Since the night of November 8th, when a friend who was watching the returns with me started vomiting and had to go home, I’ve tried to understand (not just explain) what prompted 46% of America’s shrunken electorate to vote for Donald Trump. I’ve failed. What I do know is, we are about to reap the whirlwind – and politically speaking, they will own it.
The French like to say: Plus comprendre, c’est plus pardoner – the more you understand, the more you excuse. But it’s a half-truth, because we cannot entirely substitute knowledge for moral accountability. We need both explanation and ethics. And because Trump is unique, Trump voters are uniquely responsible for what is to come. They won’t be shamed; the reckoning for the damage must come at the ballot box.
Take the repeal of Obamacare. It’s projected that, of the 20 million Americans who got coverage under this law, some 18 million are about to lose it. We’ll see how that works, both electorally and in terms of death and suffering. At this point, I’m not sure full-on repeal isn’t the best route to an eventual single-payer system and universal coverage. Just enough of us decided to see what that looks like, and we’re about to get what they wished for. Democracy, at its worst.
To catalogue Trump’s shortcomings as a human being (much less a president) is almost beside the point. It would be a long and tiresome process, and you’ve seen and heard it all: compulsive liar, total bully, ace sexual predator, stooge of a Russian dictator, and all the rest. Suffice it to say he is the worst demagogue to succeed in American politics. Ever.
The man, such as he is, found the moment, or it found him. He didn’t expect to win, and maybe didn’t want to, but he won, and his electoral legitimacy trumps his moral and political illegitimacy. Which makes facing squarely what we’ve done to ourselves as a nation no less important.
There were a multitude of contributing elements of course, each of them arguably decisive: Hillary Clinton’s glaring flaws as a politician; James Comey; Vladimir Putin; the Nader-esque fools Jill Stein and Gary Johnson; fake news about Hillary’s alleged corruption; voter suppression; the Constitutional farce that is the Electoral College; fears of globalization. In hindsight, it was a perfect storm.
We can’t entirely excuse President Obama for the arrival of this moment. His main failures were on Syria, and in revitalizing the Democratic Party. Why didn’t he deploy Joe Biden to win over the voters of Scranton, Akron, and Grand Rapids? What happened to his uncanny ability in his 2004 Senate campaign to win white working-class voters in Cairo, Illinois? But then, he did what he could, with class and eloquence, and against the most implacable opposition any president has ever faced. He remains a tower of moral dignity, the veritable anti-Trump not just of our times, but American history. They are archetypes of the better angels of our nature and the darker demons.
We can also blame the media (our surrogates, and in some ways our mirror image), and the Internet and social media too; they are powerful messengers that shape the message, as I’ve argued at book length. But ultimately it all comes down to the basic decency, good sense, and patriotism of the voters, or the lack thereof.
The Electoral College is merely the oldest of our failing institutional pillars: it is not just flawed but utterly misbegotten, born of a bankrupt deal to bring the Southern states into the Union, and to count their slaves as three-fifths of a person for the Census. (The Senate itself is another, giving equal representation to California and Alabama.) Getting rid of this radically undemocratic fossil will have to wait until Democrats are back in power. It should be the first thing to go.
As for the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, that is just a symptom of deeper structural problems within our electoral system, which is biased against concentrations of like-minded voters, for example, in cities. By strict majority rule, the Democrats would now control all three branches of the government. Even more – much more – than the hanging chads of 2000 and the Supreme Court’s intervention, the sheer absurdity of the outcome in 2016 is dizzying.
Meanwhile, progressives need to obstruct in every way they can, and find ways to beguile their “dissatisfied fellow Americans,” in Lincoln’s phrase, back to decency and patriotism, appealing both to their self-interest and to putting country above self or section. We did this once before, although Lincoln’s achievement is till a work-in-progress. It must be driven by concern for needs and opportunities (including those of the worst-off). It can’t include lies, racism, misogyny, or xenophobia. I’m a lifelong Democrat precisely because I care about Trumpists’ interests in all the former ways and none of the latter.
