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 naive, 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.