Trumplandia, And The Shock Of The Not Normal

“Marc, this guy is not going to be normal. He’s not going to run a normal campaign. He could win.” — Frank Kassela, August 2015.

“The little guy feels like the famous billionaire. They feel good.” — Howard Stern, November 13, 2016

The United States is beautiful, benevolent, and now, broken. People who voted for Donald Trump have thought it broken for a long, long time.

Some who write about politics have taken an obsequiously self-flagellating stance: we didn’t see this coming.

Well, I did something worse. I saw it coming. I even understood it. It protruded into my consciousness, but I pushed it out, because I didn’t want to live in an America where certain things I didn’t want to be true are, undeniably, true. I wanted to feel good on November 9. So I adjusted my expectations accordingly.

But, now:

  • The long-established, hard-win civic and political norms that prevent someone who is manifestly unprepared to ascend to the Presidency — and notice the verb I’m using — have been subverted entirely, and probably obliterated, forever.
  • A presidential candidate used the tropes of the European far-right /American alt-Right demagogues and 60,000,000 of my fellow citizens did not find that disqualifying.

This was a close election, where Americans used the Electoral College to kick the Clinton dynasty to the curb, and replace it with not with its polar opposite but with a man whose value as a political leader consists chiefly in proportion to how much he frightens the permanent political class.

Tight elections are easy to get wrong. It’s easy to divine a mandate when we win. It’s comforting to look for a single factor to blame when we don’t. And winners seem smart. Losers seem stupid.

It is also tempting to assign to a significant effect a powerful cause. Donald Trump will be the President, and that is shocking. It is psychologically overwhelming; it is morally troubling; its consequences will be deeply and widely felt.

But the story of how this happened does not satisfy our need to explain something big league.

Let’s narrow the question: what happened to the Democratic presidential nominee in Iowa, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania?

The best available evidence is not that white nationalism sudden resurged, or that it acquired a novel motive force. It exists, as it always has, and with Trump’s candidacy, its devoted adherents, and subtler bigots of the alt-Right, feel emboldened. This is alarming. It is salient.

But Trump may in fact have lost votes from reliable Republicans (GOP Senate candidates over-performed Trump in most states where they ran together, and did Republicans in many House races) because he made the choice to associate himself with their liturgies. He may have lost votes among Republican women, too.

The best available evidence is that Hillary Clinton did not get enough votes in about five states from white people who voted for Barack Obama. (She lost Ohio by 450,000 votes.)

While she won the poorest tranche of voters — those making less than $50,000 a year — she won far fewer of them than Barack Obama did.

The best available evidence is that the political environment shifted the complexion of the electorate, as did a candidate with enormous, instinctual, ignominious gifts for exploiting the moment.

Based on updated information from state voter files, Echelon Insights founda surge in evangelical white turnout across the country, and higher turnout among Republican and Republican-leaning voters in both populous and rural counties. These voters are white.

The best available evidence of the Electoral College’s “deliberate but small” bias in favor of small states helped Donald Trump artificially close the gap; but he won big states, too.

The best available evidence shows that Trump’s campaign placed a premium on his star power and believed that its luminous glow was a compelling driver of turnout. He campaigned harder than Clinton did in battleground states.

The best available evidence is that one candidate adapted to (or was born to indulge in) the attention span of new media and exploited the financial incentives of the old media; while the other candidate had to constantly maneuver to get a fair shake from media, old and new.

The best available evidence shows that the Great Partisan Sort, and Donald Trump’s earned, evolved identity as a Republican, allowed women who were inclined to vote him to ignore, forgive, or excuse his boorishness and sexism. White women vote for Republicans. Women, in general, vote for Democrats. Trump actually did worse among white women than Mitt Romney did; perhaps his sexism and boorishness did drive some women to Clinton.

Consider Michigan:

Trump overwhelmed Clinton outside of the metropolitan areas, winning among non-college white voters by significantly larger margins than Mitt Romney did. He won 12 counties that went for Barack Obama in 2012. (Detroit News). He also won by 13,000 votes.

Consider Wisconsin:
 
 Barack Obama won millennials in Wisconsin by 30 points. Clinton won them by four. (Freep). A swing of about 30,000 votes in Milwaukee would have handed the state to Clinton, but she did not campaign there even once after the convention. Those all the votes have yet to be counted, it looks as if Trump was able to win with about as many votes as Mitt Romney earned in 2012.

Consider Pennsylvania:

Obama-care premiums for the newly insured went up by an average of 32.5% This did not affect most voters, but the news coverage of it surely did. Clinton ran a good campaign here, but Trump turned out voters at a higher rate.

