Understanding President-Elect Trump, Mrs. Clinton, and our Nation’s Politics

Written by Mary Coleman, mother of Kiese Laymon


How do we understand what we are seeing and hearing as the United States elects its forty-fifth President? What would a Trump or Clinton Presidency mean for the nation? 

Can Trump Be More and Better

If Trump’s self-awareness were keener, his knowledge of civics, political institutions, local, state, and world politics deeper, his temperament and capacity for empathy healthier, it would be okay for him to win the presidency. As Eisenhower and to some extent Woodrow Wilson and Obama have shown, one does not need meaningful prior political experience to run, win, and serve reasonably well in politics.

A Trump victory might teach some important lessons.

Partisan realignment of the white working poor and non-college educated

His victory could show his supporters that despite Trump’s authoritarian orientation, the U.S. Presidency is not a dictatorship. His victory could  also remind Republicans that the party is not just in trouble, but is out of touch with generations of the working and near-working poor of all hues. 

New and Old Membership in the Nation during a Time of Economic Immobility

Included in this year’s mobilized political resentment war are those who actually work hard but are losing ground. Some blame strangers at the gate for cutting the line---when in fact the pathways leading to economic mobility are sticky and some of the rungs that lead to the middle class are actually missing.   Some of those who are resentful feel that Trump could position them within arm’s reach of their strivings and entitlement. They hope that a Trump Presidency will help them elbow their way into the solid middle class and beyond.

Inside Outsider Political Correctness

Some of the working and near-poor support him because he gives the status-quo the middle finger.   The politics of resentment is undergirded by a perception of the newly arrived poor and African Americans as both economic and cultural threats.   Almost overnight it seemed, misogynistic and racist political discourse was back in vogue. Trump seemed to abjure political correctness as he embraced hateful rawness.  He enabled our vilest political instincts as a nation.  He took out the political establishment. His supporters will stay in his corner well beyond Election Day.   

The Capacity of the Caricature   

His evolution in politics can be understood best as a caricature. By definition, celebrity is creative nonfiction—it allows busy as well as not well informed people to idealize and even exaggerate assets---their competence, wealth, goodness, and intelligence. Or, alternately, caricatures stand in for and fill in our presumptions about people, good, bad and indifferent.   Celebrity can sometimes make the images we see seem real—more real than imagined. Think about Cliff Huxtable and Bill Cosby.  Think about O J. Simpson, the running back of the Buffalo Bills and the image of Hertz Rent-A-Car.  We have caricatured celebrities in ways that hide the shadows they sometimes frequent, or mask their bad behavior---sometimes it is hard to pry open these caricatures.   Thus, zealous enthusiasts of Trump’s and Mrs. Clinton’s are not interested in facts associated with their respective business practices, or his relationships with women, or in what appears to be Mrs. Clinton’s learned self-absorption.  

Nationalist Outsider Rhetoric, Scapegoats, and Racial Mongering

Trump has needed to be taken seriously by serious and well-placed people.  This need urged him onward well beyond his level of political competence and understanding of world affairs. It is okay, his avid supporters might have reasoned, because he was (is) better than nothing. His voice was (is) theirs.  He was (is) their mouthpiece, but it would appear that his presidential ambition was tied to his self-interest and self-absorption, not theirs. However, his hubris is in linked fate with racism—of which the crudeness of the Obama birther campaign was emblematic. 

Evolving as Hillary: What Her Near-Victory Teaches the Nation about Politics

What would have happened to the Democrats if they had nominated Bernie Sanders? After all, neither one, Sanders nor Trump, is a resolute partisan identifier. Still, Sanders’s ideas have rejuvenated the Democratic Party and made it possible for the Party to hold together under one big healthy but tension-filled tent. Apart from his ideas, it is not clear what is next for Sanders.  What is clear is that some politicians and some politics evolve well beyond a particular election.  

Mrs. Clinton began her political career and thus politics as a Goldwater Democrat and married a Democratic centric. Her voting record is more hawkish than her party identification alone would predict.   First-wave feminists and many others were drawn to Hillary Clinton’s first campaign for Presidency, largely, I believe, because she is a woman. The Clintons’ inscrutable chase for power and money blemished the campaign as an ode to Stanton, Tubman, and other women and men who fought for women’s equality and opportunity.   Bernie’s campaign pricked at the Clintons’ greed and lack of self-awareness. She looked out of touch.  She struggled for coherence in her campaign messages. Her near-victory will resonate for generations.

