This is what happens when enough people from one political point of view don’t think voting is important. You get outrage and public demonstrations that come a few months too late. You get widespread dismay and despair over a president pushing an agenda that he openly promoted for months before being elected last November.
For those who don’t agree with, and are surprised by, the actions taken by the current administration, don’t overlook this inconvenient point: President Donald Trump is doing exactly what he said he was going to do on the campaign trail.
If so many are so offended by Trump now, where were so many of these offended people last year? Where were they on Election Day?
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It’s a question worth pondering amid the public resistance to Trump manifesting itself in marches, seething town hall meetings, Facebook campaigns, organized lobbying and grass-roots organizing.
Where were you?
The latest voting numbers from the 2016 presidential election – as compiled by the United States Election Project at the University of Florida – show that only 58.1 percent of registered voters bothered to cast ballots last November.
Those numbers are down from 2012. They speak to how the millions of people who didn’t vote at all played a critical role in electing Trump.
These numbers at least partially explain how Trump has already achieved record low approval ratings for a newly elected president.
“According to the Pollster average, about 50 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Trump is doing as president while 43 percent approve, for a net approval rating of -7,” the Washington Post reported.
According to various media outlets, no U.S. president has ever dipped this low this soon in his presidency.
Trump’s predecessors enjoyed honeymoons that sometimes lasted years until their public approval took a beating. If Trump is starting at that low point, if he is getting no honeymoon from a majority of Americans, maybe it’s because a majority of registered voters cast their ballots for someone else last November – and more than 40 percent of voters stayed home on Election Day.
Does that make Trump an illegitimate president? No. It makes many Americans complicit in the ascension of a man who seems to disdain our democratic institutions. But we – much of the American public – disdained our institutions first by not voting last November.
We disdain our institution of a free press by trafficking in fake news over fact-based journalism. We retreated to our echo chambers and consume information that supports rather than challenges our biases.
If you want to blame Trump, go ahead. But chances are, some of you helped elect the president you now oppose by not bothering to vote. Or you know someone who didn’t bother to vote.
If activism is suddenly enlivened by tardy opposition to a candidate who made no secret who he was, then great. But let’s not forget how we got here.
As a working journalist for more than 30 years, my profession being derided in public opinion polls doesn’t bother me. I’m used to it. And Trump and his allies disparaging my profession daily doesn’t bother me either. A free press is not supposed to be popular. It’s supposed to ask hard questions and challenge authority and conventional wisdom.
You can’t do that without making people angry.
Far more troubling is the number of people who don’t, or didn’t, think voting is important. Or the number of people who are uninformed about issues affecting them and seem proud of their ignorance. Or the number of people who have no idea how our institutions work.
Whatever one may think about Trump’s flurry of executive orders that flout congressional oversight, what’s more troubling is Trump’s hostile attitude toward the federal court system where his actions now are being challenged.
In the short time in office, the troubling Trump list has grown, and has been reported, disputed and repeated:
Without evidence, for example, Trump has called for an investigation of voter fraud – one that apparently will be overseen by Vice President Mike Pence. Or, early on, he disparaged the American intelligence community when it produced findings about Russian interventions into our elections that he disagreed with.
On Tuesday, Trump dismissively said he would “ruin the career” of a Texas state senator. Why? A Texas sheriff told Trump that the senator was opposing the president on the issue of asset forfeiture reform.
Also on Tuesday, Trump said the national murder rate was at its highest level ever – not true.
His spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway was caught in a lie about a “massacre” at Bowling Green University when no such massacre occurred.
What do all these transgressions have in common? They are either attacks on American institutions that are meant to preserve the rule of law and to prevent one leader from having too much power, or they are simply attacks on facts and truth.
The strength of our country has always been institutions that check power. Now those institutions are being attacked from the Oval Office. Those attacks have prompted national protests and a sense of searing activism not seen since the Vietnam era.
But this all began when we – the people – didn’t care enough to show up and vote last November.