A Week in Trump’s America
The sun came up. It rose, for the first time, over Donald Trump’s America.
Its light fell on a Washington in deep despair. People shambled through the streets with lifeless eyes, like zombies who had lost their taste for flesh.
Watching the returns come in the night before, I was confident. “Clinton leads the polls” I told myself. “She has the momentum. Her firewall is strong. Trump has no path to victory.” My faith in Nate Silver and the 538 team was strong.
America will not elect a man so fundamentally unfit for the Oval Office, I thought.
Like so many millions, I watched with growing alarm as happy visions of a progressive future — the first woman president! A liberal majority on the Supreme Court! — went up in smoke.
With a bellyful of fire, I declared to whoever would listen that I was going to the White House. I wanted to be able to tell my children that I was there when our democracy faced its gravest crisis of the twenty-first century. I wanted to say that I had been on the front lines, ready to defend it. I wanted to say I had not been silent in the face of tyranny.
The crowd at the White House was less impressive than I expected. It was early morning, and spirits were low. A group of Clinton supporters shared the space with smaller groups of young men — they were all men, and all young — wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. The men stood in close, tight circles, backs to the crowd, talking only among themselves. They knew they were outnumbered. But they were grinning like goons. In the night, their white teeth glinted threateningly.
One Trump supporter took roost in a tree, goading the pro-Clinton crowd beneath. The group surrounded him. One Clinton supporter leapt into the tree, beseeching the Trump supporter to climb down. Then another. And another. Soon, security arrived, and protesters from both sides left the tree and dispersed. My girlfriend and I walked to her apartment, where I slept a few precious hours.
Walking to work the next day in the previous night’s clothes, I felt like a man without a purpose. Shaken to my foundations, I passed others who looked like they felt the same. What were we to do?
I recalled Michelle Obama’s famous words: “When they go low, we go high.” But what did it mean to go high when you and your opponent were no longer equals, when they had beaten you, and badly? How could one go high when the full power of the American government — the presidency, Congress, most statehouses, and, soon, the Supreme Court — were now committed to the low road?
America had just elected an indecent man to its highest office, a man marked by his complete lack of qualification or respect for democratic principles. The free press, a favorite scapegoat of his, would come under attack; I was sure of it. The rights of minorities and women seemed defenseless. Economic ruin loomed in the distance. The environment? Done for. Global security? A temper-tantrum away from Armageddon.
Feeling powerless, I bought a homeless man breakfast. It seemed like the least and only thing I could do. Faced with the inevitability of illiberal triumph, I told myself that they could enforce regression and annihilate progress, but they could not take my dignity or my decency. Those things were mine, unless I surrendered them willingly.
The sense of ideological exile has been overwhelming. Empirical evidence is forthcoming, but for now the consensus is that my people — the denizens of the white rural working-class Midwest — did this. Not all of them, but enough of them, and I feel betrayed. The time I had spent calling my coastal, liberal friends’ attention to blue-collar grievances felt stupid and wasted. The idea of seeing Trump-supporting relatives at Christmas was, and is, almost too much to bear. To be sure, this is the smallest of the tragedies about to befall us, but in those hours it intruded on my thoughts constantly.
I had been so sure they would not turn out for this man, whose candidacy so debased our Republic. I had been so sure this was a cancer of the middle-class conservative variety, not the revenge of resentful blue-collar whites. Now, I am a white Midwestern person of working-class roots surrounded by educated, affluent progressives whose worst suspicions of my people have been confirmed. I worried that my credibility with them, and their solidarity with me, was lost forever.
I felt, and still occasionally feel, completely intellectually humiliated. How could this have happened? Politics, I had been told, was a science now, and numbers absolute truth. But the pundits were all wrong, and all our prophets were false; we had been praying to a God Who Was Not There.
In my head, I recalled every person who had ever sneered at me when I told them that political awareness is a virtue worth cultivating. This is their victory, the victory of the know-nothings, of the determinedly ignorant, of every proud C-student, of every person immune to evidence or fact, of those who cannot be bothered to google-before-sharing. They have exposed the impotence of knowledge in the face of deeply-felt emotion and tribal drumbeats. Their candidate lied, swaggered, insulted, and bullied his way to the chieftainship; he is now the undisputed alpha-male, and all without the simplest grasp of governance. To the victor went the spoils.
I approached my place of work, a non-profit focused on advancing the cause of freedom and democracy around the world. It seemed to me that, in some now remarkably distant past, America once stood for these things. Does it anymore? Has the light in the “shining city on the hill” gone out? I do not know. I only hope I can find others in whom this light still burns, and huddle close to them.
