The American election was a referendum on systems change.




My heart breaks for my homeland. My heart goes out to friends who have felt the hate of bigotry and misogyny and now feel the sting of further marginalisation. My heart fears for a future in which America rolls back decades of progress on the environment and social justice. And my heart freezes at the prospect of the arsenal of armageddon and the apparatus of a surveillance state being in the hands of a petulant bully.

But here’s what pains my heart the most: Trump just out-played every one of us who stands for change at our own game. 

We were the ones pleading for systems change. We were the ones championing disruption. We called for the departure from the status quo.

Did any of us talk in the populist terms of a utopian vision like “Making America Great Again”? Did any of us really listen to the anger of rust belt white Americans and channel that anger toward upending a system that was crushing their futures? A system in which Democrats and Republicans were equally complicit?

We talk at them about climate change. We talk at them about dwindling resources. We talk at them about species loss. We talk at them with cautionary tales of the cost of failure.

We tried to sell people on a nightmare. We spoke in stories of denial, fear, loss, and guilt and wonder why people turn away.

And we accepted the glacial progress of a reluctant system as the best we could do. A system talking out of one side of its mouth about the values we cared about while using the other to champion an impossible thirst for infinite economic growth on a finite planet. A system that offered the sop of all the right words about social justice and a smidgen of legislative redress with one hand, while the other gave heaping helpings of profits to the corporate class. A system that alienated more and more plain working folks as it gathered the fruits of effectively enslaved labour, privatized the global commons, and put more and more of the loot in fewer and fewer hands.

We shouted about it. But Trump heard a drumroll in the heartland. He heard the anger as a demand for deep change and locked his story into step with the beat. He wasn’t sipping politely from the fine tea-cups of the Republican party or any version of business as usual. He was bulldozing his way into the china shop. And he sold a dream of making America Great Again. He promised to drain the swamp. He mocked the Republican apparatus for their fawning dependency on billionaires. He mocked the Democrats for their failure to get anything done. He tore a page from both their playbooks by listening to the fears of the American middle class of their diminishing place in the world, and laid the blame, as the Democrats never would, on immigration, and as the Republicans never would, on trade deals. Fear wasn’t a tool of pursuing a party ideology, it was rocket fuel for his promise of a plague on both their houses.

Exit polls reported 60% of voters had an unfavorable opinion of Trump. Look at that number. It means a significant portion of people who voted for him don’t actually like him. And not many fewer actually voted for him despite believing him unfit for the job. But when asked if he had the capacity to deliver change, 83% said yes. THAT’s the single plank in his rotten platform they voted for.

He set himself up as the leader of a movement. He was merely the rider of a wave. And the wave was so important to his constituents that they could overlook Trump the man, Trump the misogynist, Trump the liar, Trump the egotist. It wasn’t about him. It was about them. Their feeling of frustration, of disenfranchisement, of being ill treated by a neoliberal economy that paid them lip service while taking bread from their table, houses from their families, and leaving them an ever darker and darker vision of the future.

It was a campaign for systems change. Trump set himself up to be the answer — the appallingly wrong-headed, retrograde answer, to exactly the right question: how do we break the system, escape this downward spiral and start building a future that’s rich in opportunity for more people, that makes us proud of who we are, that confirms our belief in the greatness of humanity and the forward progress of the human journey? It was a campaign about shaking the pillars without worrying what got broke, because it was all broke.

And brothers and sisters, that was our line — it’s all broke. Not it’s getting a little better. It’s broke and it’s going to take a radical transformation to fix. That was the campaign we should have run. Donald Trump didn’t get elected President. Disruption did. And if we’d been smarter, harder, less content with incremental fixes, the baby step progress, the coffee spoons of water bailed from the sinking ship, that disruption could have been our disruption. The answer could have been our answer.

The greatest irony is that those who need the change the most won nothing. Trump won’t put prosperity in their hands. He won’t give them a brighter future. The “artist of the deal” suckered them into a future that has no future: greater wealth disparity, greater social unrest, more military aggression, and an acceleration of the world’s most dangerous luxury limo on its collision course with catastrophic climate change, depletion of resources, and all the ills of the dig, burn, bury economy.

So what now?

