“There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America,” said Barack Obama a dozen summers ago. “There’s the United States of America.” RIP, the sweet audacity of hope.
We’ve lost a lot of illusions during the resistible rise of Donald Trump. An entire political culture has been leveled; it’ll be a long time before we hear about the virtues of a “ground game” or the nerdy brilliance of data-driven poll analysts without laughing (or crying). The “values voter” is dead, and so is the quaint conviction that newspaper and magazine editorials might somehow save the world. But some of these illusions were due for demolition anyway. What makes this election soul-sickening is how it has crushed our most romantic ideals about America itself.
We now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is still a white America, and not exclusively red-state or blue-collar, that will fight to the end to retain its ancestral status over the non-white Americas rising all around it in a fearsome new century. And that there is still a goodly portion of male America that will do the same to retain its own fraying prerogatives. And that there is a major political party that cynically pandered to both these reactionary movements so it could retain the power to — do what, exactly? Mandate more tax cuts for its donor class? “Privatize” the safety net? Outlaw abortion? Roll back same-sex marriage? Bar America’s gates to immigrants? Well, the GOP can now try to do it all. It has all three branches of government in its grip. Its leaders, most crucially Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, remained steadfast to their candidate through Election Day, undeterred by his blatant racism and nativism, his history of sexual assaults, his affinity for Vladimir Putin, or his embrace of an anti-Semitic and white-supremacist alt-right movement. They will remain Trump’s toadies once he inhabits the White House — or at least until he inevitably sends them packing to install even more slavish lieutenants.
For those of us on the losing side of this election there will now be a hunt for scapegoats, with the media and James Comey no doubt at the top of the list. But they are newcomers to this fiasco. The Republican Party owns this. It has cynically exploited the backlash to the civil-rights and feminist movements for more than half a century. The kindling was there to be lit, and so it was once a black man ascended to the White House. Trump is nothing if not the unabashed apotheosis of the nihilistic Party of No, and Palin, and birtherism, and “You lie!”
But that’s not the whole story. Not every Trump voter is a racist. More than a few of them just despise elites, and elitists, regardless of race or creed. Against all odds, a guy who is famous mainly for being a wealthy autocrat persuaded those voters he could be their champion. How? Part of it, I think, is that he dissed his own party’s elites, not just liberals, and pounded the press and Wall Street. He has a knack for crude populist language even if he may not even know what populism is. (What does he know?) He was also fortunate to have Hillary Clinton as an opponent. The national-security threat represented by her emails may be close to nil, and her use of a private server was, as the FBI man said, careless rather than criminal. But she was too slow to speak about the issue with honest circumspection as opposed to circumlocution. The email brouhaha came to stand for a regal sense of entitlement that was reinforced by the Clintons’ obscene buckraking, however worthy their foundation’s charitable causes. To this day I do not understand why Hillary Clinton gave speeches at Goldman Sachs for eye-popping sums when she knew she was going to run for president. The speeches themselves, once revealed, were as innocuous as most of the emails. But that’s not the point. She had given Trump — a con artist who breaks rules and possibly laws routinely — an opening to deaccession some of his own, far vaster sins on to her candidacy. Her air of entitlement gave some key voters in the Democratic base a reason not to vote.
What also became clear along the way is that the Clinton campaign, many Clinton supporters, and many Clinton-friendly members of the elite press — like the GOP primary field before them — had little sense of what they were dealing with in the case of Trump. They famously underestimated his chances right up until November 8, and they seemed baffled by much of his flock. As #NeverTrump opinion pieces in the best publications became more and more apocalyptic in recent weeks, I kept thinking: Well, I agree with everything they are saying, but is there a single Trump voter even reading these columns and editorials, let alone being swayed by any of them? Many of those voters subscribe to a whole separate culture, online and on the airwaves. (Fox News may be the least of it.) That culture has delegitimized the Establishment culture in the eyes of its consumers, even as the Establishment culture remains largely oblivious to the insurrectionist culture in its midst. To me, nothing symbolized the culture gap of this election year more acutely than the stunt of a liberal Times columnist interviewing an “imaginary” Trump voter rather than a real one.
Where this divided America ends up I have no idea. This was no 9/11. The terrorist attacks on America, after all, did not come from within, and for a while at least, they brought the country together. What awaits us now looks very much like a protracted civil war — indeed a retread of our previous Civil War. We have a Supreme Court whose Chief Justice has already hollowed out the Voting Rights Act, giving permission to the voter-suppression efforts that went off the charts in 2016 and that now will continue unchecked. We have a president-elect who has seemed to endorse discrimination by race, religion, and ethnicity, and who wants to give police more sway over the “inner cities.” Next up: Attorney General Rudy Giuliani.
I keep thinking of that old Twilight Zone episode where the panicking neighbors on a bucolic all-American Maple Street become so fearful of an alien invasion that they start shooting each other and destroy their neighborhood before any invaders arrive. Not even when the towers came down did America feel as vulnerable as it does on this 11/9.