The 1995 O.J. Simpson trial ended with an egregious jury nullification – in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, a trial jury acquitted Simpson of murder charges, instead rendering a verdict on the dismal state of race relations in the U.S. Perhaps because the verdict was itself an injustice, and because opinion of the jury’s actions divided along racial lines, this one act raised awareness of race issues in a way that conventional means might never have accomplished. If discussion is the beginning of progress, perhaps the trial verdict played a role in subsequent events. After all, we elected Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 and 2012, something that would have seemed a remote possibility back in 1995.
In 2016 the jury of the American electorate performed a different, but still egregious, nullification. In spite of overwhelming evidence of his divisive, inept, infantile, and paranoiac character, Donald Trump was elected to the US presidency, setting aside any conventional judgments on qualifications or policy. Instead, a verdict was rendered on the US government, which many Americans feel is simultaneously unctuous and indifferent. That the indifference, in particular, was a de-facto policy of Trump’s own political party was irrelevant – in 2016 it was the message that mattered. Like the Simpson trial, the injustice of the result amplified the underlying message of that result.
It is a political mantra that because 2016’s electoral message was realized in the form of Trumpine ineptitude and extremism, that message is entirely wrong (liberals), or doesn’t apply to them (conservatives). I believe both are badly mistaken, and government officials believing themselves to be beyond notice do so at their professional peril. Last-minute deciders determined the 2016 election, and that alone should tell us that electoral dynamics are fluid and based on practicalities. Voters with deep-seated social or political convictions don’t make up their mind the week before the election.
Also like the Simpson trial, I wonder if the best outcome from 2016 might be the impact the message has on us, rather than directly on “the system.” Are we not more aware of social and political justice than a year ago? Does it perhaps seem that we’re now going a little more out of our way to show courtesy to strangers? We might just be returning to the simple pleasures of engagement and courtesy. Or, we might be looking at the example residing in the White House and thinking at least we’re better than the president of the United States – and we would be right.