A TIME OF HYPERBOLE

A dark vision of America prevails, as Donald J. Trump is elected the next US president

Obsession
2016
Obsession
2016

In a shocking repudiation of the Republican and Democratic establishments, Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States in one of the most divisive elections in US history.

Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, an upset on the scale of the UK’s Brexit decision to leave the European Union five months ago, triggered a more than 4% plunge of US stock futures in Asia and is likely to rattle American alliances and test the social cohesion of the US itself.

In winning, Trump denied women a historic milestone—the US presidency for the first time.

Judging by his campaign, a Trump administration will carry out one of the darkest agendas in US history, rivaling Richard Nixon for a stated intention to mete out revenge against enemies domestic and foreign. Trump has vowed to seek a special prosecutor against Clinton, go after the media, expel over 10 million undocumented immigrants, marshal funds to punish disloyal Republicans in elections, and sue women who have accused him of sexual abuse. In response to the outbreak of police shootings of unarmed black men, Trump said he would side with police and impose “law and order.”

Trump has said he would tear up and renegotiate the country’s trade agreements, the country’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran, force NATO allies to pony up cash or lose US protection, and revive torture of terrorist prisoners. All in all, a Trump adviser said the idea was to“erase” the Barack Obama presidency with executive orders in the first day in office. That would include signature Obama achievements—Obamacare and his climate change agenda, both of which would go. Trump will also have the opportunity to reshape the Supreme Court for decades to come, with deep implications for such touchstone issues as abortion rights and gun ownership.

Meanwhile Trump promises to forge a better relationship with Russia, which until now the Pentagon has called America’s no. 1 enemy. The election could be extremely positive for Russian president Vladimir Putin, and his strategy of weakening NATO, and having a much larger, more accepted role in international affairs.

Despite all this, Trump’s campaign exhortation to “make America great again” and “drain the swamp” prevailed. His victory repudiated Republican orthodoxy, which was that the party needed to embrace Latinos and young voters to win. Trump bet big that he could insult Latinos, women, Muslims, and many other groups, and win on the support of non-college educated whites who have suffered mightily by the forces of globalization. Pollsters were skeptical, and conducted surveys that validated Clinton’s strategy of overwhelming Trump by winning a large majority of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites.

All along, Trump had forecast that his strategy would prove the polls wrong, and it did. Until polls closed on election day, every major polling firm had projected Clinton as a victor. Trump built much higher margins in Republican areas of the country, and captured traditional Democratic states. Notably, Clinton did not campaign at all in Wisconsin since winning the Democratic nomination, and visited Michigan once—four days before the election; she appeared to lose both states.

There has never been, and may never again be, an American presidential election quite like 2016.

The 18-month-long campaign was roiled by turbulence: a newly emboldened Russia, whose cyber-spies, according to US security officials, hacked and leaked Clinton’s emails in an effort to sow election chaos; the strange behavior of FBI agents who scrutinized the emails—publicly—until two days before election day, seeming to shake up the late polling numbers; and most of all, the behavior of Trump himself, the puffed-up real-estate-developer-cum-TV-personality who mowed down 16 better-spoken Republican primary opponents, and then Clinton, one of the nation’s shrewdest politicians.

Why did Republican voters flock to this profane, womanizing, intellectually pedestrian septuagenarian who flouted long-held party tenets and social courtesies, and by one count was truthful less than 40% of the time? And what did it say about Americans that Trump defeated the combined might of a billion dollars—twice his spending—an army of Democratic Party organizers, the defection of a bevy of senior Republican turncoats, the musicianship of Beyonce and Bruce Springsteen, and the oratorical genius of Clinton’s husband, Bill, Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and vice president Joe Biden?

“The nightmare is really just beginning for political scientists. We’ll be reviewing 2016 papers for the rest of our careers,” Christopher Hare, a professor at the University of California at Davis, tweeted on Nov. 6.

Some of the campaign’s most troubling aspects, certain to be a primary subject of scholarly study, are the social pathologies surfaced by the Trump campaign within large swaths of the white US: a language of hatred and diminishment against African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, and women that much of the country regarded as unacceptable.

