THE UGLY ID of the American character overthrew the superego two weeks ago, favoring the emotional over the rational. The climax to the most louche and debased season of American public life in recent memory has come to pass, and now an unceasing campaign of personal narcissism that seems likely to continue for an indefinite period of time.
Though Hillary Clinton’s victory had been treated as a statistical and demographic likelihood since 2014 — The New York Times’s best data had given it an 85 percent chance of certainty the day of the election — disaffected voters in the rotted core of the old industrial hive of America cast a vote of rebellion against an establishment that they felt had robbed them of dignity and opportunity.
These expert miscalculations came in the midst of troubling emergences that evaded detection: the unearthing of nakedly racist segments of society (the KKK, the Islamophobes, the alt-right warriors of The Daily Stormer) who had previously been confined to the more paranoid hole-and-corner margins of the Internet, the flouting of the expectation that the public deserves to see the tax returns of its presumptive head-of-state, the heightened credibility given to “the outsider” who has never known the rigors of public office, the discussion of dick sizes and pussy-grabbing which, in retrospect, now makes the pornographic details of the Kenneth Starr investigation look positively fit for children’s television by comparison.
Politics has always relied on a certain degree of showmanship and spectacle. Roman emperors created permanent circuses to make their subjects forget their problems. Queen Elizabeth I staged lavish royal processions through the streets of London, intending to bedazzle and intimidate any rivals to power. The ascent of Ronald Reagan, the movie star president, worried traditionalists who feared his loose grasp of facts and his acumen for genial exaggeration.
During his second term, the media critic Neil Postman wrote an influential book called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business. “When a population becomes distracted by trivia,” he said, “when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”
In Trump, the nation saw the full-blown merger of the government and entertainment classes. Wealth and celebrity and fake authority took charge.
The debasement of the national conversation now features an especially troubling dynamic: the death of objective fact. In the new house divided against itself – the “two parallel universes,” in the words of Newt Gingrich — an item from Breitbart News equals an item from The Washington Post. Which is to say that one side easily dismisses the discourse of the other and writes it off as “biased,” unworthy of a minute’s contemplation. President Obama called it the lack of a “common conversation.”
This saw its clearest distillation in the third debate when Hillary Clinton alluded to the evidence that Russian hackers were trying to influence in the US election, and the many approving statements Trump has made about Vladimir Putin. He went so far as to say he was a superior executive to the American president; a statement that would have been considered treasonous in a Cold War era. “Certainly in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been,” Trump has said of Putin.
When Clinton brought up this appalling embrace in the third debate, accusing Trump of being Russia’s puppet, Trump immediately interjected: “No puppet, no puppet. The abundance of evidence tying Russian investment to Trump was made instantly moot by a thick sailor’s knot of bad logic and false equivalencies. “You’re the puppet.” Beyond the schoolyard quality of the taunt lay a countercharge with no evidence whatsoever — or as the Trump spin later tried to have it, an abstruse deal involving the sale of a uranium company to a man with some ties to the Clinton Foundation.
The death of verified truth goes along with the other great cost if this dismal political season: the legitimate discontents of working-class people in the nation’s forgotten midsections, amplified to the volume of near-revolutionary fervor, combined with the fragility of white voters making more then $72,000 a year but in fear of losing ground.
Americans have gotten used to multiple securities to a level previously unknown by other historical powers: continental isolation from hostile borders, friendly nations to the north and south, a tradition of peaceful transfers of power, an expectation of the rule of law, safe public spaces, no food shortages. Yet a cascade of dyspeptic news from alternative sources like Fox News, The Drudge Report, Breitbart, Red State, a zeppelin flotilla of radio gasbags, have convinced large portions of the electorate that our government is “getting killed on trade,” and a “corrupt government cartel.”
They speak the language of revolution, and a historian might be tempted to look to Russia in 1917 for a parallel: a committed band of insurgents roiling against a rotting aristocracy which has gradually lost touch with those who were paying its way in sweat and hunger. But another lesson from the same era chills deeper. How could a society gifted with peace and prosperity take such suicidal decisions to tear itself apart?
The Europe of 1914 was a stable society, with the terror of the Napoleonic Wars far in the past and a set of complex alliances between rival powers to hold hostilities in check. Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August — a narrative history of the war’s early days — opens her book with an account of the funeral of Edward VII of Great Britain at which nine European monarchs were in attendance. They were linked together by bonds of intermarriage and shared concern for international stability. War seemed impossible; an abstract fantasy. Yet the paranoia of the enemy’s intentions, the nationalist longings of the people to prove their nation “great again,” the hype of war promoters and the desire to recover long-lost territory caused a terrible rendering of the peace that held Europe together. Useless slaughter followed and ten million would die in the next four years, resulting in a rough continuation of the status quo and three decades of even deeper resentments.
Is America now in for the same, either from an easily averted misunderstanding or from a willful ride into a foreign adventure driven by a post-World War II arrogance that no longer applies?
