Six years, six months, and probably 300,000-odd words ago, I began what was intended as a short-lived chronicle of the 2016 election.
Like most political writers, I assumed Donald Trump would provide a few months of entertainment before his November humiliation. Hillary Clinton would take office as an unpopular president, probably doomed to one unproductive term consumed by endless investigations and an inevitable impeachment, and the wheel would keep spinning.
Trump’s victory — his term as an unpopular president consumed by endless investigations and, ultimately, two impeachments — broke the wheel. He didn’t need to be a successful president to alter American politics; he wasn’t. But he conquered the Republican Party, exiling its last vestiges of moderation and creating an incentive structure for even elected officials to embrace demagoguery, conspiracy theories and, in the end, insurrection.
That decline didn’t end with Trump’s ignominious exit. It accelerated, spawning anti-vax paranoia, which morphed into the critical race theory freakout, which then twisted itself into attacks on drag queens and books that mention transgender people (and, in Florida, baseball player Roberto Clemente).
So this column lived on, observing as yesterday’s new lows became today’s norms. And at some point, I lost the ability to be shocked. Horrified, yes. But not shocked. You can’t be shocked when you realize that there is no bottom, that this degenerative miasma will be a generation-long nightmare instead of a footnote in American history.
When that’s the throughline of American politics, everything you write about it starts to feel the same. Which means it’s time for this column to end. (That, and I’ll soon start a magazine job that precludes me from writing a syndicated column. But for the sake of my dignified farewell, pretend that I have a higher purpose.)
By orders of magnitude, American politics is dumber at this column’s end than at its beginning. Revanchists have entrenched, playing on age-old fears of societal change corrupting children to foster authoritarianism. Freedoms we took for granted — the right to choose, the right to marry whomever you want, bodily autonomy — have been dismantled or are imperiled by the most corrupt, radical Supreme Court in memory.
Modest steps toward long-overdue criminal justice reform have met fierce resistance steeped in fear-mongering. Immigration reform, once a pillar of both parties’ platforms, has been drowned by mindless chants about building walls and politicians flying migrants hither and yon to own the libs. We’re about to repeat the debt ceiling debacle of the early 2010s — and maybe go over the cliff — because the Republican House speaker is too weak to tell his Insane Caucus to grow up.
We’ve experienced apocalyptic summers while subsidizing fossil fuel companies and carbon-centric infrastructure. We’ve witnessed regular mass shootings while making it easier to carry guns. We’ve degraded institutions of higher learning in the name of academic freedom. We’ve let white supremacists reframe diversity as bigotry.
None of these things suggests an ascendant nation. And what we’ve called progress of late has more often felt like a dam holding back a tsunami than actual forward movement.
I’m not overwhelmed by optimism. At least, not in the short term.
Revanchist and far-right populist movements are always a reaction, a means for those losing power and privilege to try to sustain it. It’s not hard to see what sparked the Trump era — which started as the Newt Gingrich era and evolved into the Tea Party era before Trump took command. White male hegemony is slowly losing its grip on an increasingly multicultural society. The more diverse and multicultural society becomes, the tighter the revanchists grasp for the power they believe they are owed — and the more forcefully they demand it be encoded in our educational and government systems.
Populism is not a movement borne of strength, however. While there are many young, loud right-wing pseudo-intellectuals online, their movement’s power resides in a generation quickly returning to the dirt. In 2020, Donald Trump won voters over the age of 50 — about 52% of the electorate — by a 52-47 margin. He got crushed by voters born after the Beatles broke up.
Defense is important. There are rights and freedoms that need to be protected from those with anti-democratic aims, and winning enough elections to make incremental improvements or forestall authoritarian advances is critical.
But to move the ball forward on climate change and social and economic justice — to restore women’s rights to 1973, even — we need systemic democratic reforms: ending the filibuster; eliminating partisan gerrymandering; doing away with the Electoral College and (a boy can dream) the Senate, at least in its current structure; term-limiting or expanding the Supreme Court.
Effecting those changes will require overwhelming popular majorities, not the skin-of-our-teeth ones Democrats have now. They’re (probably) coming. (Nothing is inexorable.) But things will get darker before we see a hint of sunlight. My soul needs a break.
I’ll end this always-cheery column on that cheery note. For those of you who’ve read Informed Dissent these last six and a half years, thank you. And please support independent local media. You’ll miss it if it’s gone.
Goodnight and good luck, everyone.