A political orator wittily compared our party promises to western roads, which opened stately enough, with planted trees on either side, to tempt the traveller, but soon became narrow and narrower, and ended in a squirrel-track, and ran up a tree. . . . Unspeakably sad and barren does life look to those, who a few months ago were dazzled with the splendor of the promise of the times.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is the morning after. The sky is gray and pedestrians shuffle down the Manhattan sidewalks without lifting their feet off the pavement — it’s like being on Jupiter. There are low spirits, and even in public, there are tears. You sense the sort of stupor that follows a great calamity, which is accurate enough. After a presidential contest that seemed to last forever, Donald Trump has prevailed. He is the second Republican candidate in less than twenty years to have attained the Oval Office without actually being elected by a majority of Americans. Here is a crumb of consolation: he didn’t really win. Except that he did, at least according to the clanking, corruptible Electoral College, which Trump had earlier declared a “disaster for a democracy.”
His victory was, for slightly more than half the country, unthinkable. It amounted to a civic catastrophe. Surely no sane nation could choose this ridiculous figure, with his cockatoo haircut and flagrant contempt for the facts — for, let’s face it, reality itself. Perhaps more than a decade as the pouting ringmaster of The Apprentice had blurred any such distinction for Trump. Reality television is, after all, an oxymoron. What happens on the show, with its Darwinian charade of entrepreneurial combat, is rigorously staged, scripted, edited. It’s no less stylized than Kabuki — and you could argue that art and life, the real and the imaginary and the airbrushed, have long since converged for our next president.
Yet we all thought that reality would have its way with Trump on November 8. He had blustered and bullied his way through seventeen months of a perpetual media circus, had slandered women, Latinos, African Americans, Muslims, the disabled — he had even found entirely new demographics to slander, including those “stupid” Iowans, who nonetheless decided he would make a dandy president in the end. Now it was payback time. After some jittery moments in late October, the polls projected a comfortable margin of victory for Hillary Clinton. No doubt a vanquished Trump would soon go skulking back to his fifty-eighth floor aerie, with its smashing views and faux-Versailles décor.
Or so I believed on Tuesday morning, as I waited on a long line to vote. As it happens, I share a polling place with Trump. I’m talking about P.S. 59, a homey-looking elementary school in Midtown Manhattan, just about equidistant from Trump Tower and my own more modest dwelling. It took me three hours to set foot in the building, because the line stopped moving while the Republican candidate filled out his ballot. When he entered the building, I was still cooling my heels around the corner, so I was unable to hear the vigorous booing from the crowd outside. No matter: a low-res video of this reception was available on social media within minutes. Everybody was watching it. Shortly thereafter, an ABC News crew began trawling the line in search of a Trump voter to interview. Nobody volunteered.
Inside the building, the happy bustle of democracy, a bake sale offering doughnuts for a dollar, a hand-painted poster by the elevator: welcome to p.s. 59: an awesome school! Patiently we waited for the elevator, patiently we stood on yet another line and studied the multilingual signage.
Just before I was waved into the gym, where the booths and scanners were set up, Charlie Rose came through the doors, emitting that faint radium glow of fame. His presence, too, had an allegorical flavor. It was Rose who had interviewed the younger, pre-comb-over Trump in 1992, when he was bouncing back from the collapse of his casino empire. “I built the Taj Mahal,” Trump declared, “which everyone said, ‘That’s going to be his downfall,’ it’s over a billion-dollar building, and it’s turned out to be one of the best deals I’ve ever made.” But less than a month before Election Day, this dream palace, which fellow billionaire Carl Icahn took over in 2016, went belly up. It had been hemorrhaging cash for quite some time, even as its proprietors had raised the hourly wage for many of its employees by just eighty cents over the course of twelve years. How are the mighty fallen! The symbolism was delicious, and it put a spring in my step as I advanced into the gym, filled out the ballot, and fed it into the scanner.
Everything I have just written is true. It is also pernicious — because I have succumbed to the temptation of Trump irony. This is something of a national pastime. It goes back at least as far as the Eighties, when Spy poured out its endless, amusing ridicule on the “short-fingered vulgarian.” Of course it was funny, and of course it got under Trump’s extraordinarily thin skin; he was still arguing about his glove size on the campaign trail in 2016. But needling him for his vulgarity was a mistake. It suggested that poor taste was the ultimate crime — so much more problematic than, say, barring black tenants from your family’s extensive housing developments in Brooklyn and Queens. It applied smiling comedy to what was already a tragic quotient of racism, bad faith, and legal skulduggery. And this is what we kept doing, at least in the national media, through the early months of Trump’s candidacy, treating it as entertainment: as opera buffa, with just the occasional and intrusive sour note.