Though this anger is not purely American, but universal—seen in derogatory descriptions of Chinese in Germany, for example, and racism against Moroccans in the Netherlands—it may be more disorienting in the US, given its self-image as a nation of immigrants and example of democracy to the world.

For establishment Republicans, this presents a moment of reckoning: Will they make peace with Trump and their new irate working-class white core, or spin off into the first new major US political party since the 19th century? The indications are that such a rupture is already underway, with leading Republican intellectuals making plans to leave the party. But Republicans’ broad victory in the elections will presumably limit any splintering.

It was about the beginning of the year when it became plain that Trump’s candidacy might not be the harmless joke that many presumed. But no one guessed just how far he would veer the country off the track most were expecting.

Instead of a war of dynasties, we got a revolt of whites

A Trump supporter (R) yells at a demonstrator (L) after Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump cancelled his rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago March 11, 2016.
Chicago discussion: Trump supporter and an opponent. (Reuters/Kamil Krzaczynski)

We were prepared for a different election. For starters, Jeb Bush was supposed to ease through the Republican primaries, and then join with Clinton—who also ostensibly would cruise through the primaries—in a tough battle of the American political dynasties. Earnest and smart, a Spanish-speaking cosmopolitan (his wife, Columba, was born in Mexico) with the Bush pedigree, he was thought to be reflective of what the Republicans needed after losing the popular vote in five of the prior six presidential elections. So certain was his anointment that establishment Republicans anted up a whopping $150 million to be part of the winning ticket.

The first signs of trouble were the 16 Republican governors and senators who, unimpressed by Bush’s anointment, joined the race for the nomination. The second sign was how shrunken and whiny Bush appeared alongside them, especially next to Trump. When Trump called Bush “low energy,” and Bush merely stared at him like an incredulous and defeated schoolboy, we knew it was over. After just three state primaries, Bush called it quits. By May, everyone else had dropped out too, leaving Trump the presumptive Republican nominee.

The Democratic primaries were also not quite the predicted coronation of Clinton. She faced a surprising and stubborn upwelling of leftist populism from senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont socialist. That turned into more like a gladiatorial contest, from which Clinton emerged the wily and resourceful victor. But it did not eliminate the threat Sanders represented—Clinton now would face Trump, whose base of support fed on the same anger as Sanders’.

This unexpected and potent undertow is a raw discontent that runs through the American populous, cutting across demographic groups and party affiliation. An abstraction missed by most, it required Trump’s and Sanders’ keener political antennae to detect, and their unscripted authenticity to capitalize on it.

Cornell Belcher, a former Obama pollster and the author of A Black Man in the White House: Barack Obama and the Triggering of America’s Racial-Aversion Crisis, attributes the white revolt to eight years of a black president and the specter now of a woman in the White House. “They see politics as a zero-sum game. In a very tribal way, they gain while others lose,” Belcher said in an interview. He called Trump a successful embodiment of George Wallace, the racist governor of Alabama who ran four unsuccessful presidential campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s. “Forty years ago, George Wallace couldn’t win the nomination. The modern George Wallace can because the wolf is at the door for those who play the tribal game,” Belcher said.

Five years ago, Chris Arnade, who has a doctorate in physics and was a Wall Street hedge fund trader for two decades, quit and began to travel to the communities we now know as Trump country. In searing detail and vivid photographs on Twitter and Medium, Arnade has chronicled what he’s found—beaten-down people who describe an unfair bifurcation in which Wall Street banks are bailed out, and heartland factories permitted to close and blow away. He came to call such folks “back-row kids,” as opposed to “front-row kids” like himself, people with a front row seat in the economy and life generally. Then Trump came along. “When Trump entered the race, I watched as his message resonated with many white, less-educated voters. He was talking to the men and women I had met on my wanderings; he told them he would restore their sense of pride,” Arnade wrote on Quartz. Arnade went on:

Most of the front-row kids, the press and politicians, initially underestimated Trump’s influence because it came wrapped in racist scapegoating. His racism, his wall [between the US and Mexico], and his anti-immigration stances were primarily an appeal to prejudice, but he was also making an attack on the globalization that front-row kids had embraced—and, in this way, attacking us. He was mocking us, and the back row loved it when he mocked us. Where we saw outlandish and boorish behavior, his supporters saw a rebel shooting spitballs at the smug front-row kids.

