What shall we make of this presidential election?
Our reactions may not all be the same. Some of us may be excited about the outcome and the changes to come. Others may feel dismay, or fear, or anger, at the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency in light of the divisive rhetoric of his campaign.
We have three thoughts to offer.
First, as to the rhetoric: This election does not stand for the proposition that inflammatory rhetoric wins. As we teach in our rhetoric and advocacy classes, triggering hate and fear is not a smart strategy over the long term. It certainly doesn’t work in a courtroom setting, and we suspect it will cause problems for Trump. Trump is likely to have a lot more trouble governing because of his divisive rhetoric than he would have if he’d delivered a positive message, because a sizeable part of the country now distrusts or fears him. It is very difficult to undo the damage of a negative reputation. Think of how much easier the job would be for a president with a reputation for good character and good judgment. Ethos is important.
Second, to anyone feeling distress or despair: Take heart. We are going to be OK. We have structures in place in our country to promote justice, and those structures still exist. The brilliant design of our constitutional democracy ensures that no single person holds all the power, and that we citizens can do much to hold our representatives accountable. We have elections to shake things up, and we must accept what elections decide, whether or not we like the outcome. But then another election follows, and we can correct course if necessary, as we have done for centuries. And in between elections, we can ask questions, contact representatives, sign petitions, raise awareness, make sure that the laws are followed. You are not helpless. You have power.
Our third and final thought: We are all in this together. One way to interpret the outcome of this election is that there are a lot of people in our country who are struggling, and this is how they have voiced it. We have to listen to one another, while still fighting for what we believe in, because we are one nation. We depend on one another to survive and to thrive. We have to take care of each other.
Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Our country’s story has been one of forward progress. Sometimes it moves in fits and starts, but we get there in the end. America is already great, our shared mission should always be to make it even better.
Molly Bishop Shadel and Robert N. Sayler are professors at the University of Virginia School of Law and the authors of Tongue-Tied America: Reviving the Art of Verbal Persuasion.