Later that day, as I watched Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, feeling crept back into my body. She had never been my preferred candidate for the Democratic nomination — I had no preferred candidate, not really, finding Clinton too moderate and Sanders too unserious — but I had come to respect her poise as she ran against a crude misogynist. It struck me again that this was a woman immensely qualified for the presidency, fated to run and ultimately lose to a charlatan whose ascendance is an affront to the office.
Something else struck me: Hillary Clinton, once the inevitable president and a political colossus, is human again. I realized the Democratic party is broken, having suffered a terrible loss in what should have been an eminently winnable election. I began to sense that no one was driving the train, that there was no train, that the whole thing had burned down to the rails.
The position of the Republican party is little better. Victory has brought unity, but it will be a temporary unity of the wrong sort. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is now, in many ways, the most important man in the country, forced as he will be to manage the coming internecine struggle within the ruling party. The brief flights of principle he suffered during the election seem to trouble him no more; the day after the election, Ryan declared that Donald Trump had “earned a mandate” despite losing the popular vote and winning fewer votes than Mitt Romney received in 2012.
Ryan must be frustrated by his position: having triumphed unexpectedly and completely, it is no clearer that the GOP will enact his ambitious conservative agenda. Instead, he will be forced to triangulate between establishment Republicans, the nihilistic Freedom Caucus, and the whims of Mad King Donald. In the days following the election, Trump sent Ryan — and America — on an emotional roller coaster of inconsistent signals. Reince Priebus will be chief of staff, but the viciously hateful Steve Bannon will be chief strategist. Obamacare may only be repealed in part, but women’s right to choose will face grave challenges.
Speculation over Trump’s cabinet appointments reads like gallows humor. Secretary of the Interior Sarah Palin will cheerfully drill the first oil well in our national parks. Secretary of Education Ben Carson will teach our children that the pyramids were just impressive grain silos. Attorney General Chris Christie will close bridges across the land. Secretary of the Treasury Jamie Dimon will write Wall Street a trillion-dollar check, courtesy of the American people. Each day, it becomes clearer that Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.
Despite this, I gradually remember what it feels like to hope. A blizzard of activism has descended onto my social media feed; if some fraction of it can exit the digital world and enter the real one, all may not be lost. The establishment has been ruined utterly, razed by the Trumpistas, but we can still stop them from salting the earth. We can rebuild.
In four years, many Trump supporters are going to be bitterly disappointed. Perhaps more than anyone else, those blue-collar voters who came out for Trump despite, not because of, his bigotry and intolerance have been conned. For them, the best case scenario is that their grievances go unaddressed as the GOP agenda hollows out the middle class; the worst case scenario is that the global economy enters free-fall. (Actually, the worst case scenario is the nuclear apocalypse and the scouring of all life from the planet’s surface, a possibility too bleak to ponder for long). The prosperity Trump promised is beyond his ability to deliver; his appeals to hate were the only real substance of his candidacy.
The future of the Democratic party, now the strongest opposition to the specter of a Trump regime, rests on a coalition between those Trump voters who can be turned back from the dark side and progressives of all stripes, including people of color and college-educated liberal whites. That is the work in which we must now be engaged. I feel called to action by the historical gravity of this moment, and I find myself enraged by the constant need some liberals feel to strike out at ideological compatriots. It is not worth our precious time to stop and ask if Bernie Sanders could have won, or if Clinton’s sense of entitlement doomed her campaign. The overwhelming priority must be the creation of an alternative that can set up Democrats for limited victory in 2018 and total reversal of this catastrophe in 2020.
I do not believe the urgency of this task can be overstated. If we fail and our deepest fears prove well-founded, there is no other bastion of power that we can draw on, no arsenal of democracy that can rescue us. In the past, existential threats to liberal democracy have been answered, chiefly, by the United States, secured by two oceans and possessing immense might. But the front line in the fight against rising illiberalism now runs through this country. Following the election, New Yorker Editor David Remnick rightly wrote that “Fascism is not our future — it cannot be; we cannot allow it to be so — but this is surely the way fascism can begin.”
Over the weekend, I visited a friend in Miami. It felt a strange time to leave the capital, at the height of feverish activism and just as protests were finally beginning. But the election followed me to the seaside; walking down the street, two middle-aged men with tan, leathery skin asked me if I supported Donald Trump for president. They sported the same goonish grins as the young men at the White House. With a quick, firm “no,” I walked away wondering how that interaction would have gone were I a person of color, a Muslim, or a woman. I found myself reminded of the malevolence Donald Trump marshaled in his quest for ego. And, in short, I was afraid.