followers—from the mundane (Trump didn’t like Saturday Night Live last week!) to the far-fetched (Clinton murdered someone!). Trump decried Mike Pence’s “rude” treatment by the cast of Hamilton—after one of the actors read a statement on stage asking the vice president-elect to “work on behalf of us all”—insisting that the theater remain a “safe space.” Critics brought up his campaign of insults to women, threats to immigrants, and promises to jail Clinton, concluding that Trump had made America unsafe for democracy.
Some even turned on their own fellow partisans, as in the bitter disputes that surfaced among anti-Trumpers over whether they should wear safety pins: was this demonstration a crucial signal of support for women, sexual minorities, and people of color, or just another example of the magnanimous gesture of whiteness, a shallow way for non-threatened people to feel better without actually doing anything of substance?
A continued fever pitch of moral outrage could be dangerous for a number of reasons. For one, it can only serve to further our already substantial divisions. A recent review by Harvard psychologists revealed how seeing ideological opponents as a threat (as both sides now clearly do) can engage stress responses and move people from simply disregarding the other side to becoming actively hostile toward them. Remaining high on moral outrage could very easily come at the expense of our individual and collective well-being. It also ratchets up the climate of racial intolerance and fear that was stirred up during the campaign. Research by the University of Southern California’s Immigrant Integration Policy Center shows that one in 10 Los Angeles county residents is undocumented, and roughly one in six area children have at least one undocumented parent. The students who have taken to the streets in protest, or more quietly approached teachers and school psychologists aren’t just angry—they are terrified and even traumatized.
In communities of color, this fear could make effective policing more difficult and hamper healthcare access for children, since such individuals may be more hesitant to use public services that involve tracking and sharing their whereabouts with government institutions. Although Trump’s team maintains that the transition is going smoothly, his resistance to following protocol has created a sense of uncertainty among his opponents, and his tendency to walk back extreme campaign promises and slogans (apparently putting Hillary in jail is now not something he “feels very strongly about”) could turn his followers against him.
At the same time, moral outrage is a powerful motivator, and some fear it may run out when we need it most. Our inner moderate wants to heed Clinton’s advice, and that of President Barack Obama, and give Trump a chance. But in the meantime, over 700 racist and anti-Semitic acts have been reported since the election, a greater uptick than seen in the weeks following 9/11. But these exhausting cycles of outrage threaten to numb people before they can respond to the most pressing offenses and risk normalizing prejudice. For example, one study revealed that both Trump and Clinton supporters felt it was now more acceptable to use discriminatory language toward the groups that Trump had attacked during the campaign.
So which is it? Are we at risk of too much moral outrage, or not enough?
The answer is likely both. Too much of it carries both the risk of addiction—partisans on both sides becoming dependent on vilifying the other side—as well as the risk of complacency, with dissenters giving up long-term campaigns in the face of repeatedly needing to protest against new and ever-changing offenses. The key likely lies in discernment—criticizing political leaders rather than attacking those who voted for them; focusing on concrete, tangible issues rather than expressing vague, intangible grievances; and taking tractable steps toward meaningful action rather than offering empty symbolic gestures. As the Adams and Jefferson contest of 1800 demonstrated, bitter division is nothing new, and moral outrage may well be at the core of the American psyche. But 53 presidential elections later, it is time to learn how to properly channel moral outrage, using its power in ways that can protect and heal a fractured nation through meaningful policy, rather than dividing it further.