The American people voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by nearly 800,000 votes.* But Trump was right: the system is rigged, meaning that thanks to our outdated and illogical electoral college system, he won. Thus our fellow Americans (s)elected for the first time a person with no military or political experience—“history’s most unpleasant and unprepared candidate,” George Will wrote, not to mention a sexual predator, racist, tax-dodger, and serial liar.
Soon enough we will know the full extent of the damage Donald Trump will exact on the political system and society. But we can predict with some certainty that among his first acts will be nominating an extreme conservative for the Supreme Court, seeking repeal of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), tearing up the Paris Agreement and Obama’s other environmental commitments, supporting legislation to dramatically limit immigration, and pressuring Mexico on border security. (For further discomfort, read Evan Osnos, “President Trump,” in The New Yorker, September 26, and “Here is What Trump Wants to Do in His First 100 Days,” www.npr.org/2016/11/09/501451368/here-is-what-donald-trump-wants-to-do-in-his-first-100-days.)
The big loser in the election drama is America’s claim to be a showcase of democracy. The election featured two highly unpopular candidates, one of whom saw no problem using irresponsible and dangerous language, while the other was a victim of her own history of disreputable behavior. The Republican Party is in a shambles, with spineless leaders who lack a moral compass. Third parties are weak and lack popular appeal. The FBI intruded into the election, setting a dangerous precedent. Lots of evidence exists of dirty tricks designed to keep minorities from voting and cause havoc in the Democratic Party. Citizens United, a Supreme Court decision that guarantees money will talk in politics, will remain in force. Liberal values and institutions are about to come under full-scale assault, with the poor and the powerless particularly vulnerable. Perhaps worst of all, only about 48 percent of eligible voters actually voted.
The term “banana republic” was invoked more than a few times during the campaign to describe the depths to which the US would descend if Trump were elected. Political leaders in Russia, China, and other authoritarian systems must be laughing in their drinks at what American “populism” means in practice.
Every major poll predicted a Hillary Clinton victory. Now, too late, we can try to explain, especially to ourselves, how one of the most politically experienced presidential candidates in US history lost to a business tycoon with a shady history of deal making and not the slightest understanding of world affairs. The initial explanations for his victory center on underestimation of the vote turnout by rural white men, great anxiety about the US economy, the rising cost of Obamacare, stigmatizing of Middle East and Mexican immigrants, anger toward the Washington governing establishment, Hillary Clinton’s email problems, and—yes—Hillary Clinton the woman. Historians, moreover, point out how rare it is for the same party to win three consecutive elections (the Republicans were the last to do so with Ronald Reagan’s two terms followed by George H.W. Bush’s one term). All these issues were identified by the election experts, but none thought them sufficient to project a Trump victory.
We must not let the mainstream media off the hook. The so-called “fourth estate” was anything but: for many months the media refused to call out Trump for what he was—a shameless groper, a misogynist, a racist, and above all a seriously mentally challenged candidate. To the contrary, the media couldn’t get enough of Trump: He was so entertaining and quaintly “unconventional,” they said. As their reward, Trump casually barred critical journalists from his events, never disavowed the screeds of neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and constantly denounced journalists (to wild cheers) for their bias against him. Conflicts of interest in the media abounded: CNN hired Trump’s former campaign manager, who promptly turned around and worked as a Trump adviser. Fox News, equally shameless, rode shotgun for Trump, putting out deliberately false information (for example, that Clinton was about to be indicted “according to sources close to the investigation”), then backtracking when it was too late to matter. Sean Hannity of Fox News, meantime, pretended to be a journalist but was yet another Trump adviser—as was his one-time boss at Fox, Roger Ailes, another groper of women.
The media has much soul-searching to do, just as happened after it realized the George W. Bush administration had sold it a bill of goods on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But now as then, the media will have to do much more than ask why the polls were so wrong. They failed to live up to ordinary moral, ethical, and critical standards. Now the media risks being cowed into submission. As a journalist for the Washington Post lamented, just before the election, “The worst of the media is on full display, as if someone had set out to show just how terrible we hacks could look in these last moments before Election Day.”
This shameful situation cannot be remedied by pleas to government officials to please get back to governing, or appeals for everyone to “come together.” The Republican Party is in for the fight of its life over whether the right or the far right controls it. The Democrats need to decide on new, untainted leadership. The gun-wielding white nationalist crazies who follow Trump will be organizing around various destructive projects, including violence against immigrants and people of color. Maybe worse. Police reform will be out of the question in red states. The Democrats will become yesterday’s Republicans, fighting rearguard actions and trying to obstruct Trump at every turn. And that will play into Trump’s strength, which is to be a dictator who rules by decree, responsible to no one.
On the assumption that Clinton would win, I had planned to ask: Is there room in such depressing circumstances for a progressive agenda at home or abroad? Now I have to think defensively and ask what individual states and communities can do to counter Trump—for example, on his anticipated gutting of climate change legislation and endorsement of the Keystone XL pipeline project? Will he say anything to restrain the over 250 private militia groups, armed with guns and hate, that are bound to pursue their racist, anti-immigrant agenda (“let’s make America white again”)? Can Trump be trusted not to use his position for private gain? Will he put responsible, knowledgeable people in charge of national defense, the state department, and the department of justice? Or will those departments be purged of liberal professionals? In foreign and national-security policy, will he walk away from US involvements in Syria and Iraq? Will Trump terminate the nuclear agreement with Iran, reduce US involvement in NATO and other alliances, and dramatically increase US military spending? Will he seek common ground with the Russians and Chinese, or accede to their interests on (for instance) Ukraine and the South China Sea in order to focus on “America first”? Will he learn the awesome responsibility that goes with having the nuclear codes?
In Washington we must hope that there are enough people in both parties with the backbone to stand up to Trump’s arrogance, cultural backwardness, and tendency to avenge perceived slights. Democrats in the Senate have the filibuster option, which would require 60 senators to end. (There are 49 Senate Democrats.) In our own communities, each of us might take a look around and ask how we can contribute to strengthening education, job opportunities, human rights, protection of the environment, and “one nation, with liberty and justice for all.” Along with worst-case thinking we must have first-class (positive) planning for the time when it becomes clear that Trumpism has failed to deliver on its promises to the working class. Remember: Donald Trump did not receive a popular mandate, and in four years we will have an opportunity to end this nightmare.
*As of November 14, 2016. Bernie Sanders said on the Colbert show that the margin was 2 million, but I’ve seen nothing to support that figure as of now. But the final numbers are not yet in.