Election Results Challenge Language of Politics
In the three years that I have been writing this column, I’ve rarely discussed politics. I always found political op-eds to be pretentious and impersonal, as though the writer spent so long digging for facts that they never considered the emotional significance of their story. But now, in the wake of the most disturbing election in recent history, I find myself scrambling to make sense of what happened. This is a rare moment when words feel totally useless, when no amount of eloquence can explain what we’re seeing, much less its significance. It’s impossible to catalog the effects this will have on our future, but at a fundamental level, the election of Donald Trump has called into question our understanding of language. His candidacy has spawned a profusion of hateful rhetoric, and if we are to promote positive change in lieu of these results, we will have to learn anew how to speak to the people we disagree with.
While I’m trying to write this, I’m still speechless. As an environmental activist who has spent hundreds of hours campaigning for climate justice, I feel like I’ve been erased. The change I thought I could enact now seems like a farce, like the work I wanted to spend my life doing has no place in this world. Maybe I’m catastrophizing, but seeing as Trump has already chosen climate change denier Myron Ebell to lead his planned Environmental Protection Agency reform, it’s hard not to fear the worst for the planet’s future and my own. And I say all this as a cis white man, someone who won’t even feel the brunt of Trump’s promised attacks like my friends who are women, LGBTQ and people of color.
No aphorism works here. No witty quote from Benjamin Franklin or Mark Twain can explain how we got here or what to do next. If we are to articulate what happened, we need a broader lexicon. This challenge to language is not unprecedented, and it’s almost always seen in history’s most trying moments. War often catalyzes the expansion of language, with the phrases “no man’s land” and “pushing up daisies” stemming from the First World War, “bloodbath” from the second, and “light at the end of the tunnel” from the Vietnam War. These new expressions came in tandem with radical artistic and activist movements, from Modern art attempting to reconcile a fractured world to folk songs broadcasting civil rights and social movements in the ’60s.
Trump’s presidency could incite a comparable shuffling of language. From “Grab ’em by the pussy” to “They’re murderers, they’re rapists,” Trump has demolished the expectation of formality and decent conduct in our president’s speech, and with half the country on his side, many people are asking how such language can be acceptable. It can’t be. Yet if we’re to cope with whatever trials the next four years will hold, we can’t deny that our neighbors either championed this language or voted for him in spite of it. However the left — or anyone repulsed by his speech — plans to act in the days to come, we have to stop pretending we can make change without acknowledging the positions of those who elected him.
I can’t think of a greater challenge than this, and I have no idea if it will lead to positive change. But the alternative is to do nothing, to effectively transform our words into silence by speaking only to each other, refusing to have discussions with half our country. An idea often discussed in activism is that you don’t need to get everyone on your side, just the minority that truly care. This election has me doubting that belief, because if the party I oppose controls every branch of government, nothing will change if I can’t reach the people with whom I disagree. Maybe they don’t deserve my diplomacy, but if it could help the planet and the people I care about, I’m more than willing to try.
Trump’s victory is already testing our strength and patience. There’s too much reason to feel hopeless, and no one should have to pretend they see a silver lining if they don’t. But if nothing else, this election confirmed that how we’ve been talking doesn’t work, and it has led a majority of voters to seek leadership in a demagogue. So much is now stacked against progressivism, but if we decide it’s worth it to keep fighting, we’ll have to transform our rhetoric to protect ourselves and promote goodness in this world. Our principles, though, can stay intact. Thankfully, those don’t ever have to change.