We can’t say we didn’t know better. We knew. Any adult capable of reading the newspaper had enough information to see Trump for what he was: a performance artist with an authoritarian streak and no conscience whatsoever. That goes double for residents of New York City, which has been Trump’s playground for his entire life. If you live within the five boroughs, you are party to a certain sort of folk wisdom: you hear the anecdote, the tall tale, the telling nugget.
For example: during the late Eighties, my former mother-in-law worked at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, which Trump had acquired for an unprecedented $407.5 million in 1988. (He spruced up the place, installed what the Trump Organization calls “magnificent onyx” in the bathrooms, then dumped it at a steep loss less than a decade later.) My mother-in-law sold magazines, newspapers, and sundries down in the gift shop, ministering at times to bleary celebrities who had forgotten to pack sufficient underwear or lip balm. As you might imagine, her workplace yarns were a treat. But here is what I remember best: whenever one of the tabloids ran a story unfavorable to Donald Trump, those papers were stashed behind the counter and later thrown in the garbage. Does this suggest the behavior of a farcical control freak (who, incidentally, courted those very papers throughout most of his career)? Absolutely. But now that control freak is moving into the White House, where he can indulge his hobby of muzzling the press on a frightening scale.
Granted, the voting public didn’t know about the candidate’s Stalinist choke hold on the Plaza newsstand. Yet the situation was clear from the moment he came down that idiot escalator on June 16, 2015, and began yammering about his Great Wall and the influx of Mexican rapists, thieves, and drug lords. Which was preceded by his crusade to brand Barack Obama as a Kenyan provocateur, a stealth Muslim in the Oval Office — something he still regards as a public service, rather than bigoted, dog-whistling drivel. Which was preceded in turn by his campaign against the so-called Central Park Five, the young African American and Hispanic men who were railroaded into lengthy prison terms in 1990 for supposedly raping a young jogger, only to be exonerated by DNA evidence in 2002. Trump was a squalid man then, and he is a squalid man now. The evidence was always there — and more would have emerged during the Trump University litigation, which is why the settlement-averse defendant hastily shelled out $25 million, thereby avoiding a wave of negative P.R. and a likely fraud conviction.
So what happened? Why did so many Democrats assume that Trump’s candidacy would implode, leaving a blast crater where the G.O.P. used to be? His public personality, with its strange powers of deflection, undoubtedly helped him. Trump has always been a creature of surfaces, in every sense of the phrase. At a mystifying press conference in March, only weeks before he clinched the nomination, the candidate was expected to address his relationships with the Republican brass (chilly) and Israel (warm). Instead he prattled on about his conversion of Washington’s Old Post Office, where the event was being held, into a luxury hotel, bragging that “we’ve gone to a much higher degree of finishes” before rhapsodizing about the “marbles, and fixtures, and bathroom fixtures.” To call this superficial is to miss the point. A higher degree of finishes is a key part of the Trump business model: build a middling skyscraper, slap on the gold spigots and onyx toilet seats, and sell it as pure luxury. Face value is really all he has to peddle, which is why he’s veered away from real estate and put so much of his energy into self-franchising. Arguably this leads to a hollowing out of the self, but I don’t think that bothers Trump, who would rather be impenetrable in the first place.
The other thing that happened was an eruption of populist rage, which Trump didn’t create but was canny enough to channel. In his recent book The Populist Explosion, John B. Judis draws a distinction between left-wing populism, which usually pits the masses against a ruling elite, and right-wing populism, which adds a third element to the mix: a scapegoat. The movement that put our next president in the White House belongs in the second category. Indeed, Trump manufactured scapegoats almost as avidly as he cranked out those make america great again hats. He inveighed against the Mexicans, the Muslims, the media — and, toward the close of his campaign, the Jews, a strange move for this protégé of Roy Cohn, albeit one who enjoyed dipping into Hitler’s speeches during his salad days.