These voices, Trump’s undeniable electoral success, along with the shocking epidemic of police violence against unarmed African-Americans; the migrant crisis in Europe; and Brexit, all combined to at last jolt awake the mainstream to the great disgruntlement.

History favored a shock to the system

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln stands under cover at center of Capitol steps during his inauguration in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 1861. The scaffolding at upper right is used in construction of the Capitol dome.
March 4, 1861: president Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. (AP)

There is precedent for what we are watching. For a divided country, there probably is no better American analogy than the campaign of 1860, which elected Republican Abraham Lincoln, and led immediately to the Civil War. It is difficult to think of any more riven time between then and now: Trump’s routine claims of a rigged system and that Clinton is a criminal whipped his supporters into the belief that she would have been an illegitimate president.

There is also a conspiratorial bent in history. In ads and at his latest rallies, Trump repeated his claims that marauding hordes of Syrian refugees are massing to overrun the US, and that “international banks” are meeting secretly with Clinton “to plot the destruction of US sovereignty.” Such has been the fevered state of mind back to the beginnings of the republic. In his iconic 1964 article in Harper’s, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics“, Columbia University professor Richard Hofstadter said Americans have been extraordinarily conspiratorial at least since a hysteria over Bavarian Illuminati at the end of the 18th century. But Americans are not alone with this malady—Europeans have been seeing plots since millennial sects in the 11th century.

To read Hofstadter’s 52-year-old essay today is to hear Trump. Of the middle 1960s, he writes, “The modern right wing … feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they’re determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals.” And this, a preview of the digital age to come:

Important changes may also be traced to the effects of the mass media. The villains of the modern right are much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public; the literature of the paranoid style is by the same token richer and more circumstantial in personal description and personal invective.

When and where did the Trump movement itself begin? In the 1950s, conservative writer William F. Buckley launched the modern Republican Party by jettisoning the hard-edged racists and conspiracy-thinkers on its margins, and finding a hard core around small government and anti-Communism. That held all the way through presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. The inflection point to the new, chaotic, and obstructionist Republicans is Sept. 27, 1994, when then-congressman Newt Gingrich led the signing of the “Contract with America.” Some 367 Republican candidates for Congress promised, if enough of them won election to overturn a four-decade Democratic hold on the House, they would embark on a conservative legislative revolution in their first 100 days in office. They won 54 House seats, taking control of the chamber, and embarked on an all-out war with then-president Bill Clinton that continued through his impeachment four years later.

More recently, this strain of Republicanism found voice in senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s pledge to block Obama’s entire agenda.

These two acts, and numerous ones in between, had a common thread, which was that compromise with the other side was more or less treason. It was either your own ideals, or nothing. Rich super PAC groups punished any legislators deemed disloyal to this agenda by financing opponents within the Republican party to unseat them in primary races.

Trump pushed the narrative much further, though. “Hatred of ‘the other’ has grown exponentially,” Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian, told the New York Times. “It started with the Clinton impeachment, then the hatred of Bush, then the hatred of Obama. [But]…it’s of a different level when you say, ‘Put [Clinton] in jail.’”

So we got the unlikeliest friend of the little guy ever…

Trump tweeted this photo on Cinco de Mayo. (Donald Trump)

Did Trump sit down with any fired steelworkers for a beer? Did he share a hotdog with an out-of-work coal miner? Did he do much of any of the meet-the-ordinary-folks retail politics regarded as essential in a modern political campaign? There is a much-distributed photograph in which Trump ate a pork chop on a stick at the Iowa State Fair in August 2015, and another (above) of him eating a taco bowl at Trump Tower for Cinco de Mayo this year. “I love Hispanics!” he tweeted. But that was about it. (Trump said he had never touched alcohol in his life).