Insider Politics can be Exclusionary

There’s more than policy intelligence, hawkishness, and self-absorption in the Hillary Clinton wheelhouse.  The experiences that people discuss as being invaluable seem to be a combination of that of First Lady, Senator from New York, and Secretary of State. In the latter capacity, what would have happened if Mr. Obama had not run foreign policy from the White House during the time of Mrs. Clinton’s stint as Secretary of State?   (I would say the same about the forty-first President’s relationship with Colin Powell.)  What kind of campaign might Clinton have mounted had she been able to say this was my vision for U.S. foreign policy and it aligned with Obama’s here and diverged there. How much better prepared might she be if and when she takes charge as Commander-in-Chief?  

What if she had been able to say this is what we accomplished together and this is why that matters for our future?  If her experiences as Secretary of State had been stronger—well beyond having traveled to hundreds of countries, which does no doubt improve one’s knowledge of the world and our role and collaborators’ roles in it, but does not substitute for a record of achievement—how might she have waged a deeply substantive campaign—a vital public seminar about national security threats and how to thwart them?  When the history of her time as Secretary of State is written, will she be likened to Marshall, Adams, Kissinger, Albright, Baker or Schultz?  If Mr. Obama had trusted Mrs. Clinton to run foreign policy or had actually listened to her foreign policy ideas as a trusted advisor, her bona fides and her time in office, and her campaign, might have caught fire---could have been poised for transformative rather than transactional change.  Experience does not always translate into preparation or strength, especially when political capital from the White House failed to reinforce that potential. Being at the table of power allows one to see how the game is played but does not guarantee that one will actually exercise power consonant with one’s role and function.   Still, she was present and she is intelligent in substantive ways.


In a conversation with trusted colleagues or historians, Clinton might someday say, “If I had won the Presidency, I would have wanted to shape a foreign policy framework for resolving Middle East challenges, which have broadened considerably since the days of George Herbert Walker Bush or even the first Obama administration. I’ would have liked to forge a one-state plural solution in Israel and through the Palestinian territories.”  I imagine that she would have more to say.  She might continue, “This conflagration has morphed now into the Middle East conflict.  It is time to reassert the role of Secretary of State and align it with the role of Commander-in-Chief, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”   I think she would reconsider how she approached her domestic policy framework as well. Could she have forged a new coalition of the working white poor, people ready to build a more inclusive society, moderate Republicans, and the “traditional” Democratic base? Or was such a goal well beyond the grasp of any Democrat with ties to Obama or the Clintons?  Was the outcome simply an Obama backlash?  An anti-Clinton backlash? Or was the election outcome typical of what we have seen for at least five decades: the inability of either party to win three consecutive election cycles?    

Rebuilding the Nation’s Trust in Political Institutions 

Whom will Trump trust to lead American foreign and domestic policy in a world of state and stateless actors? He will need both domestic and foreign policy ideas and processes of implementation bounded by wise expertise to help understand the World Way Forward and the American Way Forward?  There are many routes to a better America and to a safer world and a more just one. I care deeply about American institutions and how to restore opportunity, dignity, and statesman- and woman-ship to our diverse nation. We must struggle mightily beyond Election Day to become more aware of our possibilities and challenges as a nation. In the roles that we play as members of the nation, we must help leaders protect the nation from the very real dangers of cyber warfare, ecological degradation, racial strife and intolerance, and chronic inequality.  We must strive for equality of opportunity and greater levels of economic mobility for those not born on third base.

One Last Matter

America needs strong and compassionate leaders. Leadership matters to the quality of our political institutions, our discourse, capacity to solve problems, and therefore to our politics and to the viability of this diverse nation--at home and abroad.   November 8, 2016 sent a resounding message—white Americans who voted for Trump perceived themselves and their children and grandchildren as strangers in their own nation.  They vowed to ‘take America back” from Obama’s winning coalition and his governance agenda. I hope we can focus as a nation on who are as Americans and what we can do to usher in and sustain greater economic opportunity for those left behind in the technology economy. 

Hard work and difficult realities await the country.