This is nothing new, even for populist movements issuing from the supposedly sanitary left. Take the very first such undertaking in American history, the People’s Party of the 1890s, which represented precisely the sort of merger between rural and urban outrage that now seems impossible to achieve in this country. It was a model of its kind, a genuine insurgency, not some stage-managed Koch brothers obscenity. Still, this ideological centaur, the offspring of the Kansas Farmers Alliance and the Knights of Labor, was quick to soil itself with the seamiest of racial rhetoric. The party’s greatest firebrand, Tom Watson, dismissed Chinese immigrants as “moral and social lepers,” took pride in having “incurred the savage hatred of the Roman priests and the rich Jews,” and happily allied himself with the Ku Klux Klan.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I mentioned dog-whistling earlier, and by now Trump has gone much further — he has called the animal right up onto the porch and scratched it under the chin. The surge in hate crimes following his election is no accident: the scribbled swastikas, the slurs, the campus assaults, the apparent effigy of a black man dangling from a rope at a coffee shop in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Trump, who at least had the brains to rebuff an endorsement from the Klan’s house organ, The Crusader, has said close to nothing. Nor has he expressed any personal distaste for a plan by the Loyal White Knights of Pelham, North Carolina, to stage a pep rally — sorry, a Victory Klavalkade Klan Parade — in his honor on December 3. Sure, he allowed his spokesperson Hope Hicks to “strongly condemn their message of hate.” Yet the idea of the presidency as a bully pulpit, an opportunity to summon the better angels of our nature and maybe even rise above his own imperfect, Brioni-clad humanity, seems not to have registered with Trump. There is a moral vacancy at work. The next leader of the free world, tapping out dispatches with thumb and forefinger, won’t even denounce the Klan in his Twitter feed, which is reserved for the more serious business of sniping at the New York Times and describing his visit to the White House (“Melania liked Mrs. O. a lot!”).
All of which is to say that populist sentiment, when it reaches a rolling boil, can sometimes flow into empty vessels — and Trump is among the emptiest. So what does that tell us about his supporters? The mad parsing of the exit-poll data has begun, as has the earnest interrogation of Trump voters by a legion of journalists. Their answers have little of the Manichaean crispness we were hoping for. “Trump is a slimy scumbag, who wears it like a badge of honor,” one Trump voter from Ohio told the Guardian, further speculating that not a “single person who casted a vote for him felt good about it.” He is wrong, alas. For every voter who saw the G.O.P. candidate as a compromise or a wrecking ball, there is another who viewed him as redemptive, a Hercules poised to hose out the Augean stable that is Washington, D.C. As a sixty-five-year-old Florida real-estate agent quoted in the Los Angeles Times put it: “This is the first time I’ve been optimistic about the country in many years. I’ve been walking around singing, ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’ ”
My sense of it — and this is a judgment derived from reading too many newspapers, watching too many talking heads and postmortem roundtables on TV, then letting my nervous system decide — is that the entire midsection of the country let out a collective cry of pain, disappointment, disgust. The white working class rose up. It is by no means a monolithic group, and for that matter, many of its members regard themselves as middle-class — a demographic under siege, menaced by dangers both real (a ruined industrial economy, a complacent political class) and imaginary (deficit spending, transgender people in the restroom).
The theory, at least among the Democratic establishment, was that these very voters would be repelled by Trump’s billionaire plumage. He was too wealthy, too showy, too vulgar to be president. But as Joan C. Williams suggests in a recent essay, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class,” voters in the heart of the heart of the country tend to admire the truly rich. These people strike them as self-made and independent. What these voters don’t like are the professionals, the doctors and lawyers and accountants, who occupy roughly the same terrain of county roads and strip malls and gas stations but have been mysteriously deputized to patronize them, push them around, and (worst of all) pity them. And what was Hillary Clinton if not the Ultimate Professional? Her wealth, gleaned from a thousand speaking engagements, was incidental — indeed, it was shoved under the rug whenever possible. What mattered, or was supposed to matter, was her résumé, the professional’s patent of nobility. And so some of those Michigan voters who had gone for Bernie Sanders’s rumpled idealism melted away, because they wanted to bring down the temple, and if Bernie wouldn’t or couldn’t, Trump surely would.
