On Super Tuesday, Donald Trump took the stage for a press conference at the symbolic epicenter of the most vibrant American-populist movement in decades, the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach. Liberal viewers at home who’ve spent the last months transfixed in a horror-show kind of way by Trump suddenly couldn’t stop staring at Chris Christie, standing behind him on the podium. In Christie’s “dead” eyes and uncomfortable-seeming mien, they joked on Twitter, there was a whiff of the hostage, or at the very least someone realizing too late the distastefulness of what he’d signed up for. “Chris Christie spent the entire speech screaming wordlessly,” wrote Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post. Someone looped footage of Christie set to the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme song.
The meme was pure projection; rather than consider that perhaps Christie is thoroughly unpracticed at standing in the background, we constructed a fantasy that better fit with our own feelings about Trump. And rather than acknowledge that Trump was making a turn toward the general election (in what counts as progress, he said “the African-Americans” rather than “the blacks”), we nervously seized on the nearest possible joke. This mix of alarm and dismissive disbelief that Democrats — or at least Democrats I know — are experiencing is only getting more pronounced as the months go on. Whether it is tinged with joy or dread has become a revealing window into the way that people who believe they agree about politics actually don’t.
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I get the Donald Trump appeal. Sort of, anyway. Oh, not the virulent racism or sexism. Not his dumb tax plan, not his ridiculous claims about his own success. But remember the first GOP debate, all the way back in August? This was a more innocent time, before Trump had pretended that he needed to research the KKK further before disavowing it, or before Nate Silver noticed that the single best correlate for supporting Trump was Google searches for the word nigger. Sure, Trump had already said that he wanted to build a wall to keep out “rapist” Mexicans, but at the time, like just about every liberal (and moderate, and conservative) I knew, I figured he’d already disqualified himself from being taken seriously by anyone. So we were free to gawk at the sideshow, which was genuinely great TV — has there ever been a more fascinating extemporaneous speaker in American politics? Even Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, was excited to tune in. “Shh, I’ve got to get me some Trump,” he told the room at her headquarters. It was the most-watched primary debate ever.
Back then, it was okay for urban sophisticates to buy and ironically wear the MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat (not unlike the trucker hats they’d embraced a decade before) because Trump was the candidate of camp. Politics had suddenly gotten wild and unruly again, and a lot of us were into it. Part of the fun of following these elections, for all but the wonkiest of wonks, is the soap opera, the delectable people-watching of observing the country’s biggest egos on the biggest stage they can find, seeking to fill whatever cavern is in their soul that makes them want to be president. For the past 40 years, even as candidates have moved toward greater levels of narcissism and power-seeking, they’ve also moved toward greater precision in their narratives, in their sound bites, in their adherence to lawyerly correctness and deadly carefulness. A news cycle that hungrily fed on “gaffes” seemed to guarantee that only personality-free robots who made the fewest unforced errors would ever become nominees. And we even found fault with our first such bot! Remember when Mitt Romney’s earnest attempts at hiring more women — “binders full of women” — became what passed for a scandal? That man had literally never had a drop of liquor to drink. And now along came a candidate who had not only acquired three wives with kingly cavalierness (“Model, actress, model” might be the new “Divorced, beheaded, dies”) but had regularly done such things as go on “The Howard Stern Show” to discuss how he could have fucked the then-recently-dead Princess Diana. America is a weird, very grandiose country, more Trump than Romney. Trump’s directness, his ridiculousness, his often spot-on and fascinating cruelty — he’s the star of a premium-cable show about a billionaire-populist anti-hero running for president, one we loved until we realized it couldn’t be turned off.
Now the question becomes: How do you feel when real life is adapted from television, rather than the reverse? There are a few distinct ways liberals and moderates have been dealing with the prospect of Trump’s nomination. For some purely results-oriented Democrats, his rise has been an occasion for exhilaration: Are they really going to make it this easy? Marco Rubio, who might have seemed able to best Clinton in a general election thanks to many of the same characteristics Obama used to beat her eight years ago, is getting tossed aside like yesterday’s bottled water, while Trump continues to say racist things in a country whose minorities make up 40 percent of its citizens? Great! And to the extent he’s gutting a climate-change-denying, abortion-rights-restricting, health-care-ruining, one-percenter-abetting Republican Party, is that such a bad thing? A Trump nomination is a high-risk proposition, sure, but also high reward — the dismantling of a stultifying and unsustainable status quo.
Then there’s another category of voter, the risk-averse. A Trump general-election defeat isn’t a sure thing; everyone’s been wrong about him so far. What if somehow the GOP manages to organize itself around him? What if his poll numbers continue to magically rise, in new and unexpected demographics? What if Clinton gets indicted, at the last minute, for something about those emails? Stranger things have happened!
And then there are people like me. What I’ve come to realize about myself, watching Trump’s rise, is that I have a higher degree of personal, if not political, conservatism than I’d realized. It’s not necessarily my low appetite for risk, it’s that I am suddenly more concerned about the dignity of the country than I’d ever imagined myself to be, in agreement with the Romney-bot when he shreds Trump’s temperament. I find myself thinking about how much things like “honor” and “tradition” underpin my beliefs, as if I were the Republican candidate fixing a flag to my lapel.
After all: For every person who points out that perhaps the surprising popularity of the not-so-conservative Trump will allow the GOP to slow its move rightward, another person chimes in to mention the devastating effect his nomination will have on America’s standing abroad. After seven years in which the Obama administration mostly made the rest of the world forgive us for having elected George W. Bush, suddenly we come back with this guy who makes Bush look like Churchill. El País published an imaginary letter from King Philip II to Trump suggesting that he might bring back the Inquisition. It’s easy to imagine ISIS recruiters smiling at the primary results.
And whatever conservatives might think, there’s no real pleasure for a liberal in realizing that the most cynical things she might have believed about the modern Republican voter are at least in some cases true, or in seeing people with supposedly deeply held moral views (about abortion, about religion) set them aside without blinking. There’s not even much fun left to be had by the professional comics who used to see Trump as the perfect raw material. (“Donald Trump is the first joke I’ve ever been offended by,” tweeted comic Morgan Murphy.)
For most of our lifetimes, politics has offered up only incremental changes: progress that accrues or recedes slowly; a presidency that, regardless of rhetoric, flips from center-leftish to center-rightish; a Congress that does the same polite do-si-do. A creaky but stable old system that nobody thought worked very well but just kept working anyway. There’s something a little awe-inspiring to think about how our democracy has been built on the good taste of the electorate as much as the electorate itself, something exciting about realizing that the high drama of a living constitutional democracy isn’t confined to Hamilton. But it can also be plain-old terrifying. The old ways of being, the America we felt at home in — suddenly the ground has shifted under our feet. And in the anger that I feel about my displacement, my lack of control, I realize, once again, that maybe I’m not as different from the Trump voters as I’d like to think. I understand what it is to be confused about a new world order. “Our country is going to hell,” Trump said on the stage in Palm Beach, as the crowd cheered, and I nodded along at home.
*This article appears in the March 7, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.