Yet his snubs of these rites of every campaign did not seem to matter. Nor did the probability that he has paid no federal income taxes for at least 18 straight years starting in 1995. Trump took a substantial hit from the Republican establishment, and many other members of the party, when a 2005 tape surfaced in which he spoke of freely kissing and grabbing women “by the pussy.” It hurt him when he lashed out at Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the “Gold Star” parents of an Army captain son, Humayun, who was killed in Iraq. The Khans had criticized Trump in a speech at the Democratic National Convention. But that opprobrium never took hold among his base—Trump drew the same massive, adoring crowds wherever he went. His gambit was that he could reject not only retail politics, but also the conventional wisdom—that, if Republicans were going to reach the White House, they had to attract more Latinos and young people.

Instead, he would win on the backs of resentful whites without a college education. He would whip them into a fury with talk of Mexican rapists, stolen jobs, thieving China, corrupt reporters, claims that were comforting to his crowds, who would boo and bad mouth the assembled press corps themselves.

It was not a totally batty strategy, since somewhere between 23% and 30% of voters in the 2012 election were white, non-educated men 45 of age or older. The trick then would be getting them out to vote, and then adding on some other demographics to that foundation. Trump began just such an outreach.

Trump discussed running for president for three decades. But he only began to build up an actual campaign in February 2015, when he hired staff in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two early voting states. Four months later, he made his official announcement at Trump Tower in New York. But to say his was a streamlined operation was generous. Basically, he had about a dozen main people working with him, although he claimed there were a hundred. In terms of senior campaign people, Trump was the only person with authority. “I’m the strategist,” Trump told New York magazine writer Gabriel Sherman.

Few people thought Trump had any chance. But Trump had a secret weapon—an aide who according to Sherman monitored thousands of hours of talk radio and emerged with a set of grievances that reliably sent conservative audiences into frothing paroxysms of hysteria: immigration, Obamacare, and Common Core, the education program started by former president George W. Bush.

So it was that this intelligence became Trump’s winning script, the origin of his signature vow to build a wall across the US border with Mexico, and the rest of his main stump speech that he has used ever since. According to Sherman, Trump also deliberately stoked racial and misogynist tensions—vowing to ban Muslim visitors to the country, for instance—because, again, the talk-radio listener base more or less felt that way, and also regarded “Hillary as the world’s most horrible ballbuster.”

Trump’s positions dragged the Republican Party from its roots. At once, it was pro-gay and no longer hawkish—it was anti-intervention and, contrary to a decade and a half of orthodoxy, thought that American involvement in the Middle East was madness. Trump went against decades of bipartisan opposition to Russia’s foreign adventures, declaring that America’s best policy was to try to work with Moscow. That on its superficial face was not a bad idea, but in practice meant potentially surrendering decades of established American values, including the support of democracy and civil rights abroad. With both the Mideast and Russia, Trump abandoned the high ground held by Republicans for decades—that they and only they were tough enough to confront and deal with the ruthless Russians and terrorists.

Yet he undeniably held crowds spellbound. By the end of some two years of rallies around the country, Trump had addressed hundreds of thousands of Americans who had collectively stood for hours, waiting for sight of his private Boeing 757, emblazoned with the big TRUMP, and whooped in near enrapture until the moment he was gone. And cable and network television had given him a scale of coverage for which an ordinary candidate would pay a fortune in advertising, and why not—Trump boosted their ratings, allowing them to charge sky-high advertising rates, and thus earning them tens of millions of dollars. In the three debates—in which, for the first time anyone can remember, presidential rivals refused even to shake hands—viewership was similar to a major sporting event.

But Trump’s message did not universally resonate. In Wisconsin, for instance, where humility goes a long way, there was a feeling among Republicans that “he’s not one of us,” as one man told the Washington Post. Why? Another told the newspaper, “I’m a husband and a father. And I can’t convince myself to vote for a person who is weakening the fiber of the country.”

