George Sibley: Down on the Ground Trumped and Stumped

Things may be settling out a bit by the time you read this. All the cheers and jeers over the election, the anger in “Not My President” and “Build The Wall” rallies here and there, the stock market rollercoaster, the warnings and pleas from leaders around the world, and so on. All of that now settles into a hiatus like the runup to some kind of cross between chess and poker, as Trump begins lining up his pieces for the transition and his opponents start lining up the countering pieces. We’ll see who is bluffing as we move into the first hundred days of the future.
Was Trump’s victory truly a surprise? I will say that I didn’t really believe it would happen, but I also had a creeping feeling about the election from the moment that our English cousins voted to leave the European Union – no more illusions there about “Great Britain,” I guess. It felt like a preview for the morning-after headline in the New York Times: “Donald Trump is Elected President in Stunning Repudiation of the Establishment.” I guess when confronted with really hard realities, “stunning repudiations” are the equivalent of the “denial” stage in the grieving process.
Last month I wrote here about the nature – no, the culture – of democracy in a complex, technologically advanced mass society. Such societies are run, of necessity, by elites who know how to build, operate, manage and maintain the vast systems that provide the food, water, power, fuels and everything else we need to support “civilization as we know it.” It’s a system that works in part because no single elite can do it all; the private and public management teams, the scientists, the technicians, the creatives and innovators, the financiers, the lawmakers and lawyers, the media disseminators – all depend on other elites themselves, both in their work and in their daily lives.

The elites nonetheless do become an interlocked “Establishment” through work interactions – and through the (mostly) deserved rewards they gain for meeting their portion of the society’s needs, which put them on an economic plane increasingly insulated from the masses they supposedly serve. Remember how nonplussed the first President Bush was when a campaign stop took him into a supermarket with self-checkout stations? There may be a danger in not having to go to the grocery store yourself where you might rub elbows with your constituency as co-participants. This election was a classic example of what happens when elites cease to really know the people they supposedly work for, when they listen too much to each other and ignore rumblings from below.
So, the Establishment has been repudiated by a reactionary movement led inexplicably by a guy who is himself almost a caricature of Establishment-gone-wild excess. Sort of repudiated, anyway. As I write this, votes are still being counted in a lot of places, and Clinton, the Establishment candidate, clearly won the popular vote by a comfortable margin (over a million as of 11/18), more than Gore over Bush or Kennedy over Nixon. She would have been president, had America’s original Establishment, the wealthy, educated, white elites we revere as our “Founding Fathers,” not opposed the idea of a popular election for determining the nation’s leader. Instead, they set up the “Electoral College” in the Constitution; their stated intent, in the non-hiphop words of Alexander Hamilton, was that the choice of the nation’s leader should be “made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station” of president (Federalist Paper 68).
It was pretty clearly not the intent of the Founding Elites to bind these elite electors to some cockamamie decision by the masses – on another occasion, Hamilton told Jefferson, “Your people, sir, is a beast.” But custom and eventually numerous state laws decreed that the popular vote would determine the “winner-takes-all” casting of most states’ electoral votes. So one way to look at this election, where the Electoral College again trumped the Establishment candidate for the second time in two decades, is to observe that the elites sometimes outsmart themselves.
But there are more interesting ways to look at the 2016 election map – for example, to look at it in the context of the “urban-rural divide” I tend to go on about often, the city cousins and the country cousins. Colorado’s vote was similar enough to many other states to use as an exemplar. “We” gave Clinton nine electoral votes (seven congressional districts plus two senators) because she won Colorado’s popular vote. But if we did electoral votes the way Maine and Nebraska do, one vote for the winner in each congressional district plus two votes for the winner statewide, we would be giving Clinton only six votes (Districts 1, 2, 6 and 7 plus the two statewide votes) and Trump three votes (Districts 3, 4 and 5) – essentially the mostly-urban districts against the mostly-rural districts (with urban El Paso and Mesa Counties wild red cards in that analysis).

I lack the time and energy to do that exercise nationwide, but suspect that Trump’s electoral margin would be even larger if the electors were selected one per congressional district, bound by their district’s vote. The 2016 election map for almost every state is a sea of non-metropolitan red counties with islands of blue counties, most of which islands are metropolitan concentrations, or heavily minority, or “post-urban” resort/amenity places like my Gunnison County.
So, from, say, a Central Colorado perspective, the Electoral College process, as most states now execute it, amplifies the Democrat vote in states with huge urban populations, and the Republican vote in states without that. But if all states did their electoral votes by congressional districts, it would probably favor the Republicans everywhere.
What should we think of this? Americans have never been a city-loving people; the westward movement, all the way from England and Europe, was most commonly an effort to escape the cities growing out of the Industrial Revolution. The original American Dream was the freeman’s self-sufficient farm – “God’s chosen people,” Jefferson declaimed – and we passed laws and policies to encourage people to go settle those farms, create that decentralized economy and polity of agrarian communitarians.
Yet we have steadily, one might say, inexorably, become an ever more urbanized and industrialized people. Part of the reason for that is obvious: all the good farmland has been settled since the late 1900s; the hard truth is that there are now so many of us that we have no choice but to learn how to live in ever more dense and efficient societies. And our ever-expanding population also leaves us no choice but to continue moving aggressively into the natural environment, converting pre-human ecosystems into human-supporting systems that – some of us hope – can first, also continue to support what’s left of the original pre-human life if we are more careful and caring than we have been, and second, can be done with carbon-neutral systems that minimize the climate change Trump thinks we can eradicate by closing our eyes tight and wishing hard.
The great and growing cities have no choice but to push pretty hard on the non-urban areas to keep providing them with the raw resources and services they need to survive. We are already at the point where nearly all the production of the farms and forests and mines goes straight to urban-based industrial centers (along with a lot of water). We country cousins have given over to the cities nearly all the value-added economy built on the raw materials and foodstuffs we produce, and we have to buy back the finished products from the cities at their prices.
But without some cleansing catastrophe – disease, famine, one or all of the four apocalyptic horsemen – the city is humankind’s future, and this is not an awareness that the country cousins like, even though maybe we should.
And Trump, a cartoon of everything urban and elitist that the country cousins supposedly dislike – somehow managed to capture and feed off of that smoldering anti-urban anger, along with a lot of less rational smoldering xenophobic angers, mostly because the Establishment simply hasn’t been listening. The one-way message from the Establishment elites has been just trust us, and in the long run these changes will be as good for you as they are for us now – no pain, no gain. Trump, a consummate fantasist and bullshitter, didn’t even have to come up with serious ideas for addressing the causes of the angers; he just fed the angers, and it got him elected.
Now what? Trump did well in Central Colorado – about 60-40 for Trump if Cañon City is included in the region, 50-50 if we draw the line at the Arkansas River canyon. I hope that my friends and neighbors who voted for him will keep him focused on creating jobs that don’t destroy the planet, and not participate in a xenophobic blame-and-hate fest – although his early appointments aren’t conducive to hope on that.
And the other half of us? There’s a temptation to just fold our arms and step back and say, okay, see if you Trumpublicans can do better than the out-of-touch elites (who, yes, deserved a good stunning). But I don’t think we have that choice. I am, however, truly stumped right now, about what to do that isn’t just reacting against the reactionaries. Suggestions welcome.

George Sibley lives and votes in a blue part of Central Colorado, but likes to hear from readers of all colors (