Turnout, considered as the share of those eligible who voted, fell in some states that Trump won, like Ohio; it rose in other states, in Florida. (FiveThirtyEight). There is no consistent story here, either.

So what happened? Why didn’t Clinton, who got the most votes, get more votes? Why did Trump get so many votes? Why was she so unacceptable? Why was he acceptable?

Was it that Democrats chose a candidate with Wall Street, Washington, dynastic and establishment baggage?

Was it a populist revolt against Wall Street and Washington and the media?

Meddlesome third parties?
 
 Or a “whitelash,” a triumph of white identity politics, wrapped up in the language of populism, nativism and elite resentment?

A revolt of men against emasculated cucks?

Or a failure of the media to vet Trump, an entrenched insider in his own right, properly?

A failure to cover the consequences of his vaguely-announced policies?

Or a direct result of Republican efforts to suppress and depress the black and Hispanic vote?

Or a failure of Democrats to realize that Trump conducted his campaign moment-by-moment, harnessing the power of the now to overwhelm a system built on news cycles and pauses and norms?

Was it Comey?

All of these?

A little bit of all of the above, maybe.

But at the moment, provisionally, I share the view of the political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who believes that economic nationalism and cultural resistance to elites merged and Trump, uniquely, was able to weaponize this brew.

It was consumed by people who feel they get the short end of the stick, who blame immigrants for depressing their wages, who watch Washington trade away their jobs, who think Barack Obama gave their tax money to his favored minorities, and who are tired of being told that they are unreconstructed bigots because they’re struggling to adapt to modern cultural mores. Many of these people feel a strong inclination toward racially prejudiced points of view. Many, many more simply found a reason to excuse it away.

Its effect was made more potent by the willful spread of misinformation, originating from Macedonia, or Russia, or from alt-Right news sites, or Alex Jones, and delivered directly to phones and laptops.

Those of us who are not straight, while and male have spent the past eight years, more or less, thinking that the federal government was on our side.

We got stuff. A lot of it was symbolic. We got recognized. (All politics is thymotic, David Brooks once wrote.)

We got rights.

We got a President who took our side in identity conflicts. We felt empowered. We took pride. This was all good. These are good things. They are good for everyone.

And while we kind of knew that a backlash — a “whitelash” — might whip around, we thought we kept our hubris in check because we recognized how imperfect our progress was:

* Our political system cannot handle the strains of the enormous economic and demographic transformations we’re in the middle of, especially the redistribution and restructuring of work. Jobs and careers and ways of life are being phased out, at a rapid clip in the Rust Belt, in favor of transient work, hourly wages and seasonal jobs.

* It seems like there is too much money in politics, and that moneyed interests have too much sway, even over our own side

* We’ve been at war since 2001;

* Presidential power expanded dramatically

* Women still make less money, on average, than men

* Black people are more likely to be involved in violent encounters with the police

* Economy prosperity did not spread evenly across the heartland, and barely touched a number of our inner cities

* Wall Street recovered more quickly than Main Street, and those who committed crimes or who conned us during the bubble were not held accountable for their misdeeds

* The legacy of white supremacy still influences so many elements of our politics and our culture

* Social mobility is still stagnant

* Climate change is hurting everyone

The progress-imperfect applies to immigrants, to black people, to Latinos, to gays and to straights, and to Asian-Americans and to Americans of German descent, of Polish heritage, to the working man, to the white person without a college degree.

It may have appeared to a lot of white people without college degrees that the President was not on their side, even though they might have suffered less than non-white people, in absolute terms; even though they can now afford health care; even though it is still much easier for a person with a “white” name to get a job.

Telling people “you’re better off than you think you are” is not a great political strategy. It falls on deaf ears, especially when those ears are inclined to mistrust anything you say in the first place.

Let me step outside my own head for a while.

If you think Washington is broken, and corrupt;

If you think you’re working harder for the same amount of money;

If the world seems chaotic and less safe (even though it might be safer and more stable)

If you can’t distinguish between what’s real and what’s false;

If you’re being fed a diet of Facebook shares, angry Tweets and ‘Member berries, simultaneously fomenting rage and giving you a memory of a feeling of a time back when things were better;

If it seems the like the rewards accrue to people who don’t deserve it, to people who don’t look, think or act like you….

You’re going to want to do something about it.

You’re in your own bubble (which has morphed into a hardened cyst), and a along comes a candidate who relishes in puncturing the pretenses of the elite, who raises a middle finger to the political party that is supposed to represent your views, who encapsulates his appeal by telling a story about the loss of your American identity.