This explanation, which certainly sentimentalizes the white working class, omits a crucial factor. That would be race — still the American dilemma, even when both candidates are white, since one of them was consciously presenting herself as the torchbearer of Obama’s legacy, while the other was picking out fugitive melodies on the xenophobic Wurlitzer. There is no doubt that a sizable number of Trump supporters responded to his wretched appeals. The cretins spray-painting vote trump on the smoke-blackened walls of a burned church in Greenville, Mississippi, are worse than deplorable. They bring to mind Auden’s line about standard-issue evil and its practitioners, those blurry malefactors who “lost their pride / And died as men before their bodies died.”
That said, it would be a fatal mistake to assume that every Trump supporter is a closet Klansman. Their motives are mixed, and we can see what is ugly and awkward and uncomprehending while recognizing that there are human hearts beating in there. “Monsters exist,” as Primo Levi once observed, “but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous.” What we really have to fear, he added, was the common man, the common woman — and how right he was, even at a moment when the monsters are multiplying far too quickly, and flocking to Washington in search of a sinecure. Let’s be clear: I am not letting the bigots and misogynists and hate-clogged troglodytes off the hook. But if Democrats clamber up onto the higher ground of moral superiority, from which vantage point their opponents are bound to appear very small, and no more worth addressing than an ant colony, they will keep losing elections for a long time.
As I write this, almost a week has passed since that cataclysmic Tuesday. There is endless, feverish speculation about what Trump will do, now that he has won the office he often seemed to be pursuing as a promotional stunt. The thing is, he has already provided us with a road map. In late October, on the day that he delivered his own Gettysburg Address — name-checking Lincoln and the “hallowed ground” on which he stood, while threatening to sue every woman who had accused him of sexual harassment — Trump released a game plan for his first hundred days in office. The “Donald J. Trump Contract with the American Voter” is essentially a laundry list of conservative pipe dreams and petulant fantasies (or so we thought). Many of them are familiar to us from the campaign trail. There is the immediate removal of 2 million illegal immigrants, the withdrawal from all U.N. climate-change programs, the wet kiss administered to the Keystone Pipeline, and the cancellation of “every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama.”
All this, I should note, is slated for Trump’s very first day in office. He’s going to be a busy man, especially since he’ll also be proposing a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on members of Congress — a surefire success with incumbents. And then, just as the cherry blossoms begin to bloom on the Mall, POTUS will start jamming his other ideas down the legislative gullet, many of them with decorative (not to say Orwellian) descriptors. Stop-and-frisk and racial profiling will return, courtesy of the Restoring Community Safety Act. There is also the End Illegal Immigration Act, according to which the American people will pay for the construction of an enormous, impractical, insanely expensive border wall, then send the bill to the ever-amenable Mexicans. At least the Repeal and Replace Obamacare Act wears its heart on its sleeve, promising to trash our threadbare attempt at a national health service and replace it with privatization and Trump’s weirdo panacea of selling insurance across state lines, which is already permitted and has changed nothing.
These plans are, frankly, dystopian. So is the hiring of Stephen Bannon, Rudolph Giuliani, and Jeff Sessions to run the country — the pond scum of American political life, sadly impervious to sunlight and defoliants. By the time this essay appears in print, there will doubtless be many more outrages to add to the docket. The mind recoils, and there is an instinctive itch to normalize Trump: to pretend that what we saw during the campaign was a kind of rough adolescence, that the chastening effects of ruling the entire planet will finally turn him into an adult.
Hillary Clinton sounded this note in a pained yet gracious concession speech: “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” This seems wishful in the extreme. Gravitas will not come easy to a man who has made himself the poster child for instant gratification, and we are fools to hope for any sort of Periclean turnaround. Trump is what he is. Absorbing him will be a terrible challenge. Emerson, whose snapshot of political disillusion is at the top of this essay, was similarly downcast by America’s ingestion of vast swaths of Mexican territory in 1848. We had conquered the enemy, he allowed, “but it will be as the man [who] swallows arsenic, which brings him down in turn.”
That is my sensation now: we have been poisoned, and will spend some time groping for the antidote. Meanwhile, we might think of adding two more R’s to the curriculum at P.S. 59, assuming that it can survive the market-worshipping whims of the School Choice and Education Opportunity Act. The ones I have in mind are verbs, and imperatives. The first is Remember. The second, to be carried out in word and deed, and by no means confined to schoolchildren, is Resist. Despair, division, self-consuming rage, the paralyzing sense that the devil has not only the best tunes but the entire orchestra — resist it all. The battle is just beginning.