Twenty-five years ago, at the beginning of the era that has just ended, I watched Bill Clinton give a pretty good speech in Chicago. Afterward, we talked about it–I was his traveling press corps that evening, and George Stephanopoulos was his entire staff. I had a strange itch of an idea: “Why don’t you ever congratulate the American people for winning the Cold War? Why don’t you thank them for their patience and sacrifice–the taxes paid, the money spent defending the free world against an existential threat?” Or something like that. Clinton didn’t answer directly, but he did begin to mention the Cold War victory in his speech. Then he stopped. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it wasn’t as compelling as the need to address the first stirrings of populist anger caused by the recession in 1992. Factories were closing. Clinton was taking a tough line on China, which he later reversed in office.
I think about this now, at the end of the Clinton era, because there was a speech that Hillary Clinton could have given that might have made a difference in the campaign. She might have congratulated all Americans on the extraordinary human-rights victories–for African Americans and Latinos, for women, for the gay community–that have been won over the past 50 years, a movement that shattered almost all legal barriers, even if some dreadful habits of mind remain. There hasn’t been a 50-year transformation like this, or even close, in human history. About half of the African-American community is middle- or upper-class, though an intolerable 25% remain in poverty. Black women are attending college at a greater rate than any other demographic group, including white women and Asians. It’s no longer news that women graduate from college and gain employment more frequently and easily than men. The glass ceiling is cracked, crumbling and near collapse. I suspect it will be a memory by the time my daughter is a grandmother. The gay-rights revolution, which occurred almost overnight, has obliterated centuries of needless human suffering. These are thrilling developments, and deserve to be celebrated.
Hillary Clinton could have celebrated them, praising the overwhelming majority of Americans for their embrace of a new, more just social order. Instead, Clinton and the Democrats focused on grievances, many of which are real and still need to be addressed, but now need to be put in perspective. “Stronger Together” was a good slogan, but it needed to be a message aimed at a white majority that felt left out. It is not hard to imagine how ridiculous the accusations of “white privilege” by the college-educated leaders of Black Lives Matter sounded in Appalachian Ohio and central Pennsylvania. There really was a “whitelash,” as Van Jones–a constant voice of reason this year–said on CNN.
It got scary ugly. And now the ugliness has trickled down to high school corridors and shopping malls. Steve Bannon’s presence in the White House seems a guarantee that the big lies, dog shouting and conspiracy theories will continue, especially if things begin to go south for President Trump. That is how demagoguery works. Consequently, it’s probably not wise for anti-Trump protesters to continue in the streets. Demagogues feed on the threat of chaos, which provides a ready excuse for a crackdown. Indeed, if the election results had been reversed and Trumpists were in the streets, the left-wing protesters would have climbed their high horses to pontificate about the need to respect election results in a democracy.
There will be plenty of time for protest if Trump resumes his divisive ways. It is striking, though, how unlike candidate Trump the President-elect has been. He has been humble and respectful–the cock crowing has been held to a minimum–and some of the names bruited about for Cabinet positions are good ones (others are most assuredly not). It seems clear that many of Trump’s proposals are opening offers–as he himself has said in the past–that will be sanded down in the legislative process. His wall is becoming a fence; his deportations seem limited to convicted criminals, a policy that President Obama has been pursuing quietly but effectively. Some of his ideas, regarding climate change for example, are myopic; others, like his coddling of Vladimir Putin, are dangerously weird. The fate of the Supreme Court was decided in the election, by the 3.5 million Obama voters who did not show up for Clinton. That is what happens in a democracy. And democracy, civility and perspective are things we must struggle to maintain now. There is no higher priority.
This appears in the November 28, 2016 issue of TIME.
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