He delights in making the elites so mad.

The reality is that the source of what Clinton aide Matt Paul has called the “quiet rage” of the ordinary American has nothing to do with the coalition of the ascendant. It has nothing to do with immigration. Your way of life is not threatened by Muslims.

But it does have something to do with government.

With Wall Street.

With globalization.

With the march of technology.

With the media.

The information economy is an incredible leveler, but it subjects everyone to a blizzard of lies. Humans used to be able to sort truth from fiction fairly easy, when we could rely on social cues, and when we weren’t overwhelmed with incoming data. Our brains are not adapted for this environment.

We embrace the future, the rapidly approaching future, without a reckoning of what we might lose. Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist, pointed out a few days before the election that the profession of driving is one of the driving employers of young men in the United States. (There are 8.7 milliontrucking-related jobs alone.) We celebrate self-driving cars, and our government tells us nothing about what type of work those folks, suddenly thrown out of work, are going to get.

So: the elites’ benign neglect of the short-term implications of their policy choices is a problem. And the fragmented, compromised, news=content-media no longer has the authority to serve as a functioning fifth branch of government for about half of the country.

To those who are warning us against normalizing Trump’s conduct, or against trying to forgetting it, or away from misremembering how toxic it was, I say: in my heart, I know you’re right. I have that post-it note that John Oliver recommended right in front of me. It’s not normal. It’s not normal. It’s not normal.

In my head, I know that that bridge has already been crossed.

Trump tore apart those norms.

They are gone.

You can cling to them because they are moral and ethical, but you have a better chance of selling water to an ocean than you do if you try to will their restoration into existence by hating, hectoring and lecturing.

You do have a chance to help shape the new rules of politics, and that’s where any form of resistance can be more productive.

I have a sense that public opinion will reign Trump in.

(It seems like Trump is going to try to purchase some breathing room by passing an expensive (and liberal) tuition forgiveness plan, and by spending money on infrastructure.)

Trump does not want to be unpopular. So if he does something unpopular, he might shift course quickly.

I have a sense that Paul Ryan, and Senate Republicans, will force him to compromise. And that he will, banking on public opinion, be willing to compromise in a direction that is less austere than we all fear on some things.

Trump has received calls of congratulations from world leaders. He will now have to deal with the quiet power of Angela Merkel and Theresa May, and with the harder edges of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Beneath the surface, the interests of Russia and China and the United States do not often overlap.

On other topics, like the climate, and the fate of undocumented immigrants, I refuse to be magically optimistic. There is no cause for that.

In fact, everything that is sacred must be now, by default, be questioned.

Since I’m most familiar with the norms that govern press relations, I wonder:

Will Trump kick the press out of the West Wing of the White House?

Will he abandon a protective pool?
 
 Will he force the New York Times to relinquish its reporters’ White House hard passes?

He couldn’t possibly…. But why not?

Of course he could. If it serves his interest, he will.

Assume nothing.

Someone who spoke regularly with Trump in 2010 and 2011 told me last week that Trump showed him several e-mails he had seen on the Internet. Some were clips from essays that Pam Geller, one of the original birthers, had written. “Do you believe this? Isn’t it ridiculous?” was what Trump said. 
 
 In other words: Trump was already inside his filter bubble. And like all filter bubbles, he fed off its dank air and it eventually consumed him.

That’s how a cosmopolitan billionaire, thrice married, with relatively liberal positions on social issues, suddenly adopts a conspiracy theory that is, at best, toxic to the democracy, and at worst, just racist. That’s how powerful fake news can be. Like a virus, it can force our rather impressionable mental RNA to code for bigotry.

48 hours after the election, I sat up and watched friends of mine protesting in the streets of Los Angeles. I read stories about how white people harassed, assaulted, and taunted black people, brown people, Muslim women wearing hijabs.

I had a weird idea. I don’t too many people in Trump world, but I know a few. And I sent three of them this e-mail:

Dear [Trump person]

This is out of left field, I know, but ….

If President-elect Trump were to make a short on camera statement like this…. I think a lot of good would come from it.

— -

“We have a lot to do between now and January 20, and I’ll be talking more about the way forward as move toward the inauguration.

Today, I want to speak about one thing.

I’m thrilled that so many Americans feel that my election has given them a voice.

A small number, though, have used this great occasion to do some really harmful, really criminal, really stupid things…

Let me be clear: using a political victory as an excuse ton be violent against someone else…

To be racist … to put children in harm’s way …. to be bullies ….