Trump also kept antagonizing more than half the American electorate—women. Trump may never have said explicitly that no woman is qualified to be president, but he did suggest so. In the presence of a reporter from Rolling Stone, for instance, he guffawed at the notion of a president Carly Fiorina, his rival for the Republican nomination.”Look at that face!” Trump exclaimed, seeing Fiorina on the TV news. “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!” As for Clinton herself, he said her support was all gender based—“if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5% of the vote.” Obtaining women’s votes, he seemed to be saying, was sheer hucksterism; it wasn’t to be taken as seriously as obtaining a man’s vote.

… and a secretive person about whom we knew a lot

Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of Democratic presidential hopeful BIll Clinton, removes several loaves of fresh bread from the oven of Panetteria Bakery in the Bronx borough of New York, April 3, 1992. Mrs. Clinton is campaigning in New York for her husband as the candidates prepare for New York's primary.
Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. (AP/Andrew Savulich)

As a character, Trump was not a complete mystery to Clinton, and not only because she socialized with him occasionally in New York. This was because her father, Hugh Rodham was not dissimilar in his hot, indiscreet temperament; were he alive today, Rodham, a Republican, might be seriously torn whom to vote for.

One of the public’s earliest recollections of Clinton is, in Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, her telling a reporter who wondered what she was doing so aggressively on the campaign trail, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.” But Hillary Clinton explained that she instead wanted to pursue law and a public life, as she was trained. Why Clinton should have said anything different was somewhat puzzling—what was wrong with a woman whose Wellesley classmates back in 1969 said she was likely to be the first woman president, who went on to be a partner in Rose, Arkansas’ most prestigious law firm—what was wrong with her stating flatly that she did not intend to stay home, but was going to do what she could in public life?

Yet, the popular take on the episode is that Clinton needed to quiet down, and stay in the background, which is what she did, again and again, during her husband’s political career. In a sympathetic profile in the New York Times Magazine in October, writer Robert Draper portrayed Clinton as a trail-blazer who is self-protective only because she has been forced to by public mores.

This popular caricature of Clinton as a radical and scheming climber prepared to say or do anything in order to reach the White House has stuck. But for me, there is the little color photo that hung in the dining room of my uncle’s apartment at a New York nursing home. It is of my cousin Sara’s Bat Mitzvah in 2005. Standing next to her is a beaming Clinton.

How is it that the then-senator from New York ended up at my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah? Her mom—my first cousin, Nancy—was a volunteer in a Clinton’s office. One night in 2003, there was a blackout, shutting down train service. She needed a ride home, and ended up with an offer to ride with Clinton. On the way, Clinton did some interviews on her cell phone, and borrowed Nancy’s when the juice ran out. Then at once she was done. “Now tell me what’s happening with you,” Clinton asked. Nancy poured out her soul about the blues of a difficult divorce. Clinton was sympathetic, but also tough—she bucked Nancy up, letting her know she could do just fine on her own. They ran into one another at New York political events over the subsequent years. At one, Sara handed Clinton an invitation to her Bat Mitzvah. Which was how she ended up in that photograph. “Having her there really made me feel like I was worth something,” Nancy told me.

Nancy was neither in Clinton’s inner nor her outer circle—she was in no circle at all. She is not a wealthy campaign contributor. Clinton has had nothing to gain from her attentions, apart perhaps from giving my cousins an unforgettable memory–and that photo proudly hung by my uncle. But it’s not an unusual story—her Wellesley classmates recall kindnesses when Clinton was a Republican teenager, personal touches recounted again and again by friends, acquaintances, and colleagues over the decades.

Yet this Clinton has not reached the public. In a Washington Post poll published on Nov. 2, a significantly higher percentage of likely voters said Trump is more honest and trustworthy than Clinton—he beat her on this question 46% to 38%. This is despite the newspaper’s finding that Trump out-and-out-lied in 63% of the 91 public statements of his that it fact-checked; Clinton lied in 14%.