In August, Noam Chomsky, the crotchety lion of the left, said: “However, the left should also recognize that, should Trump win based on its failure to support Clinton, it will repeatedly face the accusation (based in fact), that it lacks concern for those sure to be most victimized by a Trump administration.” The DNC has its share of failures, but it’s impossible to know whether Bernie Sanders would have won a national contest. It’s possible to quantify the number of voters in swing states who threw their votes to third parties – if Clinton had won the majority of those votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, she would now be picking her cabinet. But it’s not possible to quantify the effects of sexism, or an absence of enthusiasm and leadership.
That absence is the cumulative effect of those who came to Hillary Clinton’s defense too late, or those who failed to defend Hillary Clinton against the obvious misogyny and double-standards that swirled around her.
A significant portion of Americans believe that Sharia law rules in Dearborn, Mich. and that Barack Obama finished eight years as president as an Islamic spy. These are false racist conspiracy theories. They are not fact-based. But they carried the day in a national election.
Harsh truths apply today and must be a part of the discussion moving forward. Silence on the left, a reluctance to fight the misogyny and the lies, the absence of emphasis on Clinton’s record as a smart and competent legislator: these helped Trump. Political ambivalence may no longer be a luxury in this frightening new America.
Hillary is not a socialist, it’s true. But the left must also cease its own tendency to blame “identitarian politics” or “identity politics,” as if the short recent history of people of color trying to talk about race in academia somehow created the dark forces now unleashed among the ascendant white supremacists. Those impulses have been with us for a long time, much longer than the poisoned term “political correctness.” Progressives who say they do not want to return to an all-white, pre-suffrage America, must now not remain silent in the face of a terrible threat to the values of tolerance and acceptance of our shared human dignity.
The problems of our two-party system are manifold, and were in evidence during this election. It was not designed to create perfect candidates in a heterodox nation of 350 million, in which one person must be chosen to represent the totality. American presidents are elected as heroes and then handed complex bureaucratic power over an already violent nation. Show me a US president or senator and I will show you someone with blood on his hands. But we knew this fact of our imperfect republic when many on the left continued to argue that Hillary Clinton was not feminist enough, or outsider enough, while Trump channeled the misogynist rage of the alt-right. Many on the left continued to focus on Clinton’s role as a status quo politician in the face of Trump’s venal corruption and arrogance as a failed real estate investor and heir to a one percent fortune. The failure to defend her played into the false equivalencies that the Trump campaign so masterfully played up between Trump’s record and her record.
Ira Katznelson, in his history of the Depression called Fear Itself, pointed out how much love and awe and sympathy Americans had for Italian fascists in the 1930s, before our better angels pushed us to support a fight against Hitler. New Yorkers threw roses at the dashing pilot Italo Balbo’s feet in New York in 1933. Today’s leftists did not throw roses to Trump, but gave assent to his rise through their reserve toward the best chance to defeat him. We could see it coming. He told us exactly who he was.
A significant portion of the left has been insisting for months, for years, that the “lesser of two evils” rationale for voting for Clinton was a failed strategy. But there are no ideal candidates. A significant portion of the left has also claimed that the moral high road is to avoid, at any cost, a feminist who is more friendly to Wall Street — despite a newly vocal base in her party that was pulling her to the left, despite the prospect of a Clinton presidency answering to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The left has not only its share of populism but its share of blind rage against the system and its own intolerance of incremental reform. Obama, at the end of his presidency, began to talk about how excelling in public service is not the same as having business expertise, about the importance of our democratic institutions themselves. Americans voted in rage against all of that. People are angry and suffering. But letting Trump win was no moral high road.
We failed to meet the higher calling of a vision of America that seemed within reach during the Obama years, which will seem like time out of mind before long. Our constitutional democracy has a legacy of bloody violence, but with Trump in power, we will never again be able to imagine ourselves on a course of progress towards the city on the hill. We carried that vision through fascism and genocide across the globe, we fought a war to end chattel slavery and came out on the right side. Americans on both sides of the aisle and of all races came to recognize the heroism of the Civil Rights movement, and now, today, we have dropped the ball, in a display of commitment to our misogynistic and racist roots.
America’s democratic institutions are imperfect, but worth saving. In order to do so, we must unite behind what those institutions might still accomplish, which means coming together in the name of a progressive vision of a more just and equal society. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last project was the Poor People’s Campaign; Susan B. Anthony was also a labor activist and an abolitionist. They spoke about “identity,” and they spoke about class, and they united people in a movement. It’s only more important now to recreate a shared vision of a progressive nation, to rearticulate the importance of decency, hope, and kindness to the other. We must remember that preservation of dignity and care for others should be at the front of our vision, as they were not in this dismal election.
Michelle Chihara (MFA, PhD UC Irvine) is assistant professor of English Language and Literature at Whittier College, where she teaches contemporary American literature and creative writing. She is LARB’s economics editor.