This is not America. It’s not the America that I will govern. It’s not conduct I will tolerate. It is against everything I stand for.

I have no more patience for that than I do for those who would ignore any other law we have in place.

I am aware that some Americans who did not vote for me feel pretty raw and vulnerable right now. To them, I say: I will be your voice, too. I know it will take some time.

To my own supporters, I urge you to treat your neighbors and your friends and the people you disagree with, with compassion and respect.

Thank you.”

One of my correspondents wrote me back.

He was close to someone who had daily access to the President-elect. This person seemed to agree with my sentiment, and he said he would pass along the thrust of my suggestion to the person who would be in a position to show it to Trump. I did not care whether my name remained on the e-mail, or not.

The next morning, Trump sent this short Tweet:

“Love the fact that the small groups of protesters last night have passion for our great country. We You will all come together and be proud!”

This was not what I had had in mind.

I have no reason to think that anyone in Trump world showed him my e-mail. I don’t really care. What prompted me to write the e-mail in the first place was a weird and gnawing gut sensation that one of two of things was probable: (1) People in Trump’s inner circle were aware of the reports of hate crimes and anxiety and deliberately chose not to tell him, in order not to burden him with that knowledge; or (2) Trump knew, and did not care. I felt impotent.

On 60 Minutes Sunday night, Trump said he was, in fact, not aware of most of these incidents. Maybe his bandwidth was compromised. The day before, he had spent an hour and a half with President Obama. We don’t know exactly what Obama told his successor in that meeting, but we know that Trump left the White House with a face that betrayed massive anxiety. The reality of the Herculean challenge that is the modern presidency was dawning on him. The New York Times reported that Trump had already asked advisers how much time he had to spend in the White House, like they were college counselors telling him how much he had to volunteer in order to meet some random college admission requirement. Maybe he was in a panic. In a blind.

So much of modern Presidency is about mastering the moment. Trump upended campaign politics. Will he change our expectations for what a President can and should do?

I don’t think Trump wants white people beating black people in the streets. I don’t think he wants people to openly discriminate against law-abiding Muslim-Americans. I don’t think he wants to be associated with the spleen-venting by yokels and idiots.

I just think he lacks the capacity to do anything about it.

I worry that his advisers lack the ability (or desire) to pull him towards a new set of standards, a revised set of norms that might mitigate some of the chaos that his candidacy has already created. Whether these men and women of the right, who generally seem to tell him what only what wants to hear, and at other times treat him like a child, will provide with him accurate data about the state of the world is a major question. Will Trump read the briefing books he’s given? (Reagan did.) Hell, with Trump dispense with nightly briefings altogether? How will he organize the flow of information to his brain? Will he know enough to know that he has to?

By the time that most states get around to certifying their results, it will become clear that by a significant margin — perhaps two million votes — Americans wanted Hillary Clinton to be their President.

“But she actually won” is very small consolation to those who lives will be changed, uprooted, altered by the triumph of Trumplandia.

The resistance is forming. College students are realizing that politics consists of more than language games, more than meme-sharing on Tumblr, and more than telling friends they are getting “woke.” People are finally ejecting themselves from the swaddling influence of their online worlds. A bunch of people I know went out and protested for the first time. (One even got arrested.)

As for me, I’m working on clearing the cobwebs.

I thought back to my conversation with Frank Kassela last August. Frank is an unusual guy. A poker champion. A successful businessman. A collector of rare books. A former drill instructor. A devotee of Ray Cronise’s crunchy veggie diet advice. A one-time Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives in Las Vegas.

We were having dinner at the home of a mutual friend. I was insisting that, not no how, not no way, would the same Americans who elected Barack Obama possibly turn around and elect Donald Trump. The electorate would not change its complexion so quickly, I told him. Hillary Clinton’s problems were baked into the cake. (I used that metaphor. I think I overused it.) And Republicans would nominate someone else.

Frank politely told me that I was being naïve. Trump, alone, had the capacity to be disruptive. His party was too weak to stop him, if he really wanted to win. He would use technology — or, rather, technology would use him — to communicate a big F — — you to the elites, who for years had insisted that they knew best.

Off and on, Frank and I had this debate. We had the debate after Trump won the Republican debates. We had the debate after Trump won the nomination. We had the debate after Trump’s polling shot up in the polls after Hillary Clinton suffered through the FBI’s post-investigation analysis of her e-mail server.

“You still sure that Clinton is going to win?” he would ask me.

“Yup,” I said. I was all too sure.

Confirmation bias is a bitch.

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