There was reason for the broadly held distrust of Clinton, which was partly because of her problem with expressing remorse when she does have a lapse. Her mind-boggling use of a private email server while secretary of state comes to mind. In an email released by WikiLeaks, Neera Tanden, a member of the Clinton coiterie, described her inability to apologize for such episodes as “like a pa­thol­ogy.”

We are in for a tense period

A voters walks to a polling place at the Schnecksville Fire Company, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Schnecksville, Pa.
Voting in Pennsylvania. (AP/Matt Slocum)

Trump overcame considerable odds to win. Against the hostility of his own adopted party, lacking a personal political organization, and relying on an untested political strategy, Trump muscled his way to power with panache in front of crowds, and a practiced ability to rip apart debate opponents with the sharp insult. Trump seemed to be weighed down by his tremendous personal problems—his defensiveness, a tendency to lash out, and only an elementary understanding of foreign affairs. But in the end, none of that seemed to matter.

Hans Noel, a professor at Georgetown University, said Trump, by pushing up Republican turnout in places where they had been lacking, defied polling models that rely on data from past elections. Ultimately, Trump did what he said he would, which was “to alter the map,” Noel said. “A lot of that talk was about California and New York, which did not move. But Michigan and Wisconsin have a lot of the less educated and white voters that Trump has been reaching out to, and that is a big shift.” Noel said that this may indicate a long-term shift, which has serious implications for future Democrats.

In addition to Trump’s victory, Republicans held onto the Senate and House, meaning that one question is how Democrats respond to a full-throated Republican agenda. When it appeared that Clinton would win, it appeared that the country—and Washington in particular—might not be governable, at least any time soon. In the FBI’s New York office, there was a reported uprising in the form of a demand for a full-out investigation of the Clinton Foundation. All of this was talk—nothing was known with certainty. But if true, it seems likely to go ahead.

Democrats seem likely to do everything they can to stop the Republicans, though there is not much they may be able to do. A Trump Justice Department could follow through on Trump’s vow to investigate Clinton personally.

If so, the FBI will be channeling a feeling across the heartland, where Trump and many other Republicans were maintaining a drumbeat that Clinton was a criminal and, if she won, would be illegitimate. At Virginia’s Robert E. Lee High School, the principal arrived at school on Nov. 1 dressed as Trump, standing next to his vice principal made up as Clinton, wearing an orange jump suit and restrained by waist cuffs.

Close up, both sides felt the stakes were existential—that the country might not survive as they knew it should one or the other leader reach the White House. But it may require the distance of time and event to know who, if either, is right. The question is not academic—historically speaking, fascism has sometimes resulted when populations have lost faith in the integrity of their basic institutions, and they divide into extremes who demonize one another. It is the conditions that pave the way for the dictator, rather than the opposite.

To call the long campaign an embarrassment to all Americans is to seriously underplay what we just watched, the incalculable impact on our national psyche, and the damage to our international prestige. This is not funny, folks.

For all his over-the-top machismo and scatological references, Putin, for instance, has never boasted about the size of his penis, at least publicly, as Trump did in a nationally televised debate. For all his power grabbing in China, Xi Jinping has never said of a critic, “I’d love to punch him in the face.” Again, at least publicly.

“The ‘alt-right’ forces that Trump has tapped into, given voice to, and in a sense licensed to change the nature of political discourse (the more explicit use of personal insult, racial insensitivity, etc.), will be difficult to put back in the bottle,” said Mark Peterson, a professor at UCLA.

Beyond discourse, with a Trump presidency and Republican control of Congress, there could be little resistance to a rapid reorientation of America’s basic stance on key domestic and global issues. Supreme Court openings will offer additional opportunities for a generational shift. And Republicans wield complete control of the executive and legislative branches of 23 states, and the governorships of 31 states. Trump’s followers could pursue additional change there.

Today there is surprise at an astonishing upset, and, as with Brexit, certainty that there will be a radically different path for the US and the world.

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