The Film "Loving" and the 2016 Election

In the current film, Loving, about Richard and Mildred Loving's 1958 interracial marriage that led to their arrest in Virginia, Richard tells their lawyer, as he prepares to present their appeal to the Supreme Court: "tell the court I love my wife." In 1967, that Court unanimously threw out the miscegenation laws then on the books in sixteen states. The film does not present the high drama we are used to in TV or big screen courtroom scenes. The cinematic focus is instead on the love between its protagonists, their struggle for a normal life, and the hardships imposed by the hard-heartedness of their state government.

Much has been written in the last two weeks about why Donald Trump won and Hillary Clinton lost the election. Some see in the result the work of racial or identity group politics. Some see anti-establishment anger. Others see the impact of a letter from FBI Director James Comey, the poor turnout of certain voter groups, the power of social media, undisclosed emails, false facts, political lies, and/or corruption. But there is one factor that has been insufficiently understood. The election was in large part about the same demand for human dignity that led the Lovings to marry and that propelled them on a nine-year battle to have that dignity respected by their government.

It is possible to see in Trump's victory the desire for dignity of all those in rural and Midwestern America who have lost their livelihoods and their way of life due to the decline of manufacturing, the closing of coal mines, and free trade. For many Americans, they can no longer meet the test Richard Loving so achingly uttered in a moment of sheer frustration in the film: "I want to take care of my family."

But to see this as the reason Trump won and Clinton lost it to politicize the desire for dignity and to neglect its universality. It is not only rural or Midwestern whites whose dignity has been damaged. It is all those who feel that wealth has become a substitute for worth, that character and hard work no longer guarantee a livelihood and respect. It is the struggle of all those, whether in the country or the inner city, who lack work - an essential precondition to the feeling of self-worth. It is children of illegal immigrants who, born in the United States, face the deportation of their parents and the tearing apart of their lives. It is legions of blacks whose ongoing campaign for civil rights and life itself has left them feeling afraid and abandoned. It is citizens of the Muslim faith who feel degraded and disrespected by those who see in them not the dignity of human beings but the danger of unjustified terrorist fears. It is all those who want their right to marry as respected as was the Lovings. It is women who want to know that their fortunes depend on their capabilities and are not constrained by their sex. It is men who want to feel, as Richard Loving felt, that they can still provide for their families and live out the "caring for them" role to which they have been socialized. It is all those Americans who feel that the winds of technology and globalization are keeping them behind and bewildered, as if the foundations of their families and their lives are floating on uncertain tides instead of anchored in the bedrock of tradition. It is the feeling that we, as individuals, are somehow insignificant, caught up by forces we neither understand nor control.

The Declaration of Independence rightly anchored the legitimacy of government in our unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Human dignity is impossible without this trinity.

It is not surprising, then, that Trump won the Electoral College while Clinton won the popular vote. This should tell us that each candidate appealed to the desire for dignity, though in different ways and among different groups. If President Trump ignores this universal need, misreading the election results as a mandate for hard-hearted policies rather than as a hope for government to respect and bolster human dignity, he will fail to deliver on the chance the voters have given him. If the Republican and Democratic parties in Congress turn again to jockeying for advantage rather than compromising to create the conditions in which Americans can retain if not reclaim their dignity, they will have forsaken, once again, the public's trust. The next election will then just become another exercise in which the forgotten try to extract revenge on those whose sole mission should be to deliver on the Declaration's promise.

At the end of Loving, the camera closes in on Mildred - and then Richard. Each face fills with a smile, but it is not the smile of a legal victory. It is the smile of a love that at last can live with dignity, not just unfettered but acknowledged by the government whose task it is to labor on their behalf.