I underestimated Donald Trump.
Actually, scratch that. I didn't underestimate the man, who remains every bit the racist narcissist he's shown himself to be over the last several years, a man who deserves neither your respect nor your well wishes. I did, however, underestimate the tidal wave of white resentment that propelled him into office, the burning desire to blow up the system, to hell with the consequences.
I – an urban, educated, cosmopolitan elite – smugly assumed that there was no way people would actually vote for this buffoon, that everyone could see through his circus act the way I did. I devoured websites and listened to podcasts, all produced by urban, educated, cosmopolitan elites, that confirmed this assumption. And so as I watched results begin to pour in Tuesday night, celebratory Boulevardier cocktail in hand, I was supremely confident of the results; doubly so when I saw the first exit polls, which showed a slightly less-white electorate than 2012.
"It's over," I assured a friend. "She'll win by six."
She did not win by six.
If this is the grieving process, I'm stuck in Kübler-Ross' stage 2 – anger. There's plenty to be angry about: the petulant progressives who wrote in Harambe or Jill Stein; FBI director James Comey, whose eleventh-hour intervention almost certainly tipped the election to Trump; cable news, which normalized Trump and hyperventilated over Hillary Clinton's emails; the Clinton campaign itself, which never landed on an inspiring message and was entirely ignorant of its many blind spots; the 43 percent of registered voters who couldn't be bothered to get off their asses; the millions of voters who, though they might not be bigots themselves, looked bigotry in the eye and shrugged. There's also the Electoral College – an undemocratic anachronism that gives outsize power to rural whites at the expense of urban minorities – which, for the second of five presidential elections in which I've been eligible to vote, handed the Oval Office to the second-place finisher.
I'm also angry at my country, which is somehow less than what I imagined it to be, somehow unable to see through the mountain of bullshit that Trump erected around himself, unable to see through his misogyny or scapegoating of Mexicans and Muslims, unable to see his glaringly empty promises for what they were, unable to recognize that this was a con and they were the marks. I thought we were better than that, smarter than that, more tolerant than that. We are not.
I'm angry at myself, too, because as many years as I've spent studying and writing about politics, I didn't see this coming. I completely misread this election and this electorate. And so did a whole bunch of people who are much much smarter than me. We took Trump's defeat for granted, and now we'll pay the price.
I supported Clinton in the Democratic primary, because I thought she'd make a more effective president than Bernie Sanders (still do), because I wanted to see her finally break that glass ceiling after surviving the political meat-grinder for decades (still admire her for that), and because I thought she'd be more electable. Counterfactuals are too easy; there's no way to know how Bernie would have withstood an onslaught of negative ads or whether the white working-class Midwestern voters who abandoned Clinton would have rallied to the banner of a Jewish socialist from Vermont.
It's easy, too, to lose perspective: Clinton lost by 1 percentage point or less in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania; 100,000 votes, total, would have put her in the White House. Moreover, political science models that focus on fundamentals always predicted a close race; it's hard for a party to keep the White House for three terms. We're only stunned at the outcome because of how appalling her opponent was.
But appalling as he is, Trump clearly tapped into something.
Generously, that something was angst about an unevenly growing economy, about cosmopolitan urban elites (like me) reaping the benefits of the plodding economic recovery while their exurbs and rural neighbors languished. You saw this throughout the country, where the major metros – places with universities and tech jobs and world-class restaurants and culture – were a deep blue, and the outlying areas, with their shuttered factories and graying and declining populations, all ruby-red.
Less generously, it's an angst directed at those who are different. Just as the urban liberal bubble is a real thing, so too is the flip side. City-dwellers, after all, routinely encounter and interact with all kinds of people, people of different religions and backgrounds and with different levels of melanin. That's not always the case elsewhere; rural and exurban America tends toward homogeneity. As Patrick Thornton wrote in Roll Call last week: "In many of these areas, the only Muslims you see are in movies like American Sniper. (I knew zero Muslims before going to college in another state.) You never see gay couples or even interracial ones. Much of rural and exurban American is a time capsule to America's past. And on Tuesday ... they dug it up."
He continued: "We, as a culture, have to stop infantilizing and deifying rural and white working-class Americans. Their experience is not more of a real American experience than anyone else's, but when we say that it is, we give people a pass from seeing and understanding more of their country." For all the talk about economic anxiety, I suspect that kind of understated bigotry was the real wellspring from which Donald Trump drew his strength. We're just not supposed to say that out loud.
I understand we need to engage with these folks, to try to persuade them, to conceive economic policies that speak to their needs and help them where they live. But I also fear that the Democratic Party is once again going to soften its ever-stronger embrace of civil rights and social justice to appease them, and that I cannot stomach. I would rather lose elections than lose our principles. And anyway, I suspect that any goodwill engendered by this kind of outreach would evaporate the next time a woman or African-American or Muslim or Latino was nominated for president.
So yes, we should reach out to them when we can, persuade them when we can; we should certainly not cordon ourselves off from them and ignore their interests. But we mustn't lose sight of the fact that they are the past and we are the future, that we are on the right side of history and they are not.
I'm not despondent because my team lost. That happens. Pendulums swing. No, I'm despondent – and disillusioned, and angry – because my countrymen turned their backs on their better angels and gave in to demagoguery. No matter the reason, that's what happened. And that makes me ashamed of my country. History will not judge America kindly for this.
So for now, and for the foreseeable future, I cling to my anger. I draw inspiration and motivation from it. Donald Trump – a man who spent years trying to delegitimize the first black president – is not worthy of our respect, and certainly not of our accommodation. He is worthy only of our complete and total resistance. And that is what I commit to do these next four years, with every fiber of my being.
Get pissed. Get organized. Win.
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