Trump offers them nothing that will change their lives. Democrats, for better or worse, promise the American Dream of an expanded, more secure middle class, and ladders to success. Hillary Clinton did that, and was rejected by a slim margin of fear and loathing. So we don’t change our values; we go back to work.
We also can’t attribute the outcome of the election to an upsurge of populism – a dangerous word. Populism cuts across the political spectrum because it isn’t an ideology; it’s a political style, an appeal to the commoner against elites. Radicals and fascists alike (but no dignified conservative) can be described as populist.
And this isn’t quite fascism on the classic Italian model, the one on which Hitler improved. It’s a uniquely American – and momentary – stew of anger and discord. But it resembles fascism in many key respects, including the hollow appeals to strength, renewal, independence, and lost greatness; the authoritarian style; the cult of personality (“I alone can fix it”); the fear-mongering and lies about outsiders, foreigners, the Other. In sum, it’s a deeply anti-democratic right-wing movement in non-ideological clothing. Trumpism is fascism in a democratic context of flawed institutions and a sick political culture. Fascism thrives in the soil of fear, hatred, and ignorance. “It Can’t Happen Here” was the title of a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis; it just did.
And make no mistake: this wasn’t an uprising of the truly left-behind. Trump voters, like those who elected Hitler in 1933 (only afterwards did he burn the Reichstag and shelve German democracy), were the lower-middle and middle-class, more fearful of those below than resentful of those above. Their median income isn’t $30,000; it’s $73,000.
In the American case, it wasn’t even based on true class resentment. It was more about racial and ethnic resentment, with a thin overlay of impossibly vague promises of something better. Genuine class warfare is what democracy is all about: who gets what, and how the ladders of mobility are added or removed. Elitism, like populism, is a dangerously ambiguous word. Elitism in America has come to stand for fear of the educated and people like myself in the so-called “liberal bubble.” Yes, I live on an island (Manhattan) where Clinton beat Trump, on his native soil, 86-10. Yet it seems that I, and the clear majority of Americans who voted Democratic in 2016, care about the rest of the country, and especially about those who don’t live in our supposedly insular world. So do the sizeable minority of Democrats and independents who live in the red and purple states beyond the infamous coasts and Illinois. Some bubble. Talking to more Trump voters would hardly have changed our votes, or theirs.
Ruling elites? How about a backward billionaire put forward as Education Secretary, a racist senator for Attorney General, a Treasury nominee who failed to report a hundred-million dollars of income, a dunce to replace a Nobel laureate at the Energy Dept. and manage the nukes, the head of Exxon Mobil as Secretary of State.
I have news for the anti-elitists: knowledge isn’t the problem, and anti-intellectualism (old as it is in American history) isn’t the solution. Jobs, health, education, and infrastructure are the solutions.
Amidst the anger and disappointment we share, two reactions among some of my fellow liberals seem particularly unfitting to the moment. One is that we must first of all try to “understand” Trump voters. No. First we must understand and oppose what they have wrought.
Second, there’s denial that it’s really that bad. The world will go on. But what might a lunatic in North Korea do, if we get in a shooting war with China over artificial islands in the South China Sea? What about Roe v. Wade? What about climate change? What about American kids with undocumented parents? I predict, though I hope I’m wrong, that it isn’t going to be “really that bad”; it’s going to be a whole lot worse.
Like my friends in the 2.9 million majority “bubble,” I’ll march and write and support political and moral renewal and the progressive vision of a more democratic, inclusive, just, prosperous, and unified America. Before Trump is through, we may be erecting an equestrian statue of George W. Bush in Central Park.
But I’m not yet ready to forgive what’s been done to our country – not until a fuller accounting of that choice has been made. Not until Trump voters sample the rebarbative stew they’ve cooked up for all of us. It will be their turn to vomit. Then, it is devotedly to be hoped, we can return to the communal table of our powerful, beautiful, highly resourceful, often welcoming, deeply imperfect but ever perfectible union.