Aftershock, indeed. Sorting through the meaning of the 2016 presidential election is going to be a long and complicated process. As a historian, I'm used to a bit more temporal distance between myself and what I study. This election, though, became deeply personal for me—as it did, clearly, for millions of people around the world. It serves as a crucial reminder that the past is never truly behind us and that how we move forward is intimately tied to a nuanced understanding of—and empathy for—the experiences of those who came before us. My academic research focuses on borderlands studies and women and gender history. So I watched with a mix of excitement, intrigue, and (often) horror as the various candidates attempted to develop a message that resonated with the American people. At this point, two key issues have been occupying my thoughts on what has transpired over the last 17 months.
First, I was simultaneously struck and unsurprised by the level to which misogyny, mistrust, and disrespect for women continues to animate public debates. Certainly, critics from both the right and the left saw Hillary Clinton as a flawed candidate. But the extent to which a sizeable portion of the population grew to HATE her was striking. Though supporters try to reclaim phrases like "Nasty Woman" in the final weeks of the campaign, their efforts were no match for the millions of people who professed anger and open hatred of her as a person. Much of what she faced mirrored the contradictions women seeking positions of power have long faced: her strength makes her mannish; she's too tired and frail to be president; she has no emotional capacity; she's likely to cry at any moment; her voice is shrill; she's the nagging wife every husband dreads; the pantsuits, dear god, the pantsuits. When I heard the phrase "grab her by the pussy" repeated on every national news network, I knew we'd hit a new low. Sexual assault victims in this country had to sit by and listen to the candidate for the top office in the nation excuse his actions as nothing more than "locker room talk." The constant barrage of anti-woman rhetoric we had to listen to for the past 17 months will not soon go away. That so many women voted for Donald Trump despite this should certainly give us pause. And it's an indication of the fight we likely face in protecting women's rights under the next administration.
Second, this election season brought a renewed focus on national borders as sites of danger and disorder. Once again, this rhetoric is neither completely new nor surprising. For more than a century, the American public has expressed a deep ambivalence towards immigrants, particularly as the demographics of those immigrating shifted. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the 1924 National Origins Act, to the deportation campaigns of Operation Wetback and beyond, we have seen federal law that reflects fears that an influx of people who "aren't like us" will take our jobs and change the very values of this nation. There are many proposals on ways to approach the question of borders, immigration, and trade. Unfortunately, this election—and particularly Trump—chose to address complicated issues with simplistic answers. His regularly repeated promise and campaign chant, "Build the Wall," epitomizes this simplicity. Trump began his campaign with an accusation that many people who moved to the US from Mexico are murderers and rapists (even if some, he assumed, might be good people). It should not be surprising, then, that five days after the election, he has doubled down on his promise to immediately deport between 2 and 3 million people. Politicians will debate whether this is in fact possible, and what the economic cost would be. I urge us to remain focused on the human cost and on the toll this rhetoric will take on immigrants of all statuses living in this nation.
Fear and anger are a dangerous combination, one that helped open up the deep fissures in American society over the last election cycle. Future historians will reflect back on the widespread implications of this election on the generations to come. But we now face the immense challenge and responsibility of turning its legacy into something less damaging than the sum of its parts.