First, we remember that a majority of Americans voted for Hillary Clinton. The Electoral college says Trump, but Americans said Clinton. Americans said they want action on climate change. Americans said they want marriage equality. Americans said they want a fairer economic system and checks on the corporate ransack of the Earth.

Second, we get on board the radical solutions train, we rewrite the rules. The unconventional has new resonance. Permission has just been granted to step way outside the box. We call the emergency what it is and realise we’re in a fight for the future and we up our game, we sharpen our story, we start working together.

We forget narrow critical paths to incremental change, forget everything we’ve learned about rational fact-based persuasion and traditional media megaphones and legislative tweaks on a corrupt juggernaut. And PLEASE can we stop behaving like separate egocentric organisations driven by self-preservation and start behaving like we actually believe in our mission by joining together with EVERYONE who shares it, regardless of the logo they bear or the badge they wear or the miniscule piss-ant tiny variations in our opinions of the exact flavour and hue we think human survival should take? We need to behave like separate departments of a single organisation with a single mission of survival, compassion, abundance, and hope. We need to say goodbye to the egocentric institution and hello to the network-centric movement enablers. Sierra Club, Greenpeace, World Wildlife, 350, Avaaz, MoveOn, I dare you: step into a single room and figure out how to make each other stronger. Consider things you’ve never considered. Pool your income. Stop overlapping efforts. Share your people and your experience. Figure out the highest common denominator of your missions and strip everything else back. Merge your programmes. Merge your income. Keep your identities. Play to your strengths. But do it not like competitors wanting people to buy only your branded widget, do it like team members who are heading down the pitch united to trounce your opposition.

We need to get out into the fields, seek to understand what people who are hurting and have been harmed by the current system truly crave, hear their articulation of the better future they truly want for their children, and figure out how to make that the center of a vision of a kinder path for the human journey, one that’s easier on the Earth, and one that’s more compelling than the promise of a buffoonish reality star to make it all alright.

We need to figure out how to speak to the hunger for systems change in a language it can hear, we need to make our vision of the future accountable to people’s authentic needs and not the ones we tell them they should have. We listen. We make our story better because it’s their story. We throw a better party because it’s their party. Not the one that makes us as hosts happy, or the ones that make us miserable but feel worthy and superior, not the one that ticks a set of nerdish boxes on a boring report that gets read by twelve people slapping themselves on the back. The one that makes our guests pump their fists in the air. The one that makes them fight for the future not because we want it, but because they want it. The one that gives them an impossible mission, and puts responsibility for delivering it squarely in their hands. 

The easiest opt out right now is cynicism. I feel it beckon with a bony finger, telling me that bigotry and misogyny and naïve, ill-informed small minded selfishness just put a fascist in the White House and laid waste to whatever mincing progress we’ve made. It whispers that it’s time to give up, that we’ve already crossed the threshold, that even incremental change is impossible. The dragon is too big. Too smart. Too ruthless.

But cynicism is obedience.

When no one believes a better road is possible, the world is made safe for those getting rich or exerting power by digging in. Apathy is the weapon of the vested interest, the comfortably numb, the luxuriant oppressor. Donald Trump gave his followers a sense of mission, an impossible task, and fueled them with the passionate belief that they could achieve a miracle. And they did. Trump is the ultimate activist. He figured out how gather the irresistible force of people power and unleash it right where he wanted to.

All he did was tell a better story. In a language that his audience could hear. And with a rallying cry that got them up off their feet.

Activism just got its own wake up call. We have two choices. The only acceptable one is to get up off our feet, saddle up, and get back on that horse.


Brian Fitzgerald is one half of Dancing Fox, a creative agency dedicated to mischief, mind-bombs, and magic. We help change-makers tell their story, and storytellers to change the world.




15 thoughts on “The American election was a referendum on systems change.”

  1. Good stuff.

    One small thing though. Trump might not actually represent the lower economic tiers…

    And the people most hurt by the status quo (and likely most threatened by a Trump world order) are people of color, which mostly voted for Clinton (with a seizable Latino split going to Trump). There is already amazing organizing being done in those communities that we should try to support (not co-opt obviously). 

    That said, I think the feelings that you’re describing for Trump voters are probably spot on. Of course, we’ll only know for sure by talking to them.

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