This is bad.*
I don’t know how to process what I’ve just seen. This feels like a disjuncture. It’s a historical fork in the road. It changes things to such an extent that we will one day discuss things as “pre-” and “post-” this election night.
This shouldn’t have happened.
Let me start at the small scale… Hillary Clinton ran a very good campaign. She had better data, and better field, and better fundraising, and better communications. She was weighted down by a bullshit email scandal, and by interference by the FBI director, and by interference by Russian hackers and wikileaks. But those were relatively minor blips. We can’t run history twice, but I don’t believe that another Democratic candidate would have run a much better campaign.
Donald Trump ran an abysmal campaign. Just terrible. He failed to pay his pollster. His field operation was a series of puff-himself-up rallies with little call-to-action at the end. They were festivals of hate and resentment, unlike anything we’ve seen in presidential politics in my lifetime. His data operation was effectively nonexistent. His messaging was awful. His communications team was mostly concerned with keeping him locked out of his own twitter account. He lost all three debates. Badly. He had a terrible convention, beset by own-goal mistakes practically every night. His own party was fractured against him. He couldn’t maintain focus and discipline for more than an hour.
We are going to be tempted in the months and years that follow to misremember this campaign — to tell ourselves he must have had some secret formula that no one saw. He must have had better data than we thought. He must have had a powerful targeting operation just below the surface. But he didn’t. Donald Trump ran a godawful mess of a campaign. He offered a singular message: that American politics is (a) simple, (b) broken, because of (c) corruption and incompetence, and that (d) everything would be better if you put him in charge. That’s the swan song of the strongman dictator. It had no bells and whistles. It had no extra charge or added promise to it. This was an unqualified fool, bumbling through every opportunity, offering the golden promise of the demagogue. And it worked.
At the campaign scale, I’m tempted to label this the #lolnothingmatters election. Because really, Donald Trump couldn’t have been any clearer in signaling that he was unfit for office. Elite institutions, to the extent that they still hold sway, couldn’t have been any clearer that he was unfit for office. Republican elites… well okay, Republican elites were chickenshit. But their lack of enthusiasm is supposed to be a problem in a national campaign.
This is not brief.
But focusing on the campaign scale feels cheap. I remember election night 2000. I remember election night 2004. This is different than what we experienced on those evenings. This, honestly, feels like the end of the republic.
Representative Democracy operates on the basis of formal laws and informal norms. The laws (particularly the constitution) dictate what people must do. The norms dictate what people ought to do. Most of our day-to-day behavior is regulated by norms. We don’t check the bylaws or the terms-of-service to figure out how to act with one another. We try to not-be-awful, because being awful would be a bad thing, and would probably have some repercussions of some sort. And we have a shared sense of what awful looks like in most everyday situations.
Donald Trump breaks norms. It’s what he does. It’s what he’s done throughout the campaign. It’s what he’s done throughout his career.
This vote was a primal scream, punctuating the end of the age of American empire. America flourished in the aftermath of World War II, when the manufacturing base/many of the cities in Europe had been decimated. It flourished through the cold war decades, when it was one of two global superpowers and could easily juxtapose itself against a looming, threatening other. Those years have gone. They will not return. And many of my fellow citizens mourn for them and will grasp at simple stories for how they might return. Rural white people wanted this. They wanted someone whose deepest policy explanations consisted of “I’ll make it great. Believe me.” They voted in record numbers, turning out for Trump like they’ve never turned out for anyone. That, in state after state last night, seems to be what the polls underestimated.
Make no mistake: Donald Trump is a demagogue. He does not believe in democracy. He does not believe in checks and balances or deliberation or rational discourse or participatory engagement. He believes in gathering, exercising, and maintaining power. He believes in dominance. As far as I can tell, that’s the only thing he believes in.
And now he will be President of the United States. With the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. And with a hobbled supreme court whose decisive open seat he will get to fill. And with senate and house majorities that are afraid to stand up to his edicts, for fear of attracting the ire of his voters. For the next few years, our best hopes rest on individuals like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell acting on the courage of their convictions and asserting checks and balances against Trump, at great cost to themselves. We are banking on the convictions of comfortably craven individuals. If they didn’t stand up before, I see little reason to expect they will stand up now.
This is just as bad as it appears.
There’s a saying about bankruptcy that I think applies here: they say it happens slowly, and then all at once.
We’ve been watching the slow dissolution of America’s norms of governance for years. Remember when Ted Cruz and his Republican colleagues shut down the government to prevent Obamacare implementation? That was legal, but it violated deep norms among people in power. The collective belief was that elected officials can’t do that, because it’s awful, and bad things would happen as a result. They did it. Nothing happened. They faced no repercussions. So that norm went away. Remember when Republican Senators announced they simply wouldn’t allow Barack Obama to fill Scalia’s vacant Senate seat? That was unprecedented. There were norms against that sort of raw exercise of partisanship. They faced no repercussions. So that norm has gone away.
Many of us have watched aghast as these norms have been slowly mowed down, one-by-one. Our ability to effectively govern this Republic was being bankrupted slowly. We protested, we cried out. But it didn’t change the outcome… mostly because everyone woke up the next day, and the world kept turning, and then we adjusted to a government that shuts down sometimes in a temper tantrum, or a court whose powers have been nullified by a minority. We Americans, particularly the most privileged among us, have a tremendous capacity to adapt to violated norms and remain comfortable.
This, last night, was the start of our capacity for democratic self-governance being bankrupted all at once. We have elected a demagogue who aspires to be a dictator to the highest office in the land. He has announced plans to “open up the libel laws” and strip the media of what little power it has left. He has governing majorities in all other branches of government. He did not hide who he was or what he intended. Given the choice between a demagogue and a democrat, white voters asserted themselves, declaring loudly their support for the demagogue.
I thought we were better than this.
I certainly didn’t think we were perfect. But I thought the American experiment, with all its imperfections, was better than this.
I just don’t know anymore. Ben Franklin is said to have announced that our government would be “a Republic, if we can keep it.” I can’t help but worry that we’ve just lost it.
I don’t know what happens next. I didn’t expect this to happen, and I’m still in shock. I’m in no position to predict what the future holds.
But I don’t think Trump and the cronies he’ll appoint will have any capacity to effectively govern. I think the economy will tank, and global affairs will be destabilized, and the health care system will be pulverized, and racial violence perpetrated by white nationalists will skyrocket.
And when the economy tanks, when the hot wars begin, when basic government services are hobbled by incompetence, I think Trump will find scapegoats. And he will lean on a quasi-governmental media apparatus (Fox News/Breitbart meets RT) to assert the demagogic refrain: American politics is (a) simple, (b) broken, because of (c) the corruption and incompetence of [insert villainous group or individual here] and that (d) everything will be better once we’ve held that group to account.
I think we’re witnessing the end of the Republic, all at once.
*[Note: I wrote most of this last night, before going to bed. It still seems right to me, the morning after. Perhaps I’m overreacting. Hopefully one day we can look back at this post and laugh at Dave with his hair-on-fire. (Shouting loudly, so to say.) But I think these are days when we all have a moral duty to speak out and speak clearly. So here it is. I hope I’m somehow wrong.]