NEW YORK – The next president of the United States faces the daunting task of unifying a nation whose deepest divisions have been laid bare by one of the ugliest campaigns in its history.
There is no opportunity to rest on laurels. The next commander-in-chief will face an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy after one candidate, Republican Donald Trump, cast the American electoral process into doubt repeatedly over the course of the race. The result is an electorate with less faith in its democratic foundations, disheartened by its politics and unconvinced that unity, in its truest sense, is achievable.
A president with historically low approval numbers entering office will somehow have to reestablish trust with a disaffected public.
So, too, will America’s institutions – Wall Street, Congress and its legacy media – which also faced a beating this election, turned victim in part due to their own misgivings.
And, yet, the 2016 campaign featured a phenomenon altogether different than your typical anti-establishment wave. This was an information war in which America’s political establishment was faced with defending itself against an electorate largely removed from a reality rooted in verifiable facts.
Washington has settled on a single interpretation of anger in America: globalization has forced the country to reconfigure its workforce, upending much of its working class, whose old jobs in manufacturing and service will never realistically return. Amid their plight, aggravated by the Great Recession, they found a scapegoat in the immigrant – a tried but true approach for the aggrieved.
Their legitimate hardships have been compounded, dangerously, by groups and individuals seeking to take advantage of their weaknesses: political forces both without and within. The information war they have conducted, as described by US intelligence and law enforcement officials, has become a national security matter, as state and non-state actors work actively to capitalize on America’s divisions.
Even more than US President Barack Obama – the first president to initiate an official cyber attack on a foreign nation-state – the next president will face an increasingly complex landscape of disinformation and cybersecurity threats. And the next administration will be faced with the even more challenging task of communicating to the public, through all of that noise, what it stands for and how it plans to improve the lives of the American people.
The Obama administration sought to cut through this noise by communicating directly with Americans through social media – an approach that led to complaints from the White House Correspondents Association, among other groups, of limited press access. The more misinformation succeeds in gripping our politics, the more likely this trend is to continue – making it more difficult for the press of all kinds to secure access to the executive branch.
America enters the next four years freshly reminded of its fault lines, without a clear strategy to mend them, and with forces explicitly intent on entrenching its divisions.
The next president will thus endure an especially dire test of leadership.
Others have survived far worse – Abraham Lincoln faced a house divided in 1860; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a world divided in 1936; and Lyndon B. Johnson, races divided in 1968, for example. But America’s 45th president now faces a nation divided by narratives, not just over where the country should go, but over what has made the country great in the first place.
It will take years, as well as great leadership, to recover.